[Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part interview with Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. Part two, in which Shevchuk discusses a possible deal between the Vatican and China and also relations with Russia, will appear tomorrow.]
ROME – According to the head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, the conflict unfolding in the country that’s left more than 11,000 people dead and some two million internally displaced isn’t fundamentally a civil war fueled by foreign aggression, but a struggle between two projects for the future – one a step forward into Europe, the other a step back into the Soviet Union.
“It’s a conflict between two projects of development,” said Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, in a Feb. 27 Crux interview.
“Ukraine made its choice and wants to go ahead. Instead, the other countries, for example the Russian Federation, have decided to go back — that is, to restore the glorious Soviet Union, with all its symbols and its way of using arms to achieve its geopolitical goals,” he said.
“Unfortunately, this provoked the clash that we’re living through now.”
Despite some initial criticism from Greek Catholics of the Vatican about Pope Francis’s response to the conflict in Ukraine for being overly deferential to Russia, Shevchuk said by now he’s convinced the Vatican “gets it.”
“They understand the situation very well,” he said. “I’m convinced that the Apostolic See not only is well-informed, but that it knows well what to do with this information.”
Shevchuk also said that the Russian-backed offensive in Ukraine is a classic example of a “hybrid war,” in that it involves not only military force, but also disinformation and the dissemination of “fake news.”
“Recently, when Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin [the Vatican Secretary of State] was in Moscow, he spoke of the inadmissibility of manipulation of the information that comes from these zones,” he said.
“For that reason, the local Church is committed to telling the truth,” Shevchuk said.
The Ukrainian prelate noted that the European Community has set up several working groups on the situation in the country, “in part to decipher the disinformation that comes from the Russian Federation.”
Even measured against the galaxy of fascinating characters that populate the Catholic Church in various parts of the world, Shevchuk’s is a compelling story.
Born in 1970, he came of age in Ukraine’s clandestine Catholic community in the era of Soviet occupation, marked by a faith so fierce that merely setting foot in an Orthodox Church was considered a sin that needed to be confessed immediately. His own grandmother was part of a schismatic Catholic group that regarded St. Pope John XXIII as an “anti-pope” for allegedly cozying up to their Soviet oppressors.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Shevchuk came to Rome, where he earned a doctorate in theology at the Dominican-run Angelicum University in 1999, and from 2002 to 2005 he was secretary to Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, his predecessor as head of the largest of the 23 Eastern churches in communion with Rome.
From 2009 to 2011, he was first an auxiliary bishop and then bishop of the Greek Catholic community in Argentina, living in Buenos Aires. During that time, he became friends with the city’s Latin archbishop, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known today as Pope Francis. (Shevchuk even picked up some Porteño, the dialect of Spanish used in Buenos Aires, which he’ll occasionally sprinkle into conversations.)
Shevchuk sat down with Crux at the Basilica of Santa Sofia in Rome, built in the late 1960s at the request of Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, the then-leader of the Greek Catholic Church who had spent twenty years in a Soviet gulag. It served until 1991 as the “Mother Church” for Greek Catholics while the Cathedral of St. George in L’viv, their traditional center, was under the control of the Russian Orthodox.
Francis visited Santa Sofia on Jan. 28, in what was seen as an important show of papal support for the Greek Catholic Church.
The following are portions of the Crux conversation with Shevchuk.
Crux: What’s the current situation with the conflict in Ukraine, and how is the Church living this moment?
Shevchuk: That’s a complicated question. I have to say that this conflict, which started in 2014, isn’t finished. There’ve been many negotiations, at all levels … international, diplomatic, etc. This ‘Minsk Process’ was launched. [The reference is to a 2014 agreement signed by Russia, Ukraine, and two breakaway self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine calling for a halt to the war.] Then, the churches became active in an effort to mediate the situation and to relieve the suffering.
So far, however, we don’t see an exit strategy, and that’s a great burden. How are we supposed to go on? These are existential questions. Ukraine as a country is living through a period of great instability. Obviously, every country that’s attacked, which lives through open war, feels insecure.
From a social, economic and political point of view, Ukraine is living through a very difficult period. The principal cause of this situation, which today is called with the name of ‘Ukraine,’ began when the Ukrainian people, Ukrainian civil society, launched a new national project of development. This isn’t a national myth of history, as always happens today in Eastern Europe, but a social project of development that’s called “Europe.” Ukraine, finally, has decided to become a true European country, not in the sense of European origins, but in its mode of organizing social and political life and the use of power.
You say Ukraine has made this choice. Is it shared by the people?
Certainly, yes. At a certain point when you might have said the country is dead, this society was born that aspires, believe me, to embrace European values. Obviously, this provoked a great discussion in all the territories of the ex-Soviet Union. It’s a territory linked mentally and linked through a painful 20th century. Therefore, I’d say this conflict in Ukraine isn’t a civil conflict and external aggression, and it’s not an ethnic or religious conflict. It’s a conflict between two projects of development. Ukraine made its choice and wanted to go ahead. Instead, the other countries, for example the Russian Federation, decided to go back. That is, to restore the glorious Soviet Union, with all its symbols and its way of using arms to achieve its geopolitical goals. Unfortunately, that provoked the clash that we’re living through now.
For this reason, the words that best describe the situation are ‘pain’ and ‘instability’. What’s been attacked isn’t just Ukraine as an independent nation, but international security. Today, due to the war in Ukraine but also in Syria and other places, no one feels secure. All the ways of stopping aggression by a large country against the smaller ones have been destroyed. Remember John Paul II’s formula: it’s either the force of law, or the law of force. That’s been completely set aside.
Now, to become a true and proper European country, Ukraine is passing through a period of internal reforms. It’s been said that Ukraine has covered more ground in the last three years than in the 25 years previously. It’s an internal restructuring of life, in all spheres – the economy, public health pensions, the way of handling the armed forces. In my view, the situation is a bit like an athlete running a marathon while at the same time undergoing open-heart surgery! First of all, you have to try to survive. Obviously, if it can somehow survive the operation and win the marathon at the same time, it’ll be a great hero! But above all, you have to survive.
What’s the Church’s role?
To begin with, we’re a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Our church made its choice 400 years ago, which is to be a church of the people and with the people. In our painful history, there were periods when a Ukrainian state didn’t exist, and the church was the lone social institution for our people. As a result, our primary interlocutor has always been the people, not the state power. Now, that choice is being actualized. When this conflict began, our church put ourselves by the side of those who are suffering.
Let me give you a couple of examples to help you understand the situation we’re living with today. According to official statistics, Ukraine today has around two million internally displaced persons. These are people who, for reasons of survival, were forced to leave the zone occupied by the Russian army and the Crimean Peninsula, and who moved to the interior of the country. But who worries about these two million people? To make a comparison, one million Syrian refugees have arrived in Germany, and that almost brought down a government. For sure, the Ukrainian economy isn’t comparable to that of Germany.
Indeed, with the Russian invasion, we’ve lost 25 percent of our industrial capacity. Donbas is a great mining zone, and of heavy metallurgy. It’s in economic collapse … in 2014, the Ukrainian currency traded against the U.S. dollar at 8-1. Today, it’s 28-1. Yet no one hears about the collapse of the Ukrainian economy caused by these two million displaced persons.
Who gives them a hand? It’s the great solidarity of Ukrainian society, animated by the church.
When you say, “the church,” you mean the Greek Catholic Church, or all churches in Ukraine?
Above all, I’m speaking of my church, because we put in motion all our mechanisms to relieve the suffering. The largest national organization that exists in the country [to provide aid] is Caritas Ukraine, which is an organization of the Catholic Church. It’s assisted hundreds of thousands of refugees. Obviously, we look for effective ways to help people, not simply in terms of giving them food and clothing, but to integrate them into Ukrainian society.
The other way of acting in Ukrainian society is to help ferment this transformation of the country. I always make a comparison. Two weeks ago, our council of the churches in Ukraine held a meeting with the ambassadors of the famous ‘G7’ countries. We talked about the reforms, above all the fight against corruption, which is the greatest problem in post-Soviet societies. I used this image: When a child has a toothache, the mom takes him to the doctor because the child trusts his mom, even if it hurts. Likewise, there are some reforms that are painful, and it’s the church, like a good mom, who carries the people to the doctor, and the people trust it. They don’t trust the political powers, they don’t trust the structures of the state, but they trust the church. We have an enormous credit of trust, I’d even say too much sometimes, that it’s exaggerated. Often, the hope and imagination that’s projected onto the church is too demanding, but that’s both a great asset and also a great responsibility.
When we speak, meaning the Catholic Church of both traditions, the Byzantine and also the Latin, we see that the social doctrine of the Church is a treasure that we have to share with Ukrainian society. Recently I made a series of television programs to talk about social justice – a fair and just wage, the principles of a social economy, etc. I cited the famous encyclical of Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, on the three nodes of a just society: Civil society, including workers; the state and government; and the world of business. Each one has its own responsibility, and if the world of business is combined with that of the state, then we simple citizens are left out. That’s the root of the enormous corruption which one can see in Ukraine. The leaders of the Communist Party in the past have seized the great majority of the goods of the state for themselves. Now, they’re pursuing their own political aims and are commanding the government. But civil society in Ukraine is rising up. The social revolt we call the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ was a moment when this civil society manifested itself, animated by European values. It was a protest against corruption at the state level, which confirmed the country’s choice for Europe.
You believe a strong majority of Ukrainians want this European transformation?
Look, it’s always hard to speak about a ‘strong majority.’ It’s hard to understand these preferences. In every society, there’s an active part and a passive one. In the last 25 years of Ukrainian independence, an active nucleus has been formed in the middle class. These are those who’ve been born and raised in an independent Ukraine, young people aged 25-30 who move in this society. They’re becoming the protagonists of the society. They’ve yet to reach the level of the political elites, who still date from the time of the ex-Soviet Union. But this group right now is creating a new Ukraine.
Obviously, there still exists a group of people who are nostalgic, you’ll always have that, like the Israelites in the desert dreaming of the onions of Egypt! But these aren’t the ones who are moving this society. It’s this nucleus, which has affirmed this European choice spontaneously but in a very clear way. They’re also convincing others to get moving. For this Church, this is a challenge, because this group doesn’t come out of the ecclesiastical world, but we’re in contact because they understand that the religious factor is important. They understand that the old ideology doesn’t work, but the existential questions always remain. They want to listen, not just to the Catholics, but also the Orthodox, the Protestants, also Jews and Muslims, all of whom are part of this group.
You said earlier that people don’t see an exit strategy from the conflict in Ukraine. In your view, what should that exit strategy be?
According to me, there’s no military solution to this conflict, even if the countries near Russia want to impose themselves, or their project of return, with arms. In today’s world, it’s hard to impose your will through brute force. In my view, this is a weak card to play, like Pope Francis says. My predecessor, Cardinal [Lubomyr] Husar, also always said that those who impose themselves by force are more afraid of a free people than a hungry people, because you can buy hungry people with bread. But a people that’s free in their hearts, you have to kill. That’s why I’m convinced that arms won’t resolve this conflict. I think it has to be clearly seen that the only solution is diplomatic.
The international community needs to understand clearly that the war in Ukraine isn’t just a Ukrainian problem. It’s an international conflict. That was understood in the Process of Minsk, which involved not only Russia and Ukraine but also Germany and France. There’s also the Normandy Format, where the United States was also involved. It’s clear that it’s an international conflict. Therefore, I’m convinced that there are diplomatic instruments to stop the violence. They’re far more effective than other means.
We as the Church, and I’d also say civil society, both in Ukraine and in other countries, it’s clear they don’t want a war. Our countries, Ukraine, Belorussia, Russia, and the other countries of the ex-Soviet Union, remember a song written right after the end of the World War II, which goes, “It doesn’t matter what happens, as long as it’s not a war.” This refrain constantly comes to mind. The problem is that the powerful of this world see wars like a computer game, but the ordinary people absolutely don’t want it.
Do you think the Church ought to have a seat at that diplomatic table to speak with the various actors, especially given the trust it enjoys with the people?
In reality, the Catholic Church in Ukraine, along with the Orthodox churches and the Protestants, we’re the provocateurs and animators of peace, for a lot of reasons. We see people suffering, and before speaking of other questions, the churches say, ‘Enough! Stop shooting. If you keep shooting constantly, all the humanitarian effort in the world won’t be enough.’ The Catholic Church, together with the other churches, is the spokesperson in Ukrainian society of these people who are crying for peace.
The Catholic Church is a big, beautiful church, I’m proud to be Catholic! That’s not only because we have strong credibility in the country, but we’re a ‘catholic’ Church, meaning a global Church, universal. I see three levels at which the Catholic Church is strongly committed to the search for peace.
What are they? First, obviously, there’s the local church in the country, which is closest to the people and has an authoritative voice to interpret the situation. It’s what many call a ‘hybrid war,’ including a war of disinformation. Recently, when Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin [the Vatican Secretary of State] was in Moscow, he spoke of the inadmissibility of manipulation of the information that comes from these zones. For that reason, the local Church is committed to telling the truth.
Then there’s the second level, which is communion and solidarity with the other local Catholic churches. For example, why is our Caritas capable in such an effective and rapid way to respond to this humanitarian situation? I call what we’re experiencing a ‘humanitarian catastrophe,’ and we’re able to respond because of a close collaboration with Caritas in other countries. That’s not just true in Europe, but the whole world. There’s an international work, and we’re in continual contact with bishops’ conferences in Poland, in France, in Germany, in the United Kingdom, the United States, the whole world.
When the pope announced a special collection for Ukraine, even more than a humanitarian help to us, it was an informational help. It made all of Europe wake up. I remember talking to some people in Germany and in France, ‘Isn’t that war of yours over? What’s the pope talking about?’ The newspapers don’t talk about it anymore. If you have to take up a collection, that’s an act of information too. If you ask people to give something, we too have to give them information. For us, it was a month of incredibly hard work, because we prepared a brochure and other sources of information with images, statistics, and so on. That’s an example of our international network of solidarity.
There’s also a third level, which is the Holy See and the pope, who are truly spokespersons for peace. The Holy See is a great mediator, and for us that’s very important.
Are you convinced that by now, the Holy See understands what’s happening in Ukraine? Three years ago, Pope Francis angered many Ukrainians when he described the conflict as “fratricidal” rather than the result of a foreign invasion. Has that gap in perspective been closed?
They understand the situation very well. Sometimes, it takes a little time to enter into the question, and we also have to say that Russian propaganda often does its job! By now, the Holy See receives information from various sources. Above all the pope’s nuncio [Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti] takes trips, not only to the front lines of the combat, but he also goes to visit the occupied territories. He sees with his own eyes what’s happening.
Then there are contacts, not only at the international level with the various countries involved, but also with international organizations such as OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], which has a monitoring group on the territory. We too, the local church, inform the Holy Father. This year we’ve had a series of encounters, including several weeks ago the Holy Father came here [the Basilica of Santa Sofia] to visit us. He sees in a personal way the suffering of this people. The pope told us, ‘I’m visiting you here, but your hearts are in Ukraine.’ He saw that. For these reasons, I’m convinced that the Apostolic See not only is well-informed, but that it knows well what to do with this information.
Also, the European Community has created groups, in part to decipher the disinformation that comes from the Russian Federation. There’s a large mechanism in place, both humanitarian and diplomatic, and also at the level of mediation and reconciliation, for bringing an end to this conflict.