Dynamic young leader takes helm of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
The names of two esteemed religious figures resonate when Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the new head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, speaks.
One died well before the archbishop was born. The other when he was rooted in his religious career.
The spirits of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky – the pious, savvy and bold leader of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church during World War II – and Pope John Paul II promise to be guiding forces as Shevchuk embarks on his journey of leading a global church which numbers five million faithful.
At 41, Shevchuk is one of the youngest people to head the church, which adheres to Catholic tenets but practices Byzantine rites. He is only a few years older than Sheptytsky was when he took office in 1901.
Born in Stryi and educated in Italy, the archbishop appears surprisingly at ease with the weight of responsibility that has been put on his shoulders.
In an interview held in a simple office just steps from Sheptytsky’s former residence at St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv, Shevchuk is cheerful, speaks eagerly of bringing more young people into the church’s fold and does not sidestep questions like how can he ensure he won’t be corrupted by the power now in his hands.
After two months in office – he was inaugurated in Kyiv on March 27 – Shevchuk said he is filled more with impressions than lessons.
The first impression is how important the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has become. Followers span from Ukraine into the Americas, yet trace their roots mostly from western Ukraine.
“Our church is a very strong and respected church in the world,” Shevchuk said. At the same time, “today we are looked at perhaps with some distrust because of certain stereotypes that the Soviet regime formed, but I think with large respect.”
The church – which preached to a largely nationalistic and anti-communist population – was banned during the Soviet period, with many priests arrested, deported and sent to labor camps in Siberia.
Although it continued to exist underground for decades, it was aggressively attacked in the Soviet media.
Another important impression is that people are looking to the church for stability, not only as an institution but as a defender of Ukrainian statehood.
“Ukraine as a state is going through a very tumultuous time,” Shevchuk said. “Perhaps our people are tired of the storm. …What the regular Ukrainian, and perhaps what all people in Ukraine, are awaiting from our church is to be a foundation for Ukrainian society and Ukrainian independence. Perhaps we with our presence will give a certain stability.”
To create that stability, high on the church’s agenda will be to reach out to young people.
“There is something [we can] learn from Pope John Paul II,” Shevchuk said.
The recently beautified and Polish-born pontiff had a long history of outreach to young people and the disaffected during his 26-year tenure of as head of the Catholic Church.
His jamborees with young people, held throughout the world, drew millions.
“These meetings should always stimulate some common action,” Shevchuk said. “In fact, these weren’t meetings to calm everyone. …These were meetings to say – Do it!”
In as much as he plans to use social networking tools to reach out to youth, Shevchuk said it was important for the church to nurture human contacts.
The world may be more globalized, but in that process, people have built their own communities which often shut out larger society, creating isolation.
“We have a need for a united community,” he said.
Shevchuk said he hopes to build on his experience in Argentina, where he headed the church before becoming archbishop.
There, communities, some remote and without regular priests, would meet periodically. The number of young people who attended those gatherings grew exponentially, he said.
“They looked forward to those meetings….It was a challenge to dialogue,” he said.
An idea Shevchuk is entertaining is a suggestion made recently that he hold public audiences, similar to the type the pope has in Rome.
“I thought, why not?” he said. He said it is important the church be “open.”
That means also being more visible to a larger world.
Shevchuk’s predecessor, Lubomyr Husar, moved the church’s headquarters to Kyiv after being based in Lviv for many decades.
Previous regimes had essentially relegated the church to one that only catered to western Ukrainians and its diaspora.
It had, however, long been a dream for its leaders, including Sheptytsky who headed the church for over 40 years and who Shevchuk called “my protector,” for it to be based in Kyiv.
“We’ve come into a new stage of building our church,” Shevchuk said. “We returned to Kyiv. We returned there and with our presence there, are beginning to build. For me, this return means the exit out of a regional status, that [everyone] always wanted to close us in.”
Shevchuk is younger than many of Ukraine’s other church leaders and that is likely to work in his favor; he has the opportunity to truly shape the direction of the church for many years to come.
Sheptytsky, for instance, with his four-decade rule made it a force to be reckoned with.
Does that mean Shevchuk could become a modern-day version of Sheptytsky?
Shevchuk smiled when reminded he could be in office a long time, but noted Ukrainians still don’t understand Sheptytsky’s “greatness.”
Liliana Hentosh, a leading Sheptytsky scholar said the metropolitan was “a big person and a person of his situation. Now it is a different era.” Still, people want to see a leader in Shevchuk.
“He will have to decide many questions. …The one thing to remember is that side of Sheptytsky that was his humanity. He could easily understand another person… But the hope is put on [Shevchuk] that he will be a worthy continuation of Sheptytsky.”
The Rev. Peter Galadza, a professor at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in Ottawa, has known Shevchuk since the 1990s.
He said the archbishop has all the qualities to become a modern-day version of the church head.
“A great leader is not necessarily the one who gives people what they want, but what they need. I believe that’s the kind of leader Sviatoslav can be,” he said.
Shevchuk said he does not have all the answers to Ukraine’s problems. He clearly, however, understands how his actions are interpreted will be a reflection on the church itself.
“The credit of faith our church has today, this is a certain assignment that also stands before me as the head of our church,” he said.
As for that question about being corrupted by power, Shevchuk said with a smile: “I would like to answer this question by putting forward this phrase of St. Augustine who told his faithful, ‘For you I am a bishop and along with you, I am a Christian.’”
Editor’s Note: The Kyiv Post asked the Rev. Peter Galadza to comment on what Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the new head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, can bring to the institution both in Ukraine and globally. We also wanted to know if the archbishop has the potential to become a modern-day version of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, the 20th century leader who made the church a driving force in Ukrainian society. Galadza has known the archbishop since the 1990s. Shevchuk was Galadza’s successor as dean of theology at the Lviv Theological Academy. Galadza is currently the Kule Family Professor of Liturgy at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at Saint Paul University in Ottawa. The following are his remarks.
“Without a doubt, Patriarch Sviatoslav is a godsend. He is the best candidate that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Synod could have chosen. He is a man of deep piety, great intelligence and dynamic drive. He is also disarmingly human - in the best sense of that word - just like his predecessor, Patriarch Lubomyr. Also, he does not suffer from "completion anxiety." He is not afraid to follow through on projects.
As for leading the UGCC worldwide, again he was the best candidate. First, because the head of the Ukrainian Church must be a Ukrainian – meaning a citizen of that country. Second, because he is a real Ukrainian who also speaks several Western languages fluently! And he knows the West because he has lived and studied there. He is also committed to ensuring that, in the West, the Ukrainian Church does not remain just an immigrant phenomenon, intended only for the first generation. So often the children and grandchildren have left our parishes because the leadership insisted on allowing them to become ethnic enclaves rather than communities of Christ. Patriarch Sviatoslav is not afraid to use other languages in worship whenever they are needed. This does not mean "promoting assimilation" but only growing organically with our communities.
Finally, can he become another Sheptytsky? Well, remember that, unlike Sheptytsky, he doesn't have the financial resources … So, to take just one example, he won’t be able to set up hospitals using his personal finances. But more importantly, the church that he presides over is not the one that Sheptytsky inherited – with established institutions and ingrained social traditions. Elsewhere I have noted that after decades of Soviet rule, even Sheptytsky would have been stymied at every turn. Besides, in the West as well, religious institutions have to contend with a decline in authority. So again, Sheptytsky today would encounter hurdles that were unimaginable in 1901. Otherwise, however, Patriarch Sviatoslav really is another Sheptytsky.
But we forget that Sheptytsky was scorned by certain segments of Galician Ukrainian society until 1917, when he returned from tsarist exile. And there were those nationalists who did not appreciate his unabashed preaching of Christ. So let's keep in mind that a great leader is not necessarily the one who gives people what they want, but what they need. I believe that's the kind of leader Sviatoslav can be. And in response to those who ask, "So why didn't anyone foresee his election?" The answer is: no one imagined a miracle (choosing the youngest bishop). But that's our God – one who does wonders – and fortunately Sviatoslav is willing to serve Him.
Natalia A. FEDUSCHAK
10 June 2011 KyivPost