[Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part interview with Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. Part one, in which Shevchuk discusses the current situation in Ukraine, appeared yesterday.]
ROME – As the Vatican appears to be on the brink of an historic deal with an officially atheistic and Communist regime in China hostile to religious faith, the leader of a Church in Ukraine that has suffered more under Communist control than any other religious body on earth says he now embraces a philosophy of “dialogue at all costs.”
“We need to pursue dialogue at all costs,” said Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine in a Feb. 27 Crux interview.
“That can seem a bit crude, but really, what alternative is there to dialogue? Only confrontation, a war of sorts,” Shevchuk said.
“Today’s world doesn’t know how to dialogue, it only knows how to write on Facebook. Dialogue is mystery, it’s a sacrament of encounter. Dialogue is something to which I’ve been completely converted,” he said.
At the same time, Shevchuk said he deeply respects the perspective of clandestine and underground believers who’ve paid a price in blood for their fidelity to the faith.
“I have to say that in these situations, the clandestine church has a hard time understanding,” he said. “Its suffering flesh isn’t capable of running behind these initiatives. That’s not only understandable, but I’d say it merits respect.”
On the Vatican’s relationship with Russia, Shevchuk said his major concern is with the risk of things being manipulated for political gain.
“What’s the fear? It’s about instrumentalization,” he said. “We see a great risk that after every meeting, the other side tries to present the representative of the Catholic Church as its ally, without any discretion.”
The Ukrainian prelate said the key to avoiding that danger is tight coordination between the Vatican and the Church on the ground.
“What we need is truly intense communion, not theoretical, between our church and the Apostolic See, which helps this dialogue,” he said.
The following are portions of the Crux conversation with Shevchuk.
Crux: You referred to the painful history of your church, caused in part by being up against a hostile Communist regime for a long time. Do you think your experience has anything to say to the broader Church now, as the Vatican is reportedly on the brink of making a deal with China?
Shevchuk: That’s a difficult and complex question, but I’ll try to break it down and respond sincerely.
First of all, I remember the clandestine church [in Ukraine] very well. I became a Christian in these clandestine groups, and I discovered my vocation watching priests who, because of their faith, were imprisoned two or three times. It was a small community, but its entire existence was based on hope in the Lord. I also remember that in that time, no one had any idea how this would end, just like with this war, unfortunately. But my family taught me that the most difficult moments, the most painful moments, open the most intimate spaces for communion with God. Where it’s most difficult, God reveals himself in ways that are full, surprising, and authentic. If you truly believe, if you put your entire life in the hands of the Lord, this path isn’t in vain, because God will act in surprising ways.
Obviously, this experience of faith has nothing to do with diplomacy. It’s an experience that’s sincere, and sometimes a little naïve. It’s a faith that doesn’t know how to say ‘no’ or ‘maybe.’ For such a faith, you’re ready to pay a high price, because it touches something very fundamental in you. It’s a faith that doesn’t know how to make compromises. When you live in a society that says to you every day, ‘God doesn’t exist,’ but you experience in your existence that God’s there, between those two realities there is no compromise.
Obviously in those moments when we saw contacts between the Apostolic See and the Soviet Union, which tried to instrumentalize those contacts in order to demoralize the clandestine church, I have to say for us it was a test of faith. A schismatic group formed within the clandestine church that was called the “penitents.” They refused communion with the pope for that reason. My grandmother, the mother of my father, was part of that group. When Pope John XXIII was elected after Pius XII, this group, because of his invitation to invite observers from the Orthodox Church of Moscow, declared that he wasn’t a pope but an anti-pope. It was a challenge for the clandestine church. Thanks to God, for most of us our image of the pope wasn’t that of a diplomat, but the Vicar of Christ. As a child, I was taught that where the pope is, there’s the Catholic Church. In the clandestine church, it was an unconditional faith, a little naïve, but it gave you life and hope.
Now, having become the head of the church, I can understand better the level of international diplomacy, which is indispensable. Sometimes, in the moment, it can be the movement of the Holy Spirit – for instance, inviting our Orthodox brothers to join the journey to recover the unity of the community of Christ and so on. But for those of us in the Soviet Union at the time, we were frozen in that climate and we couldn’t align that with the entire global body of the Catholic Church. After the fall of Communism, it still was difficult to absorb the entire spirit of the Second Vatican Council into our communities, because thawing out these groups of the clandestine church wasn’t easy. For example, when I grew up I was taught that if you set foot in an Orthodox church, you had to go to confession. That was already an anachronism at the time, and I now see you couldn’t go forward that way. But in a situation of persecution, that’s how we lived.
There’s something of a parallel with the situation in China. I can’t put myself in a position to judge [the reported agreement], because I don’t know all the details. In my view, however, dialogue has to exist. That was the core of the so-called Ostpolitik, which was criticized, including by us and my great predecessor, [Cardinal] Josyf Slipyj. As a result, I decided I need to study this famous tactic of Cardinal [Agostino] Casaroli [a senior Vatican diplomat responsible for relations with the Soviet sphere under Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.] There are two important points to remember right now. The first is that we need to pursue dialogue at all costs. That can seem a bit crude, but really, what alternative is there to dialogue? Only confrontation, a war of sorts. Today’s world doesn’t know how to dialogue, it only knows how to write on Facebook. Dialogue is mystery, it’s a sacrament of encounter. Dialogue is something to which I’ve been completely converted. Dialogue, as Pope John Paul II said, heals wounds and helps to change hearts. If that will be the case in China, I don’t know, but you have to give value to dialogue.
The second principle, which also we here in Ukraine don’t always understand, because the diplomacy of the Vatican has been criticized, is this: ‘Always neutral, but never indifferent.’ Neutrality means always remaining above the conflict, precisely for creating space for mediation and dialogue. If the Apostolic See exercises the Petrine ministry like a universal referee, it’s part of the ancient tradition of the Church, all the way back to the first millennium. The pope was the last court of reference for local conflicts. To have the possibility of being a referee, it has to stay above the conflict. Evidently, this isn’t easy, because all sides want to draw it onto their side. That’s true of us too in Ukraine, because we’ve wanted to draw the Holy Father onto our side strongly, against the aggressor. But the mentality of neutrality gives you the possibility to act. However, that never means indifference. I don’t believe the Holy See is indifferent to the suffering of the clandestine church [in China], but it also can’t negate the possibility of pursuing whatever dialogue it can with the authorities and the Patriotic Church.
I have to say that in these situations, the clandestine church has a hard time understanding. Its suffering flesh isn’t capable of running behind these initiatives. That’s not only understandable, but I’d say it merits respect.
I remember that after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a big discussion over church property. A tripartite commission was created among the Holy See, our church, and the Patriarchate of Moscow to negotiate. I remember that the head of the clandestine church walked out. ‘I can’t negotiate,’ he said, ‘the pain of my people, I simply can’t.’ This was a courageous step, which blocked the dialogue because the group wasn’t able to go ahead. In that moment, you could see that he didn’t have any other way to manifest the feelings of pain of his people, because the arguments of the powerful had begun to count for more that the suffering of the people of the clandestine church.
That’s why this is so difficult!
Would you apply the same lens when you see the pontificate becoming closer with Russia?
Our experience after the Declaration of Havana [referring to the Joint Declaration of Pope and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow after a meeting in Havana in February 2016] helped us to understand things better, and to make ourselves better understood. Let me explain.
Above all, these meetings, in my view, are indispensable. What alternative is there? I think that this dialogue, this opening, is a source of hope for restoring peace and resolving many conflicts, including ours in Ukraine. We’re very grateful that in this dialogue, our voice has also been heard. It’s not that they’re negotiating behind our backs, and I’m a witness to that. Often, we’ve asked for mediation, since we can’t resolve these problems in bilateral dialogues.
But, this dialogue also raises fears. I’m not saying that anybody should be naïve about that. What’s the fear? It’s about instrumentalization. We see a great risk that after every meeting, the other side tries to present the representative of the Catholic Church as its ally, without any discretion. That’s a problem. That’s why there’s a certain fear, because we pastors and bishops in Ukraine have to explain what’s happening to the people.
I said to the Holy Father, ‘It’s hard to explain what I don’t understand myself!’ He said, ‘I understand perfectly.’
What we need is truly intense communion, not theoretical, between our church and the Apostolic See, which helps this dialogue. We’re very happy that this is happening. It also gives us the possibility to make our voice heard, including at the international level. I remember that after the perplexity about Havana, I had to make a few tough declarations, which made everybody wonder, ‘Who are these Greek Catholics? What are they thinking?’ These things sort of become propaganda, a chance at promotion … and it’s free publicity!
We’re truly disposed to dialogue, not for selling everyone on our position, but to explain it, to make ourselves known and understood. No one has a monopoly on interpreting the truth. We’re servants of the truth. If there’s a deep, sincere, and open communion, the truth will be present and witnessed to in the best possible way.