Spirit at work in Ukraine’s Ecumenical relations

The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is “optimistic” about possible unity with Orthodox Christians in his country – because faithful from across the ecumenical divide are demanding it.

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuck said that his Church, one of the Byzantine rites of the Catholic Church in full communion with Pope Benedict XVI, has “excellent” relations with all the Orthodox Churches in the country.

He said calls from lay Orthodox and Catholics for unity were a driving force in ecumenical relations between the Churches in Ukraine.
Speaking in an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Major Archbishop Shevchuck said “We are conscious that without Christian unity, the unity of our society is also impossible and there is an existential demand from our faithful – Orthodox and Catholic – for unity.

“So our faithful, which according to Church tradition have sort of sensus fidelium [sense of the faithful – i.e. believers possessing an innate understanding of religious truth], are asking us hierarchs [bishops and other prelates] for that unity.

“This is why I am so optimistic because I think this is some sort of inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the people of God.”

His optimism comes despite a complicated ecumenical situation in Ukraine, caused by the existence of no less than three separate Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, including one in communion with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.

Major Archbishop Shevchuck said: “As head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church always I am trying to establish normal, regular, friendly human contacts with the Orthodox Bishops but also with the heads of the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches – especially the one in unity with the Moscow Patriarchate – and I would confess that we have excellent relationships.”

The leader of the world’s Ukrainian Greek Catholics described how his installation ceremony last March was a sign of improving relationships between the different Churches.

He told ACN: “Representatives of each Orthodox Church came for the liturgy of my enthronement for the first time in history, because they never would meet each other for a common service.”

He described how one moment, which occurred after the sign of peace, was particularly symbolic.

“I approached each of those representatives with my greeting ‘Christ is among us’ and each of them did respond to me ‘Yes and will be’.

“For the Orthodox Christian the liturgical expression means a lot. It shows that there is at least a willingness for the unity of the faith.”

Although the creation of new Catholic dioceses in Russia caused tensions with the Orthodox, Major Archbishop Shevchuck said no problems had occurred when the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church proclaimed three new metropolitan dioceses in western Ukraine at the end of 2011.

He said: “Before the creation of that new Church structure I visited each of the Orthodox leaders, including His Beatitude Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Moscow Patriarchate, and nobody expressed himself against the plans.”

The Major Archbishop also paid tribute to the role of the Council of the Churches and Religious Organisations in Ukraine in resolving issues over Church property in the west of the country, which has been a controversial issue in post-communist Ukraine.

He said: “That organisation is a very useful way how to build unity among different Christian denominations and confessions in Ukraine.”

Aid to the Church in Need has helped support the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with a number of catechetical resources, including a Ukrainian edition of the Child’s Bible with images based on traditional icons.

Many of the Greek Catholic catechetical resources are also used by the Orthodox Church.

The charity has also helped with the formation of the faithful by supporting the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

Major Archbishop Shevchuck expressed his thanks to ACN, adding that the charity understood the needs of the Church in the Ukraine.

He said: “We are very grateful to Aid to the Church in Need.”