Friday, October 14, 2011

Tim Kelleher on Patriarch Sviatoslav and renewal in the UGCC.

Yesterday at On the Square, a blog on the First Things website, Tim Kelleher offered some thoughts on Ukrainian Catholic Patriarch Sviatoslav (Shevchuk) and some of the challenges presently facing the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. As I've noted before, Tim is an old acquaintance of mine: we share a common mentor in Father Tom King, and we were companions on a trip to the Holy Land that Tom led a bit over a decade ago. Tim and I chatted a bit about Eastern church matters during that trip, so I was not surprised when I later heard that he had formally become Greek Catholic and was studying at a Ukrainian seminary. Commenting on Archbishop Sviatoslav's election earlier this year as leader of the UGCC, Tim starts by offering some historical perspective:
To begin, the election entrusts to his care the souls of some four and a quarter million Christians, all heirs to a lineage of tragedy that spans centuries and includes the Soviet-perpetrated monstrosity of the Holodomor, in which an estimated three to ten million people were programmatically starved to death in the single year, 1932-1933. Throughout this and other episodes of national suffering, the UGCC acted largely to protect the people and lead in the resistance to both Nazi and Soviet tyranny.

During the turbulence of the twentieth century, Shevchuk’s predecessors distinguished themselves as heroic, sometimes pugnacious leaders—more prophets than princes of the Church—who regularly placed themselves at personal risk. The names Sheptytsky, Slipyj, and Husar come quickly to mind.

It is in the stead of such giants that Shevchuk now stands—at the remarkable age of forty. Such youth comes with its share of advantages and liabilities. Among the former, one may assume there is energy. He’ll need it.
Tim goes on to discuss some pressing issues, principally the rise of "Putinism" and attendant efforts by the Moscow Patriarchate to increase its influence in Ukraine to the detriment of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which has enjoyed an impressive revival in its ancestral homeland over the last twenty years after spending decades underground during the Soviet era. After touching on this, Tim moves on to another problem - one that affects the Ukrainian Catholic diaspora just as much it does as the Church in Ukraine:
Since 2001, the bishops of the UGCC have held at least fifteen international synods, at a considerable expense of time and money. From them, one word perennially emerges to express the collective discernment and serve as the clarion call for going forward: Evangelization.

I should admit that mine is a somewhat unusual point of view. I wasn’t born into the UGCC. Neither was I drawn to it by any outreach on its part. In fact, I stumbled into an intimacy with it that, in addition to reception into the Church, has included the privilege of entering one its seminaries.

There are many things to say from this perspective. Preparing to serve a people whose faith I shared but whose story I did not know has been humbling. But as my appreciation for the Church’s gifts has grown, so too has my discouragement when failure to adapt, develop and share them seems willful. In countless conversations, cradle-born members of the UGCC have expressed incredulity at my enthusiasm for the Church, while seeming to view their own participation as a form of ethnic fealty.
Any non-"cradle-born" person who is drawn to the Eastern churches and has spent time with Eastern Christians must sooner or later confront the "ethnic fealty" phenomenon. I recall a particularly cutting example that once appeared in the combox on Wan Wei Hsien's sadly defunct weblog Torn Notebook. The story goes that a convert to the Greek Orthodox Church was being interviewed by a radio host who was an ethnic Greek. Apparently, the host's first question was, "How did you become interested in our Greek culture?" Some presume that ethnicity and religion necessarily go hand in glove, even going so far as to confuse religious practices shared by several churches for ethnic customs limited to a particular national tradition; to offer just one example of this, I've sometimes heard January 7th referred to as "Ukrainian Christmas" - as if only Ukrainians used the Julian Calendar!

Don't get me wrong: I believe that ethnic pride is a very good thing. Particularly in the diaspora, people should be very concerned about preserving the particular customs and cultural practices that provide them with a unique heritage and identity. Many nations possess distinctive religious cultures that have been shaped by national influences, but these cultures nonetheless remain a part of something greater and more universal. Ukrainians are rightly proud of the Kievan tradition, but that tradition is also part of the broader tradition of Byzantine (and global) Christianity. For all its cultural and historical particularity, the Kievan tradition has much to offer the whole Church: it can provide a spiritual home for people who are not Ukrainian by birth or ethnicity, just as the Latin tradition of the Church of Rome provides a spiritual home for many who are not Italian or have no familial connection to lands that were once within the territory of the (Western) Roman Empire. (For another perspective on this, that of Patriarch Sviatoslav himself, click here.)

With all of this in mind, let's consider what Tim Kelleher says next about the problems - and promise - facing the UGCC and other Eastern Catholic churches today:
In many parishes, a sense of desolation is palpable, with services attended by a startling disproportion of elder faithful. This graying — or ghosting – of the parishes is a crisis to which innovative remedies seem noble exceptions rather than the broad harvest of episcopal action matching synodal rhetoric.

On the same soil, Orthodox Churches, dealing with formidable challenges of their own, are finding ways to grow communities true to their lineage and attractive to those outside it, cooperating in projects designed to engage the wider culture.

To be sure, these impressions are anecdotal. Yet, I can’t think of a single person in formation with me who would fault these observations, except perhaps for being too restrained. Within its walls one often hears the frustration that the UGCC is essentially a Latin Church in Byzantine clothing, burying its distinctive gifts like the talents of the Gospel parable. Indeed, not long ago, Rome itself issued a rather stringent exhortation to the Eastern Churches in communion with it to commit themselves to the realization of the charisms unique to their traditions.

Although I have presented what may seem a gloomy forecast, we know how quickly things can change. And I remain hopeful.

The Eastern Churches bear an aspect of the Christian faith that is profound and astonishingly rich, with the power to amaze a culture that wrongly presumes it has seen it all. I also believe our culture is in urgent need of the vast treasure and deep beauty that have been entrusted to these Churches.
Amen to all that. I hope and pray that Tim's optimism is well-founded. The challenges facing Patriarch Sviatoslav and his flock are many, but with God's help - and with a great deal of creativity and ingenuity on the part of the faithful - they can surely be overcome. AMDG.


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