Ukrainian Archbishop and Catholic-Orthodox Relations

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The election of a new archbishop for a church with 6.5 million Catholics could hold the key to determining if or when Pope Benedict XVI may meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

Vatican officials are watching the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s leadership with keen interest, but without the degree of anxiety for its ecumenical implications that would have been present even five years ago.

Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Kiev-Halych, head of the Ukrainian church, Feb. 10, about two weeks before his 78th birthday. The cardinal, who as major archbishop of the Eastern Catholic church could have served for life, is almost blind and asked to retire.

The 45 Ukrainian Catholic bishops from Ukraine and other countries of Europe, North and South America and Australia must meet within two months to elect a successor; Pope Benedict must assent to the election before the new major archbishop can be installed.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church is the largest of the Eastern churches in full communion with Rome, and it is pivotal in ecumenical relations.

When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Catholic Church was forcibly united with the Russian Orthodox Church and became illegal. During 45 years under communist rule, the push for Ukrainian independence and the demand for religious freedom for Ukrainian Catholics often went in hand in hand. The growth of Ukrainian democracy after independence in 1991 occurred at the same time as the church was being rebuilt.

However, the return of religious freedom meant that many Christians who were worshipping as Orthodox decided to return to their Ukrainian Catholic roots. Church properties that had been confiscated by the government or given by the government to the Orthodox were re-claimed by Ukrainian Catholics in situations that occasionally included violence between Catholics and Orthodox.

Basically since 1991 the Russian Orthodox, previously a prime force in search for Catholic-Orthodox unity, have said they could not agree to a meeting between the Russian Orthodox patriarch and the pope until Catholic-Orthodox tensions in Ukraine are resolved.

A Vatican official knowledgeable about the ecumenical situation in Ukraine told Catholic News Service Feb. 10 that Catholic-Orthodox relations are “rather calm right now, but every once in a while the tensions return.”

The real concern is about tensions between different Orthodox churches in Ukraine and how that is being influenced by the year-old government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a member of the Orthodox Church in communion with the Russian Orthodox’s Moscow patriarchate and a politician who has promised to strengthen political and economic ties with Russia.

His support for the Orthodox in communion with Moscow appears to have fueled long-standing tensions between Orthodox loyal to Moscow and those who support an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

“Problems within the Orthodox Church have visibly worsened with the political change” of Yanukovych’s election and may prove more dangerous than Catholic-Orthodox tensions, the Vatican official said. “It hurts more when brothers fight than when cousins do,” he said.

In the past couple of years, he said, ecumenically “there have been no important steps forward, but no big steps backward either.”

Observers credit Cardinal Husar’s leadership with being a key reason Catholic-Orthodox tensions have not worsened, and they also praise his efforts to champion the rights and dignity of the Eastern Catholic churches in an overwhelmingly Latin-rite church.

Father Borys Gudziak, rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, said Yanukovych’s policies have plunged Ukraine into a “political crisis” and many people were shocked that Cardinal Husar, “the most respected moral authority in the country,” would resign at such a time.

“From an ecclesial point of view, it seems the government is moving toward a state-church model like in Russia,” Father Gudziak said. Yanukovych has met repeatedly with the leaders of the Orthodox in union with Moscow, and the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church has “expressed concern over the government-assisted transfer of three parishes from its jurisdiction” to the jurisdiction of the church united with Moscow, he said. From his point of view, he said, the Ukrainian Catholic Church needs to elect a successor to Cardinal Husar who can articulate compelling reasons for faith, keep Ukrainian Catholics united and promote Christian unity, “a topic to which Cardinal Husar has devoted some of his most eloquent statements and his best energy.”

“Thanks to Cardinal Husar’s work, there is good harmony in the synod and among religious orders, and the number of priests has returned to its pre-World War II total — 2,500 priests just in Ukraine,” he said.

Father Gudziak said that no matter who the synod chooses to lead the church, the leader will face the challenge of getting all Ukrainian Catholics to take personal responsibility for the church and its mission rather than giving in to “a syndrome of ‘waiting for Moses,’ of shirking responsibility and thinking, ‘Let the big guy do it.’”

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