Staunton, March 24 – Having watched as the Polish pope, John Paul II, helped end the communist empire in Europe, Moscow must now cope with a new reality, a Russian commentator says, it must recognize that in Pope Francis I, “we have a Ukrainian pope,” someone whose ideaas could threaten Russian interests in a new way.
According to a commentary on the Boardnews.ru portal, many Ukrainians hope and many Russian Orthodox hierarchs fear that the new pope, precisely because of his experiences with and sympathy for Ukrainian Christians, will give the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church – the Uniates -- a patriarch (boardnews.ru/index.php/obshchestvo/2901-imeem-ykrainskogo-papy).
This unsigned commentary provides a wealth of evidence for both these hopes and fears. It begins by noting that Francis has shown himself committed to inter-religious dialogue, and it notes that “for the first time” since the 1054 split between Orthodoxy and Catholicis, Patriarch Bartholemew of Constantinople, the universal patriarch, attended a papal enthronement.
It cites the words of Father Orest-Dmitry Vilchinsky who says that the new pope’s “personality was formed in a multi-ethnic and poly-confessional society” and that Francis is thus is inclined to and fully capable of opening a dialogue with representatives of all other religious denominations and faiths.
But the commentary continues, Ukraine occupies a special place in the new pope’s heart. He was a student of Stepan Chmil, a Greek Catholic priest who is “one of the three” Uniate leaders whom Patriarch Iosif Slipyi “secretly” consecrated so that they could “in case of necessity” enter “the territory of the USSR” and elevate new bishops for that church.
The new pope apparently knows the Byzantine Ukrainian rite and felt close enough to its leaders to provide testimony for the beatification of Slipyi. According to another Ukrainian émigré churchman who occasionally met with the future pope, Francis has a “sentimental” soft spot for Ukrainians.
The new pope also had significant experience in working with the Ukrainian church as an institution. While archbishop of Buenos Aires, he served as the protector of Eastern Rite Christians who “did not have their own bishopric in Argentina,” including clergy and laity of the Uniate Church.
The Blessed Svyatoslav, the head of that church, worked “under the direct leadership” of the Argentinian cardinal, and following the election of Francis as pope expressed the hope that the latter would support a patriarchate for the Uniates, something they have long wanted because of the standing it would give them.
Russian concerns about the new pope’s probable course of action with respect to the Uniates are exacerbated, the Boardnews.ru commentary says, because Francis is the first Jesuit pope. The Jesuits trained many Ukrainian churchmen, and their activities have long been viewed with suspicion by the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian state, the commentary says.
And the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate has issued a clear warning to the pope about the consequences of involvement with the Uniates. Metropolitan Ilarion of Volokolamsk, the head of the Russian church’s powerful department of external church relations, said that such contacts “will not lead” to anything good (nakanune.ru/news/2013/3/20/22303511/
Uniatism is “the most sensitive issue in Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and in relations between the Orthodox and the Catholics,” the metropolitan said, because “the Orthodox Church has always been sharply against Uniatism as such because we view it as a deceptive attemptto force Orthodox into entering community with Rome.”
Not only did the Uniate church injure Orthodoxy by its work to revive its organization in Western Ukraine in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ilarion continued, it has created a situation in which “Uniates even mask themselves as Orthodox and do not say they are Catholics but call themselves Orthodox,” thus creating serious problems for the Moscow Patriarchate.
In addition, the metropolitan touched on the Jesuit roots of Pope Francis. The Russian churchman noted that it is “not accidental” that “the word ‘Jesuit’ has acquired in the Russian language a negative connotation.” According to some, he continued, “a Jesuit is someone who appears to be one thing but is another, who says one thing but thinks another.”
Given the sensitivity of the Uniate issue for the Moscow Patriarchate, Ilarion’s observation suggests that the Russian Church, however much it may hope for better relations with the Vatican in order to promote traditional values, will view the actions of a man whom some are calling “the Ukrainian pope” with deep suspicion.