KIEV, Ukraine — At only 44 years old, Ukrainian Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk is just about the youngest figure at senior levels of the Catholic hierarchy anywhere in the world.
Don’t mistake his youth for naïveté, however; as leader of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine during the country’s recent “Revolution of Dignity,” a populist uprising that left more than 100 people dead, he’s faced sterner tests than most prelates twice his age.
Typical of the Greek Catholic Church, Shevchuk blends strong doctrinal conviction – he was part of a conservative protest at the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome against an interim report he saw as too gay-friendly – with fiercely progressive instincts when it comes to good government, democracy, and Ukraine’s independence from Russia.
As parliamentary elections approach this week, memories of the pro-democracy movement that led to the fall of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, with the strong support of Shevchuk and the Greek Catholic Church, are almost ubiquitous here.
In Kiev’s main square, there are pictures of the victims, the youngest of whom was 17; several permanent and temporary memorials, as well as a small chapel built by the Greek Catholic Church but open to everyone; and arrays of flowers and rosaries hanging off trees, a constant reminder that leaves many passersby in tears.
Together with his predecessor Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, Shevchuk tried to support those demanding democracy, but also to reach out to police officers and military ordered to defend the Yanukovych government.
“We tended to all who were in the square,” Shevchuk said. “The police forces were an instrument of the government, but we saw them as human beings.”
The tragic events of last winter, Shevchuk said, put the Greek Catholic Church at the very heart of social life.
“God gave us the possibility to witness and preach the good news outside our churches,” he said.
Priests left their pulpits and went to Maidan Square, where they celebrated daily Masses, offered confession, gave the last rites to those wounded by the shooters, and – together with other Christian leaders, rabbis, and imams – accompanied people in prayer.
“Some have accused us of only assisting those protesting, which is nothing but proof of their ignorance,” Shevchuk said – a statement addressed above all to leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, who have given their support to Russia’s incursions into Ukraine.
Shevchuk took part in the recent Synod of Bishops in Rome on the family, but even there he couldn’t escape his country’s tensions with Russia.
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s department for external church relations, took part in the summit as an invited guest and used his speech to attack the Greek Catholic Church for its role in the revolution and in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Calling the speech “out of place,” Shevchuk said it produced a wide show of solidarity from others in the synod with Greek Catholics.
“As a result, I experienced a moment of great solidarity from my brother bishops and the pope himself,” he said.
Shevchuk was born in Ukraine in 1970 and in 2011, after the resignation of his predecessor, he became the youngest bishop to lead the largest of the 22 Eastern churches in communion with Rome.
He studied at the Don Bosco Center for Philosophy and Theological Studies in Buenos Aires, where he became close to then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today Pope Francis, whom he saw again during the Synod of Bishops.
Shevchuk spoke to a group of journalists Tuesday. Some excerpts:
You just got back from Rome, were you participated on the Synod on the Family. Can you share with us some thoughts on what went on?
Our small group had some outstanding personalities: Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, as well as Cardinals [Walter] Kasper, [Leopoldo] Sandri, and [Mauro] Piacensa. We were really disappointed by the Relatio post disceptationem because we thought it didn’t reflect the discussions held during the first week. It’s hard to say how it was created, but we all felt it didn’t represent us.
[The Relatio post disceptationem was the interim report released on Monday by a drafting committee within the synod. It caused a stir because of a new, more welcoming attitude towards gays and lesbians.]
Even Cardinal Kasper?
Why was there such opposition?
That document had some theological arguments, but it didn’t include the solid doctrinal teaching of the Church. First, the law of gradualism was included. Second, some sort of analogy [was made] between an ecumenical vision of the Church of Christ that, subsisting in the Catholic Church, also finds elements of salvation in other churches … [to] other kind of families. We discussed a lot, and we realized that neither can be used as a foundation for the new pastoral approach to those issues.
[There was also] the whole issue of homosexuality. Nobody in the main hall discussed or questioned the doctrinal foundation of the Catholic Church on this issue. Two or three fathers talked about the legalization of such unions by different states, but referring to some sort of lobbyist pressure against the Church.
No one suggested that we’re supposed to agree or accept this ideology or different doctrines on the issue. There was real disappointment with these paragraphs.
After the presentation, we had an hour of open discussion. I’m a teacher of moral theology, so I asked for the possibility to speak. My question was: Are we supposed to consider homosexual tendencies as a value on itself? A value which is supposed to be shared and received? My opinion: no.
What we have to consider as a value is the human person and we have to be aware that such a tendency causes a deep pain to the person. According to the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church, we have to treat this person in the correct way.
It was my statement, and the pope looked me in the eyes and he made a good sign to me.
Can you tell us how your small group voted on this issue when proposing amendments?
In our group, we voted to cancel that paragraph of the document. The issue was outside of our main topic of discussion, which was family and New Evangelization. And homosexuality has nothing to do with family or New Evangelization. We voted against including it in the document.
So when the time came for accepting the final document, you didn’t vote against the paragraphs that referred to homosexuality because you didn’t like what those two points said, but because they were included?
Absolutely, I didn’t want them there. We’re supposed to discuss homosexuality as an anthropological issue next year. So why was it there this time?
In the last 25 years you lived the development of independence, freedom, democracy in Ukraine. Was there something about the Maidan uprising that surprised or pleased you? And what do you hope will be the impact in the elections?
Half of my life, I lived in the Soviet Union. Half of my life, thanks be to God, I lived it in an independent country. What happened in Maidan reflects that we already have a new generation of free people. Twenty-three years ago we received our external freedom. And it was a chance, a possibility. And for years, millions of Ukrainians underwent a process of inner freedom and liberation, which is a moral and spiritual growth. It’s not easy to suddenly, be free.
In Maidan we had a whole generation that only knew freedom, which we didn’t have 10 years ago. It surprised me to see that free Ukraine being manifested in such a beautiful and strong way. No one will give up their freedom now. Post-Soviet Ukraine does not exist anymore.
Are you telling your people how to vote?
No. We’re telling them how to build a new society. We’re preaching on values, a divine moral law. We’re trying to foster freedom in our faithful, to help them be able to discern by themselves who’d be able to help them fulfill their aspirations, to discern who they can put their trust on to build the Ukraine society according to their vision, desires and needs.
[Since 2012, the Greek Catholic Church has had a policy that forbids priests to publicly support a particular politician or political party].
You mentioned a redefinition of the Church’s role in civil life. Do you fear it might be tempered if you join the European Union?
I have not a fear, but a hope. European values will change Ukraine in many ways, but we can also help them rediscover the European roots of Europe.
I can argue, who today would be able to give up their lives for the European values [as many did in Maidan]? Maybe for a better salary or a new iPhone some would. But for the values? They’ve became something very abstract for them, but not for us.
It’s a struggle not only for our freedom, but for Europe. If to maintain the economical convenience, some inhuman businesses prevail, overriding human dignity, the free people of Europe will be in great danger.