Along with ecclesial leaders, Poroshenko has been a strong backer of Ukrainian autocephaly. At the conclusion of the unification council he said, “We are now creating an independent Ukraine. And this event is as important as the referendum on our independence adopted more than 27 years ago.”
He linked an independent Church to Ukrainian patriotism, and said: “Autocephaly is part of our state pro-European and pro-Ukrainian strategy, which we have been consistently implementing for almost five years. All this is the basis of our own way of development, development of the state of Ukraine and development of our Ukrainian nation.”
Fr. Alexander Laschuk, a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic priest, canon lawyer, and professor at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, discussed with CNA both the inter-Orthodox and the ecumenical implications of Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly.
For the Orthodox Church in Ukraine “it's a sign of maturity that the Ecumenical Patriarch, who is first among equals, sees they can be a self-governing Church … that's a sort of vote-of-confidence for the Church in Ukraine.”
Within Eastern Orthodoxy, Laschuk said, the decision also will play into debates about how autocephaly is granted, given that “the power of the Ecumenical Patriarch is not the power of the Holy Father, so how decision are made is much more complicated at times.”
While Constantinople is the traditional and historical center of Eastern Orthodoxy, Moscow has long exercised considerable influence and power, both because of its size and because of its closeness to Russian civil authorities.
The debate over the granting of autocephaly plays into the relations of Constantinople and Moscow, and their relative importance and power. Both the Russian and Ecumenical Patriarchs have written to the heads of the other Eastern Orthodox Churches, asking them not to recognize, and to recognize, respectively, the OCU's autocephaly.
The decision for autocephaly, Laschuk said, will also have a tremendous impact on ecumenism.
For example, because of the presence of Eastern Orthodox bishops with whom it is not in communion, the Moscow Patriarchate chose not to participate in the 2007 meeting at Ravenna of the commission for dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
“It will also affect ecumenical dialogue in the sense of 'who is our bargaining partner', for Catholics,” Laschuk said. Previously, the Holy See dialogued only with the UOC-MP as “canonical Orthodoxy” in the country, but “clearly that's changed” with the recognition of the OCU by Constantinople.
The priest added that he thinks the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, “is excited to have a partner with which he can actually dialogue; we won't have the union of the Churches tomorrow, but if you can't even talk to each other, it's hard to get much done … I think His Beatitude is very happy he has someone with whom he can talk, and be in the same room with, which was not the case previously.”
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He commented that “entire regions of Ukraine” are becoming increasingly Seventh-Day Adventist or Pentecostal, and that “collaborative activity by the more traditional Churches is a very welcome thing, as opposed to sort of, warring factions.”
Major Archbishop Shevchuk had written to Epiphanius Dec. 20 to congratulate him on his election as primate of the OCU, commenting, “We have all witnessed how the Lord, through the power and deeds of the Holy Spirit, in cooperation with your good will, heals the wounds of church divisions and enmity, giving opportunity to reconcile with our brother in Christ.”
“At this significant moment, I extend my hand on behalf of our Church to you and all the Orthodox brethren, offering you to begin our path to unity, to the truth. Because the future of the Church, our people and the Ukrainian independent European state depends on how we today will cherish unity and overcome what separates us.”
Major Archbishop Shevchuk added that “we are grateful to the Lord who has blessed the participants of this, without exaggeration, an important event that will enter the history of independent Ukraine as a great God's gift on the way to the complete unity of the Churches of Volodymyr's Baptism.”
He noted that “the Churches of Volodymyr's baptism … live in one liturgical heritage, from the depths of beauty and God-inspired wisdom we draw spiritual strength. Even today, we are not in full eucharistic communion, but are called to jointly overcome the obstacles that stand on the path to unity. This historic mission and the foundation of the future patriarchy of the united Kyivan Church were laid by even the glorious church men Peter Mohyla and Josyf Veliamyn Rutsky.”
The words of the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church allude to the 988 baptism of Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev, which resulted in the Christianization of Kievan Rus', a state whose heritage Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus all claim.