In the face of the Russian invasion, local Churches are united and show "creativity," says the director of the Ecumenical Institute of Lviv.
In the face of the Russian invasion, local churches are united and show “creativity,” says Pavlo Smytsnyuk, director of the Ecumenical Institute of Lviv, in west Ukraine, a predominantly Catholic city, in an interview with I.MEDIA.
Currently on a trip to the United States, he’s in daily contact with his Ukrainian colleagues, both Catholic and Orthodox. The upheaval caused by the war is calling into question the affiliation of many Ukrainian Orthodox parishes to the Moscow Patriarchate.
How have the churches in Ukraine reacted since the beginning of the offensive?
Smytsnyuk: It’s a shock for all the Churches, which are therefore forced to be creative in dealing with the crisis. They’ve all condemned this aggression, each with their own statement. There was also a strong statement from the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Communities, which includes Jews and Muslims. All these bodies defend the integrity of Ukraine. We have never seen such solidarity among the Churches in Ukraine.
They’re also adapting at the practical level. The Greek-Catholic seminary in Kiev, where I teach, has gone into exile in Lviv, with the students coming from central and eastern Ukraine, which is in the midst of the most intense fighting. For the moment, priests and seminarians are not obliged to mobilize.
Is this war likely to change the already complex landscape of Orthodoxy in Ukraine?
Smytsnyuk: I think so, because we can see that the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, and Primate Onuphry, the Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which remains under the jurisdiction of Moscow, are not saying the same thing. The Patriarch of Moscow is sending mixed messages. He has called for civilians not to be harmed, but he has not denounced the war. When he defends “the unity of holy Russia,” he uses the same language as Putin and Lukashenko.
On the contrary, Onuphry condemned the war and explicitly asked Putin to stop the offensive. This is a big change, because his Church has always emphasized this notion of the Russkiy Mir, the “Russian world,” with the idea of a civilization united by a single culture. It is therefore going through a moment of crisis.
The Russian Orthodox Church has always thought of itself as cosmopolitan. Patriarch Kirill claims to have a Church that exercises jurisdiction beyond the territory of the Russian State, towards Ukraine, Moldavia, Belarus, and even as far as Japan. It is therefore a Church that is not national, but rather pluralist and cosmopolitan. But today its position is in unison with the Russian authorities. The future of the Ukrainian branch is therefore uncertain, and many believe that it will break away.
A condemnation of the war by Patriarch Kirill, as part of the Orthodox clergy hoped, would have saved the communion of this Ukrainian Orthodox Church with Moscow. But now that will be very difficult.
So the movement of autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox could accelerate as a result of this war?
Smytsnyuk: Ukrainian Orthodoxy is divided into two churches: one which is part of the Russian Church, and the other autocephalous (independent), created by Constantinople in 2019.
At the moment, since 2019, between 400 and 600 Orthodox parishes of the Moscow-affiliated Church have joined the Autocephalous Church, for a total of about 1,000 parishes. This is many fewer than the Patriarchate of Constantinople had imagined, but current events will probably accelerate these changes in parish jurisdiction.
And beyond that, some theologians are even starting to talk about a Council of Union, to reconstitute the unity of an Orthodox Church of Ukraine independent of Moscow. In recent days, meetings of clergy from several dioceses linked to the Russian Church have called for independence from Moscow. This movement is now supported by their bishops.
Until now, this process initiated under the leadership of former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko seemed too political, and many Orthodox priests were suspicious of this instrumentalization. But with this new context, the changes in jurisdiction will accelerate.
Might a Russian victory be accompanied by violations of religious freedom?
Smytsnyuk: Yes, of course, this scenario of detachment of the Orthodox Church from Moscow would only apply if independent Ukraine wins the war. On the other hand, if Russia sets up a puppet government in Kyiv, it cannot be ruled out that the new authorities will prevent the activities of an autocephalous Orthodox Church, just as those of the Catholic Church.
Already under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president in power from 2010 to 2014, there were threats to the Greek Catholic Church. For example, the Catholic University in Lviv, where I teach, was having difficulties with the Ministry of Education. So if Russia takes over Ukraine, the new Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholics will be persecuted.
In this context of war, can we speak of an “ecumenism of charity” in Ukraine today?
Smytsnyuk: At present there are many small initiatives, especially to help refugees, but this is not yet part of a global coordination. At the level of the Catholic Church, Caritas organizes regional centers, but the Orthodox Church has fewer charity networks.
There are beginning to be gestures of solidarity on an international level. At the European level, the Conference of European Churches (CEC), which brings together mainly Protestants and Orthodox, has sent a very courageous message asking the Russian army to return to Russia. The World Council of Churches (WCC), for its part, had issued a rather neutral statement, at first. The Moscow Patriarchate is still represented in these bodies, which influences the way they react.
The other Orthodox Churches have also shown their solidarity. As for the Holy See, it has been very cautious, but I think it’s working towards a peaceful solution, as the symbolic gesture of Pope Francis’ visit to the Russian embassy suggests.
Vatican diplomacy traditionally acts in a more discreet way, but I remember that in the time of John Paul II, Cardinal Etchegaray was often sent to crisis situations. Today, one could also imagine that the pope would send a cardinal to Russia, to Belarus, and especially to Ukraine, to show his solidarity.