Fr. Andriy Chirovsky: Russian Orthodox Church Gets a Verbal Victory Over Vatican on Ukraine

New Pathway.

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia held a much-anticipated meeting in Havana, Cuba on Friday, February 12. After a brief meeting with the media, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill had a 2-hour long meeting and signed a joint declaration. The declaration, which covered a broad range of issues including the relationships between the Catholic and Orthodox churches and the persecution of Christians around the world, contained three paragraphs (#25, 26 and 27) directly related to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Prior to the meeting, many Ukrainian Catholics were quite wary about its possible outcomes. On February 11, Rt. Rev. Mitred Protopresbyter Andriy Chirovsky, S.Th.D., founder and first Director of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (Faculty of Theology, Saint Paul University, Ottawa), published an article on with a telling title: “As Pope and Russian patriarch meet, Ukraine fears a ‘shaky’ Vatican”. The Ukrainians’ suspicions about the Vatican’s position were instigated when, in February 2015, Pope Francis said that there is “horrible fratricidal violence” in Ukraine while it is a known fact that at the root of that violence is the Russian invasion in the Donbas.

The New Pathway spoke with Fr. Chirovsky about the meeting and the declaration. Fr. Chirovsky called the meeting “very nice” and continued: “The words exchanged by the Pope and the Patriarch were courteous, gentle and spiritually beautiful, especially those from the Pope.” Fr. Chirovsky, however, noticed certain signs that, probably, suggested that the Catholic side went further in its offer of amity between the two churches: “It was interesting to note that afterwards, when the delegations were introduced to the two leaders, none of the Orthodox bishops or archpriests kissed the hand of the Pope. Some of the Roman Catholic bishops and priests, who were present and introduced to Patriarch Kirill, did kiss his hand. There is a general asymmetry.”

Fr. Chirovsky applied the same notion of asymmetry in the relationship between the two churches to the declaration and referred to the paragraphs 25-27: “That comes out in the joined declaration too. Most of the joint declaration is beautiful. It is good, Christian language about peace, Christian morality, about protecting Christian values. In the latter parts of the declaration, paragraphs 25, 26 and 27, the language in itself is very uplifting, but requires some analysis.”

Paragraph #25 of the declaration says: “It is our hope that our meeting may also contribute to reconciliation wherever tensions exist between Greek Catholics and Orthodox. It is today clear that the past method of “uniatism”, understood as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its Church, is not the way to re–establish unity. Nonetheless, the ecclesial communities which emerged in these historical circumstances have the right to exist and to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful, while seeking to live in peace with their neighbours. Orthodox and Greek Catholics are in need of reconciliation and of mutually acceptable forms of co–existence.” Fr. Chirovsky comments: “The patriarch of Moscow now unequivocally recognises that Greek Catholics have a right to exist and function. The problem is the reference to “ecclesial communities”. If the reference had been to “Eastern Catholic Churches”, it would have been much better. In Catholic terminology there are churches and there are ecclesial communities. The Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council recognised the Orthodox Churches as churches but referred to protestant communities as “ecclesial communities”; that is communities that have something to do with church but are not quite church. So, this reference is very troubling.” Fr. Chirovsky went on: “The definition of uniatism is also a little troubling because it defines it as the union of one community to the other, separating it from its church. It would be difficult to claim that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was just a ‘community’ that was separated from its church since this was an effort lead by the bishops, the hierarchy. It was a movement of the majority of hierarchy and it’s not just some ‘community’ being ripped out of the Orthodox Church in order to create this ‘uniate’ body.” At the same time, Fr. Chirovsky said he was “glad that the Orthodox saw that “Orthodox and Greek Catholics are in need of reconciliation and of mutually acceptable forms of co–existence”, as this has been the desire of Ukrainian Catholic Church for a long time”.

Paragraph 26 of the declaration speaks about the war in Ukraine, albeit in the terms that could be gently called unclear: “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.”

Fr. Chirovsky puts his comments very directly: “It is not mentioned in this paragraph that Ukraine is the victim of foreign aggression. Anyone except for Russia recognises that Crimea was annexed by Russia illegally after an aggressive invasion. When it comes to the Donbas, it’s not everyone that recognises this, but most people recognise there is an enormous Russian presence in Ukraine which puts this at a level of foreign aggression. It is not just hostility in Ukraine as if it were internal or some sort of civil war. That term “civil war” is not used, the deplorable term “fratricidal conflict” is not used, but neither is Russia as an outside power mentioned. So again, the Russians got their way with paragraph 26.”

Fr. Andriy Chirovsky commented the words that “We invite our Churches in Ukraine … to refrain from taking part in the confrontation” and mentioned Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Russian Orthodox department for external church relations, words during his February 5 press-conference that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church fomented this conflict: “Of course anyone in the UGCC hierarchy would say that a priest or a lay person that spreads hatred towards Russia is doing a bad thing. But does this paragraph only outlaw that or does it actually obliquely say that the UGCC should not participate in supporting Ukraine’s legitimate right to defend its own territorial integrity and its freedom? Also, I hope the Russian orthodox need to see that this refers to them as well. Blessing weapons, clergy wielding weapons, cries of ‘Orthodoxy against the West’ by Russian Orthodox need to stop.”

And, eventually, paragraph 27 speaks about the issues related to the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches: “It is our hope that the schism between the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine may be overcome through existing canonical norms, that all the Orthodox Christians of Ukraine may live in peace and harmony, and that the Catholic communities in the country may contribute to this, in such a way that our Christian brotherhood may become increasingly evident.”

Fr. Chirovsky believes that the paragraph contains a condemnation of those Ukrainian Orthodox who are not abiding by “canonical norms”: “The Moscow Patriarchate continually labels Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church as uncanonical, schismatic, without Divine Grace and unable to offer their faithful salvation. This is a fallback onto the position that only the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate is canonical. One might hope that this paragraph says that the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople will assert his jurisdiction over Ukraine as the daughter Church of Constantinople and help bring about Orthodox unity in Ukraine. But that would be reading between the lines and even reading into the text, because it is not stated anywhere here. As it is stated, the most straightforward way to interpret this seems to be that the Pope of Rome is agreeing that the Ukrainian Churches must abide by Moscow interpretation of what is canonical. And that is very unfortunate if it is true. At the February 5th press-conference one other accusation that was thrown at the UGCC by Metropolitan Hilarion was that they support the “schismatic”. As I mentioned in my article for Crux, by support they must mean that we don’t put them down or attack or revile them, or that we call them uncanonical or without Grace, but that we cooperate with them. Of course, from Moscow’s standpoint, we should shun the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate, but that is not what the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church has been doing, that is not what we are going to do. And we know what we need to do.”

Fr. Chirovsky noted that, in this interview he spoke as an individual scholar and did not represent the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. He said that the declaration as a whole made him “very happy”, but the three paragraphs in question made him “very unhappy”. He called the three paragraphs “a verbal victory on the part of the Russian negotiator of the document” and said that “the people from the Vatican, who worked on this document, were either inattentive or they sold out to the Russian Orthodox Church.” “I think that Pope Francis is too shrewd to be outmaneuvered or tricked by the other side, but unfortunately the negotiators, who work for Pope Francis, are not up to the job,” added Fr. Chirovsky.

On February 14, the Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Sviatoslav Shevchuk expressed a similar opinion: “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.” His Beatitude Sviatoslav continued: “Undoubtedly, this text has caused deep disappointment among many faithful of our Church and among conscientious citizens of Ukraine. … Nonetheless, I encourage our faithful not to dramatize this Declaration and not to exaggerate its importance for Church life.”

Fr. Chirovsky concludes: “This sort of document is something that bureaucrats and church functionaries love to quote. I expect that it will be cited against us by Moscow in some outrageous ways. That has never stopped us or altered our mission in the past. Why should it now?”