On February 12, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leaders of two Churches, met at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. The meeting took place in a closed setting. It lasted more than two hours.
The meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill concluded with the signing of a Joint Declaration, which elicited mixed reactions on the part of the citizenry and Church representatives of Ukraine.
His Beatitude Sviatoslav, the Head of the UGCC, shared with us his impressions of the meeting in general and of the document in particular.
Your Beatitude, kindly share with us your impressions of the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill. What can you say about the Joint Declaration that they signed?
From our experience, gained over many years, we can say that when the Vatican and Moscow organize meetings or sign joint texts, it is difficult to expect something good. Firstly, I would like to say something about the meeting of the Holy Father with Patriarch Kirill, and then I will comment on the text of the declaration.
One notices immediately, especially from their comments after the meeting, that the two sides existed on two completely different planes and were pursuing different goals. His Holiness Pope Francis experienced this encounter primarily as a spiritual event. He opened his remarks by noting that we, Catholics and Orthodox, share one and the same Baptism. In the meeting, he sought out the presence of the Holy Spirit and received His support. He emphasized that the unity of the Churches can be achieved when we travel together on the same path. From the Moscow Patriarch one immediately sensed that this wasn’t about any Spirit, or theology, or actual religious matters. No common prayer, an emphasis on official phrases about “the fate of the world,” and the airport as a neutral, that is, non-ecclesial environment. The impression was that they existed in two parallel worlds. Did these two parallel realities intersect during this meeting? I don’t know, but according to the rules of mathematics, two parallel lines do not intersect.
I found myself experiencing authentic admiration, respect, and a certain reverential awe for the humility of Pope Francis, a true “suffering servant of God,” who seeks one thing: to bear witness to the Gospel of Christ before humankind today, to be in the world, but remain of Christ, to have courage to be “not of this world.” Thus, I would invite all not to rush in judging him, not to remain on the reality level of those who expect only politics from this meeting and want to exploit a humble pope for their human plans at all costs. If we don’t enter into the spiritual reality of the Holy Father and do not discern together with him the action of the Holy Spirit, we shall remain imprisoned by the prince of this world and his followers. Then, for us, this will become a meeting that occurred but didn’t happen. Speaking of the signed text of the Joint Declaration, in general it is positive. In it are raised questions, which are of concern to both Catholics and Orthodox, and it opens new perspectives for cooperation. I encourage all to look for these positive elements. However, the points which concern Ukraine in general and specifically the UGCC raised more questions than answers.
It was officially reported that this document was the joint effort of Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) from the Orthodox side and Cardinal Koch with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from the Catholic side. For a document that was intended to be not theological, but essentially socio-political, it is hard to imagine a weaker team than the one that drafted this text. The mentioned Pontifical Council is competent in theological matters in relations with various Christian Churches and communities, but is no expert in matters of international politics, especially in delicate matters such as Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Thus, the intended character of the document was beyond their capabilities. This was exploited by the Department of External Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is, first of all, the instrument of diplomacy and external politics of the Moscow Patriarchate. I would note that, as the Head of our Church, I am an official member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, nominated already by Pope Benedict. However, no one invited me to express my thoughts and so, essentially, as had already happened previously, they spoke about us without us, without giving us a voice.
Possibly the Apostolic Nuncio can help me understand the “obscure places” in this text and can explain the position of the Vatican in places where it is, in our view, not clearly formulated.
However, paragraph 25 of the Declaration speaks respectfully of Greek-Catholics and the UGCC is essentially recognized as a subject of inter-church relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.
Yes, you are right. They no longer seem to object to our right to exist. In reality, in order to exist and to act, we are not obliged to ask permission from anybody. The new emphasis here, of course, is that the Balamand Agreement of 1993, which Metropolitan Alfeyev has used until now to deny our right to exist, is now being used for its affirmation. Referring to the rejection of “uniatism” as a method of uniting Churches, Moscow always demanded from the Vatican a virtual ban on our existence and the limitation of our activities. Moreover, this requirement was placed as a condition, in the form of an ultimatum, for the possibility of a meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch. In the past, we were accused of “expansion on the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate,” and now our right to care for our faithful, wherever they are in need, is recognized. I assume that this also applies to the Russian Federation, where today we do not have the possibility of free and legal existence, or on the territory of annexed Crimea, where we are “re-registered” in accordance with Russian legislation and are effectively liquidated.
This change of emphasis is definitely positive, although essentially nothing new has been said. The recognition that “Orthodox and Greek Catholics are in need of reconciliation and of mutually acceptable forms of co–existence” is encouraging. We have been talking about this for a long time, and both Myroslav Ivan Cardinal Lubachivsky and His Beatitude Lubomyr frequently appealed to our Orthodox brothers with these words, but there was no answer. I hope that we will be able to foster bilateral relations with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), moving in this direction without interference from Moscow.
How would you comment on this statement: “We invite all the parts involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing peace. We invite our Churches in Ukraine to work towards social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation, and to not support any further development of the conflict?”
In general, I would like to say that paragraph 26 of the Declaration is the most controversial. One gets the impression that the Moscow Patriarchate is either stubbornly refusing to admit that it is a party to the conflict, namely, that it openly supports the aggression of Russia against Ukraine, and, by the way, also blesses the military actions of Russia in Syria as a “holy war,” or it is appealing first of all to its own conscience, calling itself to the same prudence, social solidarity, and the active building of peace. I do not know! The very word “conflict” is obscure here and seems to suggests to the reader that we have a “civil conflict” rather than external aggression by a neighboring state. Today, it is widely recognized that if soldiers were not sent from Russia onto Ukrainian soil and did not supply heavy weapons, if the Russian Orthodox Church, instead of blessing the idea of “Russkiy mir” (“the Russian world”) supported Ukraine gaining control over its own borders, there would be neither any annexation of Crimea nor would there be any war at all. It is precisely this kind of social solidarity with the Ukrainian people and the active construction of peace that we expect from the signatories of this document.
I would like to express a few thoughts on the phrase that encourages Churches in Ukraine “to work towards social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation, and to not support any further development of the conflict.” Churches and religious organizations in Ukraine never supported the war and constantly labored towards social peace and harmony. One need only to show some interest in the topics raised through the appeals of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations over the last two years.
Instead, the appeal not to participate in the protests and not to support its development for some reason strongly reminds me of the accusations by Metropolitan Hilarion, who attacked the position of “Ukrainian schismatics and Uniates,” practically accusing us of being the cause of the war in Eastern Ukraine, at the same time, viewing our civic position, which we based upon the social teaching of the Catholic Church, as support for only one of the “sides of the participants in the conflict.”
In this regard, I wish to state the following. The UGCC has never supported nor promoted the war. However, we have always supported and will support the people of Ukraine! We have never been on the side of the aggressor; instead, we remained with our people when they were on the Maidan, when they were being killed by the bearers of “Russkiy mir.” Our priests have never taken up arms, as opposed to what has happened on the other side. Our chaplains, as builders of peace, suffer the freezing cold together with our soldiers on the front and with their very own hands carry the wounded from the battlefield, wipe away the tears of mothers who mourn their dead children. We care for the wounded and for those who have suffered as a result of the fighting, regardless of their national origin, their religious or political beliefs. Today, more than ever, the circumstances are such that our nation has no other protection and refuge, except from its Church. It is precisely a pastoral conscience that calls us to be the voice of the people, to awaken the conscience of the global Christian community, even when this voice is not understood or is disregarded by the religious leaders of Churches today.
Your Beatitude, will the fact that the Holy Father signed such an unclear and ambiguous document not undermine the respect that the faithful of the UGCC have for him, given that unity with the successor of Peter is an integral part of her identity?
Undoubtedly, this text has caused deep disappointment among many faithful of our Church and among conscientious citizens of Ukraine. Today, many contacted me about this and said that they feel betrayed by the Vatican, disappointed by the half-truth nature of this document, and even see it as indirect support by the Apostolic See for Russian aggression against Ukraine. I can certainly understand those feelings.
Nonetheless, I encourage our faithful not to dramatize this Declaration and not to exaggerate its importance for Church life. We have experienced more than one such statement, and will survive this one as well. We need to remember that our unity and full communion with the Holy Father, the Successor of the Apostle Peter, is not the result of political agreement or diplomatic compromise, or the clarity of a Joint Declaration text. This unity and communion with the Peter of today is a matter of our faith. It is to him, Pope Francis, and to each of us today, that Christ says in the Gospel of Luke: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
It is for this unity with the Apostolic See that our Church’s twentieth century Martyrs and Confessors of Faith gave up their lives, sealing it with their blood. As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Lviv Pseudo-Synod, let us draw from them the strength of this witness, of their sacrifice which, in our day, at times appears to be a stumbling block – a stone which the builders of international relations frequently reject; yet, it is precisely this stone of Christ of Peter’s faith, that the Lord will make the cornerstone of the future of all Christians. And it will be “marvelous in our eyes.”
Interview in Ukrainian: Fr. Ihor Yatsiv