On being Ukrainian Greek Catholic, or, Why a Twenty-First Century Canadian of Pan-European Extraction Would Choose the Church on the Dnieper
It would be disingenuous of me to begin this article by pretending that people often ask how it is I came to be Ukrainian Greek Catholic. They don’t. I think one reason for this is that a German surname in Wales is exotic enough (ubiquitous though it may be in light of its connection with the great technology company), and in any case I might as easily be Ukrainian as German as anything else on the Eastern half of the Continent. This is notwithstanding the peculiar Anglicisation of Iacobus my Christian name represents.For better or worse, ‘James’, as opposed to ‘Iakiv’ or ‘Jakob’, means that I can circulate in British society without any raised eyebrows, at least until I open my mouth.
Really, the only context in which I tend to get asked why I am in the Church I am,is that of the Church itself.It is as if Ukrainians cannot help but wonder why it is that anyone would want to join them except by marriage or accident of Galician birth. Well, first I shall endeavour to set the record straight in terms of my own background, and then I will try to show why a person’s background doesn’t matter all that much when he is on a search for God and ends up encountering Him in the glorious Byzantine traditionas found in Kyivan Rus’.
I had known the work of theologians Fr Alexander Schmemann and Fr John Meyendorff years before it dawned on me that these famous representatives of the Russian Orthodox community in post-1917 France had surnames that sounded more German than Slavic. I have read that both men were, in fact, of noble Russian origin,yet I cannot help but wonderif their backgrounds were not – at least somewhere along the line – similar to my own, at least in ethnic terms. After all, my Mennonite-German grandparents came from Ukraine, my grandfather having suffered first-hand inthe political vacuum left by Bolsheviksuccess in Moscow. Indeed, he fled the country around Dniepropetrovsk after losing his own family to the Makhnovshchina, and arrived in Manitoba, Canada only a couple of years before the Holodomor. To be clear, many generations of my ancestors’ sweat mingled with Ukrainian soil, before they added their blood as well, in the wake of the Revolution.
For all that, I was raised in Canada as an Anglican, and it was in this context that my love for Christ’s Church was fostered. Like many Anglicans of the ‘Anglo-Catholic’ tradition, though, I asked myself for years what I would do ‘when the time came’. In other words, when it was clear that I could no longer live as a traditionally-minded Anglican, would I become Orthodox or Catholic? And I am sure that I remained in the Anglican Church longer than I might have for this one reason: I was seeking to reconcile my love for Orthodoxy and Orthodox Tradition with my belief in the role of Romeas the See of St Peter and locus of Christian unity.
In saying this, I am well aware that there are Orthodox Christians that may dispute my emphasis on the importance of communion with Rome, and there are Catholics that would wonder how I could possibly love Orthodoxy without the Pope, but I am not really interested in polemics. At the same time as I recognisetheir legitimate concerns, I lookto the Church of the first millennium and see a community that did not agree on all points and expressions of the Faith, but held certain fundamental tenets in common and so communed together, and I look for the same thing in my own ecclesiastical subscription. I suppose this would make me one of those ‘Orthodox in communion with Rome’ folk, not really appreciated by either side;regardless, I will happily stand alongside such great figures as Patriarch Josyp(Slipyj), of blessed memory, in the struggle to be faithful to Eastern traditions while living in the substantial – if benevolent – shadow of Rome. To me, something like theZoghbyInitiative is not just a theological proposition to be mulled over; its straightforward tenets are something like a personal constitution as I undertake to live my Christian life as an Eastern Catholic.
But now that I have nailed my colours to the mast in terms of any ancestral draw to the Ukrainian Church, together with some of the theological stakes that make me a Greek Catholic, the fact is, there is more than that to my choosing such a home.
First of all, when I enter the Liturgy of my Church, I know that I am stepping into a piece of divine drama that has been unfolding on the same stage, and according to the same directions, for close to two thousand years. As a Protestant friend of mine once commented after she had experienced her first Divine Liturgy: ‘I feel like I am at least a thousand years closer to Jesus’. As the reader will have guessed from previous articles, I cannot overstate the importance of this. When rites transcend the specific time and place where they are performed, they carry participants to a realm where there is no time, and place has no bounds.
On top of this, and as if this was not enough, I find myself on the same road as the anonymous pilgrim of ‘The Way of the Pilgrim’. So, whereas the Jesus Prayer was always available to me, I knew that as long as I used it from a place outside of the Eastern Church, I was doing so as a tourist. I now know that I can be a companion. The counsels of the likes of St John Cassian, St Maximus the Confessor, St John of Damascus, and St Symeon the New Theologian, meanwhile, whereas they could always be sought out in the Philokalia, are now open to me in a more authentic, natural way within the de facto handbook of Eastern spirituality.
Indeed, there is far more that could be said of the home I have found within the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church than a thousand-word article can justly treat. There are personal factors, theological factors, ethnic, ancestral, and cultural factors I have not accounted for that only a small book could cover. What I would want everyone to understand, though, is that whatever their ethnicity, whatever their background, if they are interested in the Faith delivered by Christ to his apostles and want to experience it in a living form that connects them directly with the saints of the early Church, then the Church of St Wolodymyr and St Olha, the Church of Kyivan Rus’, is happy to have them.The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Orthodox in faith and practice yet incommunion with the Church of Rome, is one such body, and I am blessed to serve within her.