"Politics can blow up in the church’s basement."
Interview with Archbishop Ihor (ISICHENKO) of Poltava and Kharkiv of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
Recently the 17th Sobor [Assembly] of the Kharkiv and Poltava Eparchy of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) took place. His Excellency Ihor Isichenko shared with RISU recent news and decisions of the UAOC.
- Correspondent: Please tell us what is the main reason for gathering the eparchial sobor. Can the rumors about uniting the UAOC and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) be the reason for this?
Archbishop Ihor: No, of course not! The life of the church cannot be set by rumors. Instead, a yearly sobor is one of the main factors that can secure the rhythm of life of our eparchy. Usually it takes place during Great Lent, so priests and lay persons can be absorbed by the atmosphere of common prayer, unite in Christ through the sacraments, and think about the growth of the community inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit through the following year.
- What topics were discussed at the sobor?
- As usual, the main directions for future pastoral service were discussed at the sobor. Pastoral care for families and increasing personal contacts between priest and parish were highlighted. His Beatitude Metropolitan Constantine [Kostiantyn Bahan, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, UOC USA], who is the spiritual leader of our community in Ukraine according to the National Sobor in 2000, is far away from us. That is why the decisions of the sobor help me personally as an archbishop while thinking about strategies for the growth of the eparchy. Certainly, we also have to think about attempts to get the eparchial community involved in some “adventures.” Preventative measures to avoid these “adventures” are not of great importance.
- Going back to the question about the rumors, can you please say who can benefit from such an information campaign against the UAOC? What decisions were made concerning so-called “adventures”?
- Usually news about the next step towards so-called “unification of the UAOC and UOC-MP” appear in the media of the Moscow Patriachate and then are unwillingly copied by those partners of the UOC-MP who welcome “unification.” So, it is not hard to guess who is the author of the scenario of such processes and who can benefit from it. Finally, this is a problem of those communities which are involved in “unification.” Our eparchy is not involved in this. That is why the sobor has not passed any decisions about this. Because of the fact that “the UAOC” was mentioned in published declarations of the “unification committee.” and its name was used by a group of Galician [western Ukrainian] clergy without any reason, we had to consider this case. It caused a special declaration of the sobor.
- What actually are the details of the conflict?
- In 2003 a group of communities separated from the UAOC and refused to follow the decisions of the National Sobor of 2000. The support of the government enabled this group to make duplicates of the registration document and use the name “UAOC.” On 4 February 2005 it occupied the building of the Patriarchate of the UAOC. It is a great pity that the Secretariat of the President of Ukraine in fact supported this organization in hope of the unification with the UOC-KP [Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate] promised in 2005. Certainly, there was no unification, but when forces supporting the UOC-MP won the parliamentary elections, declarations about unifying with the UOC-MP appeared. Even a document prohibiting eucharistic communion with the UOC-KP was passed, forgetting the fact that leaders of the Galician “UAOC” had been ordained by the UOC-KP.
- What can be the reasons for such behavior?
- You should ask this question to political strategists and the special security services, not me. During the 14 years of my ministry as bishop I have realized that the divisions of the UAOC were artificial and caused by two main reasons. There are desires to separate the UAOC in Ukraine from its religious center in the diaspora. There is also a tendency to limit the territory of the UAOC to Halychyna [far western Ukraine] and not to allow it to grow in other parts of “left bank” [east of the Dnipro] Ukraine.
- Explain the consequences of such a situation and your strategy for development.
- The part of the UAOC that separated from its center abroad is deteriorating and becoming more and more dependent on the Russian church tradition. Their leader almost cannot speak the Ukrainian language. We lost the patriarchate but we managed to save an eparchy that acknowledges the authority of His Beatitude Metropolitan Constantine. Communities in various regions of Ukraine which remained faithful to the testaments of patriarchs Mstyslav and Dymytrii and the decisions of the National Sobor of 2000 are temporarily under the jurisdiction of the Kharkiv and Poltava Eparchy. The juridical rights of the eparchy are guaranteed due to the registration of its status and the statutes of its center, the consistory.
- Do you see any possibility for resolving problems with schisms and creating a single, national Ukrainian church?
- No doubt, there is [such a possibility]. A single national church was created at the beginning of 1942. The Kharkiv and Poltava Eparchy joined it on 27 July 1942. It is not going to betray the agreement between Metropolitan Feofil (Buldovskyi) and Bishop (later Patriarch) Mstyslav (Skrypnyk). Acts about joining the UOC [Ukrainian Orthodox Church] in Canada from 1990, the UOC in the USA., and the UAOC in the diaspora from 1995 under the mantle of the ecumenical patriarch [of Constantinople] and the creation of a single conference of Ukrainian Orthodox bishops in the diaspora is the model that can support centripetal movement in the Ukrainian Orthodox community in the homeland. It should grow only within canonical limits.
- Now it is necessary to recall words often used by the technicians of “canonical territory.” In your opinion, is there a possibility for several canonical jurisdictions to exist in one place?
- The notion “canonical territory” gains new meaning in today’s world, full of globalization processes. The migration of Orthodox Greeks, Slavs, Romanians, and Arabs changes the map of the world. In the last 10 or 15 years, parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate have been opened in South-East Asia, South Africa, and Western Europe. So, they open in all the different places where Russians come and it does not matter if any other canonical jurisdiction is present on this territory. Sometimes newcomers start fighting with the local church. Scandalous law suits between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate have taken place. We can observe the dramatic separation of the Sourozh Eparchy that was famous to all Orthodox with Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, whose successor with the British-rooted part of the eparchy went under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople.
The tragedy of Orthodoxy is caused by the political force that wants to reestablish the Russian Empire. In order to renew it, the force tries to use the Moscow Patriarchate in order to influence ideologically the Russian-speaking population all over the world, and especially in post-Soviet countries, not minding canon law. If the church’s life were liberated from strong political influences, the majority of the severest problems of Orthodoxy would be solved.
- How can politics threaten the church?
- Politics can blow up in the church’s basement. The political factor in the history of the church was often the one that caused huge catastrophes. The last catastrophe took place in a traditionally Orthodox country that even claimed itself the third Rome when the Bolshevik Revolution took place and the government began to promote an atheistic ideology. You should not think that the Bolshevik Revolution and atheistic regime were just misunderstandings of history. The Russian events of 1917 were not caused by outside forces. If the Orthodox church agreed to cooperate with imperial and government forces, the very idea of Orthodox unity might be profaned. The Moscow Patriarchate and its sympathizers are responsible for this.
- Your Excellency, can your care for scouting organizations like Plast be considered an intrusion into lay life?
- Spiritual care of youth organizations and various social groups is a responsibility of the church, though the church cannot have any preferences and use pastoral service in order to implement particular political models. Various churches take care of Plast. The UAOC is one of them. Care of Plast in the village of Svatove (Luhansk Region) by Fr. Dmytro Romankiv is a good example of this experience. We do not ourselves start Plast organizations in places where they do not exist. If they ask for help, we are happy to help and support them with spiritual care. We do this not only for Plast but for all youth organizations that are based on Gospel values.
- Returning to the sobor, is it true that the pilgrimage to Zarvanytsia [a traditionally Greek Catholic shrine in western Ukraine’s Ternopil Region] was approved?
- No, the Patriarchate of the UAOC started organizing pilgrimages to Zarvanytsia in 2003. Last year the first eparchial pilgrimage took place, and very successfully! This year we are thinking about new shrines of Halychyna in Univ and Hoshiv [also traditionally Greek Catholic] for the next pilgrimage.
- Your Excellency, can a pilgrimage to a Greek Catholic shrine be seen as breaking with Orthodoxy?
- To whose church does the Mother of God belong, then? She is not just a symbol of the church of Christ but also mother of the church. It is profanity to artificially make miraculous icons of the Mother of God belong to one denomination or jurisdiction. It is true that a concrete community takes care of a shrine. A wise community does not think about themselves as monopolists but leaves the sanctuaries of the Mother of God open to the faithful. Gathering around these relics for prayer and to be under the mantle of the Mother of God, we begin to perceive ourselves as a single Christian community. By doing so we do our best to renew the single Kyivan church.
Pavlo MRYHLOTSKYI conducted the interview in Kharkiv in April 2007.
Photo from the “Young Ukraine” archive