Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Freedom for the Ukraine Byzantine CATHOLIC Church

The Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church celebrated Easter this year according to the Western calendar. This is the Church of native Ukrainian Christians in full communion with Rome, which is relatively small but tremendously important both for Christian ecumenism and as a consistent and vivid witness to Ukraine's independence as a people and a culture.

For them the fire of Easter candles was unwelcomely augmented by the fire of a renewed Russian bombing campaign.

The importance of an Ukraine free and independent of Russian political power, or even a so-called Russian "sphere of influence," is perceived with particular clarity and urgency by Ukrainian Byzantine Catholics, who have a long and painful history of struggling for freedom against the “errors of Russia.” Perhaps it could be said that they originated the path that in recent years has been taken up by the now autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox communities in Ukraine. For six centuries, these Orthodox churches—following the widespread rejection of the Reunion Council of Florence and the fall of the Byzantine Empire—were subjected to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church even as their people were subjected to the ruler of Muscovy, who proclaimed himself the heir of Constantinople's imperial status. Moscow declared itself to be "the Third Rome" and its rulers took the title of "Caesar"—the Divinely-appointed "Czar" of a "Holy Empire."

The Muscovite Russian Empire soon appropriated the history of "Kyivian Rus" and swallowed its lands and peoples. But there were a few churches among the southern Rus who continued to work for full communion with Rome, and finally achieved it in 1596. The ensuing centuries were not easy for the Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church. This Church was illegal in the Orthodox Empire of Czarist Moscow. Moreover, its adherents struggled (even though they were supported by popes) to preserve their distinctive Byzantine and Slavonic heritage in Latin Catholic Poland, while finding a greater measure of tolerance in the multi-ethnic, multi-national, somewhat chaotic Habsburg confederation. 

Through it all they never forgot that they were Ukrainians. In the 20th century, the cruelest of all the Czars—Joseph Stalin—tried to "liquidate" the Ukrainian Catholics by a forced merger with the Russian Orthodox Church that he manipulated and controlled.

Many Ukrainians—Orthodox and Catholic—emigrated to the West in those dark years. Ukrainian Catholics flourished in North America and elsewhere. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I was within walking distance of the Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic cathedral of the regional eparchy. From my youth I knew about Byzantine Catholics and was able to participate in their profound liturgical life.

I also knew about Ukrainians and their nation, their beloved Ukraine which they (rightly) regarded as a "captive nation" of the Soviet Union. Many years ago, I made the mistake of asking a Ukrainian woman if "Ukrainians were basically like Russians." With firmness and dignity she replied, "We are not Russians. We are Europeans!"

There are some important and very particular dangers that most Westerners (including Western Catholics) don't understand about the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Latin-rite Catholic Church is permitted to exist freely (albeit carefully) in the Russian Federation at this time. Churches are not tolerated, however, if they follow the Byzantine Liturgy and Byzantine spiritual traditions while also expressing full communion with the Pope. Russia itself has not (yet) had an enduring Byzantine Catholic presence among its own people, the only exception being the brief flowering of an authentically Russian Byzantine Catholic Exarchate in 1917 after the abdication of the last Czar (which I have written about here). Sadly, the success of the Communist Revolution put an end to this young church (or, I prefer to believe, planted it deep in the earth like a seed still destined to grow and bear fruit).

The Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church endured even after it was driven underground by Stalin, however, with support from the Ukrainian diaspora communities, and it emerged again after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the establishment of an independent Ukraine. The democratization of Ukraine has guaranteed full freedom of religion to the Byzantine Catholic Church. By stark contrast, invading Russians have already proven that the Putinist fantasy of a "Great Russia" that absorbs Ukraine into itself has no place for a Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. In the areas invaded and occupied by Russian troops, Ukrainian Catholic churches have been shut down or destroyed, and Byzantine Catholic priests have been driven out of the regions or arrested and tortured.

Here we see one of many reasons why Russia must not emerge from this criminal war with so much as an inch of illegally conquered or "annexed" Ukrainian territory. I raise this point, among other reasons, in the hope that it might stir the consciences of some fellow Catholics in the USA who are tempted to believe the lies of Putinist propaganda, or blindly follow American politicians who propose to solve "in one day" the profound problems of this war, or who dishonor our country by withholding promised support that Ukraine needs to continue to defend itself.

But the Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic bishops themselves make the case for the legitimacy of national self-defense, the need for assistance, and all the reasons why Russian aggression is criminal and indefensible in a thorough and admirably clear statement released last month. This is the statement from the Synod of bishops in Ukraine, who minister daily to soldiers and their families, civilians in bomb shelters, migrants and refugees and all the victims of Putinist violence. It is worth reading. Here is the link: Rescue the Oppressed from the Hand of their Oppressors.

Please, read this document. 

Latin-rite Catholics must not remain ignorant about the sufferings of our Eastern-rite brothers and sisters, who deserve our special attention even as we pray and work for the upholding of the inalienable human dignity of every person afflicted by this horrible war. And the realities addressed by the Ukrainian Catholic bishops are among the key issues for an honest and constructive dialogue that might prepare the way for a just and lasting peace.