I first met Sviatoslav Shevchuk in Rome in April 2011, a few weeks after his election and enthronement as major-archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Byzantine in liturgy and polity but in full communion with Rome, the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches.
For over 40 years, from 1946 until 1990, the UGCC was also the largest clandestine religious body in the world, having been declared illegal in Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1946 after a contrived Church council, the notorious “Lviv Sobor,” which was managed at gunpoint by the NKVD, predecessor of the KGB. Stalin knew that the UGCC was a safe-deposit box of Ukrainian national culture and identity and evidently feared that the Church would become a center of resistance to the consolidation of his post-war position. Most of the UGCC’s bishops, and many of its priests and consecrated religious women, refused to accept the “reunion” with Russian Orthodoxy concocted by the “Lviv Sobor” and died in the Gulag camps; 24 of them were beatified as martyrs by Pope John Paul II in 2001. Those remaining Greek Catholic laity, clergy, and religious who refused to be absorbed into Russian Orthodoxy took their religious lives underground, worshiping secretly in forests, catechizing children at home, and running clandestine educational and charitable institutions, including seminaries.
When I met him in Rome after his election and enthronement, I was immediately struck, not just by his friendliness and candor, but by his almost preternatural calm — all the more impressive in that, just shy of his 41st birthday, he had been pulled out of Buenos Aires, thrust into the leadership of the UGCC, enthroned in Kyiv, and then flown to Rome to meet Pope Benedict and the relevant curial officials. We spoke for an hour, neither one of us imagining that, in two and a half years, Major-Archbishop Shevchuk would be at the center of a national, indeed international, drama, when his country rose up against post-Communist corruption and stagnation and his Church played a central role in the Maidan “Revolution of Dignity,” its bishops and priests dodging Russian bullets to tend to those demonstrating nonviolently for freedom and justice.
Throughout this past year, and not least after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in August, Major-Archbishop Shevchuk has been a voice of reason, moral wisdom, and interreligious cooperation in a volatile situation calling for a difficult mix of courage and prudence. His life has not been made easier by Vatican officials mesmerized by their hopes for some sort of ecumenical breakthrough with Russian Orthodoxy — and who were unwise enough to invite the “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow, Metroplitan Hilarion Alfeyev, to the recent extraordinary synod in Rome. Metropolitan Hilarion used his opportunity to address the synod to attack the UGCC, lying about its role in the Maidan revolution and questioning its ecclesial identity and integrity, centered on its full communion with the bishop of Rome (who was sitting in front of Metropolitan Hilarion when he made his grotesque remarks). Through that ordeal, too, Major-Archbishop Shevchuk kept his cool, explaining the truth of the situation, and of his Church’s history, to an outraged Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who seized Shevchuk immediately after Hilarion’s synod intervention and did an interview for his radio program with the Ukraunian prelate.
George Weigel: Approaching the first anniversary of the Maidan “Revolution of Dignity” in Ukraine, how would you assess the country’s situation?
Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk: I would say that Ukraine is under social reconstruction and under foreign aggression. After the “Revolution of Dignity,” President Viktor Yanukovych left what was almost a destroyed country, with no state institutions in the real sense of that term. There was no army; the national treasury had been plundered. All the departments of police and state security were paralyzed and discredited. The office of general prosecutor had deteriorated; the justice system in Ukraine was completely destroyed; and the economy of Ukraine was near to state default. Then the foreign aggression started: first, with the annexation of Crimea, and then with military actions in southeast Ukraine, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Yet in those tragic circumstances we are witnessing the rise of civil society and the birth of a new Ukraine that includes not only ethnic Ukrainians but Russians, Jews, Crimean Tatars, people of Polish descent, Belarussians, Armenians, and Georgians; Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers; Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims, and Jews — in other words, citizens of Ukraine, who, irrespective of their origins, have expressed their desire to live in a free and independent country. And we are witnessing the emergence of a new form of Ukrainian patriotism, never before known in our history: a patriotism in which love for our motherland enables us to risk our lives for our freedom and independence.
In these critical circumstances, we were able to have two kinds of elections in the past year. We elected a new president and a new parliament. That is the democratic way to create state structures that will defend human dignity, not annihilate it.
Ukrainians have made a free choice. We have chosen a European perspective on the development of our country. We have chosen European and Christian values. We have rejected the post-Soviet heritage and any sort of extremism or violence.
Weigel: Is it possible for Ukraine, essentially unaided, to resist continuing pressures from Moscow and its allies in the Donbas?
Shevchuk: It’s very difficult, but it is possible. We have been resisting these aggressions for almost a year. Our people understand very clearly that no one will come to defend us, that no one else will underwrite our existence, and that no one from the outside is going to reconstruct our country. We understand that. But it is also crucial for the world to understand that Ukrainians are giving their lives for European values today, values that Europe itself is getting less and less able to bear witness to and defend. To support Ukraine today means to support democracy and a stable international security system.
Today, Ukraine is fighting, not only for its own freedom and dignity, but for freedom and dignity as such: freedom and dignity not only in Europe but elsewhere in the world. This struggle is for our freedom and for your freedom. If the West, in its negotiations over Ukraine, takes into account only economic matters — if money again prevails over human dignity and freedom — then the great Western powers will have betrayed their own citizens and the cause of human dignity. And “European Union” will be an empty word.
Weigel: How should we understand the role of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Ukrainian public life over the last year?
Shevchuk: Over the last year, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and other Christian churches and communities have been preaching the gospel of human dignity. In the light of the message of Christ, we have been trying to foster human solidarity, to encourage movements of volunteers through the social teaching of the Catholic Church, and to explain, in very basic moral terms, what “democracy” really means. For the first time, the society of independent Ukraine, especially in eastern and southern Ukraine, discovered the Church as a mother and teacher. Why? Because our Church was with the people in the drama of life and death. And amid fear and danger, thousands of people have learned how to pray: They have met the living Christ present among them, and they have become Christians. This is how we were fulfilling the “New Evangelization” proclaimed by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Weigel: What are the UGCC’s relations with the three competing Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine?
Shevchuk: For years now, our Church has been developing equal and fraternal relations with all churches and Christian communities. Our relationship with the Orthodox is based on our conviction that we are children and descendants of the same Kievan Church that was born in the baptism of Prince Volodymyr [in 988]. In these relationships, we make no distinctions but rather respect the structure and traditions of Orthodoxy, while praying for unity among the Orthodox in Ukraine.
Weigel: Is it possible for the UGCC, alone or in cooperation with the Orthodox, to play a mediating role in fostering a Ukrainian national dialogue about reform?
Shevchuk: We are already doing that. Ukraine is blessed in that the biggest NGO in our country is the Council of the Churches and Religious Organizations, which represents 75 percent of the citizens of Ukraine. In the last year, the council has been very active, making strong statements in support of reform, and Ukrainian society considers us an important moral reference point. As the leaders of different churches and religious organizations, we believe it is our responsibility to foster social dialogue and reconciliation, even on the international level, and to be mediators of reform in our society.
Weigel: What, in your judgment, are the most essential governmental reforms for the future of the Ukrainian economy?
Shevchuk: For the past 20 years, as a post-Soviet country, we’ve had an economic system that I would call oligarchical. Those oligarchs “grew” us like mushrooms on the remnants of the economy of the Soviet Union. Theirs was a private interest, and the entire state system was subordinated to their private, egoistical economic interests. That oligarchical system must be completely changed and reformed. According to Christian social teaching, the economy should serve the common good. Right now, Ukraine desperately needs to develop special state assistance for the middle class, creating the possibility of developing small businesses, while at the same time creating an open society that gives everyone access to the benefits of the country’s economy, not just the chosen ones.
Weigel: What are the most essential governmental reforms for the future of Ukraine as a law-governed democracy?
Shevchuk: Over these last decades, when a few oligarchs were ruling Ukraine, they instrumentalized politics and the law for their own benefits. It was a parody of democracy — the rule of money over the rule of law. This reached its most outrageous form during the years of President Yanukovych, when the justice system in Ukraine was bent to serve that instrumentalization. That is why we must restore the rule of law in Ukraine, based on the Christian virtue of justice, which means that each citizen, irrespective of how much money he or she has, has the same civic rights and duties. We must uproot the corruption that undermines that concept of justice, law, and rights. The maxim “Law is equal for all” must be promoted, observed, and defended.
Weigel: What are the most essential governmental reforms for the future of Ukrainian civil society?
Shevchuk: Twenty years ago, there was a big debate in Ukraine over whether “civil society” really exists in our country. In the Soviet Union, the dictatorship of the Communist party suffocated both the lives of individuals and their right to undertake social initiatives. The Revolution of Dignity, by contrast, witnessed an explosion of civil society in Ukraine, and the Church was explaining the Christian idea of the source of state authority: Individuals and civil society delegate the right to govern to public officials through the mechanism of free, democratic elections. That is why there must be fundamental reforms in the electoral law in Ukraine. Public authorities are to serve civil society, not be served by it, and certainly not by manipulating the desires, fears, needs, and trust of our people. A Christian notion of social diakonia [service] ought to be at the foundation of the political culture and democratic institutions of a free country.
Weigel: Is the task of uprooting the “culture of corruption” in Ukraine one that can be completed in a generation?
Shevchuk: To be candid, I doubt it. For many generations, the corruption of politicians and state authorities was a means of subduing the people of Ukraine, and simple people acquiesced to that system in order to protect themselves against an oppressive state. We see the results of that today, when mothers pay bribes to military officials, asking them not to send their children into ATO (anti-terrorist operations) in Ukraine. It will take a long time to heal those moral wounds in our society and to convince Ukrainians that their country is a motherland that protects them and creates an environment that respects their dignity and fosters the development of their natural gifts. It will take a long time to convince state officials to understand that they are not the patrons of slaves but the servants of the common good.
Weigel: How did Metropolitan Hilarion’s intervention at the extraordinary synod of 2014 strike you?
Shevchuk: I was disappointed and hurt because a high representative of a Christian church misinformed a synod of the Catholic Church. True ecumenism is supposed to be based on mutual respect and a sincere striving for the truth. In a time of foreign aggression against Ukraine, Christian hierarchs should be those who are apostles of peace and reconciliation, not those sent to attack.
Weigel: How does your Church respond to the charge from the Moscow Patriarchate that it has been involved in “politics” over the past year?
Shevchuk: Our response is our stance, and our cooperation with the churches of Ukraine in the last year. Our Church never was involved in Ukrainian politics, as many Orthodox were. We never supported any political party or politician. But we are and will be active in civil society.
Orthodox social doctrine does not make a clear distinction between civil society and political activity; Orthodox theory knows only the church–state relationship, not the church–society relationship. That is why Metropolitan Hilarion sees our work of evangelization and our service to civil society as “politics.”
Weigel: To those familiar with the history of the “Lviv Sobor,” it seemed as if Metropolitan Hilarion was tacitly affirming that “council” as a genuine ecclesial act, although all competent historians regard it as an action directed by the NKVD. How do you briefly explain, to those who don’t know the story, the sequence from the “Lviv Sobor” to today?
Shevchuk: From the juridical point of view, the Lviv Sobor in 1946 was an instrument of oppression aimed at the liquidation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the Soviet Union. Any attempt to present such a gathering as free and spontaneous, especially during the reign of Stalin, is simply a lie — and an act of injustice. For that “Sobor” was a gathering of Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests, led by Russian Orthodox bishops who forced those priests to abandon the Catholic Church.
From the ecclesiastical point of view, that “Sobor” was a harsh and brazen act of Orthodox proselytism, in which millions of Ukrainian Catholics were forced under fear of death, torture, and exile to join Russian Orthodox Church.
Weigel: What are the most important things Ukraine’s friends in the West can do for the country in the next six months? In the next year?
Shevchuk: Ukraine is now facing foreign aggression, a kind of “hybrid war” involving a non-declared military invasion, serious economic pressure, and a huge campaign of disinformation. Ukraine is the victim of this aggression, and I would ask our friends worldwide, in the name of justice and Christian solidarity, to stand behind those who are oppressed in Ukraine. Be in solidarity with the nation that was oppressed for so many years and is now rising up to reclaim its dignity. Help us to defend freedom and democracy in Ukraine. Because in today’s globalized world, this is not only about us; this is also about you. Help us spread the truth about the situation in Ukraine around the world. As Christians, we are convinced that the proclamation of Truth can be more powerful than weapons, and more liberating than any human power.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.