Speech delivered in Australia September 2014 by His Beatitude Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk,
Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church .
As an introduction to my speech I would like to quote the words of His Beatitude Lubomyr relayed to a film director in Kiev in November last year just at the time when the student protests had erupted. These were the words of His Beatitude “The way things were up to now, will never be the same again”.
In my opinion, these are very deep and meaningful words, which in the first instance indicate that these events which we have witnessed are evidence of the uprising of a new Ukraine. They are evidence of the beginning of a new stage in the history of our Ukrainian society in the history of our faithful in Ukraine and the diaspora. That which is happening in Ukraine today is impacting on the whole life of our Church. Our faithful are reacting to this in many different ways however one thing is certain, that which is happening today is something totally new.
1. THE CHURCH AND UKRAINIAN SOCIETY.
Ukraine has just recently experienced a Revolution the Revolution of Dignity. What was its essence? Firstly as already mentioned, this was a moral revolution.
Throughout my speech, you will often hear the word “MAIDAN”. What does this word mean? Firstly it means a square or plaza, an old word that is understood in many languages even in India, as it is from the “indo-european” language group. As such it refers to the central square in the city of Kyiv – Independence Square – the most important square in Ukraine.
Secondly, the word has come to signify a special kind of “peaceful protest” invented by Ukrainians, for it was in the “Maidan” that hundreds of thousands gathered to stand on the “Maidan” for many months, even through the brutal Ukrainian winter to protest against a despotic and corrupt regime.
Thirdly, It is a place where blood has been shed. The blood of peaceful protestors! A place where the sacrifice of those whose blood was shed for a free and independent Ukraine. It has become a place of pilgrimage, prayer and reflection.
Most of the demands put forward by the “Maidan” late last year and early this year, were moral demands. Maybe that’s why they were completely incomprehensible to the Ukrainian government of the day which did not know any morality and could not adequately respond, or just did not wish to react in any way. The demands of “Maidan” were “NO to – corruption”, “NO to contempt for mankind”. I recall those days of “Maidan” where in the centre of Ivano-Frankivsk, the youth were carrying placards with the slogan: “No going back to the USSR”.For me, this was a very eloquent slogan which showed that these turbulent changes had put an end to post-Soviet society in Ukraine and that is why we can say with certainty that post-Soviet Ukraine no longer exists today. Perhaps the dismantling of this post-Soviet society has not yet been fully accomplished. In different parts of Ukraine it is happening in various ways. The way things were up to now, will never be the same again and that is reality.
This is why it is a joy for me to share with you certain aspects of what transpired between November 2013 and February 2014 at the “Maidan” in Kyiv. The media, of course makes endless references to the Association Agreement with the European Union, promised and reneged upon by the former president of Ukraine. This is certainly what originally prompted university students and other protesters to gather at the “Maidan Nezalezhnosti” -Independence Square in the capital, Kyiv.
As the government responded with brutality, the protests became much more than the voicing of a pro-European stance, they turned into a national movement to restore human dignity in a society that had been brutalized by a corrupt system that had abandoned the godless Soviet nomenklatura style of government in name only, but not in substance, after Ukrainian independence and the downfall of the Soviet Union. We believers cannot look at the denial of human dignity again and again without reacting. If it is all in the end about loving God and loving our neighbour, then human dignity takes on an importance that is so central. It trumps considerations of gain, of personal success, of comfort and a quiet private life, disengaged from the issues of civil society.
Maidan Nezalezhnosti” became “Maidan Liuds’koyi Hidnosti “ (The Maidan of Human Dignity). The historical moment that transformed Ukraine in a permanent way was the recognition that in a shared solidarity that transcends ethnicity, language, and even particular religious membership there is a strength that can overcome the sometimes sly, sometimes brutish, and cynical idolatry of power that had held this government in its grips. As we stood our ground and prayed on the various “Maidans” throughout the country, we not only changed the focus of the protests to center on human dignity, we noticed that the “Maidans” became a place of new found human dignity. Treating one another with love, with compassion, with dignity, that is what breeds dignity. It multiplies rapidly, as one would expect a force of nature to do. What weapons of individual or mass destruction can withstand the loving force of human dignity?. We have dignity as human beings because we are children of God and because we are called into eternal communion with God. St. Seraphim of Sarov famously proclaimed: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be saved.” That Holy Spirit flowed in broad currents on the “Maidan of Dignity”. For many it was a nation-building experience. For many more, it was also a religious experience. Representatives of the Roman Catholic, Greco-Catholic, various Orthodox Churches, Baptists, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and other Christians, Jewish Rabbis and Muslim Imams surrounded the “Maidan” with prayer.
Our people have been praying, praying, praying in their homes, their parishes, in their workplaces, and at their computer screens, engaged in social media. They have prayed personally and communally. An “ecumenism of engagement” arose on the “Maidan”. As we prayed together in various languages and in various faith traditions, we felt the presence of God. This is not just the naïve persuasion that “God is on our side, therefore we will prevail.” No, this experience of God’s presence was much more nuanced. Many felt in those critical last days before the snipers started massacring the protesters that this night, this hour might be the last hour of our lives. And yet we felt, we saw with some of the clearest vision of our lives, that God indeed was with us. It so happened that what became the favourite prayer of the “Maidan” was the passage from Isaiah: “God is with us, understand all you nations and submit, for God is with us!”
Of course, from the great exultation and sense of triumph on seeing off an unworthy president who fled the country at a time of crisis, leaving the Ukrainian Parliament to pick up the pieces and institute an interim executive, we were suddenly confronted with the reality of Russian aggression in Crimea, and the West’s inability to respond to this most dangerous development since World War II. At this time, some 40 thousand Russian troops amassed on the borders of Ukraine, to further cloud the minds and hearts of those people who had not yet been set free by the “Revolution of Human Dignity.” The propaganda war unleashed by Russia is the most twisted informational assault since Goebbels pontificated that if you brashly lie long enough, loudly enough, some will inevitably believe you.
The Heads of Churches and religious institutions at these most dramatic moments of Ukrainian history understood that they had a responsibility to be the preachers and brokers of peace. We tried to be the intermediaries between president Yanukovych and the leaders of the opposition standing there at the “Maidan” amongst various people, between protestants and the armed militia in order to preach peace, because we understood that this was the only way to preserve human life and prevent bloodshed. Unfortunately, we did not fully succeed. Someone really wanted bloodshed in order to show their strength. Unfortunately, today in Ukraine blood is being shed and there are many that do not want peace. But we know that presidents and army generals come and go, geopolitical ideas can quickly change, but nations and Church remain constants.
Even today in Ukraine where there is a fragile ceasefire, we, religious leaders must think about the future. We must formulate a future where wounds are healed and hearts are pacified, a future common for Eastern and Western Europe, Russia and the world community. Such a future can only be created if it is based on peace. If we do not have peace we will never have a future.
There is an anecdote circulating in Ukraine: A Russian citizen meets a Ukrainian citizen and asks him: “So, are you one of those ultra-nationalist, fascist anti-semites, who supports the government in Kyiv?” And the Ukrainian citizen replies: “I guess I am, because everybody at our synagogue is!” All joking aside, political humour often makes important statements. This is a blessed time for Ukrainian-Jewish relations. We stand together for the truth. We stand together for a country that has earned the right to join the family of free and democratic states, through its painfully acquired human dignity.
One can say with certainty that within the throes of agony a new Ukrainian society is being born. Ukraine is being Ukrainianized. Today, new forms of Ukrainian patriotism have appeared which can be observed in those areas of Ukraine where the russian language is mainly used, in the areas of Kharkiv, Poltava, Odessa, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhia, and Kherson. There, you can see those slogans which in the 1990s were promoters of social change only in Western Ukraine.
For example, at bus stops you can see written: “Ukraine above all.”There has been an enormous change in the people’s mindset and ways of thinking. A recent striking example of such change is the city of Mariupol, which just two three months ago conducted a referendum for the Donetsk National Republic, but today it is a beacon of Ukrainian sovereignty in the southern territory of the Donetsk region. People, when they saw russian tanks entering into their city, came to the defence not only of their city, but the whole of Ukraine.
Throughout that time, the collective leadership of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church strived to keep the church out of politics, but on the other hand, we had to be careful so as not to be used by the state powers for their own ends. This gave the church the possibility to remain free, it gave us the freedom to speak the truth. To speak to truth to the President and politicians. However, the church remained very active in civil society, proclaiming the Gospel of Christ, teaching moral norms of the social doctrines of the church, and as a mother and teacher to speak out on behalf of those who were brutalised, whose dignity was threatened, defending the lives of those who were being shot and wounded.
All those social processes, revolutionary change, painful and dramatic events have set new challenges for our Church. I would like to formulate these new challenges with a phrase from one Protestant theologian, who presented at the theological conference in Kiev during the “Maidan”. The conference was called – “Theology in the times of Maidan. This conference was held under the auspices of the Ukrainian Catholic University. This was the phrase: “Ukrainian society has opened doors to the church.Why? Because, the Church has opened doors to society.
The church was a refuge for the beaten and the persecuted. The Church, our parishes, our monasteries became underground hospitals which saved lives. Bishop Basiliy Tuchapets in Kiev set up such an underground hospital in the monastery of the Basilian fathers. Thus, Ukrainian society once again has manifested itself, I would say as a Christian society. And the Church, especially our church, was able to respond to this request. Have we crossed over the threshold of society’s opened doors ? Not quite, not entirely. But today there is a great danger that if we do not do this soon and enter these doors in a timely manner with words of the Gospel, they could close. And then the secularization of society in Ukraine and in the diaspora, could occur much faster than we imagine.
Our Church all over the world lived by another premise, namely – “The Church is and always will be with the people!” For this we were punished, persecuted and for this we are unjustly accused today, and nobody could protest against this. The Holy Father Pope Francis told the whole Church, that a pastor has to be familiar with the smell of his sheep. And this is a task for our church, for our bishops, with respect to our ever changing flocks in this historical point of time.
A war has started, a war which two or three months ago, no one had even thought of or even expected. This war is a new challenge. We do not know how and with what it will end. But the fact that the word “war” is used as the collective understanding of the circumstances in which our Church is living in Ukraine, is an undisputed reality.
After “Maidan“ we have gone through the so called “postmaydanivskyy“ stress disorder. It’s not only the people who suffered at the “ Maidan”, not just the priests who stood beside the burning tents on the square, but everyone who watched this over the internet has also lived through it. I met people with such “postmaydanivskym stress disorder in Canada, in Toronto. I think each one of you, understands how our people react to this and how this situation affects them. We can say that our society has new wounds, wounds which did not exist half a year ago. These wounds are spiritual wounds, emotional wounds, physical wounds. Today, most of our bishops in Ukraine bury soldiers who have died in the ATO on a weekly basis.
Today the front at Donbas is the place of meeting with the living Christ. Our chaplains are there with our people, our soldiers, and they say that sometimes chaplains have more confidence in soldiers than their officers. Those chaplains care about saving the lives of our soldiers, they often administer the sacrament of baptism to our soldiers on the front lines. Today the meeting place with the living Christ may be a hospital, to which our bishops are called.
We have a unique testimony of how the meeting place with the living Christ is a military hospital in Kharkiv, where our chaplains provide ministry in such a way of which we had no idea a few months ago.Today the meeting place with the living Christ may be with the families of refugees. Ukraine over the last 23 years of its existence has never had any refugees. But today the number of people who have had to flee their homes, according to official data is in excess of two hundred and thirty thousand, but in reality almost half a million people have fled their place of residence, perhaps forever.
Today, more than ever, our Church is called to exercise social diakonia. How are we going to accomplish this and in what ways? How in this social diakonia will all the church body in Ukraine and the diaspora be included. This is a question on which we should reflect seriously, more than just once, and according to circumstances which are in a state of change.
2. THE CHURCH AND THE UKRAINIAN STATE.
We’re talking about a society and Church that need to respond to the calls of society. And here we are talking about the State and State structures. We are all talking about the need to preserve a united, independent and free Ukrainian state, which today finds itself in the greatest of danger. One of the ways in which we can support our independent state is through international diplomatic activity which our Church has undertaken and is continuing to undertake very actively today.
3. NEW CHALLENGES FOR OUR CHURCH.
A great blessing for our church and a great “Kairos” time that we experienced together last year, was the consecration of the Patriarchal Cathedral the Sobor in Kyiv. If we would not have consecrated the Sobor last year, I think that today none of us could predict when that occasion of consecration could happen. Truly, we should give thanks to the Lord God that we have the Cathedral, our Sobor in Kiev, which is still unfinished, which needs your support, your help and solidarity. During the bloodshed of the “Maidan” protests, this Sobor was home to many. In the unfinished basements, we ministered to more than eight hundred (800) people every day. We were unable to open a hospital in the Sobor as construction works had not been completed, but we could offer a bed for the night and a clinic operated there which treated the wounded. And this became a church which the people of Kiev called “Their Own”. There was a time when there was danger of an attack on our Cathedral by the infamous “titushki”. Our neighbours who live in the area around the cathedral, which for a long time have looked sceptically at the cathedral as something alien, now call this Sobor “Our Cathedral”. One night, about 2,000 people of Kiev, with batons in hand, came to defend the Cathedral, the Sobor. Today, this cathedral is filled with people. According to our estimates, every Sunday at liturgy, of which there are now three, we have up to 3000 people. We opened the doors to the people, and the Cathedral was filled.
I would like to talk briefly about the situation in Crimea and the Donetsk region.
In the Crimea Exarchate there are five parishes. Crimea has been dealt a serious blow. There was a time, when all the priests were forced to leave the Crimea region, but later returned. In Euphatoria we have a priest who has all the necessary documents and registration required for staying there freely. Other parishes in Simferopol, Sevastopol, Yalta and Kerch, unfortunately, today do not have regular priests. However, there is help there from the religious orders. Although law and order is still not fully restored there, in accordance with immigration regulations of the Russian Federation, those priests who have Ukrainian citizenship may reside for three months and then have to leave for a month. Today we have five priests – A Basilian Father, Redemptorist Fathers and Studite fathers that on a rotational basis help in ministering to our communities.
At this point in time all five parishes of the Exarchate are served with pastoral care. What is their future? By the end of this year, the so-called Crimean authorities have announced the need for re-registration of all religious organizations. Each of our parishes will have to be re-registered with the new so-called “authorities.” The difficulty is that the initiator of the registration process must be a person holding a Russian passport. There is a great danger that the re-registration of these communities could become the legal mechanism for the liquidation of those churches and religious organisations which the Crimean “authorities” deem as disloyal.
A few words about Donetsk. Today the Exarchate of Donetsk finds itself in a very serious situation. There is war there. Nine towns on the territory of the Exarchate where we have our churches and communities, have been captured by terrorists and it is impossible to carry out normal pastoral duties. Thirteen (13) of our priests, including Bishop Stephen, were forced to leave because there was a direct threat to their lives. Bishop Stephen was saved by the Virgin of Zarvanycia. At the time when the Bishop was on a pilgrimage to Zarvanytsya, there was an attack on his home during a search for him. Our cathedral was attacked, the monastery of the Sisters Servants in Donetsk was overtaken and occupied. Of those nine towns from which our priests were forced to leave, only seven have regular spiritual ministry.
Our priests drive over there, each time risking their lives as they cross the front line. Currently it is not possible to minister in the town of Horlivka, because the situation there is catastrophic. Our priest does not have access to the faithful. However, despite the war, forty seven (47) priests of the Exarchate are heroically exercising their ministry. Bishop Stephen is our present day confessor of the faith, he is a bishop–refugee, with the same fate as hundreds of thousands of refugees is Ukraine. Our prayer is needed for the city of Mariupol, where we have our parish and our priest. We have a similar situation in Crimea and war torn Donbas .
The question of reinforcing our structures in newly formed exarchates and supporting our clergy in these areas should be one of our main priorities of the movement to the East. We need to work out a mechanism for pastoral care in crisis situations. We have many requests for which we do not even have time to respond. I hope that we can create a centre which manages pastoral ministry for crisis situations. We also need to continue our actions on the international arena to counter the information warfare.
What is it that ultimately inspires religious leaders to stand shoulder to shoulder on critical issues of the very survival of Ukraine as a young democracy? In the end, it is love for God and the love for our people that flows from our relationship with the Lord. I am continually moved by a particular prayer written by Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (and this holy man left us many prayers that nourish us to this day). It reads thus:
“Almighty God, and Ruler of the universe, Our Saviour Jesus Christ, who loves the human race, and with your limitless plan takes care of every people uniquely, look mercifully upon our Ukrainian people, and on all other people that with full hope come before you their very dear Father and most wise King. We, children of this people, humbly obedient to your will, love all the peoples whom you have redeemed on the Cross with Your Holy Blood, and first of all we love with a sincere Christian love our own Ukrainian people. Thus, out of love for our people and love for you our God, we beseech you:
Forgive all the sins of our people, correct all of their bad inclinations, and strengthen their good inclinations. Be merciful to our people in all the people’s needs. Protect these people from all malice and injustice that comes from their enemies. Rain down on these people your unceasing generous blessings.”
This is the kind of prayer that we need in Ukraine today. A situation like ours can engender so much bitterness. Enmity between nations is a difficult thing to resist in a situation of aggression. It takes deep spiritual equanimity to be able to stand ready to defend one’s homeland without allowing one’s heart to be polluted by hatred for other nations. But this is what we expect of our people. We want them to know that God is with us, and for that reason the Church will stand with the people, but we also want them to understand that God loves the armies and the citizens of Russia, too.
How can God love both sides? Let me ask you a rhetorical question. Who could believe in a God who only loves one of the sides? That does not eliminate the discernment of what is right and what is wrong. It does not eliminate the need to stand for justice and truth at the cost of perhaps sacrificing one’s life. But human dignity demands from us a respect for every human being and for every nation, ethnicity, and religious tradition. These are children of God we are talking about.
Our Church in these tragic times is and will be the preacher of hope. Today there are many who would like the Church to remain silent. They blame us for politicizing the church, and making strong statements on behalf of our nation. This behaviour is akin to thieves who bind and gag their victim, rob them, and then continue to torture them, then blackmail their helpless victim to remained silent and not denounce the crime committed against them.
Our Church will not be frightened. Our Church will not be silent!
May the Lord give us strength and blessings to be witnesses of faith, hope and love.
Our hope is in God!