The historic meeting between the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Moscow is now old news to most of the world, but in Ukraine and among Ukrainian faithful, there is much trepidation. (And it certainly doesn’t help that the news media, largely ignorant of Church history, carried reports with much disinformation. Two examples will suffice. USA Today: “… the heads of the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches haven’t spoken since the Great Schism of 1054 shattered Christendom…” The New York Times: “Today, tensions still exist over Ukraine, where the Russians are suspicious of the Vatican’s influence over Greek Orthodox congregations, who are Catholic but who celebrate Mass according to Eastern traditions….”)
The leader of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Patriarch Sviatoslav, commenting before the meeting had voiced hope that it could be a “means for honest and open dialogue” and could send the “necessary signals… so that the aggression of Russia against Ukraine can cease and that a just peace may be achieved.” After the meeting took place, he stated: “From our experience, gained over many years, we can say that when the Vatican and Moscow organize meetings or sign joint texts, it is difficult to expect something good,” adding that the meeting was seen as “a spiritual event” by Pope Francis and as a political one by Patriarch Kirill. Indeed, Father Andriy Chirovsky writes (First Things, February 16): “Vladimir Putin desperately needed something – anything – to make Russia look good. So he sent the chief ideologue of the ‘Russkiy mir’ to this summit. The patriarch also had good reason to seek enhancement of his position as he jockeys for influence at the upcoming Great and Holy Synod of the Orthodox Churches in June.”
As far as the meeting’s Joint Declaration is concerned, Patriarch Sviatoslav says it was positive in that it raised issues “of concern to both Catholics and Orthodox,” but the points regarding Ukraine in general and specifically the UGCC “raised more questions than answers.” Paragraph 25 of the declaration recognizes the existence of Greek-Catholics, which is positive (as noted by the UGCC primate), yet it refers to “ecclesial communities” rather than a Church (as noted by Father Chirovsky).
It is paragraph 26 that is most problematic, according to observers. Here is its full text: “We deplore the hostility in Ukraine that has already caused many victims, inflicted innumerable wounds on peaceful inhabitants and thrown society into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis. We invite all the parts involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing peace. We invite our Churches in Ukraine to work towards social harmony, to refrain from taking part in the confrontation and to not support any further development of the conflict.” There is no reference to war, which is exactly what this “conflict” is; no mention of foreign aggression, which no one can deny. It must be noted that there is ample evidence Ukraine’s Churches have worked toward social harmony. The only Church missing from this striving toward peace has been the one affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate. As Father Chirovsky points out: “The Moscow Patriarchate has never condemned the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.”
And then there is paragraph 27, which expresses “hope that the schism between the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine may be overcome through existing canonical norms.” Myroslav Marynovych, vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, writes: “Well, this is longtime Vatican politics – to maintain contacts in Ukraine only with the ‘canonical’ Orthodox Church. So it is not difficult to imagine how negatively this paragraph will be received by the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches that are not in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. One can only deplore once again that in the Vatican’s view the principle of canon law takes on an absolute character with no regard to the distortions of truth and justice that are at its core.”
To be sure, we cannot know what the pope and the patriarch spoke about in their private meeting, but we pray that the Christians of Ukraine, like the Christians of Syria, are not forgotten. Today, as Mr. Marynovych pointed out, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church are being persecuted in Russian-occupied Crimea and eastern Ukraine. And yet, there is not a word about them in the Joint Declaration.
We recall the words of Pope Francis when he met on October 14, 2015, with Patriarch Sviatoslav, who told him about the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine due to the war in the east and shared information about the 1.5 million internally displaced persons. Assuring the UGCC leader of his prayers and support for the restoration of peace in Ukraine, the pontiff said: “Ukraine is in my heart and will always remain there.” We pray that is so.