The 40-year old bishop newly elected to lead the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has ambitious plans to resist growing secularism in his country, drawing on help from Rome and a "strategic alliance" with the Orthodox Churches.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk visited Pope Benedict XVI on April 1 in his first official act since being elected March 23 to leadership of the world’s 4.3 million Ukrainan Greek Catholics by a synod of bishops.
Archbishop Sviatoslav and brother bishops from the synod made the trip to Rome during the week of his enthronement to confirm their communion with the Successor of Peter, he said during a Vatican press conference. They wish to manifest the "nature and essence, the being of our Church," he said.
"We are an Eastern Church with its tradition and inheritance, ... a synodal Church which is governed by the synod of bishops together with the major archbishop. But, we are also a Catholic Church that lives its identity in a full, visible and real communion with the Holy Father," he declared.
He takes over the largest of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches, which he described as being "resurrected" in the early 1990s as the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union fell apart. The previous century was a bitter one for Ukrainian Greek Catholics.
Priests and faithful were routinely arrested, martyred for the faith, generally forced to go underground. Church property was usurped by Orthodox Churches and the Church operated under all manner of restrictions.
At the fall of communism, "young people were looking for strong values, something that could guide them through their life," Archbishop Sviatoslav recalled.
The "Church of the martyrs" was an attractive option to return to their Christian roots.
According to the major archbishop, it continues to grow and develop beyond the post-communist era boom years. After an initial "big explosion" of vocations to the priesthood, their seminary still has the bittersweet task of having more candidates than parishes.
For Archbishop Sviatoslav, the "blood of the martyrs ... is the main reason for our young, resurrected Church."
The average age of priests serving this Church of the Byzantine Rite is 35 years old, "more or less my age," said Archbishop Sviatoslav, by far the youngest of Eastern Rite Church heads today.
In his audience with the Pope, he expressed his gratitude for "confirming the action of such a young bishop." He called it a "demonstration of the great trust the Holy Father has placed in me and others."
Though he is young, he brings a wide variety of experiences into the position, including time as personal secretary to the now-retired Cardinal Archbishop Lubomyr Husar, work as a seminary rector and more recently as a bishop and apostolic administrator in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He holds a doctorate in moral theology from Rome's Pontifical Angelicum, the university Pope John Paul II attended.
As he takes the reins of the Church, he said its "number one priority" today remains preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world.
Amid the pattern of secularization in Europe, they must protect the "great treasure" of the faith in the Ukraine, he said. "We must not only not lose it, but develop it, to transmit it to the new generation."
"Inculturation" is also a vital issue for the Ukrainian Greek Catholics dispersed worldwide, he explained. "(It) means sinking the Christian values and our tradition into today's culture. This inculturation is a very important instrument of evangelization."
Full translations of the liturgical texts are still needed in many nations where the Ukrainian Catholic Church is active.
He observed a further need for the Church to be more active in providing Ukrainians with social services. He called it an "instrument" and a fundamental part of the evangelization of a society still rebuilding from communism.
The nation, he said, "is asking for this type of witness."
He also sees ecumenism as an important issue for the evangelization of society.
There has been great interest from the Orthodox Church in the Ukraine as well as from Moscow in his election. In the days before he was chosen, he spoke with other Catholic and Orthodox leaders of a building a "strategic alliance for a harmonious and single testimony from Christians" which he thinks will help to evangelize Ukrainian culture.
"There is interest, a concrete proposal, and on my part we are moving ahead to collaborate in this ecumenical, Christian and evangelizing perspective," he said.
Through open and fraternal dialogue, the ecumenical work continues to seek solutions "to all of the problems that we have received as an inheritance of the history of our nation," he said.
The new major archbishop said he has taken notes from Pope John Paul II in this realm. Through personal relationships, all walls, prejudices and divisions fall, he said.
Catholics and Orthodox Christians are not against each other, but "together," he emphasized. "We are present to bear witness to the our same faith."
If they concentrate on what unites them and not what divides, "all the prejudices and fears will disappear," he said. He also spoke of a "symphony of the traditions" between Latin and Byzantine Rite Catholics.
Referring to the future, he quoted the Ukrainian expression, "The youth is our hope." This, he said, is true in the Church and in political life.
He places great hope in a new generation of young, capable Ukrainian politicians with whom the Church can build constructive relationships for a better future.
Archbishop Sviatoslav said that for now, he will be returning to the Ukraine confirmed in the faith and supported by the rock of St. Peter. "This," he said, "gives me great courage to move ahead."