Pro Vita, pro Ecclesia Dei et pro Hibernia – A journal of conservative Catholic opinion from Ireland
THE RUSSIAN CHURCH AND THE UKRAINIAN NATION By FATHER JAMES SIEMENS
I HAVE A CONFESSION TO MAKE. A few years back, there was a small part of me that had a guilty appreciation for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Indeed, sitting in a Ukrainian bar, I even tried once to defend him to my Ukrainian friends with whom I was studying at the time. This was an almost purely academic exercise, though, in that even then, I was only really looking for a hint of possibility that the man was defensible. After all, he had just invaded Georgia, and I, along with a good number of people worldwide, thought somewhat glibly: “well, Georgia did provoke the Russian bear.” To all Georgians, I offer my sincere and unmitigated apology.
The fact is, Putin represents a very particular mind: one that the average Westerner can hardly fathom. The reason we can hardly fathom it is that, first of all, post-Cold War, we really don’t want to believe that there are serious international threats anymore, and secondly, America’s international adventures, however naive, misguided, or maladroit we may argue they have been, have never been as glaringly expansionistic and malevolent as the critics have suggested, and so it is hard for Americans and other Westerners to believe that another nation of shared, European, heritage would be either. Yet therein lies the rub. As a result of an American, and so broader, Western, desire to look for the best in others (at least when those others possess a related cultural inheritance), we fail to recognise when they are in fact playing on our good will, and plotting the overthrow of our friends. And for all we might wish to overlook it, this is precisely what Russia is in the midst of doing now.
Importantly, Russia’s antics have a direct bearing on the Church. Ukrainian society is fundamentally friendly to religion, in a way that perhaps only a place like Ireland can understand, and the history of the Church in Ukraine makes it especially vulnerable to the ruminations and imperial ambitions of its neighbour to the North. Indeed, for all we might admire about Dostoyevsky’s Orthodoxy, a certain recasting of ecclesiastical history in Moscow’s favour must characterise the Russian tradition just as much as Father Zossima and Alyosha Karamazov. As a result, that Russian Church history begins, for all intents and purposes, in Kyiv; that the Union of Brest–by which a significant part of the Orthodox Church in those lands reunited with Rome–has layed a positive role in fostering the Christian lives of the people under its remit; that arguably the largest Orthodox jurisdiction in Ukraine does not look to Moscow at all: these things simply get buried by the upstart Patriarchate. Union of Brest, 1596 In spite of Russian claims, the Ukrainian Church has a tradition of getting on with its own business. Nowhere is this more in evidence than with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), which, as the Orthodox Church in that part of Rus’ that lay within the late-sixteenth century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, composed thirty-three articles for proposed union with Rome. These were accepted by Pope Clement VIII, and in 1596 became an ecclesial reality. The resultant UGCC never gained universal acceptance across Rus’, and there was reversion to Orthodoxy in many regions; but in Galicia at least, the Greek Catholics became the principal concern until being outlawed by the Soviets, and adherents forced into Orthodoxy–specifically the Moscow Patriarchate –in 1948. Increasing freedom in the late 1980s, followed by Ukrainian independence in 1991, saw the UGCC not only emerge from the catacombs, but begin to thrive. Since then, she has been at the forefront of working across Ukrainian society for the sake of the nation’s spiritual, intellectual, and cultural life, rigorously engaged as she is with education and media, as well as perpetuating the authentic tradition of Byzantine thought and practice by means of her pastoral ministry on the ground, and in such institutions as the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
Of course, she has not been alone. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate (UOCKP) has equally had the spiritual wellbeing of the people at its heart, while the same can be said of many priests and bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine; where the failure to really engage Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian spiritual landscape really lies, is with certain Moscow Patriarchate apparatchiks, according to whom the independent, spiritual aspirations for the Ukrainian people should not exist. Every twitch and grunt For a Church and a people with such a history as this, the annexation of Crimea and the consequent suppression threatened or real–of the UGCC and the UOC-KP, only represents a Russian return to type. In this respect, while there is admiration in some conservative quarters for President Putin, especially in light of what appears to be his perpetuation of Orthodox ideals across Russian society, and his determination to resurrect an imperial identity based on pre-revolutionary memory, his approach from a Ukrainian Greek Catholic perspective is highly suspect. The late Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, once said of Canadian ties with the United States: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.” Yet, whereas in these words Trudeau rightly hints at Canada’s positive relationship with the U.S., Ukrainians can boast no such relationship, and continue to suffer every “twitch and grunt” of the bear. Under Putin, that bear is very much awake and on the move, and the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church under the Patriarch of Moscow is its idealogical bedfellow.
There is, of course, a history in which the interaction between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox in lands traditionally linked to Kyiv was not positive. Early on in her relations with the Orthodox East, mistakes were undoubtedly made by the Church of Rome that have affected the ground of dialogue to this day, and which have been interpreted as hostile disregard for the legitimacy of the Orthodox Church. One manifestation of this unfortunate history is the fact that the very existence of the Greek Catholic Church in Slavic lands is seen by some as a strategic move on the part of the Orthodox to arrest the advance of Latin Rite Catholics into their lands by entering into a type of protective communion with Rome, and so undermining any Catholic excuse for further proselytising. As inauspicious, if arguable, an advent as that may be however, the existence of the UGCC today is no more reflective of aggression on the part of the Roman Catholic Church than so-called Western Rite Orthodoxy is of some pernicious Antiochian plot to take over the Christian West.
Church’s public vocation That said, an autonomous Church in communion with Rome that can lay legitimate claim to the Byzantine spiritual inheritance of St Wolodymyr represents a serious obstacle to Russian hegemony both in ecclesiastical terms, and national. That this is so has been very clearly, if unfortunately, illustrated by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev’s recent, polemical comments regarding the UGCC’s role in Ukraine since protests began last autumn. In an interview for the National Catholic Register, Alfeyev lambasted UGCC Patriarch Svyatoslav’s cooperation with the UOC-KP, as one of what he called the “schismatic Orthodox groups”, and said that by taking sides in the Ukrainian crisis, the UGCC was “meddling in politics”. His comments, particularly on the latter question, fail both to acknowledge the irony of his own Church and jurisdiction uncritically taking up with the Putin government in Russia, and to fundamentally misunderstand the public vocation that properly belongs to the Church as manifest in the Old Testament Prophets. Most vexing, however, is his reiteration that Greek Catholics are “…a serious obstacle to dialogue between Orthodoxy and Catholicism”, together with his comment that “…the Greek Catholics have launched a crusade against Orthodoxy. It is no secret that “Uniatism” was and is a special project of the Roman Catholic Church, aimed to convert the Orthodox to Catholicism.”
It is tempting, by way of conclusion, to let the Russian Metropolitan’s words speak for themselves. The lie that they represent, though, is one that continues to get rolled out in public fora, and used to attack Greek Catholicism as the ecumenical bogey man. By the same logic though, the Pope of Rome, and those in communion with him, might be even more offended by memories of the Soviet-era Russian Orthodox Church which saw thousands of Greek Catholics within the Eastern Bloc forcibly united with the Moscow Patriarchate. Indeed, it is tragic to behold that the behaviour of that same Church today is virtually identical to her behaviour under the Soviets. In this respect at least, Russian civil politics and Russian ecclesiastical politics have fused. Now, as one old KGB operative looks towards his neighbour to the southwest with thoughts of territorial expansion (or protection of ethnic Russians against aggressive Ukrainian nationalists), another is pondering how best to assert Russian Orthodox interests among a people whose aspirations for their own national church would have been recognised long ago had they been located in a different part of the world. As Europe continues to plot a way forward that embodies ideals such as freedom and the recognition of peoples’ right to self-determination, it is vital that we recognise the danger presented by Russian expansionism, whether in secular or ecclesiastical terms. Once again, Pierre Trudeau’s words must surely apply to Ukraine as much as to Canada: “We wish nothing more, but we will accept nothing less. Masters in our own house we must be…”.
Father James Siemens is a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest working in Cardiff University.
In the same issue:
Pope Still Beast for Scots Secularists
THE RUSSIAN CHURCH AND THE UKRAINIAN NATION
Rev Dr James Siemens
THE HOLY FATHER’S FIGHT WITH THE GODFATHERS
PSALM 12 AND HOW THE GOVERNMENT GOT THE ABORTION LAW THROUGH WITH LIES
Dr Joseph McCarroll
WHERE AM I AT MASS? KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING IN THE TRADITIONAL RITE
A PRESSING NEED IN COUNTY MEATH: SILVERSTREAM PRIORY
Very Rev Dom Mark Kirby OSB
WITNESS TO GOD’S CREATIVE LOVE— DESPITE INTIMIDATION
THE RITUAL OF JOHN THE BAPTIST AND THE GOOD NEWS OF SALVATION
Rev Dáithí Ó Murchú
And From the Editor’s Desk, ‘Our Lady of Limerick’, ‘Borderline Literature’, and ‘Seán Ó Riada and Mass in Irish’; A Letter to the Editor from Eric Conway; Hibernia Hibernici suggests ‘Things can get worse’; Hurling Shots includes ‘Euro and Local Elections 2014’, and ‘The Senator and the Countess’.