[Editors note: This is part two of a Crux interview with Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Ukraine. Part one can be found here.]
ROME – So far there really haven’t been any great political battles during this month’s Synod of Bishops on young people, but when another group of 300 bishops or so gathers in Rome next year for a summit on the Amazonian region, some forecasts call for tension around a long-standing flashpoint in Catholic debate: Married priests.
Priest shortages are often terribly acute in parts of the Amazon, and some bishops from the area have long favored the idea of ordaining the viri probati, meaning tested married men.
Meanwhile in the West, some voices have revived the idea of a married priesthood as a response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis, arguing that marriage would provide priests the chance to express their sexuality in healthy and non-abusive ways.
Yet Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, the largest of the 22 Eastern Catholic churches in communion with Rome that carry centuries of experience of married priests, has a basic message for his Western counterparts: “Not so fast!”
“If we must give advice, I would say that to remove celibacy from the priesthood will not resolve the problem. My experience is that there are holy priests who are married … this holiness, this maturity, is a great treasure, but it’s not a direct consequence of the state of life,” Shevchuk said in an interview with Crux.
Asked what advice he would give, the Ukrainian prelate, formally referred to as “His Beatitude,” was succinct: “To be prudent!”
Moreover, Shevchuk said, married priests create entirely new challenges in formation and priestly life, ones which debates entirely focused on a “yes” or “no” response often overlook.
“Often, our bishops are worried not only about the seminarian but also his girlfriend, and we’ve created a program for these women too,” he said. “Sometimes after two or three encounters they realize that they don’t want to be the wives of a priest. This can also make things more complicated.”
On other matters, Shevchuk:
- Praised the presence of young people at the synod: “They are the most vivacious nucleus of our group, which produces the most ideas and new solutions. So, it is a very important fact for the success of the synod.”
- Said there are few real tensions in the synod hall: “When you have in front of you a person who has needs, who needs to be accompanied, understood, cared for, a person to whom the Church today, as a good mother, is called to donate its spirit, this motherly warmth, it unites us all.”
- Said the Eastern churches haven’t yet been rocked by major sexual abuse scandals: “In a sense, we’ve been protected from the abuses of power and clericalism by the fact that, in the Soviet Union, our Church had no authority whatsoever.”
- Yet insisted that’s no excuse for complacency: “We must be careful not to lose our moral authority, because it is our only treasure. If the Church loses its moral authority in Ukraine, then our loss would be even more dramatic.”
The interview with Shevchuk took place Oct. 13 in Italian, and it was translated by Crux into English.
What’s your impression of the synod?
This is already my fourth synod. The first was on New Evangelization, in the time of Pope Benedict. At that time, I was named to the ordinary council of the synod, so I was one of those who prepared the synod, both the ordinary ones and the extraordinary ones. And now I participate in this synod as head of the Catholic Ukrainian Church ex ufficio.
I must say that my impression is very positive. Particularly the Instrumentum laboris, compared to the ones from other synods, it’s one of the best. Obviously, it’s a text destined to vanish, to die. Today we argue, we criticize, work in the small groups, but as a start it was very good.
The other very interesting part is the great participation of young people who feel like protagonists in this synod. In my small circle we have four young people, one from Australia, one from Nigeria, a girl from Russia and a girl from the Netherlands. They are the most vivacious nucleus of our group, which produces the most ideas and new solutions. So, it is a very important fact for the success of the synod.
The part which the pope set aside as a moment of listening has already taken place. But now we have to move forward, because to simply listen is too little. We need to discern and make some concrete decisions and get to work.
My impression is that in this synod there aren’t great tensions, great discussions. Is this your impression?
Absolutely. The topic itself, including the subjectivity of the young people, is awakening a paternal feeling in the heart of the Church and also among the synod fathers. It’s not about arguing over ideas, because this creates tensions, because everybody has different ideas. But when you have in front of you a person who has needs, who needs to be accompanied, understood, cared for, a person to whom the Church today, as a good mother, is called to donate its spirit, this motherly warmth, it unites us all.
Obviously, we come from different contexts. That which in one place is a pastoral emergency is not so in Nigeria, or in Ukraine. But the fact is that there aren’t great tensions. The synod is unanimous, it feels like one heart and one spirit. For this reason, I must say that the spirit of the participation in communion is also great. We share our opinions. And it’s also interesting that the young people present in the room react to each speech and take a position. You can sense if that which we say and think corresponds to their expectations. There’s an immediate response, there’s feedback. And this truly has created a very positive climate.
According to you, what are the great topics of this synod over which there’s a need to make decisions?
The question I would like to pose to the synod is an ecclesiological one. Up to what point is the Church an institution?
Because there’s a certain mistrust from young people towards institutions today. This we see in Ukraine when it comes to the government and other institutions. What young people today need is community. Obviously, the institutional form must be re-interpreted, because the institution is an instrument to the service of the community. Many young people feel abandoned by the family, by society, and there’s this great expectation that the Church will not abandon them. The Church must be a community where you can have the conditions to mature and develop, with education and formation both Christian and human.
It’s a very interesting time. I must say that for a long period of my priestly life, I was the formator in seminary. The issue of vocational discernment is central not only for the formation in seminary, but also for youth ministry.
This person who does the accompanying, this spiritual father, this spiritual councilor, has to be present in the life of every young person. Several bishops have said that we see few people capable of accompanying. How to promote this ministry that is a vocation within the Church’s ministry? According to me, the choices about the way to accompany must be pastoral.
The Church always, in my opinion, has to deepen the concept of the Church as a community that is generative. There’s a section of the document that speaks about the Church as generative, because the Church is a mother that generates. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, it generates children of God and of the Church. But today, for many reasons, we’re becoming more and more a society of orphans. It’s fundamental to rediscover the maternal face of the Church that seriously takes care of its children.
Speaking about the maternal face of the Church, you know very well that, in many parts of the world, it’s difficult for young people to see this because of the scandals, particularly those of a sexual nature. Is this a problem for your churches too?
I think it’s an issue that is relevant for everybody because, regarding the issue of abuse, sexual abuse is only one form. There are many kinds of abuse: abuse of authority, of money, of trust, not only in the Church but in the culture in which we live. We’re not immune to these issues. For the moment, in our Church, at a global level, the issue of sexual abuse is not as dramatic as we have seen in the context of the Church in Ireland, Chile or the United States. In a sense, we’ve been protected from the abuses of power and clericalism by the fact that, in the Soviet Union, our Church had no authority whatsoever.
The only authority we had, and that we continue to have to this day, is a moral authority. Why? Because we were persecuted because of our faith. We were persecuted for that which we are. In this persecution, today we see authenticity emerging. Because to be a Christian in an atheist country is not popular, it’s to go against the tide.
Perhaps today, being a Catholic in Ukraine is not fashionable, but we’re Catholic. We’re truly convinced that we have a mission, to be witnesses of the unity of the Church. If we speak of Ukraine, in the 20th century there were so many abuses of power and trust, even within the Church, while in Western society we were placed by the Lord in a different situation.
But I must say that we too are pardoned sinners. We cannot say that we will be forever immune to certain problems.
Is there a fear that now that the situation for the Ukrainian Church has changed, because you can obviously be a Catholic in Ukraine, there’s going to be a “delay” and that all these problems that have affected the universal Church for the past 100 years will now become a problem also for you?
Yes. I believe that we have many things to learn from the Latin Church in many counties in the world. I’m in agreement that all these modern ways of living are beginning to arrive to Ukraine. Ukraine is a society in a period of a strong emancipation. For example, the sexual revolution that the West had in the 1960s is arriving in Ukraine only now. We’re conscious that, as Christians and as a Church, we’re challenged.
Nevertheless, I think that we can learn from the experience of the Church in Western countries. It can serve as a warning to us, not only to adopt certain practices and disciplines, but to be particularly attentive to the protection of minors, and to promote an integral education of the Church’s sexual moral education. We must be careful not to lose our moral authority, because it is our only treasure.
But, if the Church loses its moral authority in Ukraine, then our loss would be even more dramatic.
Could it be said that also in Ukraine the policy of the Church when it comes to clerical sexual abuse is that of zero tolerance?
Yes. We have also discussed this at our own synod, in September. We wrote a synodal letter to the pope, supporting the successor of Peter in his ministry and sharing his pain for the Church. We declared zero tolerance for these abuses and our commitment to protecting, working in favor of those who can be victims of any kind of abuse: of power, of trust, of conscience, sexual abuse, at the hands of any representatives of our Church.
Also, in each part of the world, our bishops belong to the Latin-Rite bishops’ conferences, so they adopt these measures of protection in their dioceses, according to the discipline of the country.
For us in Ukraine, together with the conference of Latin bishops, we’ve issued an instruction on how to proceed if a case of pedophilia is discovered. This document was produced at the explicit request of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I would like to thank this Congregation that has asked us for this, even if for the moment we haven’t perceived a practical need in Ukraine. We have to learn from the Church in the West. We must be prepared, warned, and sensitized on this issue.
In February there will be a meeting in Rome with all the presidents of bishops’ conferences from around the world on sex abuse. Are there experiences that the Oriental churches can share with the Latin Church …
Yes. I will participate in this encounter. For me, it will be a great occasion of listening, of sharing with others. I will participate because this meeting is part of the zero tolerance policy that the Holy Father wants to apply in the most transparent way. It is also something that we want to adopt, not only as a policy, but also through concrete measures.
All the heads of the oriental churches will participate?
I hope so because in every organism of the Apostolic See, presidents of the bishops’ conferences and heads of the Oriental Churches are equal. For this reason, I think that I will have to participate ex-ufficio.
I must say that our Church also has some experiences also to share, because the great majority of our priesthood is married. The fact of having married priests does not mean that we’re immune against this evil. We know that, in the world, the great majority of cases of pedophilia take place in families. We need to create a culture of protection, of zero tolerance, not a system, that hides this evil.
I must say that, by the fact that they have their own children, our priests have a more natural relationship with children. They are often educators of their children and also of the children of those who attend their parishes. This experience of being father of one’s own family helps them to treat children in a healthy way. And the Church is called to help these children to mature.
As you have said, the vocation to the priesthood in the Ukrainian Church is a bit different because priests can marry. Do you have any recommendations for those today who ask the Latin Church to allow priests to marry?
To be prudent! If we must give advice, I would say that to remove celibacy from the priesthood will not resolve the problem. My experience is that there are holy priests who are married … this holiness, this maturity, is a great treasure, but it’s not a direct consequence of the state of life.
In the process of vocational discernment, it’s another challenge. It’s not easy to accompany a seminarian about what state, to be married or celibate, he should choose as he approaches priesthood.
At what point according to your rules do seminarians make this decision?
Right now, during their time in the seminary. Obviously, there are exceptions. Our seminaries accept only young men who are not married. This is because it is almost impossible to ensure a calm period of discernment during formation [after marriage]. If a married man entered seminary, they’d basically have to leave their family for six years.
I remember in the early 1990s, when our Church emerged from the underground, we accepted everyone in the seminaries, because there was a great need for priests. Every week, I saw with my own eyes the suffering of these families who were deprived of their father. This was a tragedy from a human perspective, a spiritual perspective, and also an economic one.
When I was the rector of the seminary, with the agreement of my bishop, I created a program for late vocations. If a father of children wanted to begin the path of formation to the priesthood, having a college education, we helped him live a community life in the seminary without making him leave his family. We helped him to to study and receive formation without leaving his profession, because he had to support his family. It was a very individual process, something we could do in our seminary. We were partially successful, because this program produced six priests.
Seminarians cannot marry while they are in the seminary. Nevertheless, in the second half of their studies, they often have a girlfriend. This is also a very delicate period. Relationships through email and skype are so strong, that sometimes during formation it’s hard to focus the attention of the seminarian in the community, because there’s someone from outside pulling on him.
They have to choose if they’re going to marry or remain celibate before the diaconal ordination. It often happens that a candidate who is called to be married, a father, has to wait a few years to find the right person. Many of our seminarians aren’t ordained because, after completing seminary studies, they come to Rome for advanced studies. Only after completing these studies can they be ordained. You can’t live as a married priest in a Roman college.
The crisis of the family touches priestly families too. Often, our bishops are worried not only about the seminarian but also his girlfriend, and we’ve created a program for these women too. Often, after two or three encounters they realize that they don’t want to be the wives of a priest. This can also make things more complicated.
So, to answer your question, we’re open to sharing our experience, but the decision has to be made by the Latin Church. I must say that this is not a topic of this synod, the issue of celibacy is not being discussed in the hall or in the small groups.