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In Ukraine, local priests' dialogue is forging new Orthodox unity

St. Sophia’s Cathedral, Kyiv. Credit: Rbrechko/wikimedia. CC BY SA 4,0

Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians in Ukraine celebrated last week the feast of Prince St. Vladimir, the father and Christian evangelist of the Kyivan Rus people.

The feast is a national  and cultural celebration, marked by Ukraine’s government as Ukrainian Statehood Day. And during the past decade, Ukrainian Orthodox churches have hosted massive public celebrations to mark the feast - both the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The goal of those parties was not only to the celebrate the anniversary of Vladimir’s baptism.

Instead, each Church aimed to showcase to the whole Ukrainian society their numbers — both the OCU and UOC-MP aimed to use the celebrations to cement their claims as the legitimate hierarchy for all Orthodox Ukrainians.

But things are different this year. Given the war, the feast day celebrations were limited to solemn services in churches. There were no mass processions through the streets of the Ukrainian capital, but instead a modest interfaith prayer in the cathedral of St. Sophia, in Kyiv.

Things are changing for Ukrainian Orthodoxy, even when it comes to throwing a party.

It has been six months since Russian aggression against Ukraine began, and the situation for Ukrainian Orthodoxy continues to change.

After the May 27 Sobor of UOC-MP, the number of parishes transitioning to the OCU has somewhat slowed but has not stopped. To date, more than 1,060 Orthodox parishes in Ukraine have moved from the Moscow-affiliated Church to the independent OCU.

Last month, the Religious Information Service of Ukraine published updated the UOC-MP’s updated statutes — after the Church’s leaders decided in May to publicly and officially distance themselves from Moscow.

But while the governing documents do not mention a jurisdictional link to Moscow, they do make reference to a 1990 decree by Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, which asserts that the UOC-MP is united with global Orthodoxy through the Russian Orthodox Church.

Despite expectations, the promised break from the Moscow Patriarchate has turned out mostly to be a matter of semantics.

But while there are few real developments among the UOC-MP’s hierarchs, a group of Orthodox priests in Kyiv began last month a more grassroots approach to Orthodox dialogue — one that could be a harbinger for a better relationship between Ukraine’s Orthodox Churches.

In a hall at the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kyiv, a symbolic place for all Ukrainian Christians, 21 priests Orthodox priests sat down July 5 to talk  - 11 of the OCU and 10 of the UOC-MP. That kind of dialogue among the Orthodox Churches of Ukraine is rare.

The priests discussed local pastoral issues. But they also discussed the relationship between the Сhurches and stated “the advisability and necessity of constructive dialogue between the two branches of Ukrainian Orthodoxy.”

Participants also called on hierarchs of both Сhurches “to begin an official dialogue between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine already by the Day of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus-Ukraine,” which as of August 1 has not begun.

The meeting gained widespread support in the Ukrainian media.

But at the official level, the UOC-MP immediately distanced itself from its priests who took part.

The official spokesman of the UOC-MP, Metropolitan Klyment Vecheria, said that his Church's leadership delegated no one to the meeting, so the priests there represented only themselves.

Still, the meeting’s participants told The Pillar they engaged collegially, and while most of the summit was devoted to issues on which there was no disagreement between the Churches, the parties also touched on issues that hinder good relations.

According to the OCU’s Fr. George Kovalenko of Kyiv, the idea for the meeting originated among Kyiv's clergy.

At first, the priests planned to meet somewhere informal. But after the circle of those interested in such an inter-Orthodox summit grew, and the search for an appropriate meeting place began, the State Service of Ukraine for Ethno-Politics and Freedom of Conscience suggested that it be held in the National Sanctuary Complex Sophia of Kyiv.

In the beginning, according to Fr. Kovalenko, it was supposed to be an exchange of opinions, but in the process of the dialogue, both parties agreed to make public a joint “Declaration of Understanding.”

“There is a certain providence of God in this. What began as an informal meeting, perhaps somewhere in a cafe, has turned out to be somewhat more, more significant for both the Church and society,” Kovalenko said.

“The goal of the first meeting was getting to know each other and identifying the issues that unite us, so perhaps we have such a positive result. But some topics required further discussion. It is important not only to confirm the balance of certain views but also to discuss important issues that divide or disturb both Churches and society today. Therefore, if the discussion continues, it will not only be those issues on which opinion is unanimous,” Fr. Kovalenko explained.

The priest said he was skeptical about the possibility of official dialogue between the OCU and the UOC-MP, because the UOC-MP’s bishops have called into question both the autocephalous status of the OCU granted to this Church by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2019 and the canonicity of the consecration of the OCU’s bishops.

But Kovalenko said he’s learned that among priests of the UOC-MP, there are men willing to meet for real conversation.

“We do what we can at our level. We should not diminish the importance of horizontal contact. Perhaps if there had not been a letter from UOC-MP clergy to the Eastern Patriarchs urging them to condemn Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and the ‘Russky mir,’ there would not have been a Sobor on May 27 in which this Church made changes to its statutes and set out to distance itself from Moscow.”

“At our level, I saw no great obstacles to dialogue; I saw no fear. But one must also understand that these years of confrontation, especially the recent ones, have created a lot of preconceived myths about each other, and myths crumble in personal communication when you see that people are not what your imagination or Russian propaganda pictures them to be.”

According to the OCU’s Fr. Andriy Dudchenko of Kyiv, who also participated in the meeting, among the main obstacles that impede inter-Orthosdox conversation the position of bishops, especially from the UOC-MP, among whom there are no visible signs of readiness for dialogue so far.

“And priests are very dependent on their bishops, as we know," Fr. Dudchenko continued, “and to openly take a step that the ruling bishop will not approve, not everyone can dare. I know that there is much more support among the clergy for such a dialogue and even unity with the OCU than is apparent to the general public.”

At the same time, the two priests of the OCU said that any discussion about unifying the Churches into one administrative structure is premature for the time being.

Fr. Dudchenko thinks that a compromise is possible in the transitional phase since during the creation of the OCU, each bishop, who joined the newly formed Church with his flock, retained the entire administrative structure, and in some regions to date, there are three dioceses of the OCU, diocesan boundaries which overlap with each other.

“This is not an appropriate model of administration in the Church, but for a transitional period, to facilitate the process of unity, this may be a solution. For some, the Exarchate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine, which can exist in parallel with the OCU, is an acceptable model. In both cases, there would be communion and unity in the Sacraments, but without instant unification in one administrative structure,” Fr. Dudchenko concluded.

Father Kovalenko offered additional insight on the notion of unity:

“There are many dimensions of unity, and administrative unity is not the most important one, and it is not what solves all problems. Unity is not just something that once was and will be in the future. A certain dimension of unity was already in place at this meeting. A certain level of unity between the parties is possible, even if they are not ready to merge into one structure.”

“Do we have unity with the Catholic Church? We do not concelebrate, but we recognize each other's sacraments, and thus in Christ, we are one - we recognize in the representative of the other confession a Christian, and thus, as Metropolitan Platon of Kyiv said, ‘The walls we build on earth do not reach to heaven.’”

“It is important not to get hung up on a unified structure but to develop different aspects of unity so that we can pray together, serve together, do good deeds, evangelize, and educate together. There are many tasks for us, and I wouldn't dwell on the administrative question, which is very complicated when there is a long tradition of structures, there is a hierarchy, and there are property issues around which there are a lot of problems. I don't believe that stones and buildings and structures are the most important things in the Church,” he added.

Serhii Prokopchuk, a UOC-MP priest of Stara Rafalivka village in the Rivne region, said his motivation for attending this meeting was a desire to preserve peace in his community.

In a comment to The Pillar, the priest noted that enmity dominates the relations between the two Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine today, but he considers such a condition abnormal and sees dialogue as the only way out.

“We understand the complexity of this process because the issue of the relationship between the two jurisdictions has a long history. We can talk about the last 30 years, but we can dig deeper because, at this meeting, we also talked about the two traditions of Orthodoxy: one of Moscow and another one of Kyiv. So, all of this stretches back for centuries. But we are all Orthodox Christians and Ukrainians, and despite the difference in views, we must find mutual understanding.”

“In my parish, the question of dialogue is crucial. My parish includes four villages. In one of the villages where I serve, people told me that if I decided to go to the OCU, they would support me 100%. In another, they told me they wanted to keep everything as it was because they were used to worshiping in the Church Slavonic language, to a certain spiritual tradition. The main congregation I serve is divided; some people would like to keep it the way it is, especially after the decisions of the Sobor of May 27. But there are also people of other views who are favorable to the OCU. And so there is a situation where people have opposing views in one parish.”

Fr. Prokopchuk thinks that transferring communities from the UOC-MP to the OCU does not solve problems, but complicates them.

The priest said there is not a single parish in Ukraine where 100% of parishioners would support such a move. The decision to change jurisdiction requires a vote of parishioners — and a two-thirds majority supporting a move — and there is often a conflict after the vote.

According to Fr. Prokopchuk, there is also disagreement about who should be regarded as parishioners, since not all people are equally active in the community's life.

“In my parish, people approached me with their suggestions, but in the end, they told me, ‘Make sure that we don't have conflict, that we don't quarrel, that we have peace.’ So the question of dialogue for our parish is vital, we live with great expectation and hope that such dialogue will be at the highest level, and the leadership of both Churches will solve problems, but for now, I decided to take part in this meeting in Kyiv,” Fr. Prokopchuk said.

According to the priest, the UOC-MP is a rather motley structure.

And in the west of Ukraine, there are psychological barriers to unification with the OCU, associated with conflict, especially in recent years. But in the south and east of the country there is the influence of the “Russky mir” ideology.

“We now realize that ‘Russky mir’ is a consciously imposed ideology and often far from Christianity. It sits deep within the structure of our Church, both in the minds of the leadership and the priesthood and laity. However, under the influence of the war, the situation is changing. I myself was educated in Moscow, but I am rethinking many issues today," Fr. Prokopchuk concluded.

Fr. Anatolii Slynko from the village of Zazymia in the Kyiv region also took part in the July 5 meeting as a priest of the UOC-MP, but when he spoke with The Pillar in late July,  he and his community had already joined the OCU.

Slynko said he was moved to take part in the meeting by his Christian conscience, which could not tolerate the division reigning in Ukrainian Orthodoxy.

The priest’s community was one of the first to say in early 2022 it would stop commemorating Patriarch Kirill of Moscow during liturgies, and to call for the UOC-MP to leave the Moscow Patriarchate.

Slynko said the biggest obstacle to understanding between the UOC-MP and the OCU is the influence of the propaganda of the Moscow Patriarchate, which - he alleged - has said for decades that there is no divine grace outside the UOC-MP, and thus has escalated the conflict between Orthodox Ukrainians.

Parishioners in the UOC-MP have become so accustomed to these ideas, according to Fr. Slynko, that even when a priest of the UOC-MP reaches a different theological conclusion, it can be difficult to convince parishioners.

“My move was well-considered. After 2018, I saw no obstacles to the relations with the OCU. Our parish waited for the UOC-MP Sobor on May 27, 2022. The Sobor has made decisions that can be interpreted differently, but we waited for further steps to come after that. But nothing happened.”

“First, the statutes are not officially published. This allows pro-Russian bishops and priests to interpret this Sobor in their way. They go on to commemorate Kirill. Secondly, there is no dialogue with the OCU, and it does not appear that it will begin any time soon. Therefore, I decided not to wait. I also saw what the reaction of officials of the UOC-MP to our meeting in St. Sophia was - it was negative. And that was probably the last straw. My parishioners said to me, ‘Let's make a step forward.’ People got tired of waiting; they put together a meeting and voted to transfer to the OCU.”

For his part, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church leader Sviatoslav Shevchuk praised the meeting last month.

The archbishop said that the UGCC “welcomes every step toward unity, particularly when it comes to forms of cooperation of dialogue and meetings between our Orthodox brothers,” adding that “today we have a unique chance to not just come closer together as Churches, but to talk about the unity of Churches in Ukraine, at least about the unity in action.”

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