Archbishop Ihor Isichenko is an unusual bishop. He is a formidable intellectual and serious literary scholar. He has been a leader among Ukrainian Orthodox believers for more than two decades. And seven years ago, he began a path that led his Orthodox diocese into full communion with the Catholic Church, even amid schisms and fractures among Ukrainian Orthodox believers, and during a war that has changed life dramatically in his country.
Archbishop Isichenko came into full communion with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church earlier this year; parishes of the diocese he once led are now part of the Ukrainian Catholic Exarchate of Kharkiv and the Archeparchy of Kyiv. With the status of an emeritus archbishop, Isichenko will now lead a branch of the Ukrainian Catholic University.
The archbishop’s remarkable story began decades ago, when Ukraine declared its independence, the Soviet Union fell, and the Moscow Patriarchate lost its monopoly on religion in the country.
In 1989, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which had been stripped of its legal status in 1946, was legally permitted again to exist in Ukraine. The largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome came out from the underground.
At the same time, some Ukrainian Orthodox believers began pushing for a kind of autocephaly — for an Orthodox Church separate from the jurisdiction and oversight of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Moscow.
The movement was not homogeneous. Instead, two structures emerged in the early 1990s claiming autocephalous jurisdiction in the country: the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP).
Both structures had internal problems. But in the mid-1990s, the UOC-KP came under the leadership of Patriarch Filaret, who during the Soviet era served as exarch of the Russian Church in Ukraine and was one of the leading contenders for the throne of the Moscow Patriarch in 1990.
With Filaret at the helm, the UOC-KP managed to stabilize its structure. Over time, it began to claim the role of the Ukrainian “state” Church.
The UAOC was less successful in Ukraine. It focused instead on Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in the diaspora, in the United States and Canada, which over time withdrew from Ukrainian affairs. Many parishes moved away gradually from the UAOC and into the jurisdiction of Constantinople.
Within a decade, the UAOC itself began to fracture. Since the early 2000s, it has existed as a collection of nearly independent dioceses united only by a common name.
In 2018, the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine absorbed most of the churches, clergy, and resources of the UOC-KP and the UAOC. As the largest structure claiming autocephalous Orthodox jurisdiction in Ukraine, it received a recognition of autocephaly from the Patriarch of Constantinople in 2019.
But not everyone followed that path.
The Kharkiv-Poltava diocese of the UAOC, which covered northeastern Ukraine, was moving in a very different direction.
The diocese had became an important center for the autocephalous movement soon after its founding in 1992. Its cathedral, St. Demetrius in Kharkiv, became over the years a cultural and educational hub that provided theological training for future priests of the UAOC.
And seven years ago, Archbishop Isichenko and the UAOC’s Kharkiv-Poltava diocese decided that divisions among the Ukrainian Orthodox factions had become too deep, and unity among Ukraine’s Orthodox churches was unlikely.
The diocese decided to become Catholic — to join itself to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC).
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On April 1, 2015, an eparchial assembly declared it had “been convinced of the impossibility of canonical unification with the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in the diaspora, reject[ed] non-canonical ways of unification of Churches and believ[ed] in the perspective of the communion of the Ukrainian Church with the Churches of old and new Rome.”
In a formal request, the diocese asked the synod of bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church “for fraternal advice on achieving Eucharistic communion and administrative unity of the Kharkiv-Poltava diocese of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.”
The process of achieving unity was not easy; it took almost seven years. And according to Archbishop Isichenko, who has led the diocese since 1993, not everyone in the diocese stuck with the plan to join their local diocese to the Catholic Church — some parishes joined other Orthodox communions instead.
“I must say that most priests got frightened. For various reasons: either because of the fear of loss of support from the flock, because of lack of understanding by the faithful of such a step, because they were burdened by various kinds of anti-Catholic myths, or because of ordinary human conservatism, of fear of something new,” he told The Pillar.
But “the most mature congregations supported the idea, and have now joined the Kharkiv exarchate and the Kyiv archdiocese of the UGCC.”
While parishes became fully incorporated into the structure of the Ukrainian Catholic Church over the past two years, the archbishop’s status was not clarified until this spring, after Russia’s full-scale invasion in Ukraine had begun.
“I have retired and am now archbishop-emeritus, with the retention of my authority as head of the Collegium of Patriarch Mstyslav, which this year acquires the status of a project of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Kharkiv,” the archbishop explained.
From his early days, Archbishop Isichenko was a somewhat atypical figure in Ukrainian Orthodoxy. At the time of his monastic tonsure and ordination as a priest, he was a professor of literary history at Kharkiv State University.
He led a diocese for 27 years without stopping his scholarly and teaching activities.
He is the author of scholarly treatises on the history of Ukrainian medieval and baroque literature, ascetic literature, and the Orthodox-Catholic polemic of the 16th-17th centuries. In fact, he is one of the world’s leading experts in his field.
But to explain the decision his eparchy made — the decision to become Catholic — the archbishop looked to more recent history.
He said the wisdom of their plan could not be grasped without understanding the experience of Orthodox Ukrainians during the 20th century, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“The restoration of Ukraine’s independence also made possible the restoration of the UAOC, whose structures at the time survived only in the diaspora. But the churches in the U.S. and Canada were quite depleted and could not provide effective assistance to the reviving Church in their homeland. On the other hand, the Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox community needed to reconstruct the identity of Kyivan Orthodoxy as it was before its subordination to Moscow in the 17th century. The task was not to revive but to reconstruct,” the archbishop said.
“Still, the weaknesses in this path were immediately evident: a weak spiritual basis, a lack of durability of the monastic tradition, etc. The UAOC was never able to create a single monastery or a single serious academic school. And there were several infamous schisms the Church endured and, most importantly, constant efforts by state officials and some church forces to form a ‘state’ Church. All of this has led to disappointment in the prospect of this path.”
Archbishop Isichenko said it became apparent over time that one tendency has remained constant in the Orthodox Church since Byzantine times, namely the inclination toward the governmentalization of the Church and the closest cooperation between the Church and the state.
“I served as a ruling bishop of the UAOC from 1993 to 2020, when I resigned. I became convinced that the idea of Orthodoxy as an alternative to Catholicism leads to the formation of 'Russkiy mirs - Russian worlds' in miniature, or in the full sense of the word.”
“Whether this is Serbia or Russia... Unfortunately, this trend exists in Ukraine as well. Such particularism suspends the universal nature of the Church, its catholicity.”
The archbishop said that his diocese began considering the prospect of unity with the Catholic Church when Russian aggression began against Ukraine in 2014; he said he watched the use of the Russian Orthodox Church to advance Russian imperialism.
“What is being done to Moscow’s Orthodoxy is the great drama of the whole world. The ideology of the 'Russkiy mir' shows all Orthodox Churches the danger of twisting of the system of priorities - the loss of priority of Christian values over national, state, political or party priorities,” he told The Pillar.
Priests from the former Kharkiv-Poltava diocese of the UAOC, who joined the Ukrainian Catholic Church with their congregations this year, told The Pillar that they felt confident about their choice because of their trust in Archbishop Isichenko.
Fr. Ihor Lytvyn, who led a UAOC parish in Poltava, explained that even before 2015, relations between the UGCC and his diocese were friendly. Greek Catholics often taught at the Collegium of Patriarch Mstyslav, where he received his theological education.
And in his parish, parishioners felt a kinship toward Ukrainian Catholics, he said.
“It was no surprise to my parishioners. So, when our diocese was in crisis, they were sympathetic to the archbishop’s chosen path. Most voted for the transition, although some did move away from the parish. Personally, I have always been convinced that if you are not orthodox, you are a heretic, and if you are not Catholic, you are schismatic. So, for me, there has never been any opposition between the concepts of ‘orthodox' and 'Catholic,'” Fr. Lytvyn said.
Fr. Oleh Bondaruk, who now serves in the Kyiv archdiocese of the UGCC, was ordained a priest in 2016, when the Kharkiv-Poltava diocese had already begun its reunion dialogue with the UGCC. In 2018, his parish chose to transfer to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, but Bondaruk decided to become a Catholic.
Fr. Bodnaruk told The Pillar that his path was a bit different from that of other clergy of the diocese, which made it easier for him to become a Catholic priest.
“Most priests who didn’t merge with the UGCC were ordained years ago. And I think the boundary that is the hardest for a person to cross in life is the interconfessional boundary. I was ordained at the time when the Kharkiv-Poltava diocese had already begun its movement to unite with the UGCC. It was my conscious choice.”
“On the other hand, even though I was baptized in the Orthodox Church, I grew up in a Roman Catholic environment in the Khmelnytskyi region, and I have many Poles in my family. From the eighth grade, I attended a Roman Catholic church. I even went to a Roman Catholic seminary for a year. But later, I moved to Boyarka, near Kyiv, and got a bit away from the Church. One day I was asked to give Archbishop Ihor a ride to Kaniv, and our acquaintance made a great impression on me. Thus, I became an Orthodox priest.”
Fr. Viacheslav Trush of Lozova, in the Kharkiv region, told The Pillar that when faced with such a difficult question, he and his congregation sought above all to discern God's will as to which way they should move.
“An important factor that influenced my decision was also to study and comprehend the experience of the Catholic Church, to familiarize myself with its doctrine, dogma, and history, both globally and in Ukraine. Therefore, our choice was based not only on trust in our bishop but also on deepening our knowledge of the Catholic Church,” he explained.
“At the parish, we discussed many questions and studied the history of the Church. All of this has borne fruit. We have a very home-like atmosphere in the community, with the priest and the faithful discussing everything among themselves, so there are no secrets. So when I announced the decision of the diocesan council, the faithful met this with confidence in me and in Archbishop Ihor.”
Ksenia Pidopryhora, of St. Demetrius Church in Kharkiv, was forced to leave the city in March 2022 due to the war and now lives in Lviv.
But she told The Pillar that she dreamed of returning to her hometown and her parish, to which she has belonged since she was six years old. Pidopryhora said that she had begun with questions about the parish’s new unity with Rome, but said she was now favorably inclined toward the move.
“First of all, it was personal acquaintance with the clergy and parishioners of the UGCC in Kharkiv, as well as the observation of well-known figures representing the UGCC in the world, such as former head of the UGCC Lubomyr Husar, of blessed memory, or the extraordinary intellectual Bishop Borys Gudziak. Their words and actions corresponded to my idea of what life as Christians in a modern world should be, life in unity. Consequently, the desire to be part of this unity was natural.”
“Also, the UGCC itself as an institution had — and has — an exceptionally positive reputation for consistency and unity, in contrast to the Orthodox Church community in Ukraine, whose divisions and quarrels we experienced as a parish. Also, the transparency in answering any questions from the clergy of our diocese and the very possibility to see, talk and ask questions during this process contributed to an awareness of the expediency and logic of this ‘transition,’” Pidopryhora said.
Despite their common Byzantine liturgical tradition, there are some liturgical differences between the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Pidopryhora said she was grateful that parishes of the former Kharkiv-Poltava diocese retained certain specific customs of worship, even as they became Catholic.
“Fortunately, the absence of changes in the order of worship and the right to observe the church calendar as it was before the ‘transition’ helped the parishioners of our church to integrate gently into church life as full members of the UGCC,” she explained.
Bishop Vasyl Tuchapets, the UGCC’s exarch of Kharkiv, told The Pillar that liturgical differences between the parishes of the UGCC and the former communities of the Kharkiv-Poltava diocese of the UAOC were not fundamental, but concerned ritual nuances.
But in all other aspects, the communities are fully integrated into the life of the exarchate. Their pastors participate in joint retreats and meetings, formation courses of the exarchate, and other Church projects.
For his part, Fr. Trush said the “integration” had been a positive experience for himself and his parish.
His parish life had felt isolated before — hemmed in by the divisions and politics of the Orthodox churches in Ukraine. But now, he said, things had changed.
“Now we feel like we belong to a global community — the Greek Catholic Church and the Catholic Church spread worldwide, there is a sense of support. For me personally, as a priest, this is very important,” the priest concluded.