Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk

March 7, 2016

ROME - The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church said he was consoled by Pope Francis' words of understanding and tenderness after he expressed the disappointment of Ukrainians with a joint declaration signed by the pope and the Russian Orthodox patriarch.

The pope's remarks were "truly the opening of the doors of mercy," said Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych.

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow signed a joint declaration in Cuba Feb. 12.

In an interview the next day, Shevchuk said it contains unclear statements on the war in Eastern Ukraine and on the identity of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

His people were deeply disappointed with the declaration's wording, he said.

Responding Feb. 17 to a reporter's questions about the archbishop's critique, Pope Francis said everyone has a right to his or her own opinions about the declaration and the archbishop's criticisms must be read in light of the experience of Ukrainian Catholics.

But Pope Francis also spoke about how his friendship with Shevchuk began when they were both ministering in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In an interview with Catholic News Service in Rome Feb. 23, Shevchuk said he was pleased that even for the pope, the declaration "is not the word of God, it is not a page of the Holy Gospel," but rather offers indications for discussion.

When the pope-patriarch meeting was announced, Shevchuk said, "my spontaneous reaction was, 'Finally,' and I was pleased that Pope Francis repeated almost the same when he embraced Patriarch Kirill" in Havana.

"I think that the very gesture is sacred - we are supposed to meet, we are supposed to talk, but that meeting is only a tool to start true, sincere dialogue."

The desire for mutual respect and closer co-operation among Catholics and Orthodox in Ukraine is not in question, he said.


However, the declaration's depiction of the situation in Eastern Ukraine as a civil war and the description of the Ukrainian Catholic Church as "an ecclesial community" upset Ukrainian Catholics.

The term "ecclesial communities" is used to designate communities the Catholic Church believes are lacking valid sacraments and apostolic succession.

Yet, clearly, as part of the Catholic Church that does not apply to Ukrainian Catholics, Shevchuk said.

The declaration's affirmation that the Ukrainian Catholic and other Eastern Catholic churches have the right "to undertake all that is necessary to meet the spiritual needs of their faithful, while seeking to live in peace with their neighbours," the archbishop said, is "a step forward."

However, the declaration's recognition that the Eastern churches have a "right to exist" makes no sense, he said, because "it's not that we need anyone's permission to exist. The Lord resurrected us to full life 25 years ago after the fall of the Soviet Union."


Under Soviet rule, the Ukrainian Catholic Church was an illegal underground Church; in ecumenical dialogues at the time the Russian Orthodox claimed the Church did not exist.

Once the Soviet Union dissolved and the Ukrainian Catholic Church began functioning publicly, some Orthodox claimed its very existence was an attempt to encroach on the "canonical territory" of the Orthodox.

The other problem with the declaration, the archbishop said, is that it hints that the war in Eastern Ukraine is a civil war and not one involving both Russian troops and Russian support.