On July 5-6, 2019, a delegation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) met with Pope Francis at the Vatican to discuss, among other things, the state of the Church in Ukraine. Headed by its de facto Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the delegation examined the unique situation of the UGCC, not just in Ukraine but around the world, while also extending a formal invitation to Pope Francis for him to visit Ukraine in the near future.
With a Russian-backed war still plaguing the eastern region of the country, Shevchuk hopes that a pontifical visit will help bring an end to the conflict, though he did not offer much in the way of details. It is well-known that Francis has kept up friendly ties with the Russian state and the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Perhaps the Ukrainian leader believes that Francis could bring some diplomatic weight to bare on the matter.
A Patriarchal Church?
Although Shevchuk’s official title is “Major Archbishop,” for the UGCC’s adherents in Ukraine and around the world, he is the Church’s Patriarch. It was the late Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, who spent 20 years in a Soviet prison for refusing to renounce the Catholic Faith, who took it upon himself to be the UGCC’s Patriarch despite protests from the Russian Orthodox Church and ecumenists in Rome. The Orthodox position is that the UGCC’s very existence is illicit and recognizing it as a patriarchal church would represent a blow to Catholic/Orthodox ecumenical relations. From the UGCC’s perspective, however, it is already a patriarchal church in practice, with 34 dioceses around the world. The days of the UGCC being a provincial church are over.
Nevertheless, it appears that Francis is hesitant to make any public gesture toward the UGCC that would further inflame the Russian Orthodox. Moreover, there are some in the UGCC who believe that Rome still looks upon it as an embarrassment or stumbling block to ecumenism. The “Uniate Model” whereby Eastern Christian communities that had broken communion with Rome over the centuries could restore ties with the Catholic Church is frequently derided, leading to the unspoken policy that Rome would prefer Eastern Christians to remain in the Orthodox fold rather than become Catholic. According to this “ecumenical mindset,” the UGCC should not even exist.
Sainthood for a Metropolitan
In addition to Pope Francis visiting Ukraine and Rome recognizing the UGCC as a Patriarchate, Shevchuk hopes that the day is soon at hand when Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky’s cause for canonization will advance. Sheptytsky, who led the UGCC from 1901 to 1944, was declared Venerable by the pope in 2015 for living a life of heroic virtue. During his tenure as Metropolitan, Sheptytsky worked to improve educational standards for clergy in western Ukraine; helped restore lost liturgical norms and practices; and sought to elevate the UGCC’s standing in the country against the backdrop of two world wars.
With an eye toward the future of Catholicism in the East, Sheptytsky—with the blessing of Pope St. Pius X—laid the groundwork for the Russian Greek Catholic Church while seeking unity with the Eastern Orthodox in Ukraine. Sheptytsky dreamed of forming a single Ukrainian Church in communion with Rome, thus bringing an end to the Catholic/Orthodox divide that had plagued the region for centuries. While this dream did not come to pass, Sheptytsky’s belief in authentic Catholic/Orthodox unity rather than permissive separation animates the UGCC to this very day.
In addition to his ecclesial work, Sheptytsky also exercised considerable influence over Ukrainian society in his day and helped hide Jews from Nazi persecution when the Germans occupied Galicia (western Ukraine) during World War II. Although some have attacked Sheptytsky for his qualified embrace of the German invasion, this was only due to his hope that the Germans would be able to drive out the occupying Soviet forces which had sought to eradicate any Catholic presence in Ukraine. Once he became aware of the atrocities the Nazis were perpetrating against Ukraine’s Jewish communities, he publicly condemned the behavior; forbade any Greek Catholic from assisting Nazis in the persecutions; and ordered UGCC clergy and religious to hide Jewish families.
A Promising Though Uncertain Future
Since being released from official communist suppression in 1990, the UGCC continues to grow in its historic homeland while also ministering to Greek Catholics the world over. With higher average church attendance and birth rates than Ukraine’s splintered Eastern Orthodox communions, the UGCC is arguably the healthiest Christian religious body in the country. Now that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has fractured into three uneven pieces—one in line with Moscow; one in line with Constantinople; and one acting independent of both—it is possible that Christian souls starved for stability will begin seeking out the UGCC. Such a move would no doubt anger Moscow, which believes that Ukraine is its rightful territory.