Russia's aggression against Ukraine, which has lasted more than 100 days now, has already significantly changed the Ukrainian religious landscape. The shifts are also remaking the contours of ecumenical engagement in the country — while the Orthodox Churches in the country aim to find the right way to engage with each other, the Ukrainian Catholic Church is also working to find fruitful relationships with each of the Christian communions in the country.
The most fruitful ecumenical engagement, one expert told The Pillar, is at the level of pastoral ministry and social support for the refugees and victims of the Russian invasion.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) has seen a number of parishes cross over to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), gradually equalizing the size of the two Orthodox jurisdictions in the country.
Last week, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, held in Moscow on June 7, announced the direct subordination of three dioceses of the UOC-MP in Crimea to Moscow. Two other dioceses in occupied regions in eastern Ukraine announced that they had stopped commemorating the UOC-MP’s local Metropolitan Onufriy during services and de facto transferred to come under the direct jurisdiction to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
Experts are now inclined to think that if the UOC-MP continues to distance itself from the Russian Church, the latter will continue chipping away dioceses from it, bringing them directly under Moscow, and may even create an alternative church center in Ukraine, declaring its former “daughter” the UOC-MP to be in schism.
Today, the UOC-MP remains in a canonical gray area, and its updated statutes have not yet been officially published. The unofficial version of the document, which is now being actively discussed, indicates that all references to ties with the Moscow Patriarchate have been removed, while a reference to a decree issued by Moscow Patriarch Alexy II in 1990 has been added.
That decree granted the UOC-MP “independence and self-determinacy” in its management; it also affirmed that the UOC-MP independent character within the wider Orthodox communion and related to other Orthodox Churches only through the Russian Church.
With ongoing transfers of parishes from the UOC-MP to the OCU, and the gradual subordination to Moscow of those dioceses of the UOC-MP in Russian-occupied territory shows that after the UOC-MP’s Sobor on May 27, the future of the UOC-MP remains uncertain.
But amid the internal uncertainty of the UOC-MP, there are persistent offers from the OCU to begin an official dialogue, which would aim to unite the institutions into a single Church.
While that unfolds, the other Eastern Church in Ukraine - the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), which is in communion with Rome — is trying to maintain good relations with both Churches.
All that leaves some experts now expressing cautious optimism that the reshaping of the religious landscape in Ukraine may have a positive impact on ecumenical dialogue, both within the country and at the global level.
According to Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, an Orthodox theologian, and professor at Loyola Marymount University, who in 2008 and 2009 headed the Department of External Church Relations of the UOC-MP, what is happening now in his Church is only the beginning.
"The way this Church will move forward depends on the will of its faithful and clergy and also on the position and even pressure of Ukrainian society on the UOC not to go off the rails and not to step back. Which is quite possible," he told The Pillar.
Fr. Hovorun said the likelihood that the UOC-MP will disintegrate s relatively high.
“As this Church becomes increasingly independent from Moscow, those parts in the occupied territories will break away from the UOC-MP,” he said. “Or we may soon be dealing with a restored Exarchate of the Russian Church in Ukraine, which existed during Soviet times from 1921 to 1990, or more dioceses will be directly subordinated to Moscow.”
At the same time, Hovorun cautioned that if relations between the UOC-MP and the OCU are to develop constructively, both Сhurches need to adjust their positions. The UOC-MP, he said, has long emphasized that the basis of its identity is a Eucharistic communion with the other Orthodox Churches.
But that situation has changed since the Patriarch of Constantinople recognized the UOC as an independent Church in 2019, and has since been similarly recognized by the Churches of Alexandria, Greece, and Cyprus.
“After 2019, the UOC-MP faced the challenge of finding a new identity, and the worst way was chosen: they decided to rally around the confrontation with the OCU. This became part of the identity, and it is a negative thing that hinders relations with the OCU today. But it has to be overcome,” Hovorun said.
“Fortunately, it hasn’t lasted for too long, only three years, and there is an opportunity to change it. I see that in the OCU itself, this work has started. But it needs help from the UOC-MP. On the one hand, there are some good statements, but there are other signals that are not very encouraging.”
Hovorun said that the task now is “for the whole religious community of Ukraine” to work for “the common good.”
“The Sobor of May 27 has demonstrated the dynamics of a rapprochement of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy and the Ukrainian religious community in general, but the UOC needs help," he added.
At the same time, Fr. Hovorun noted that Ukraine is already an example of inter-confessional and inter-religious cooperation, and this experience could make it an example for others to follow.
The current situation between the two Orthodox Churches in the country can further contribute to the revival of ecumenical relations in Ukraine, he said, because "even the presence of two Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine has its advantages; they learn to tolerate each other, and when the Orthodox learn to tolerate each other first they will treat other religious traditions in such way as well."
Meanwhile, representatives of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church say that while they are not seeing serious changes in relations with the Orthodox since the war began, there is cautious optimism about how the overall ecumenical atmosphere in Ukraine might change as a result of the shift in Ukrainian Orthodoxy.
Taras Kurylets of the Ukrainian Catholic University's Institute of Ecumenical Studies told The Pillar that he does not expect to see a significant breakthrough in relations at the official level, but that changes are already noticeable on the ground in areas like social ministry and chaplaincy, where the cohesion of Ukrainian society in general, following the invasion, has been reflected among the Ukrainian Churches as they serve.
“There is a tendency in Ukrainian society, in particular among Ukrainian Christians, at the grassroots level to find ways of mutual understanding faster and to be ahead of the hierarchy, as happened in the case of the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014,” Kurylets said.
“Bishops are much more cautious, inertial.”
Kurylets said that despite the drastic steps taken by the UOC-MP away from Moscow, there remains a massive wall of distrust and mutual rejection between the OCU and the UOC-MP, and more time is needed to begin a dialogue. Despite the rapidly changing ecclesiastical landscape, he predicted the two Orthodox Churches “will continue to live their separate lives for quite some time.”
For his part, Fr. Ihor Shaban, head of the UGCC’s Commission for the Promotion of Christian Unity, told The Pillar that the UGCC won’t be changing its ecumenical approaches and remains equally committed to engagement and dialogue with both Orthodox jurisdictions. But, he cautioned, that dialogue involves a willingness on both sides, which is not yet evident.
“We do not comment on the decisions of the Sobor of the UOC-MP; it is their internal business,” Shaban said. “We can only observe and pray that everything happens as God plans it. Of course, Russia hindered the establishment of normal relations between the Churches in Ukraine, but these processes (in the UOC-MP), if they change the situation, it would be good.”
“We look at this with optimism and hope that, in time, we will begin an official dialogue with the UOC-MP as well as with the OCU. Recently delegations of Roman Catholic bishops from Poland and Germany came to Ukraine, and we visited representatives of both the OCU and the UOC-MP.”
Shaban said that while “each Church lives its vision of the future,” he that during the visit he hearld “markedly fewer accusations against the OCU from the representatives of the UOC-MP, and we talked more about Sobor’s decisions."
Although there is no official dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox in Ukraine, Shaban stressed that the UGCC tries to participate actively in the work of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
“Our representative, Rev. Iwan Dacko, represents our Church there. We are trying to speak with the voice of all of Ukraine in this Commission because there is only one representative from Ukraine. The OCU has not been invited to these meetings, and it is not known what the trends within Orthodoxy are regarding its inclusion in this dialogue,” said Shaban.