Patriotism, Secularism, and Eastern-Rite Identity in Ukraine

Today, an historic meeting between Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and Pope Francis takes place in Havana, Cuba. The Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC), largely at the center of the tensions between the ROC and Rome, at times finds herself struggling against nationalist and secular influences. While certainly not as widespread as the ROC falsely claims, nonetheless these influences may not only threaten to dilute the UGCC’s Christian identity, but may also complicate the ecumenical work of Pope Francis. The Catholic (Universal) Church is the Bride of Christ—charged first and foremost with evangelizing the world, calling all to growth in holiness, and defending each individual’s transcendent dignity as made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, the faithful will be impoverished and scandalized—not enriched—when the identity of any Catholic institution is usurped by ethnic passions.

For the particular Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC), as for all Eastern rite churches, the liturgical dimension of life is of crucial, identifying importance. The very language of the Liturgy, the prayers of the faithful, and the activity of this particular church leaves no doubt for which nation and which people the UGCC prays as an expression of her particular piety—even as she also prays for and witnesses to people regardless of ethnicity. A fundamentally important element of Greco-Catholic identity is its unity with the pope of Rome. That is its identity.

It is impossible to separate liturgical life from daily life for Eastern Catholics, and this manifests itself in all aspects of life outside the physical bounds of a church: saint’s days, all sacramentally related activities, the liturgical calendar, crossing oneself when passing a church or other holy place, the multi-sensory aspect of the Liturgy itself, the greeting “Glory Be to Jesus Christ!” rather than the mundane “hello,” etc. Contrast this to the situation in the United States, for which periods of the year are generally based on major league sports or ecological seasons; in Ukraine it is the Liturgical Year that largely contextualizes seasonal time—influencing even civil life. The “liturgy of life” with which a society resonates profoundly influences its identity, hence what it values.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

In this context, sensitivity and understanding ought to animate the encounter with the long-standing (at times, debilitating) fear of the “Latinization” of Ukrainian Greco-Catholic spiritual life, and the admittedly demoralizing effects of Pope Paul VI’s policy of ostpolitik in dealing with the realities of believers under former communist regimes. The dilemma the Holy See faced was whether to resist or negotiate, and the potential risks and sacrifices each presented. Negotiation or “dialogue” was chosen with its concomitant silence regarding persecuted Christians, in the hope that worse evils would not be provoked. In other words, the various particular Catholic churches (of which the UGCC was by far the largest) and other churches and denominations were forced underground into a lonely catacombed existence, with its believers facing constant persecution and repression.

While this policy served well the view of “progressive” Western Catholics who viewed ostpolitik as a necessary means for reconciling the Church with the so-called “human face of communism,” those in the East who were left to fend almost for themselves under communism viewed it as a direct betrayal. That the Eastern Catholic rites were not … well … Western, only exacerbated and complicated the sense of betrayal—including the experience of Ukrainian Greco-Catholics in the United States, where they suffered humiliations and limitations upon their particular Eastern practices (such as priestly celibacy, pressures to “Latinize,” and the ownership of church property).

Quite close to Ukrainian Catholic University’s (UCU’s) collegium (dormitory) is the traditional wooden Church of the Blessed Martyrs, whose cornerstone was blessed by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Ukraine in June 2001, and whose symbolism rejecting ostpolitik was lost on no one. Nonetheless, perhaps prompted by angst over the upcoming meeting of Pope Francis with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana and a statement by the Holy Father last year, Greco-Catholic believers can’t help but sense their particular church may be thrown under the ecumenical bus:

[T]he pope has been careful to avoid taking sides on issues like Ukraine, where he has never defined Russia as an aggressor, but has always referred to the conflict between the government and Moscow-backed rebels as a civil war. That approach is intended to ensure he remains more credible with countries like Syria, Russia or Cuba, all nations where Francis feels he can help local Christians best by steering an independent course.

In this regard, statements made last year by Pope Francis, perceived as under the influence of the so-called “Putin Factor,” angered Major Archbishop Shevchuk:

The Head of the UGCC, His [Beatitude] Sviatoslav Shevchuk, expressed regret that the Pope of Rome Francis called the war in Ukraine “fratricide,” noting that the words of the Holy Father particularly painful and “a reminder of Soviet propaganda”… [Shevchuk] emphasized that what is occurring in Ukraine is not an internal civil conflict but that present is external aggression from Russia. The Head of the UGCC also expressed regret that during his statement to the Ukrainian bishops [on their quinquennial visit ad limina apostolorum] the Pope did not concretely name Russia but merely called the “situation a difficult conflict.”

To be fair, Pope Francis has voiced strong support for the UGCC. In a recent article, George Weigel summarized what the UGCC faces: an almost constant barrage of vile hatred directed against it by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)—the latter which led the charge in helping Stalin to drive the former underground and usurp its property. Can one imagine Pope Francis telling Catholics in the United States that they are no longer obligated to obey the “godless” American authorities—in effect, using religious faith to instigate betrayal? Yet Patriarch Kirill, Head of the ROC, did just that—officially making the proclamation on 24 May 2015 in a direct challenge to Ukrainian sovereignty. Such a drastic—if not desperate—act has the potential not only to complicate Ukraine’s ability to defend itself militarily against Russian aggression, but will provide Moscow a further means to block Ukraine’s moves toward Europe, regardless of what happens on the battlefield.

The UGCC is not the only particular church in Ukraine deserving of the pope’s attention and care, especially regarding the nationalistically-driven bullying of the ROC. Unfortunately, some UGCC commentators apparently forget this. For example, Andrew Sorokowski recently wrote: “[Ukraine’s] three Orthodox Churches and its Greco-Catholic Church all belong to a single K[yi]van-Byzantine tradition that can serve as a source of values for the new post-Maidan Ukrainian nation.” This is not the full story. There is another quite substantial Greco-Catholic Church in Ukraine which also suffered terribly at the hands of Soviet authorities, as did the Roman Catholics—both particular churches which contribute to the “values” and Ukrainian ethnic identity. The Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Mukachevo, which is not part of and significantly older than the “single K[yi]van-Byzantine tradition,” traces its roots directly to Saints Cyril and Methodius. Those of the Kyivan-Byzantine tradition ought not to consider themselves monopolists over what counts as either Ukrainian or Greco-Catholic—especially since their own identity was targeted for destruction by the Soviets. Yet, in two otherwise excellent articles, Fr. Andriy Chirovsky and Bishop Borys Gudziak—both academics and, hence, should know better—also fail to mention either the Ukrainian-Ruthenian Catholic or Ukrainian-Roman Catholic churches.

To a greater or lesser extent, the faith among Eastern Catholics and the various Orthodox denominations in Ukraine is susceptible to phyletism—a danger not so surprisingly inherited from the Russian Orthodox Church, whose deeply-ingrained nationalism provides volatile fuel in support of Putin’s anti-Western insecurities. This is ironic: whereas a good portion of Ukrainian Greco-Catholics are on the lookout for any threats of “Latinization,” they seem less concerned with the mixing of political themes with religious symbolism. The closeness of Eastern Christianity to its particular churches can be problematic, because the faith tends to become too closely identified with the ethnos: the latter risks becoming substantive rather than remaining accidental. Fr. Peter Galadza identifies the difficulty Eastern Catholics face as the typical reactionary response of emerging minorities: “sometimes cloaking themselves in a hermeneutic of differentiation, in which theology ends up being taught over [and] against allegedly ‘competing’ theologies.” He then notes,

[E]ach particular Church manifests in its own area and in all of its initiatives the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church, rather than a part thereof. Consequently, these particular Churches … are now challenged to become kat holon in the sense of bearing Christ’s message and mission comprehensively. Ethno-centric, phyletistic ecclesiologies are thus unmasked as fundamentally heretical, with the result that a local church now called upon to act “universally” must generate a theology congruent with this message and mission. Eastern Catholics have only begun thinking and acting more universally in holistic, not partitive, fashion.

This difficulty is evident, for example, in another article by Sorokowski, in which he quotes a Fr. Mykolaizhak from a 1919 message to military chaplains in his capacity representing the State Secretariat for Military Affairs of the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic: “If your hearts burn with true love for Ukraine, for this Ukrainian people enslaved for ages, it is not you, but this burning love that will speak and act.” Sorokowski then recounts the historical precedent for chaplains to serve the pastoral needs of soldiers in Western Ukraine, which is good. However, it is Sorokowski’s conclusion that is potentially problematic: a chaplain might correctly counsel against any temptation to torture because of the human dignity of one’s enemy. But, if the enemy is viewed merely as “not Ukrainian,” then what is the basis for their dignity? Sorokowski suggests “[military] priests [should be] devoted to Ukrainian independence” and hence the defense against an invading Russia will “reinforce[e] their patriotism and resolve to build a strong, independent Ukraine.” But should that be the primary objective of a Ukrainian military chaplain?

Stating what one hopes should be obvious, salvation does not come from Ukraine or being Ukrainian. Maybe this is why there is a problem—in Western Ukraine in particular—with the blasphemous slogan “Ukraine Above All!” prominently displayed in public, including the top-left corner of the traditionally democratically minded national news television station “Channel 5.” Of course, none of this is to suggest that the defense of Ukraine in the face of clear Russian territorial annexation, continued aggression, and an on-going invasion isn’t justified. The “Just War” formulation in CCC 2302-2317 clearly supports this. Nonetheless, the issue is clear: from what does the legitimization of a “Just War” and defense of one’s country flow? From what we are as created in the image and likeness of God, or from being Ukrainian?

Jesus PosterAt times, religious and nationalist sentiments form a volatile mixture in Eastern Christianity, and Ukraine is no exception. Consider the photograph (January 2015) of a crèche outside the beautiful Church of St. Andrew in L’viv. The words behind St. Joseph read “Praying for Ukraine” with soldiers silhouetted below. The words above the figure of the Blessed Virgin read: “Glory to God in the Highest and Peace to All in Ukraine,” and “Ukraine is One” on top of a relief map of Ukraine. Can one imagine similar words adorning a crèche in the West? It seems ironic that Ukrainians rightly complain the ROC is too close to the Russian government, while themselves—albeit to a significantly lesser extent—engage church and state in a similar fashion. When Pope Francis enjoined priests to “smell like the sheep” (meaning: be that close to your flock), he likely did not have in mind support for political movements—although it is admittedly difficult to separate Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity from the peoples’ political aspirations.

More troubling is a poster that was temporarily displayed at the Fulbright Representative Office in Kyiv, entitled “God Speaks with the Voices of the People,” by Ukrainian artist Andriy Yermolenko. As a crude misappropriation of an icon of Christ to support violence (holding a rock and a Molotov Cocktail), it is an affront to the great number of peaceful protestors on the Maidan. Moreover, any possible justification based on the Christ cleansing the Temple of money-changers is a non-starter, for the Gospel account has nothing to do with political aspirations but with keeping God’s Temple holy.

Perhaps most outrageous, for it violates the canonical and cultural integrity of a church, is the cultic depiction—as saints in iconic style—of members of the Maidan “Heavenly Hundred” on the interior walls of the UGCC Church of the Mother of God of Perpetual Help in L’viv. In this painting, one observes the “saints”: on the left side Ukrainian soldiers, a medic and protesters are depicted with halos, holding an AK-47, a riot shield and a Molotov cocktail. On the right side are images depicting the “sinners”: the Head of the ROC—with dollar signs on his cowl, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Russian soldier, and an Eastern Ukrainian pro-Russian fighter, facing a saint holding a parchment that reads “Judgment of God is Near.” Note that the freedom fighters and sinners are located directly below the twelve apostles, which in Eastern Christian iconography ought to be the space reserved for declared saints. In a British news video on this issue, the Vice-Rector for Administration and Development of the Ukrainian Catholic University, Mr. Myroslav Senyk, asserted “Little attention was given to the deeds of ordinary people who deserve indeed to be among the saints because they sacrificed their lives—there could be nothing more important than to give your life. That is why I think it’s a very good idea.” Apart from the canonical violations, Senyk seems to have missed the irony of criticizing the ROC by depicting violence on the interior walls of a church.

Church Painting

The Church’s mandate cannot be reduced to supporting political sentiments or movements, and neither can it be reduced to teaching people how to pray, but to lead them to authentically Christian lives by growing in holiness. In his “Faith and the Future,” then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) noted, “We have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers. It is utterly superfluous. Therefore, it will destroy itself.” In that same book he also noted: “The future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality.”

In this same spirit, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk understands perfectly what the loss of Christ in our hearts would entail (including secularization pressures), and he brilliantly reminded his flock that Christ cannot be replaced by anything—including love of country. Patriotism—that is, identity with one’s own people—must be animated by a Christian understanding that, through the Cross, refocuses love for country through the lens of love of neighbor. It is a turning outward to others—not a turning inward to idols:

The duty of Christians in our day—the Head of the [UGCC] believes—is to heal our social consciousness, to fill the understanding of patriotism with a truly Christian content. Christian patriotism does not exclude anyone, for its goal is the common good, and hence is inseparable from responsibility. It is a virtue that can be and must be developed, being perfected in love of neighbor.

In other words, His Beatitude calls upon his flock to embrace the wisdom of Saint Thomas More: “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Again, it is a pointed question of priorities: “Are you Catholic first, or Ukrainian?” Only if Christ is first can a peoples’ identity be transfigured by Grace. Calls for fighting corruption (which, by current accounts, Ukraine appears to be losing), calls to “desire greatness” without conversion, or doing nothing by hiding behind appeals to spiritual or academic “freedom” in the face of homosexuality, pornography, economic corruption, abortion, etc., without first supporting real change in individuals (read: repentance and conversion) will fail.

(Photo credit: Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church, meets with Pope Francis on March 5, 2016: CNA / L’Osservatore Romano)


  • Alexander R. Sich

    Alexander R. Sich is Professor of Physics and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has twelve years of professional experience in nuclear safety and non-proliferation abroad, primarily in Ukraine. For the 2014-15 academic year, Dr. Sich was a Fulbright Teaching and Research Scholar at the Ukrainian Catholic University. He earned his doctorate in nuclear engineering from MIT and a Master’s in Soviet Studies from Harvard University and a second Master’s in philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...