Rome — When he was chosen as head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in late March 2011, Sviatoslav Shevchuk was six weeks shy of his 41st birthday. Having previously served as a senior aide to his predecessor, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, as a seminary rector, and as leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholics in Argentina (where he became fast friends with the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio), the newly elected Major-Archbishop Shevchuk might have expected to spend the next three and a half decades of his life building up in Ukraine the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches — Byzantine in liturgy and Church polity, but in full communion with Rome — and strengthening the ties between the homeland and the Ukrainian diaspora throughout the world: a task that would by facilitated by the linguistic skills of a man who can converse in Polish, Russian, English, Italian, and Spanish, in addition to his native Ukrainian.
Then came the Maidan: a popular revolt that began in outraged exasperation at governmental corruption but that rapidly transformed itself into what Shevchuk’s colleague, Bishop Borys Gudziak, dubbed a “revolution of dignity,” a reclamation of the elementary decencies that make any democratic public life possible. That resolve to build a nobler future than the chiaroscuro experience Ukraine had lived since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 held fast for four months against the thuggish and corrupt government of Viktor Yanukovych. When Yanukovych turned his guns on his people in February, the people stood fast — and Yanukovych fled the country, to be replaced by an interim president who will be succeeded by a new national leader chosen in presidential elections on May 25. Chosen, that is, if Vladimir Putin does not succeed in completely destabilizing Ukraine in the interim, as a feckless Obama administration and a sclerotic European Union wring their hands in a gesture of moral cowardice of which Christians were reminded on Good Friday.
So, at age 42, Major-Archbishop Shevchuk found himself, not only at the head of an Eastern Catholic Church trying to rebuild its human and material resources after 44 years of clandestine existence (the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church having been driven underground by Stalin in 1946), but at the center of a national maelstrom that, in short order, evolved into the greatest threat to peace and freedom in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Throughout the four months of the Maidan in Kiev, Major-Archbishop Shevchuk, like other Ukrainian Greek Catholic leaders, was a steady and calm voice for resolve, national reconciliation, ecumenical cooperation — and a new chance at living freedom with dignity and decency in Ukraine. He recently came to Rome to participate in the canonizations of John XXIII, the pope who had put the defense of human rights at the center of the Catholic Church’s international agenda, and John Paul II, the pope who had given dramatic effect to those human-rights convictions in the revolution of 1989.
During his days in Rome, Major-Archbishop Shevchuk briefed his old friend from Buenos Aires, now Pope Francis, on the situation in Ukraine; he also met with senior Vatican officials concerned with international diplomacy and ecumenism (the aggressively pro-Putin posture of some leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church being one of the topics of conversation). The archbishop called me late in the afternoon of April 30 to catch up a bit; we had had a long conversation in Rome shortly after his election as leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and I found him, now, even amidst the high-stakes drama of the Ukrainian revolution, as calm and collected as when I first met him in the wake of his surprising election as major-archbishop. He had several crucial points to make.
Ukraine “does exist and will exist,” the archbishop insisted. The Russian attack on Ukraine, he underscored, was not just military and para-military; it was “psychological,” aimed at deconstructing the very idea of Ukrainian nationhood, and thus Ukrainian statehood. And to that end, the extraordinary Russian propaganda blitz of recent months has been aimed at sowing “fear and panic” in a populace already on edge because of the failures of the Yanukovych regime and the struggle to reverse those failures embodied in the Maidan movement.
But “we are prepared,” Shevchuk said. And by “prepared,” I take it he meant that the resolve of the Ukrainian people, supported by their religious leaders, was strong enough to cope with the Big Lie tactics that continue to emanate from Russia — and from Russian mouthpieces in Western Europe and North America.
On the forthcoming presidential election
The May 25 election is “crucial.” As the archbishop put it, this could be and should be “the most free and open election” in Ukraine’s post–Cold War history as an independent state. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, he said, was urging its people to participate fully in the preelection debate, and to “vote with care” for a “unifying figure” around whom the entire country can rally in the face of Russian aggression, Western dithering, and local agitations and fears.
The preelection Russian propaganda and destabilization campaign, he noted, is aimed at nothing less than to “divide and disintegrate” Ukraine, making the free, fair, and open election sought by the people of the Maidan difficult if not impossible. But the archbishop and his Church are determined to do everything possible to see that the election was an expression of “the values of Maidan”: “respect for persons as persons, not as members of an ethnic or religious subdivision of society”; “unity” among all Ukrainians, of whatever background; “integrity” in public life; a determination to “go forward as one country.”
It was finally, the archbishop suggested, a question of faith: Ukrainians must “believe in our country” and believe in Ukraine’s future as Ukraine. And if they did so, he implied, the Ukrainians, like the Poles to whom John Paul II returned their authentic national identity in June 1979, would find tools of resistance to Russian aggression that would permit them to live the new saint’s signature challenge: “Be not afraid!”
“St. John Paul II,” Major-Archbishop Shevchuk said, “will protect us and protect the world from new iron curtains and new Berlin Walls.”
A Message to Russia
Major-Archbishop Shevchuk then said he had “a message for Russia” and “a message for the Russian Orthodox Church,” which he hoped I would transmit — a message all the more striking in light of the aggressions underway against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Russian-ingested Crimea.
To the Russian people:
“We in Ukraine wish to be good neighbors. Do not attack us. We are not your enemies, and we have no aggressive intentions.”
And to the Russian Orthodox Church:
“The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is not an enemy of the Russian Orthodox Church. We are your brothers; we have been born from the same spiritual womb. From the holy city of Kiev, where our peoples were baptized, we are sending you a message of peace. Do not let politicians provoke hatred and bloodshed among us.”
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.