Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, newly enthroned as the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church on March 29, will discuss the possible restoration of his church's historic status as a patriarchate with Pope Benedict XVI during his upcoming visit to the Vatican.
“A patriarchate is a period in the completion of the development of a church,” he explained to reporters in Kyiv before his departure for the Vatican. He said that the delegation would discuss the development of the Ukrainian Catholic Church that has taken place since its 1989 re-emergence into public life. “I will give the evidence of our maturity to the Pope,” he stated.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church's Synod of Bishop chose the 40-year-old Archbishop Shevchuk as their new leader on March 27. His predecessor, 77-year-old Cardinal Archbishop Lubomyr Husar, retired for health reasons on Feb. 10.
Archbishop Shevchuk's youth, and his prior position as a bishop of a Ukrainian Catholic eparchy in Argentina from 2009 until 2011, made him an unusual choice to succeed Cardinal Husar. His previous appointments included positions at Lviv's Holy Spirit Theological Seminary as well as the Ukrainian Catholic University. He also served as Cardinal Husar's personal secretary from 2002 to 2005.
“Our Church in the twentieth century has walked with our Savior to the end,” Major Archbishop Shevchuk observed in his enthronement homily, referring to the persecution of Ukrainian Catholics that took place under Communism from 1946 until 1989. “The death of hundreds of thousands of our laity, priests, monks and nuns, led by our bishops, was death on a cross – and therefore the giver of life!”
“In its slavery, humiliation and self-giving, our church was brought to this place – the place of resurrection, where the Father glorified it and raised up its imperishable glory,” he proclaimed.
Today, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church – whose existence was denied by Soviet authorities for decades – has approximately 4.3 million adherents.
“Today we are experiencing a new spring of our Church – which in its resurrection by the Holy Spirit begins to get younger and smile anew to the world with the light of Christ's Gospel,” he said.
“Let us boldly carry out our Christian vocation in the world, and together we can renew the face of our nation and its state.”
Major Archbishop Shevchuk's enthronement took place in Kyiv at the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ – whose name reflects Ukrainian Catholics' own view of their church as the authentic heir to the tradition of Slavic Christianity.
Kyiv was historically the center of this tradition, although the Eastern Orthodox Churches transferred the patriarchate to Moscow in 1589. Ukrainian Catholics, whose church reunited with the Roman Catholic Church in 1596, have generally continued to regard their leader as a legitimate patriarch – particularly since 2005, when the church moved its leadership back to the national capital in Kyiv.
Political and theological disputes have left a lasting mark on Ukraine, where two rival Eastern Orthodox churches – both entirely separate from the Ukrainian Catholic Church – are also not in communion with one another. One of the Ukrainian Orthodox churches is affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow, while the other claims to represent Ukraine independently of Russia.
Amid these disputes, the faithful of the Ukrainian Catholic Church regarded Cardinal Husar as the Patriarch of Kyiv prior to his retirement, and applied the title to him in liturgical settings. Although the Vatican did not officially recognize him under this title, the announcement of his retirement significantly made reference to the portion of canon law that describes the retirement of Eastern patriarchs.
In his installation homily, Major Archbishop Shevchuk referred to himself as the “leader and father” of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. He also made reference to Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Slipyj, who led the church from 1944 to 1984, as “Patriarch Joseph.”
At the March 30 general audience in St. Peter's Square, Pope Benedict greeted Archbishop Shevchuk and his delegation, assuring them of his "constant prayer that the Holy Trinity may bring abundance, and confirm in peace and harmony the beloved Ukrainian nation."