Commentary on the Pope’s letter to Cardinal Philippe

There are several items worthy of comment in the Oct. 16 letter of Pope Paul on the 350th anniversary of St. Josaphat.

1)      The occasion of the letter is the commemoration of St. Josaphat Kuntsevych, Protomartyr of the Ukrainian Catholic Church; yet the letter is not addressed to the Primate of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Joseph Slipyj (whose name, incidentally, is never mentioned) nor to the Ukrainian hierarchy gathered in Rome to celebrate the anniversary, but instead to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Cardinal Paul Philippe.

2)      Although considerable biographical data about Saint Josaphat is provided in the papal letter, the historical and political background of the time is not related. Especially striking is the absence of any reference to the context of external pressures by foreign political interests which marked the period of the saint’s life.

3)      Despite the fact that Saint Josaphat died as a martyr to his belief in the necessity of adhesion of the Ukrainian Catholic Church to the center of Catholic unity in Rome, the term “Ukrainian Catholic Church” is not used once in the entire text of the letter. In its stead the bland and indefinite term “Eastern Churches” is employed throughout. (The word “Ukrainian” appears only once, in referring to the Major and Minor Seminaries in Rome). The terms selected by the author show a tendency to appease the Orthodox Church authorities in the Soviet Union, minimizing the historical facts, and resorting to half-truths, thus distorting history for the sake of an imagined irenicism, and at the expense of the Ukrainian Catholic community.

4)      The pope makes a point which can only be called provocative when he writes of the Holy See’s “assiduous care” for the Ukrainians in “instituting their own sacred hierarchy” and “by other appropriate means”. While it is possible to concede some degree of “care”, it must regrettably be pointed out that this “care” has in many situations —such as the nomination of auxiliary bishops in Philadelphia and in Brazil or in official Vatican responses to earlier archiepiscopal synods—been harmful to the autonomous status of the Ukrainian Church and thus a step backward in the cause of ecumenism.

5)      Among the religious communities enumerated is the Society of Jesus. The student of church history can only wonder at the inclusion of this religious order which is well-known for its opposition to the Ukrainian Church and whose contribution to Ukrainian history was to infuse the Basilian Order with a papal idolatry which still afflicts the Ukrainian people. Even today a large number of leaders of the Jesuits remain devoted in a blind manner to the cause of the Russian Orthodox Church despite the warnings of eminent figures in Soviet Union like the writer Solzhenitsyn who have pointed out the harm which has been done to believers by collusion between church and state in USSR. The policy of political expediency supplanting sound pastoral considerations is not of course confined to the Society of Jesus, but informs the decisions of many highly placed policy makers in the Roman Catholic Church.

6)      Rumors have been rife since the announcement of the convening of the Sixth Archiepiscopal Synod that there is talk of disloyalty and even of schism within the Ukrainian Catholic Church. It has been claimed that the Holy See is opposed to such an assembly. It has been alleged that the bishops invited were reluctant to come. With ten bishops and one episcopal representative present out of a total of sixteen, and two bishops justifying their absence, there is no basis for such a rumor. As to disloyalty, any talk of schism would represent a retreat on the part of the Ukrainian Catholics in their struggle for papal recognition of patriarchal status for their church. No question exists in the minds of the Ukrainian hierarchy or faithful that their church is already constituted as a patriarchate.

The Fourth Archiepiscopal Synod of the Ukrainian Catholic hierarchy, meeting in Rome in 1969, solemnly proclaimed the patriarchal status of their church and their choice of Major Archbishop Joseph Slipyj as their first patriarch, and submitted these decisions to the Holy See. During the last archiepiscopal visitation of the Major-Archbishop to Australia, Canada, and the United States, he was received and acclaimed as patriarch by the Ukrainian Catholic faithful and was so commemorated by the Metropolitans and Bishops at public liturgies and non-liturgical functions.

All that remains now is announcement by the Holy See of its recognition of the bishop’s synodical action in elevating their major archbishopric to patriarchal rank, an announcement which is expected momentarily.

Dogmatic questions, resolved at the Union of Brest in 1596, have not since been a factor in relations between the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Roman See. Principles of authority and church administration have served as point of controversy in their relations during the last decade.

The present synod is unquestionably an historic meeting of the hierarchs of this Particular Church. They are considering a constitution guaranteeing to their church the patriarchal structure adopted in 1969; the convening of a sobor, a full and solemn legislative assembly which will include not only bishops, but representatives of the clergy and the laity; and finally they are observing the anniversary of the heroic death of St. Josaphat Kuntsevych at a concelebrated Pontifical Divine Liturgy in the Basilica of St. Peter’s where Ukrainian Primate will be commemorated for the first time as “Our Patriarch Joseph I, of Kiev and Halych”. The principle of patriarchal structure has been reaffirmed, its canonical basis defined, and plans laid to implement its autonomy at a forthcoming sobor.

The significance of such a series of events is difficult to exaggerate. Here is a body of bishops, united synodically around their patriarch, listening to the mandate of the Second Vatican Council to return to those practices of church government which have fallen into disuse through the imposition of Latinization from without. They have acted in the face of strong opposition from influential quarters which have no desire to witness a united and vigorous Ukrainian Church, giving an example to the entire Christian world of responsible, mature, autonomous church government in spiritual union with Rome but inspired and formed by their own usages and traditions which evolved over centuries preceding their voluntary union with the See of Rome in 1596. The Ukrainian Catholic Church now awaits the response of its Western Catholic brethren, hoping for charity, wisdom, and justice, but determined to act, rule, and be governed in a manner true to their own conscience and to their own history.

Released by:

The Public Relations Department of the Society for a Patriarchal System in the Ukrainian Catholic Church

Eva Piddubcheshen, Chairman


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