Head of the UGCC: We Send a Request for Forgiveness to Our Polish Brothers!
I believe that as Christians, as representatives of our churches, we must play a very important role in the continuation of the Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said in an interview with KAI on the occasion of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the Volyn tragedy.
“And if we send a request for forgiveness to our Polish brothers, it means that we feel guilty,” he adds.
KAI: A remarkable process of reconciliation and cooperation between Poland and Ukraine has been observed over the last couple of decades. Our churches—the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Catholic Church in Poland—have played an important role in dealing with the troubled past. How does Your Beatitude see this process?
- It has its own history, specifically a 25-year-old history. It started during the celebration of the millennium of Christianity in Ukraine. The first meeting of Greek Catholic and Polish Roman Catholic bishops was held at the Vatican in 1987. This October marks 25 years since the celebration of the millennium of Christianity in Ukraine in Jasna Gora. On this occasion there was a memorial Mass with Cardinal Jozef Hlempa and the then leader of the Greek Catholic Church, Cardinal Myroslav Lyubachivsky, and Greek Catholic bishops from around the world. The next major step toward mutual understanding and reconciliation was the Mass that John Paul II celebrated in 2001 in Lviv, during which Cardinal Lubomyr Husar stressed the importance of reflecting on Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. At that time the word “sorry” was used: this arose from the need of mutual forgiveness. Finally, there was a joint statement of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Polish episcopate in Warsaw and Lviv. My predecessors started very important determinants of a common path. There was also a testament that was given to us by the blessed Pope John Paul II. He was a great patron of the Greek Catholic Church, and he strongly supported Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation
KAI: What are today’s challenges in this field?
- As Ukrainians and Poles, we are brotherly peoples, sons of the Catholic Church. We had a difficult history that cannot be changed. But together we can build the future. We must also build cooperation between our churches and between the Ukrainian and Polish nations. We also need to look for ways to improve the people's memory.
I believe that as Christians, as representatives of our churches, we need to play a very important role in the continuation of Ukrainian-Polish reconciliation. This process has its own history, but it is not over yet. When the anniversary of some tragedy approaches (this year the anniversary of what happened in Volyn) the pain returns. The memories of the survivors of those crimes return. They are still alive. Today it is a challenge. Reconciliation, declared by the churches, must reach the consciousness, conscience, and heart of each and every Ukrainian and Pole. We must work on this.
KAI: This is stated in a message to mark the anniversary of the Volyn tragedy, which the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church announced in March. In Poland, however, it caused some confusion, as it does not adequately explain the mutual history, nor does it specify who the victim was and who the perpetrator was.
- This message was addressed to the faithful of the Greek Catholic Church and I hope that it will play an important role. It was read in our churches at the beginning of Lent, on the Sunday that is called Forgiveness Sunday. It recalls that during Lent we cannot ask God to forgive our sins if we ourselves are not able to ask our neighbors to forgive the sins or the wrongdoings that we committed against them. We cannot start a spiritual journey of Lent, if we do not want to be free from the sins committed against our neighbors. I hope that the message of the Synod of the Greek Catholic Church was a step in this direction. The point is for these basic moral principles – which are also foundations of the Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation – to reach the minds and hearts of Ukrainian Greek Catholics. I hope that the relations between our church and the Polish Episcopal Conference will continue this process.
KAI: On the eve of the anniversary of the Volyn tragedy the Greek Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church planned to release a joint statement. Why did it not happen?
- This is a very important question. Last fall we decided to prepare a joint statement. The decision was made at the annual meeting between the episcopate of the Roman Catholic Church and our Synod. Soon after we started to work on the statement, but the text still needed be finalized, as not everyone liked it.
Work began on the final text. Bishop Josaphat Hovera of Volyn from our side and Stanislaw Shyrokoradiuk, the administrator of the Volyn Archdiocese of Roman Catholic Church, from the Polish side were appointed to work on it. They prepared the text at the beginning of this year. Most of our bishops liked it, though still needed some work. And after it was edited by two Volyn bishops, it needed to by polished by me and the Lviv Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki.
And then there was a problem. We suggested the wording: “We forgive and ask for forgiveness.” Archbishop Mokrzycki, however, disagreed and suggested the wording: “We apologize and ask for forgiveness.” The result of such a formulation would be a one-sided apology from the Ukrainian side, despite the fact that Poles are also guilty of certain things against us. The Ukrainian side would never agree to this wording. Moreover, the wording that we suggested was not ours, but from a quote taken from a letter of the Polish Bishops to the German episcopate in 1965. And the same wording was confirmed in a joint letter from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and the Polish Roman Catholic Churches in 2005. Archbishop Mokrzycki’s proposed change exceeds my competence. In February we had a meeting of the Synod, where he outlined his request, but it was not accepted.
Personally, I believe that as church representatives only in such a way can we speak of the tragic events, and historians should carefully research the details, including the number of victims on each side. It is not the task of the bishops but of historians.
I know that in Poland the historical study of crimes in Volyn is very developed. On the Ukrainian side, unfortunately, it is not. President Yushchenko, however, founded the Institute of National Remembrance, but in recent years this institution has become, as we call it, the “National Institute of Oblivion.” There is no objective research done on this issue by the Ukrainian side. There is a huge gap between the Polish and Ukrainian research. In this situation, it is difficult for us, the hierarchs, to take a specific position on the interpretation of the historical facts, which local historians have not yet explored. We can encourage historians to do this, but the execution of detailed studies must be left to them. At this stage, we assess these events only from a Christian point of view, rather than a historical one.
KAI: But in the Christian assessment, if something bad has been done, can’t one say sorry?
- Of course. That’s why the Greek Catholic Church wrote in a letter that if someone has committed a crime, he or she is a criminal. This must be clearly stated because it is a violation of the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” The only way to heal the memory is through forgiveness. Thus we cite in the letter the famous historical phrase: “We forgive and ask for forgiveness.” And if we send a request for forgiveness to our Polish brothers, it means that we feel guilty.
KAI: You agree that in Volyn in 1943 there were ethnic cleansings of Poles?
- Yes. And it said so in our letter. We call things by their names. I'm sorry that there has still not been a joint statement.
KAI: Your Beatitude, you are the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is one of the fastest growing religious communities in Europe. This is the church that 20 years ago was set free in Ukraine, which was previously sentenced to destruction. How was this change possible in such a short period of time?
- It’s not easy to explain by human logic. Why did God decide to revive our church? Tertullian said that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” In the context of these words, I would examine the modern history of our church, which gave witness to Christ in the worst times of communism. Bishops, priests, monks, and the laity bore witness. They were the blessed martyrs of the twentieth century, they were the “Christian seed.” I, as a priest and bishop, am the fruit of their blood. I had the honor of meeting these people in the underground church. In our community, the Greek Catholic Church attracts the Crucified and Risen Christ, and in it work his forces. Moreover, in the Soviet Union, which was a huge machine that destroyed human dignity – our church was the largest group of social resistance. It could not be destroyed by Stalin nor by his successors. The strength these people had, of course, was from the Holy Spirit.
KAI: And how was it in your family?
- Beginning in 1938 my grandfather served in the Polish army, was in German captivity as a Polish soldier. After the war when he was in Wroclaw, he met his future wife, my grandmother, and together they returned to their homeland in western Ukraine. In 1991, my grandfather received from Poland a medal for the defense of the motherland. Many Greek Catholics in Galicia had a similar fate. My family imparted faith in me, for faith helped them live.
KAI: How did you practice your faith in communist times?
- Underground. My family was very religious, but, unfortunately, could not openly express their faith. When possible, Greek Catholic liturgies were celebrated in private homes. On Sundays we went to the Roman Catholic Church in Striy. When people ask me where I learned the Polish language, I say in the church, participating in the Holy Mass.
The Catholic Church was one of the forces that could destroy the Soviet Union. I must stress once again that despite persecution and suffering, our church was able to maintain its identity. It never cooperated with the Communists, and therefore, when it emerged from the underground it was very attractive. For young people it represented real values. And now our church is very young. The average age of our priests is 35. After the fall of Communism and the restoration of Ukrainian independence in the 1990s, our church, because of its authenticity, attracted the younger generation. That’s when I had the calling to the priesthood.
KAI: During the times of Communist rule, did you meet any Greek Catholic priests?
- The first time I met a Greek Catholic priest was at my great-grandfather’s funeral. Then I was 13 years old. At age 15 (in 1985) I met a group of boys who were seminarians at an underground Greek Catholic seminary.
KAI: Was the Roman Catholic priest who celebrated the Mass you attended aware of the fact that you were Greek Catholic?
- He must have known. Some Roman Catholic priests allowed Greek Catholic priests to serve in their churches, especially in the Roman Catholic cathedral in Lviv. Despite the high risk, our cooperation in times of Communist rule, when our church was persecuted, was very good. There are many examples of this.
KAI: What are the main tasks for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church today?
- I think that the church’s era of euphoric and dynamic development has not passed. We are continuing to develop not only in Europe but also in the Americas and Australia. Two years ago I was a bishop in Argentina and saw how our church was growing. The revival of the church, which began in Ukraine, has now enveloped all of our diaspora. In addition, we have a new wave of immigration to countries where before there were very few Ukrainians – to Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Israel. The believers who live there ask for pastoral care and we send them priests. This enthusiasm is still ongoing. Even in Ukraine, which is experiencing a political and economic crisis, young people seek in our church points of orientation and a solid foundation for their lives. We have an important moral authority for young people. There is a similar situation in other Christian churches that make up the nationwide Council of Churches and Religious Organizations. The council represents 75% of Ukraine's population and is considered the true moral authority in society.
KAI: What is the situation with the priestly vocation?
- Thank God, we have a lot of them. Excluding Transcarpathia, currently 800 seminarians are preparing for the priesthood in five seminaries. Compared with the 1990s when we experienced a boom of priestly vocations, the number of vocations has decreased, which means that we are back to normal. At present, our church structures have strengthened. Today we operate not only in the western part of Ukraine but throughout its territory. Three years ago we opened a seminary in Kyiv, and now 24 seminarians study there. But there we have a problem – there are not enough places to accept all those who are interested.
KAI: Please describe the UGCC’s Strategy 2020, which aims to revive religious life in all the parishes.
Over the past five years bishops have worked on the strategy. I took part in this when I was a bishop in Buenos Aires. The Synod of Bishops was aware that our “boom” would eventually come to end but that the church would have to develop in other ways. We adopted a strategy for the next 10 years trying to answer the question: “How do we see our church in the future?” Unifying the dreams of our bishops from around the world was not easy. After much discussion we came to the conclusion that we want, above all, a living parish, which will be the center of church life. Regardless of whether the parish is in Ukraine, or in another country, whether it is small or big, it must be a living community, where one can feel the presence of the living Christ. That is why we called our strategy “The Living Parish: A Place to Encounter the Living Christ.” When I presented our program to Pope Benedict XVI, he said: “This is precisely the new evangelization.” I also presented our program at the last Synod of Bishops in Rome. I showed that in fact the parish is the first place of the new evangelization. One of the Italian bishops drew my attention to the fact that the Catholic parish is in many cases a giant who sleeps and who must be woken. Only then will we be able to succeed in the new evangelization.
KAI: What role do the new evangelization movements play in the UGCC?
- We have not only outside movements, but many of our own, which emerged from the parish communities. It should be noted that the outside movements should respect our church identity. We have about twenty of our own movements, for example, the Movement of Young Married Couples. Its participants are couples who we prepared to enter into marriage. They themselves created this movement and it is now expanding across Ukraine. Another dynamic community movement is Mothers in Prayer. It is very popular among women who want to pray for their children.
KAI: What place does the UGCC have in the Catholic Church? We know that over the years there has been a desire to obtain a patriarchate. What does this mean and when can this be expected?
- For us a patriarchate is not some external church decoration. It is a modus vivendi – a mode of existence for an Eastern Church that is developing. In the tradition of the Eastern Churches, each church sui iuris seeks to exist as patriarchal church.
The history and resurrection of our church is the story of the pursuit of becoming a patriarchal church. As head of the UGCC, in accordance with canon law, I have all the right to be a patriarch. But I still do no have this title.
I am the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, not only in Ukraine but also in the world. The life of our metropolitanates abroad and in our country is governed according to the principles of a patriarchal church. And there are patriarchal churches that don’t have such a developed church structure as ours. This title is also important for the international recognition of the dignity of our church, not only for ourselves but also for the development of our relations with the Catholic Church.
KAI: What is the UGCC’s place in the ecumenical movement?
- We talked about the importance of the martyrs’ testimony for our church. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that the martyrs sought unity for the church. They were forced to break the unity with the Catholic Church and become Orthodox. They endured martyrdom because they were advocates of church unity: they died and were sent to labor camps. Now our church is a thorn in the side for all those who are seeking true unity. My predecessor, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, said that the biggest obstacle to the unity of the church is that not all seek it. In present times unity is not valued. Diversity and tolerance are valued. We believe that no good can come from our being divided both within the Catholic Church and in our relations with the Orthodox. Our mission is to call for unity.
KAI: Some, especially the Russian Orthodox Church, say that you (Greek Catholics) are an obstacle to unity...
- That is because they subconsciously object to the unity of the church. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, said that the Orthodox Church is very interested in forming a strategic alliance with the Catholic Church so that we can come together and bear witness to traditional moral values. However, he does not want unity. According to Metropolitan Hilarion, we have to tolerate each other, work together, but not unite.
Therefore we, Greek Catholics, have to think about how to fulfill the will of Jesus Christ, so that we are all united. The Catholic Church seeks to be a promoter of authentic unity. I was recently in Istanbul, where I met with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. I was surprised by his openness and desire to unite our churches. He did not treat us as Uniates that interfere with the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. I saw how the patriarch and his church desire church unity. He never questioned our right to exist as a Catholic Church of the Eastern Rite.
KAI: How is your relationship with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate?
- First of all, we have to establish a reciprocal relationship. So far we have relations only at an informal level. Furthermore, we both believe that we are the heirs of the same tradition of the Kyivan Church, that we originate from the same Baptism of Rus’, the 1025th anniversary of which we are celebrating this year.
In current times, if we seek to keep our roots and bear witness to Christ, then we must strive for harmony and union with the Orthodox. An example for us can be the historic beginning of reconciliation initiated by the signing of a joint statement of the Polish Episcopal Conference and the Russian Orthodox Church in August of last year. I have said this many times, that we Greek Catholics need to move in the same direction.
In addition, reconciliation between the two churches will help in the reconciliation between the Ukrainian and Russian nations. As often happens between neighbors, we have many mutual historical problems, but we cannot build a future without Christian communication. It is not easy to talk about it in Ukraine. The process of reconciliation will also help overcome Ukrainophobia in Russia and stop the Russification of Ukraine. We very much feel the influence of Russian culture in our country. It seems that it is even greater than it was in the time of the Soviet Union. Therefore, such reconciliation is inevitable and we must strive for it. As а Catholic Church, we are ready for this and expect the same from the side of the Russian Orthodox Church. We are not tied to the government nor to any geopolitical project. In Ukraine, we are just a Church of Christ and nothing else. It gives us a sense of freedom in the quest of what is truly Christian.
KAI: The UGCC often speaks critically about the sociopolitical situation in Ukraine. Does it create any problems with the present Ukrainian government?
- Sometimes we have problems, but generally much good doesn’t come from good relations with a government, whatever kind it may be.
KAI: What role do you see for the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine?
- There are a lot of Roman Catholics in Ukraine. They are our brothers, with whom during the difficult Soviet times we attended the same church. The resurrection of the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine was God's will. This was not a political project. Above all, it is a Ukrainian Church, especially in the center and east of the country. The west, Galicia, is dominated by Poles. Besides, the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine is multiethnic and uses the Ukrainian, Polish and Russian languages. We are always looking for ways to support each other. This is especially needed in Ukraine because we live in a country with an Orthodox majority.
KAI: But there are problems. We often hear accusations that Greek Catholics are against returning churches to Roman Catholics, especially in Lviv and in western Ukraine. In Lviv this refers to the Church of Our Lady of Candlemas and the old seminary chapel. Can this be solved?
- The needs of the Roman Catholic Church are justified, and we support them. This is not a problem between the Greek Catholic and Roman Catholic Churches. In the 1990s the Ukrainian government gave the Greek Catholics control over some ancient Roman Catholic churches in western Ukraine. This happened because back then we had difficulties with the Orthodox, who did not want to give back our ancient churches.
As a result, in some places in western Ukraine there are Roman Catholic churches, which now are being used by Greek Catholics but which the Roman Catholic communities need. I agree that these churches should be returned. But it is not always that easy. It is difficult to discuss the question with the local Greek Catholic parish that uses the church.
KAI: And you cannot say to give up this church because the Roman Catholics need it, and we already have many churches and will cope without it?
- We do that, but it doesn’t always work. Something similar happened in 1991 in Poland, in Przemysl. The pope requested that the ancient Greek Catholic church be returned to the Greek Catholics, but some Roman Catholics prevented this from happening.
KAI: But the Greek Catholics in Przemysl received in return another church...
- As the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, we are aware of the needs of Roman Catholics and support their requests and when possible seek seek solutions. We also support the needs of the Roman Catholic Church in its relations with the state. The issue of the restitution to the churches of ancient property that was taken by the communist regime is now being discussed in Ukraine.
KAI: Is there any chance that the Ukrainian government will give back what it stole from the churches?
- Yes. Currently in our discussions with the government, we are discussing the mechanisms that would make this possible. There are serious legal problems, but we are discussing it. The problem is that none of the churches in Ukraine has a legal status. Individual parishes have the status of a legal entity, but the churches do not. This is different in Poland, where a solution was found in a concordat with the Holy See, and in the case of other churches, in separate legislation. We feel that the Ukrainian state is rather open to dealing with this, but a solution has yet to be found.
KAI: How does Your Beatitude see the future of the cooperation of our churches: the Roman Catholic Church in Poland with the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine?
- Much still needs to be done. First of all, I want to state that I wish to continue the work of my predecessor, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, in this field. I am heir to all of this, and furthermore in a way I have been involved in this process because for many years I was his secretary. I am convinced that this is the only way to the future. We must continue the cooperation, especially because I see goodwill from both sides.
KAI: How exactly can it be continued?
- On the one hand, we have to create and maintain joint initiatives. For example, there is a Council of Polish-Ukrainian Reconciliation, headed by Cardinal Lubomyr Husar. This year there will be an annual awards ceremony. It is important that a hierarch from the Roman Catholic Church in Poland joins the council. Cardinal Dziwisz has already agreed.
A joint pilgrimage, especially with young people, can play an important role. This year Ukrainian youth – 700 people together with the Greek Catholic Bishop of Stryi – participated in a joint Way of the Cross to the camp at Majdanek. I am convinced that the future belongs to the youth. If it accepts the idea of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, it will continue in the future.
Joint meetings between our Synod and the episcopate of Poland would also have a lot of significance. There need to be not only joint divine services but also joint declarations. Indeed, Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation must be restored in the memory of our peoples and societies.
Equally important is this year's idea of Days of Common Prayer (July 11), born during the negotiations with the Latin Rite Church in Ukraine. I am not sure whether the event will take place this year, but I am deeply convinced that a day of common prayer for all victims should be organized.
I recently visited Volyn and I was very sorry that I did not find a single monument to the murdered Poles. There must be a place of prayer for the victims of this crime, a place where one could pay homage to the victims. There should also be monuments to the honored and victims from the Ukrainian side. If we pray together, it will be important testimony.
KAI: How do you see the future of Ukraine and its place in the European space?
- Ukraine’s and Ukrainians’ future is in the European Union. In February of this year, representatives of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations visited Strasbourg. There we witnessed on behalf of the Ukrainian society that Ukraine’s future is in the EU. This does not mean that we like everything there, but our future is there. Ukraine's path toward EU integration is through Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation and understanding, so we ask our fellow Poles to help us.
KAI: This we guarantee you.
- We know this and that is why we are very grateful to the Polish people.
KAI: How do you feel as a successor to the great Greek Catholic hierarchs – Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky and Cardinal Josyf Slipyj?
- For me it is an honor and also a great challenge to try to live up to their legacies and continue their activities. On the other hand, I feel under their care. Metropolitan Andrey was my heavenly guardian when, after the fall of the Soviet Union, as the first Greek Catholic, I went to Rome to study and came back with a doctorate.
KAI: What does that mean?
- I consider him as my heavenly patron. When Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky told me that he wanted to send me to Rome to study, I went to the crypt of the Cathedral of St. George, where Metropolitan Sheptytsky is buried, to ask him for his blessings and protection. I felt his presence. When I was rector of the seminary in Lviv, in particular, in the time of prayer, I felt communion with Cardinal Slipyj, who at one time was also a young rector of the seminary. There were times when there was no one to consult or to speak with when I had to make a decision. Then I asked for the help of Cardinal Slipyj. Everything always turned out well.
In addition, I received yet another great gift – that my predecessor, Cardinal Husar, still lives. He is with me and helping me. He is my spiritual father and counselor.
KAI: How do you perceive the beginning of the pontificate of Pope Francis and what can the Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church hope from him?
- I am very happy he was selected and I see a big chance for a fresh breath of the Holy Spirit in the Church.
KAI: In 2009-2011, you were the auxiliary bishop of the Greek Catholic Eparchy of the Holy Virgin in Buenos Aires. This meant working closely with then Primate of Argentina Cardinal Bergoglio. How would you describe your cooperation? What are your memories of those days?
- When I started serving as bishop in Argentina, I was only 38 years old. I asked God for someone to become my guide. God gave me Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. For me he was a man sent from God; he helped me make my first steps in Argentina. From him I learned what it means to be a bishop.
Cardinal Bergoglio was a very humble man, simple in his relations with others, but also very deep. I believe that authenticity and humility will be the treasure that the pope will give the Universal Church. He will be full of surprises.
A few days ago I received a letter from him in which he wrote: “I happily recall our meetings in Buenos Aires and your zeal working with the Ukrainian flock that was entrusted to you.” The fact that the pope remembers our church is a good sign for the future.
KAI: Cardinal Bergoglio probably owes much to a Greek Catholic priest with whom he was acquainted in his youth?
- When I first met Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina, he greeted me in Ukrainian: “Glory to Jesus Christ.” He explained that when he was a student at a Salesian school, he met a Ukrainian Salesian priest Father Stepan Chmil. He helped him, ministered at the Eastern liturgy. I asked him to write his testimony for the priest's beatification process, which started recently. He promised to do so.
Perhaps the poise of the Ukrainian priest had an impact on the current pope’s personality and his becoming a priest.
Marcin Przeciszewski and Krzysztof Tomasik for KAI