The newly elected head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate must decide whether that Church can be independent from Russia, Ukraine's eastern neighbor with which it is in conflict, analysts say.
On Aug. 13, Metropolitan Onufriy was elected Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, making him the primate of the UOC-MP, which is one of the three primary Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. He was enthroned at his Church's Kyiv cathedral Aug. 17.
In addition to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate – which is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church – there is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
"The greatest dependence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Moscow is ideological,” Anatoliy Babinskyj, an analyst of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine told CNA, adding that “98 percent of the literature which is sold in the churches of the UOC-MP are published in Russia with a clear idea of 'the Russian world'.”
“Ukraine is not only a huge market for Russia but also a field for ideological influence through books, websites, magazines, and priests who teach theological, cultural, and mental traditions in Russian.”
Ukraine has experienced significant unrest this year: its president was ousted in February and a new government appointed; in March, Crimea was annexed by Russia; and pro-Russian separatist rebels have taken control of eastern portions of Ukraine, around Donetsk and Luhansk, since April.
Fighting in the country continues: at least 2,119 have died in the violence since mid-April. More than 155,000 are internally displaced, and 188,000 have become refugees in Russia, according to the United Nations.
Against this backdrop, Metropolitan Onufriy's election last week was due to his excellent reputation, experts say: he has not been involved in scandals in the past, and is known for his true prayer.
He was born in 1944 to a priest in western Ukraine. He became a monk in Russia in the 1970s, and was ordained a priest in 1972. He later returned to Ukraine, joining a monastery in his homeland. He was consecrated a bishop in 1990.
In 1988 Metropolitan Onufriy graduated from the Moscow Theological Academy, which belonged to one of the most conservative schools of theology in the Soviet Union; in contrast, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, studied at the liberal Leningrad Theological Academy.
“The Church has chosen prayer and ministry, and clever conservatism has never been harmful,” Fr. Gregory Kovalenko, spokesman for the UOC-MP, told CNA regarding Metropolitan Onufriy's election.
While the metropolitan has 40 years experience as a monk, some experts are hesitant that this will help him be a good manager, a necessary talent for exercising control over his Church.
He had, in fact, been elected locum tenens for the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine – thus acting head of the UOC-MP – in February. He acted on behalf of Metropolitan Volodymyr, who was primate of that Church from 1992 until his July 5 death.
According to Fr. Kovalenko, Metropolitan Onufriy speaks Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, and English.
“The bishops' choice (of Onufriy) is very logical; we are not ready for radical steps today” the UOC-MP Metropolitan of Vyshneve and Pereyaslav-Khmelnytskyy, Oleksandr Drabynko, told CNA.
Prior to the election, the electors gave the future primate three tasks: unification of Ukrainian society; gaining autocephaly for the Church, that it could be united with the UOC-KP; and union within the Church, which has been troubled by the recent unrest in eastern Ukraine.
Metropolitan Volodymyr had been able to balance the factions within the Church, according to Babinskyj.
"(While) staying a rather pro-Ukrainian leader, he didn’t prohibit pro-Russian priests from working,” he said. “And the situation in eastern Ukraine is, in a way, their fault. Even now, when there is war with Russia, the priests of the Moscow Patriarchate continue to agitate for 'the Russian world' in the churches of Luhansk and Donetsk.”
This spring, Fr. Vitaliy Eismonth, a priest of the UOC-MP, served a Divine Liturgy with the UOC-KP, for which he was removed from ministry for a month.
Following the election of Metropolitan Onufriy, he joined the Kyiv Patriarchate.
According to the Information Center of Razumkov, a Ukrainian analytics center, the number of believers adhering to the UOC-KP now exceeds the those with the UOC-MP, while in 2013 the Churches' numbers were about the same.
This month the UOC-MP community in Soloniv, a village in western Ukraine's Rivne province, joined the Kyiv Patriarchate when its priest refused to pray for the Ukrainian military serving in the country's east; and the Kyiv Patriarchate recently announced that about 10 parishes have transferred to their jurisdiction this year from the UOC-MP.
Despite these moves, the UOC-MP does not see a danger in losing its faithful.
Metropolitan Drabynko said it is not a catastrophe, and that the situation is highly dependent on what region of Ukraine one is in.
Metropolitan Onufriy told journalists shortly after his election that “we remain, and have always been, open to dialogue among different branches of Orthodoxy. And we want to see union between us, but we have our principles – a canon of the Holy Orthodox Church and association can only be in accordance with these canons; no other argument can be sufficient. We will communicate with our Orthodox brothers.”
Patriarch Kirill affirmed the metropolitan's election, and Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's prime minister, congratulated him, saying, “I am sure that you will do everything to establish and maintain peace, to strengthen the Orthodox unity, and to revive spiritual and moral values,” according to RIA Novosti.
The Kyiv Post reported Aug. 14 that Patriarch Filaret, head of the Kyiv Patriarchate, reacted to the election his new counterpart won't advocate for Ukrainian interests, and that he will discuss unification of the Churches “only with the patriotically-minded clergy” of the UOC-MP.
Metropolitan Onufriy was elected on the second round of voting, by 48 of the 74 bishops voting in the council. Fr. Kovalenko said the decisiveness of the vote shows that the new primate will be able to united the faithful of the UOC-MP.
"He is honored in the monasteries of our Church. People in different regions like him, and it will help him to stabilize the life of Church," Fr. Kovalenko said.
Metropolitan Oleksandr said that “I don’t see any pro-Russian branches of bishops, (though) there are some who still think in Soviet and imperial stereotypes. But Russia is not the example for them, rather, union with the Russian Orthodox Church. They are afraid of anything new, and an unpredictable future. Unity with Moscow is what they see as a guarantee of canonicity and stability – that the path they stand on is the right one.”
The analysts who spoke to CNA, however, are hesitant whether or not Metropolitan Onufriy is the person who can maintain balance within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, noting the changes in Ukrainian society which the patriarchate has ignored.
“Before the future head of the Church was placed a goal: union with the Kyiv Patriarchate. But now there is the question, can Metropolitan Onufriy integrate the atmosphere of the UOC-MP? Even if there are some bishops and priests who do not agree with the policy of the authority, they will not make such radical steps. But the UOC-MP cannot just get rid of a significant number of parishioners,” Babinskyj said.
Babinskyj also noted that “no official dialogue” has occurred between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church – to which most Catholics in Ukraine belong. There been only “private conversations, and cooperation at various commissions,” he said.
While Metropolitan Onufriy has not made any statements about his attitude toward Ukrainian Greek Catholics, analysts expect he will maintain his conservative views.
"The school of theology to which Metropolitan Onufriy belongs holds that the UGCC is a Western project to capture Ukraine in a union. I think that such a statement can be expected very quickly," Babinskyj added.
Metropolitan Oleksandr concluded that “the biggest impact on the future vector of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the outlook of its bishops and priests will be had by the tears of the mothers who have lost their children, sacrificed to keep Ukraine integral.”