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from issue no. 09 - 2003

CASES. The possibility of a Greek-Catholic patriarchy in Kiev could block any dialogue

Beware the Ukrainian earthquake

by Gianni Valente

Archbishop Josyf Slipyj meeting John XXIII after his liberation, 10 February 1963

Archbishop Josyf Slipyj meeting John XXIII after his liberation, 10 February 1963

There is a “drifting mine” that could shatter relations between Rome and Moscow for a long time to come, and they are already in pretty poor shape after more than a decade of recurring “ecumenical” freezes. It is the possible recognition of the rank of patriarchy to the Ukrainian Catholic Church of oriental rite, in a phase of expansion after years spent in hiding under the Soviet regime.
The “patriarchal” claim of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics has for decades been a sore spot in the tangled affairs of Catholicism and Orthodoxy in eastern Europe. In the period of Vatican Ostpolitik, in order not to disturb the initial dialogue with the Orthodox hierarchies, the issue was frozen by high spheres in the Vatican. The “ecumenical taboo” did not prevent the unruly Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, exiled in Rome after eighteen years in concentration camp, from proclaiming himself patriarch in an impromptu ceremony in St Peter’s Basilica in 1975. But without Vatican recognition the ploy led to nothing, even if Slipyj continued to sign the documents he issued with the title of patriarch, and “pro-patriarch” prayers have existed since then in the liturgies celebrated by Greek-Catholic Ukrainian priests.
In recent months the leadership of the Greek-Catholic Church has given clear signs of wanting to reopen the issue and overcome resistance in one thrust. At the plenary meeting held in Kiev in July 2002, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic synod unanimously decided that the stage of development achieved by their Church of itself entailed recognition of the patriarchal title and asked the Pope to sanction the process. Since the summer of 2002, even if slowly, the construction of a Greek-Catholic cathedral has been going on in Kiev, where already in the April 1994 the Greek-Catholic synod set up (with Vatican approval) an archiepiscopal exarchate. (Precisely the new archiepiscopal exarchate of Odessa-Krym, set up last 28 July with territory taken from the exarchate of Kiev, has aroused the most recent anti-Vatican protests by spokesmen for the patriarchy of Moscow).
The avowed aim (even if declared in a whisper) is to shift the center of the Greek-Catholic Church to the Ukrainian capital, moving there the residence and the titular see of the major archbishop, till now situated in Leopolis, in western Ukraine. And from there, in a still more commanding position, keep up the pressure to get the yearned-for recognition from the Vatican.
The Ukrainian offensive has already had significant repercussions in Vatican City. On 6 February last the patriarchy issue was, for the first time in history, discussed during a meeting of Curia cardinals, the heads of important Vatican departments, convoked ad hoc by John Paul II. Reservations on the recognition came in particular from the German cardinals Kasper and Ratzinger and from the cardinal of Eastern Rite, Ignace Moussa I Daoud, Prefect of the Vatican Department that deals with the Eastern Churches. While the Cardinal Secretary of State, Angelo Sodano, is said to have shown a certain openness. But even the less enthusiastic responses made appeal to criteria of timeliness and prudence, rather than to firm objections in principle. And for that matter, as also established by the Council decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum, the Pope can recognize with his own motu proprio the patriarchal rank of a Church without having to get the consent of other ecclesial authorities to the recognition. A circumstance that explains the pace set by the Ukrainian Catholics leadership so as to settle the issue quickly: the Polish Pope and his entourage know the concerns of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church well from their geo-cultural proximity. While an eventual successor coming from other shores might be less responsive to their request.
It doesn’t take much to foresee the ecumenical earthquake that could be triggered off by Vatican recognition of a Greek-Catholic patriarchy in the Ukrainian capital. Orthodox irritation on the point has roots that go back more than a thousand years. In Kiev, in 988, Grand-duke Vladimir was baptized by Byzantine missionaries, an event that marked the beginning of the conversion to Christianity of the distant Slav peoples of those lands. In Kiev the first metropolitan see was established, the titular bishops of which were in the early centuries appointed by the Church of Byzantium, which was still in communion with that of Rome. Moscow did not even exist at the time.
By aiming at Kiev, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics are claiming to be legitimate heirs of the baptism of the Rus of Kiev. They look up and stress the episodes in the tangled history of the Christianity of those parts in which bishops and community now and then reconfirmed their communion with the distant bishop of Rome, the only feature that now distinguishes them from the Orthodox. Like the business of the Greek metropolitan Isidore of Kiev, who at the Council of Florence (1439), was among the leaders of the momentary reunification of the Eastern Churches with the Church of Rome, even managing in 1441 to read the proclamation of union in the Moscow Basilica of the Annunciation, before the Czar had him stopped and expelled.
The eventual Greek-Catholic patriarchy in Kiev opens the way to a formidable reinterpretation of the religious history of the former tsarist empire which sees in the Greek-Catholics the legitimate descendents of the Rus of Kiev. In this reinterpretation their communion with the Pope is also made to date back to the original plantatio Ecclesiae in those lands, when the Church was still one and the bond of unity with the successor to Peter had still not been put into crisis by historico-political contingencies. In this way the common belief that the beginning of their ecclesial history was the union of Brest Litovsk, the act whereby in 1596 some Ukrainian and Western-Russian bishops reaffirmed their union with Rome. And their whole history is “rid” of the inconvenient label of Uniatism, the policy, denounced by the Orthodox, with which the Church of Rome began in the modern age to attract diocese and splinters of the Eastern Churches into its own orbit.
But in the eyes of the Orthodox Russian hierarchies such a prospect appears inevitably as a blow to the heart of their own Tradition. A delegitimization of their own canonical authority, founded on the fact of being the acknowledged heirs of the first Christian baptism of the peoples beyond the Dnieper. With the re-establishment of an eventual patriarchy in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital city reaffirms its nature as primatial see, with the implicit demotion of Moscow to “affiliate branch” which took center stage only because of a variety of contingencies linked to the history of the Russian Empire.
In the face-off for the contested inheritance, something destined to rekindle age-old ecclesial-national rancors, the Holy See is called upon to exercise all its proverbial prudence. In the on-going unofficial “negotiations” with the Greek-Catholic hierarchy, the conjectured compromise solution would take the form of the recognition of the patriarchy but without the see being “transferred” to the Ukrainian capital. A ruse conceived to make the inevitable irritation of the Orthodox Russians less devastating from the ecumenical point of view. As if to say: patriarch yes, but far from Kiev.

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