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With war looming, will Kyiv get a Catholic patriarch?

While the prospect of a renewed Russian invasion in Ukraine is becoming a reality, the Vatican office which oversees Eastern Catholic Churches is considering a request that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church be given “patriarchal” status. 

The move would highlight the historical and contemporary importance of the largest Eastern Catholic Church in the Catholic communion.

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. The Pillar file photo.

During a plenary session of the Vatican’s Congregation for Oriental Churches held last week, Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archeparch of Philadelphia, presented a report on the possibility of establishing new patriarchates among the 22 Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome, the archeparchy announced last week.

Sources close to the Vatican congregation have told The Pillar that after Gudziak’s presentation, members of the congregation were scheduled to discuss the prospect of elevating the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to a “patriarchal Church” — the highest canonical status possible for an Eastern Catholic, or sui iuris, Church. 

It is not yet clear whether the congregation will recommend to Pope Francis a change in status for the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which includes nearly 4.5 million Catholics, and which is presently headed by a “major archbishop,” rather than a patriarch. 

But amid the prospect of Russian invasion, appointment of a patriarch for the Ukrainian Church would be “great moral support” across Ukrainian society, according to Anatolii Babynskyi, a Church historian at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.


A moral assessment

Babynskyi told The Pillar this week that “The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and its leaders are widely trusted in Ukrainian society. Similarly, Pope Francis has a high level of trust in Ukrainian society. He is considered a moral leader of the world, and Ukrainian society is expecting words of support from him.”  

“People want to hear a moral assessment of the phenomena when one nation became a victim, losing thousands of lives, just because someone decided to build the Soviet Union 2.0. or tries to distract Russian people from internal problems of their country,” Babynskyi added.

And even while Catholics are a minority in the country, many Ukrainians are looking for that kind of assessment from Pope Francis, the historian said.

“The pope talks a lot about the need for justice in the world. That is why many in Ukraine do not understand why he does not give a moral assessment of what is happening. Russia is destroying all possible international agreements and principles, holding a gun to Ukraine's head, and wanting to make the whole world play by its rules.”

A way to offer that assessment in symbolism would be to grant the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s long standing request for a patriarch, Babynskyi said.

Practically speaking, there are few differences between an Eastern Catholic patriarch and a “major archbishop,” like Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who leads the Ukrainian Catholic Church. While the election of a major archbishop by an eastern church’s synod of bishops must be confirmed by the pope, and a patriarch does not need that confirmation, there are few other noticeable distinctions.

But the title “patriarch” is an ancient one, used since the early centuries of the Church. While the term is used more commonly today in Orthodoxy, not Catholicism, in Eastern Catholic Churches the term denotes respect and authority. 

“For our tradition, it's natural to have a patriarch as a primate of the local Church,” Babynskyi said, explaining why many Ukrainian Catholics have hoped to see the Church recognize the Metropolitan Archbishop of Kyiv as a patriarch.  

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The history

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church traces its origins to the 1590s, when several Eastern European Orthodox bishops declared their intention to be unified in communion with Rome.

If the pope does decide to change the Ukrainian Church’s status, he will be responding to a hope held by many Ukrainian Catholics since shortly after the 1596 Union of Brest-Litovsk, which formally began Eastern Catholicism in the territory of Ukraine.

The idea of establishing a Catholic patriarch in Ukraine came under discussion just a few years later.

The notion was floated as the newly unified Ukrainian Catholic bishops engaged in ecumenical dialogue with those bishops who remained part of the Orthodox communion, many of whom were concerned that the Latin Catholic Church would not respect their history and customs. 

Both sides in that dialogue “agreed that the establishment of the patriarchate in Kyiv recognized by Rome would be a good solution for restoring the unity of the Kyivan Church,” Babynskyi told The Pillar. 

But eventually the ecumenical dialogue came to end, and with it, talk of a patriarch mostly concluded. The idea resurfaced again in the 1800s, and was seriously considered by Pope Pius IX and Leo XIII, “but due to various political problems” it was not ultimately implemented, the history said. 

It surfaced again briefly in the early 20th century. And then, around the time of Vatican II, it almost happened. 

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was illegal in the Soviet Union, and its de facto leader, Ukrainian Archbishop Josyf Slipyj, spent 18 years in Siberian labor camps.

But Slipyj was freed by Soviet authorities in 1963, and went to Rome to attend the Second Vatican Council. There he urged that a Catholic patriarch be recognized in Ukraine. Many of the council fathers supported the idea, and Pope Paul VI was said to be open to it.

But in 1969, the pope decided that the recognition would be impossible. According to Babynskyi, the fact that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was illegal in Ukraine was a factor, as was “protest from the Russian Church, with which the Vatican has had an ecumenical dialogue since the 1960s.”

The pope instead recognized Slipyj with a new term, “major archbishop” instead.

But the issue didn’t go away.

“After the proclamation of Ukraine's independence in 1991, the issue of the patriarchate was constantly raised by Ukrainian bishops, and in 2002 the Synod of Bishops once again addressed the pope. At that time, the territorial problem was resolved. However, the idea of a Greek Catholic patriarchate once again provoked protests from Moscow, which threatened Rome to suspend ecumenical dialogue. One Vatican official said at the time that the Ukrainian patriarchate would be a ‘disaster for ecumenism.’ And up to today, this is the only reason why this patriarchate has not been proclaimed,” Babynskyi explained.

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Ecumenical implications

Babynskyi told The Pillar that there are “some reservations” about the recognition of a Ukrainian patriarchate within the Ukrainian Church. But the most influential factor is concern in the Vatican about ecumenism with Orthodox Churches, especially the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, whom Pope Francis has made a focus of ecumenical efforts.

Some theologians, both in Catholic and Orthodox circles, say that only dioceses held to be founded by the apostles have been customarily recognized as patriarchates. 

But “I can't imagine that in the case of a hypothetical union of the Orthodox Church with Rome, someone will raise the issue that the Russian, Serbian or Bulgarian Churches cannot have the status of patriarchate because they do not have an apostolic origin,” Babynskyi said.

“After all, there is the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate. The Armenian Church is one of the oldest, but it did not appear in apostolic times. If we look at this issue by rejecting various political aspects, the patriarchate is just one of the stages of development of any Eastern Church. This does not apply to Ukraine only. Sooner or later, the issue of patriarchate will arise in India, where the Syro-Malabar Church is developing dynamically,” he added.

Babynskyi said that the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, to which most Orthodox Ukranians belong, “has no reservations about the patriarchate of the UGCC. They consider it an internal affair of the Greek Catholic Church.“

For ecumenical relations with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, held to be the “first among equals” among Orthodox patriarchs, “this issue can be resolved through dialogue...dialogue and understanding are possible because there is an opportunity to exchange in a purely ecclesiastical, theological plane.”

With the Patriarch of Moscow, however, things would be more difficult. 

“With the Moscow Patriarchate, the dialogue goes beyond theology,” Babynskyi told The Pillar.

“I can give a simple example. The Moscow Patriarchate has good relations with the Maronites and other Eastern Catholics in Lebanon and Syria. In 2013, the Maronite patriarch visited Moscow, and during a visit to Lebanon in 2011, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow met with all Catholic patriarchs. Why are Eastern Catholic patriarchates in other parts of the world not a problem? The answer is straightforward. The Russian Federation and the Moscow Patriarchate consider Ukraine their ‘backyard’ where every Eastern Christian should be Russian — that's why Mr. Putin says that Ukrainians and Russians are one people — and belong to the Moscow Patriarchate….Thus, the ecumenical dialogue between the Vatican and Moscow became a hostage to the Russian neo-imperialism.”

“As long as the Moscow Patriarchate is a tool of Russia's state policy, it will be fruitless to try to convince the Moscow Patriarchate that the Greek Catholic Patriarchate in Ukraine is in no way a threat to the ecumenical dialogue. In their eyes, it undermines their claims for the political and ecclesiastical dominance in Eastern Europe,” he added.

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‘Unity with Peter’s successor’

The Vatican has not signaled whether Pope Francis will recognize an Eastern Catholic patriarch in Kyiv.

But for Babynskyi, the move would be a powerful one.

“It is essential for our faithful scattered around the world to have a spiritual and visible connection with the center of the Church in Kyiv. It would be natural for our tradition for the head of such a global community to have the title of patriarch,” he said.

But whatever the pope does, Babynskyi said, Ukrainian Catholics have proven in history that they are willing to suffer for their faith, and for unity with the Bishop of Rome.

“Ukrainian Catholics withstood Soviet persecution and did not sever unity with Rome, so why should they do so today? Unity with Peter's successor is part of our identity, and it has a theological basis, not a political calculation.

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