February 15, 2019

New opportunity for Ukrainian Catholic Patriarchate emerges from creation of OCU


Anatolii Babynskyi, a research fellow at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in Toronto.

OTTAWA – The establishment of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) could help pave the way for the Holy See’s recognition of a Ukrainian Catholic Patriarchate, according to a Ukrainian church historian. 

“The main problem for the recognition of patriarchal status was that Moscow would be angry about it,” said Anatolii Babynskyi, a research fellow at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in Toronto, in an interview with The Ukrainian Weekly. 

However, in light of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s formal granting of ecclesiastical independence to the OCU in early January, “the Vatican can say to Moscow today we can have an ecumenical dialogue about the Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate. And what concerns Ukraine, we will speak with the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic Churches and not with you,” explained Mr. Babynskyi, a 39-year-old native of Ternopil, Ukraine, who is completing his Ph.D. thesis at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv on the topic of the patriarchal movement within the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council. 

The OCU brought together the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) and two metropolitans from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which was previously the only canonically recognized Orthodox Church in Ukraine. There are now two such Churches, after Metropolitan Epifaniy, the new primate of the OCU who was previously a bishop with the UOC-KP, was given the Tomos, or decree, that gave the new Church autocephalous status.

The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGCC) also has a primate – Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the metropolitan of Kyiv-Halych, who is officially the Church’s major archbishop but who is also recognized by clergy and faithful as patriarch – a title first applied to the late Cardinal Josyf Slipyj.

Mr. Babynskyi, the former editor-in-chief of the Lviv-based Patriarchate magazine, said that Vatican recognition of a UGCC Patriarchate would be more likely if the OCU expresses no objection to it.

“The primates of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic and Orthodox Churches have already met, and Patriarch Sviatoslav said they decided to prepare a roadmap for both Churches on how to establish better relations,” he noted.

But the establishment of a formal UGCC Patriarchate could be years down the road, said Mr. Babynskyi, who spoke about the consequences of the OCU’s autocephaly on January 29 at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Shrine in Ottawa.

The OCU is still in the process of organizing, and Mr. Babynskyi, a past editor with the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, estimated that it could take five years before there is one united Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

The biggest obstacle remains with the bishops of the UOC-MP, who don’t want to join the new Church. 

“There are three parallel hierarchies in the [OCU], and the process of uniting them into one legal body is under way,” said Mr. Babynskyi. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church that splintered off from the Moscow Patriarchate when Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 still exist, and have their own bishops who will have to be folded into the new OCU. 

“For example, in Lviv, there are three Orthodox bishops: one in the Kyiv Patriarchate, one from the autocephalous Church and one in the Moscow Patriarchate. So they have to unify the structure because there should only be one Orthodox bishop in a city, according to Orthodox canon law,” he explained. 

In terms of numbers of parishes, the UOC-MP remains the largest Orthodox Church in Ukraine, with between 11,000 and 12,000 churches, said Mr. Babynskyi. He noted that the new OCU has about 7,000 parishes. 

He expects the merger of the UOC-KP and the UAOC into the OCU will take at least a year.

“We don’t have a lot of examples of three Orthodox Churches in one country in Eastern Europe. It’s a unique situation,” he said. “When other Churches were granted autocephaly, they usually had only one Church in a country.”

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine is the 15th autocephalous Church in a global community of 300 million Orthodox believers.

However, the new Church has yet to be recognized by the other 13 autocephalous Churches, including the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Bulgaria and Moscow, and the Orthodox Churches of Greece, Poland, and the Czech Lands and Slovakia.

The OCU also faces a challenge regarding jurisdiction.

In January, former Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst wrote on the Atlantic Council blog that the Tomos states that the new Ukrainian Church has jurisdiction only in Ukraine. “This means that Ukrainian Orthodox parishes outside of Ukraine will be under the Ecumenical Patriarchate,” he wrote. 

“This is a nice gift to Constantinople and a reminder to all of the meaning of the adjective ‘byzantine.’ The insistence that parishes outside of Ukraine must fall under the Ecumenical Patriarch will not be welcome by Ukrainian believers, and many such parishes may not go along. These complications are a reminder that the Tomos is one more step – critical to be sure, but just one step – in the emergence of a united and independent Ukrainian Church,” Ambassador Herbst pointed out.

But Mr. Babynskyi believes the unification of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is important from a nationalist perspective, whereby the country gains greater distance from Russia, at a religious level and from a practical level to meet the needs of Ukraine’s Orthodox adherents, who represent about 65 percent of the country’s population of 48 million people.

“The main problem has been pastoral,” he explained. “Ten or fifteen million Ukrainians were without the communion of other Orthodox people in different countries before [the OCU] was granted canonical status from Constantinople. Yet Moscow still denies the use of the name ‘Christian’ for Ukrainian Orthodox who are not members of the Moscow Patriarchate.”

One of the most heartbreaking and widely reported consequences of this religious divide occurred early last year when a priest from the Moscow-led Church refused to bury a baby crushed by a man who was reportedly drunk and committed suicide by jumping out of an eighth-floor apartment in the central Ukrainian city of Zaporizhia. 

The Orthodox funeral rite was declined because the baby was baptized in the Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate. “The priest said our baby was unchristened and our Church was a sham,” Roman Polishchuk, the infant’s father, told the Ukrainian news site ForPost.

Mr. Babynskyi said that, although that was the “most awful” example of anti-Ukrainian Orthodox discrimination, there have been “thousands” of other instances where members of the UOC-KP and the UAOC have not been viewed by the UOC-MP as true Christians.

“But the Moscow Patriarchate had 30 years to resolve the problem and did nothing,” he said.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which rejected the canonical status conferred on the OCU when Metropolitan Epifaniy received the Tomos from Patriarch Bartholomew in an elaborate January 6 ceremony at St. George Cathedral in Istanbul, has severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Ukraine’s bid for autocephaly of its Orthodox Church began during the Ukrainian national revolution when a separate Church was established in 1921 without canonical recognition, according to Mr. Babynskyi. “The struggle has lasted almost 100 years, and today those people have an autocephalous Church.”

He said the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church headquartered in Kyiv sends a direct message to hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow.

“They have always said that this ‘great’ Russian Church started in Kyiv and later moved to Moscow,” said Mr. Babynskyi. “So when this new Ukrainian Church is independent from Russia, it’s like losing a part of their history.”

(The Metropolitanate of Kyiv and all Rus’ was under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. It traces its beginnings to 988, when Volodymyr the Great, the grand prince of Kyiv, declared Christianity the state religion of Kyivan Rus’.) 

Given continuing heightened tensions between Kyiv and Moscow regarding Russian-backed hostilities in Ukraine’s Donbas region, there is also a political dimension to the emergence of the OCU.

“For many Ukrainians – Orthodox, Catholics, non-believers and even Muslims – it is seen as helping to protect national security,” Mr. Babynskyi said. “The Moscow Patriarchate was like a channel of Russian influence on Ukraine. We know very well that the relations between the patriarch of Moscow [Kirill] and the president of Russia [Vladimir Putin] are very close, and the place of Ukraine in their world view is mostly the same.”

To ensure that the separation from Russia is clear, Ukraine’s Parliament passed a law on December 20, 2018, that requires Churches whose “head office or administration” is situated in an “aggressor state” to re-register under a new name within four months. That will likely mean that the Moscow Patriarchate Church in Ukraine will be known as the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, as Patriarch Filaret, primate of the UOC-KP, said last October in an exclusive interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Mr. Babynskyi said he expects the OCU will be used by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and others in the current campaign leading up to the March 31 presidential election to illustrate a tangible example of Ukrainian sovereignty. 

The “danger,” as Mr. Babynskyi outlined, is that politicians might wish to cast the OCU as a state Church and most of the bishops of the new entity could concur with such a view. “The bishops want to have support from the state, and the politicians want support from the Church come election time,” he said. “So they are using each other.”

However, speaking at the enthronement of Metropolitan Epifaniy on February 3, President Poroshenko stated that the OCU “is and will be separated from the state.” The UNIAN news service quoted him as underscoring: “There will be no state-controlled Church in Ukraine. This constitutional principle has been in force and will remain in force.”