As it turns out, Friday has been a “best of times, worst of times” sort of day for Ukrainians watching pro-Russian rebels trying to devour a portion of the eastern part of their country. They observed a tragic anniversary, but also got a significant, if indirect, boost from Pope Francis.
On one hand, Friday marked one year since the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, after a missile attack that Ukrainians believe was carried out either by the rebels or the Russians themselves. The anniversary capped a week that’s brought the heaviest fighting since a February cease-fire was signed in Minsk.
Also on Friday, however, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has approved a “decree of heroic virtue” for Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky, who led the Greek Catholic Church from 1901 to 1944, and is considered by many Ukrainian Catholics to be the greatest figure in the modern history of their church.
That decree entitles Sheptytsky to be referred to as “Venerable,” and opens the door to his eventual beatification and canonization as a saint.
For sure, the logic for which Francis — or, for that matter, any pope — would sign such a decree is fundamentally pastoral. They believe the figure in question lived a holy life, and can serve as a role model for other believers.
In context, however, there’s also a clear political edge. In effect, Francis has signaled to Ukrainian Catholics that he supports them and to the Russians that he won’t be cowed.
By way of background, the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine has long been among the most important pro-democracy forces in the country, trying to galvanize the Western powers to stand up to Russian aggression. Naturally they’ve wanted help from the politically influential Francis, and they haven’t always felt as if he’s delivered.
Back in February, the pontiff irritated many Ukrainians by referring to the conflict as “fratricidal,” as if it were an internal struggle rather than the result of outside aggression. At the time, Anatolij Babynskyj, editor of a prominent Greek Catholic journal, said the comment “shows the ignorance of the pope about the situation in Ukraine.”
Babynskyj blamed “pro-Russian forces at the Vatican” for distorting the pope’s view.
That’s what makes the news about Sheptytsky important for Ukrainians, because it signals that the pontiff does, indeed, have their backs.
Born in 1865, Sheptytsky came from a distinguished Catholic family. His term as head of the church spanned two world wars and seven different regimes. He was first nominated a bishop by an Austro-Hungarian emperor, and finished his life under the Soviets.
By most accounts, Sheptytsky was a man ahead of his time. He studied Hebrew to better relate to Ukraine’s Jewish community, and when he visited villages, he typically was greeted both by the priest and the local rabbi. During World War II, he sheltered 150 Jews in his residence and his monasteries, and he also produced a pastoral letter denouncing Nazi atrocities.
Sheptytsky was also a strong Ukrainian patriot and, during an era in which Ukrainians did not have their own political leadership, many saw him as the de facto father of the country. The National Museum in L’viv, one of the country’s largest collections of Ukrainian art and culture, was founded by Sheptytsky in 1905 and today bears his name.
Yet controversy long has surrounded Sheptytsky because be welcomed the German invasion of Ukraine in 1941, initially hoping it would free the country from Soviet domination. On that basis, the Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem has refused to acknowledge him as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
Sheptytsky quickly soured on the Nazis, even forbidding his flock in 1942 under pain of excommunication from taking part in their war crimes. Russian propaganda, however, has long exploited the controversy in an effort to discredit his church.
Sheptytsky’s sainthood cause was launched in 1958, under Pope John XXIII, but it stalled at the request of the late Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński of Poland. A staunch Polish nationalist, Wyszyński feared that making a saint out of Sheptytsky could not only provoke the Russians, but also impugn Poland’s on-again, off-again history of colonizing Western Ukraine.
That 57-year logjam has angered Greek Catholics, for whom Sheptytsky’s case for a halo is a slam-dunk. The delay can only be explained today in terms of not wanting to upset either the Russian government or the Russian Orthodox Church, an important interlocutor for the Vatican in the quest for greater Christian unity.
By now, there are three generations of Ukrainian Catholics who have ground their teeth over what they see as an injustice driven by an excess of political caution. A 1997 editorial in The Ukrainian Weekly captured that frustration by asking, “Will the Vatican do the right thing?”
Those Ukrainians likely won’t forget it was Pope Francis who finally moved the ball. A Sheptytsky Institute in Canada, reflecting the sentiments of the Ukrainian diaspora, issued a statement on Friday saying that “during this time of foreign aggression against Ukraine … the recognition brings particular consolation.”
If it’s a mistake to conclude that the primary reason for which Francis signed off on Sheptytsky’s decree was political, equally it would be naïve to think this savvy Jesuit pontiff wasn’t aware of its political dimension.
The fact he didn’t let that stop him may well tell Ukrainians everything they wanted to know about where he stands.