Being Ukrainian Orthodox in a Time of War: Part One

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I began writing this post near the end of February 2022, on tenterhooks along with much of the world about the likelihood of a war being unleashed by Russian military forces on the sovereign territory of Ukraine. As I post it, this is Day 125 of Russia’s war on Ukraine and its people.

July 12 2021 First of all, I would like to emphasize that the wall that has emerged in recent years between Russia and Ukraine, between the parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space, to my mind is our great common misfortune and tragedy…. But these are also the result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity….Hence the attempts to play on the ”national question“ and sow discord among people, the overarching goal being to divide and then to pit the parts of a single people against one another. Vladimir Putin, “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”

Feb 12, 2012 MOSCOW (Reuters) – The head of the Russian Orthodox church on Wednesday called the 12 years of Vladimir Putin’s rule a “miracle of God.”

I began writing this post near the end of February 2022, on tenterhooks along with much of the world about the likelihood of a war being unleashed by Russian military forces on the sovereign territory of Ukraine. At the same time, preparations were underway in Rome to facilitate a meeting between Pope Francis, supreme pontiff of the world-wide Catholic Church, and  the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, perhaps as soon as June or July of 2022, although the venue had not yet been chosen. So I learned from one of the Google alerts that were popping up daily in my Inbox. Not only was I nonplussed and distressed by this development, I was taking it very personally.

Jan 24 2022 Peace is an aspiration Patriarch Kirill shares with the pope, a goal they should strive for together. During the Christmas service, on Jan. 7 in the Russian calendar, the patriarch thanked Pope Francis for a fraternal message and added, “Hopefully, these relations will translate into many and many kind joint actions, including those aimed at achieving peace where there is no peace today,” according to Tass, a Russian news agency.

As a practising Christian, I am a bundle of contradictions spiritual, historical, geopolitical and personal. As this blog – “What am I doing here?” –  announces itself, I am a baptised and active member of a parish within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada. From this fact all other affinities have developed – with Ukrainian Catholics, with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, with oblates and brothers of the Order of Saint Benedict and, God help me, with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Then Russian military forces invaded sovereign Ukrainian territory on February 24, 2022.


February 27 2022 “Religious exceptionalism, self-identification as ‘Holy Russia,’ ‘The Third Rome, and the Fourth cannot be,’ resided in the Russian religious consciousness as radical conservatism. And Russian religious nationalism is not the nationalism of a small nation that wants to survive. It is mainly imperial nationalism.”

Prince Volodomyr baptises the people of Kyivan Rus 988 AD

I will try to be succinct.The Church into which I was baptised in 1944 was still called the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church of Canada. The “Greek” is there not because its members and clergy were Greeks (although I did try to pass myself off as a Greek for awhile in elementary school) but because we were Greek Orthodox (as opposed to Roman or Latin Catholics). We were descended from that initial baptism of Kyivan Rus in 988 by its prince Volodomyr (Vladimir) who had accepted Christianity from Greek-speaking Byzantium. (The Moscow church would not get its first Primate until 1322.) Not only was Byzantium’s capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul) situated west of Rus on the Black Sea , it was the Second Rome, still draped in Imperial splendour compared to the ruined First Rome, now fallen to various barbarians and usurpers, and sacked, plundered, vandalized with many of its citizens enslaved.  Who would not want to be a Byzantine? But then, catastrophe.

Russian clergy (archival)

With the utter destruction of Kyiv by Mongols in 1240  and the massacre of its population (after its citizens had refused to surrender), the Mongols advanced unstoppably into Hungary and Poland. And the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its spiritual leader the Metropolitan were not to return to Kyiv until late in the fifteenth century. For all the vicissitudes of history, however, Ukrainian Orthodoxy remained within the jurisdiction of Constantinople until – another catastrophe! –  the Kyivan Metropolia was annexed by the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1685. It must be said, however, that Ukrainian bishops were powerful churchmen throughout the 18th century in the Russian empire, their superior education setting them apart from their Russian counterparts. And a century later, all the ancient Ukrainian dioceses had been incorporated into dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church, itself the product of missionary work from Kyiv, and all its spiritual leadership was occupied by ethnic Russians.

Early one evening in May 2018, days before the annual parade celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II, a convoy of military trucks carrying long-range nuclear weapons trundled to a halt on the Russian capital’s ring road.As police officers stood guard, two Russian Orthodox priests wearing cassocks and holding Bibles climbed out of a vehicle and began sprinkling holy water on the stationary Topol and Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Meanwhile,  another shock to Ukrainian Orthodoxy in central Ukraine had been administered by the Union of Brest in 1596 (an event of “tragic” proportions to some Orthodox even today). That region had been incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a large and populous federation ruled by a single King of Poland. Ethnically diverse and relatively tolerant of diverse Christian and Jewish religious communities, its Constitution nevertheless acknowledged Catholicism as the “dominant religion.” At the time of the Union, the main concern of the bishops was the consequences to their episcopates of internal Polish affairs. The Moscow threat was not very strong in 1595/6 as it became later. Nevertheless, it is useful to be reminded in the swirl of disinformation that emanates from Moscow that not all Ukrainians have lived in the “spiritual realm” of the Moscow Patriarchate.

St Josephat Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Edmonton

Thus was created the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Byzantine/Orthodox in its rites but in full communion with the worldwide Catholic Church.(As recently as 1995, the spiritual head of much of world Orthodoxy, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople -never of Istanbul, please – insisted that the “Eastern Catholic churches” should be regarded as “irregular communities.” For their part, the Roman Church post-Vatican Two no longer labels the Orthodox as “schismatic” although the accusation still finds purchase – online where I found it – “It would be very difficult to find the right name for this so-called Church. Heretic and schismatic ‘Church’ is highly fitting, however.”)

On Feb. 5, 2015, Crux noted: “During the Soviet era, no church produced more martyrs in percentage terms or suffered more vicious crackdowns. In light of that history, Greek Catholics become understandably nervous anytime they see Russian forces crossing their borders, or insurgents armed and supported by Moscow trying to slice off pieces of Ukrainian territory.” Therefore, it would be in the interest of the Vatican to take millions of Ukrainian Catholics under its wings.

(I become sensitive to a kind of tone-deafness on the pontiff’s part when, for example, on March 25 2022 Pope Francis  “consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary with a prayer asking for peace in the world.” Right Rev. Fr Roman Bozyk, Dean of Theology at St Andrew’s College, University of Manitoba, would remind the Holy Father that Russians and Ukrainians are not one people – this is Putin’s line -and that “Kyiv has been dedicated to the Theotokos (Mother of God) since the 11th century” and his consecration is redundant.)

Embedded in Orthodox Christianity in Canada, I remained pretty much unconcerned with the vicissitudes of Christianity in the Old Country. As an undergraduate  at the University of Alberta in the 1960s, I took a smattering of courses in Soviet Studies, understood that the Ukr/USSR was an atheist state, watched jerky and grainy newsreel footage of the toppling of church domes, and knew from relatives’ letters from Ukraine that the women in the village that Baba had left behind furtively fasted, taught their young children basic prayers, wrote pysanky and even went once a year to the village’s (Russian Orthodox) church although none of their grown children did such a thing. On my first visit to the village in 1984, that church was pointed out to me as the one “your Baba went to,” as a girl, although in Canada, ironically, she was an adherent of the pro-Soviet Ukrainian Farm and Labour Temple Association and I never saw her in church until my wedding in 1972.

St John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, Edmonton

On my father’s side of the family, however, “church” was a very different story. The Kostashes had emigrated in 1900 from a Galicia that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – that had earlier absorbed the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth – and therefore Ukrainians in Galicia were historically, and remained, Ukrainian Catholic. This aspect of their identity – that in fact my Galician grandparents had been baptised in Dzhuriv and in Tulova as Greek Catholics – went unnoticed by me for a long time.

I had been raised in the city in a made-in-Canada Orthodox Church (the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1929) to which a great-uncle and some great-aunts  and various others of the Ukrainian-Albertan intelligentsia had attached themselves, eventually carrying into it my parents. The founders of the UOCC not only seized the opportunity in Canada to return to the ancient faith of  Rus: they decided also to bring it up-to-Canadian-date, so to speak, having been deeply influenced by the model of Protestantism (Presbyterians) in the immigrant settlements of western Canada. Uniquely in Orthodoxy, congregations of the UOCC act as trustees of their own church property, consent to the appointment and dismissal of priests, govern as a General Council of clerical and lay members, and manage their lay organizations independently of episcopal authority..(This is important for the women’s organizations: although the parish priest attends their meetings, he is ex officio and has no voting authority. He can however, request to be on the agenda.)

Greek prayer rope/bracelet

Yet, I was aware that there were Ukrainian Canadians of my generation in Edmonton who went to Roman Catholic not public schools, and I thought them anomalous. What were they doing at St Joseph’s Composite High School (only two blocks away from our Orthodox Cathedral) among Polish and Italian and Irish classmates under the scholastic supervision of nuns in medieval dress and, as I imagined, frequently on their knees, hands bound in ropes of rosary beads and chanting in Latin? (Even in the privacy of our parents’ homes or anywhere else, we Orthodox didn’t “do” rosaries, although many did adopt the Greek prayer rope as a substitute.) It’s true that the Ukrainian Catholic kids went to churches mounted with bulbous domes just as ours were and whose interiors were as gorgeously adorned with icons and embroidered altar cloths. Their parish priests were also married, and wore similar vestments ; and their liturgies and hymnals are practically identical. But not wholly. For here’s the thing: over them all loomed the figure of their supreme spiritual authority, the Pope.

May 9 2022 When Pope Francis visited the Russian ambassador to the Holy See Feb. 25, the day after the war started, this was widely perceived in the West as a diplomatic peace initiative…The repeated calls for peace in Ukraine by Pope Francis have hitherto been interpreted by the Russian Orthodox Church as support for the central Russian justification of the war that peace in the Donbas was threatened by Ukrainian extremists and has to be restored by the Russian special military operation.

When I once took part in a series of classes (in the company of Ukrainian Catholic friends) on the Catechism [summary of doctrine] of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and had been assured by my priest that this would not imperil my Orthodox soul, I was struck by the virtual interchangeability of our Catechisms, except for this inclusion (there are others) in their liturgical prayer: “Among the first, remember, O Lord, our most holy universal Pontiff [name] Pope of Rome.” In the Orthodox world, said Pontiff is the Bishop of Rome but never included in our corporate prayer. (News flash from 2007: “A joint commission of Orthodox and Catholic theologians has agreed that the Pope has primacy over all bishops, though disagreements about the extent of his authority still continue.”)

After a prolonged, by decades, absence from participation as a parish member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, I returned; and learned that while I had been busy as a professional writer who “dipped into” Orthodox worship only as a visitor when abroad in need of spiritual refreshment (I had never resisted the elemental allure of Byzantine interiors), the UOCC had
Hagia Sophia interior

ended Ukrainian Orthodoxy’s long separation from the patriarchate of Constantinople through whom we had been baptised back in 988 AD. In 1990, Eucharistic Union was re-established (common sharing in the sacrament of Holy Communion), bringing us Canadians into communion with much of world Orthodoxy. On each of my visits to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – that 6th century masterpiece of Byzantine architecture now a mosque – I stood in profound awe that in this very space I had a source and origin of identity. (An aside here for an observation I made of a listing on the Departures flight board in Athens airport in 2019: in English I was looking for the flight to Istanbul; in Greek, for Kωνσταντινούπολη/Constantinople. True story.)

It did eventually dawn on me as well that being in communion with “world Orthodoxy” also put me in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church, the most populous Orthodox jurisdiction in the world. This did not sit well with me.

May 4, 2022: “We do not want to fight against anyone. Russia has never attacked anyone,” said Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in his sermon yesterday, continuing his steadfast support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has caused the deaths of innocent Ukrainian Orthodox civilians.

With Ukraine’s independence as a sovereign state after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was inevitable that at least a portion of its Orthodox population under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate would seek an equally independent Church. And so it came to pass. In 2019 Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople granted autocephaly (self-governance) to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) under its primate, Epiphanius, the Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill was so displeased with this “interference” by Constantinople that he dissolved the Russian Orthodox Church’s Eucharistic Communion with Constantinople and made a pivot to the Vatican.

May 4 2022 The week before his Zoom call with Francis, Kirill, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, described the war in Ukraine as a “metaphysical” struggle against a godless international order based on “excess consumption” and “gay parades.”  Pope Francis said in an interview published Tuesday that he told Patriarch Kirill — the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church — not to “transform himself into Putin’s altar boy,” CNN reported Wednesday.

Patriarch Kirill and President Putin

Also in 2018, I had become an oblate of the Order of Saint Benedict, about which I have written in an earlier blog post. I was accepted as a baptised Christian (an ObOSB is not necessarily a Roman Catholic) Over the years, because of retreats at the Benedictine Abbey of St Peter in Muenster, Saskatchewan, in the company of the brothers I became immersed in their daily cycle of prayers and psalmody, attended Sunday Masses, ate meals in the refectory and enjoyed convivial conversation with them all, especially the  Abbot and Guest Master, and, very important, spent hours reading in the Oblates’ reading room choosing from a library of quite extraordinary Benedictine-inspired literature. I shared their enthusiasm (mostly) for the reinvigorated papacy led by Supreme Pontiff Francis. Looking back on my more recent visits (resumed post-Covid in 2021), I am struck by the equanimity, even serenity, of the community’s response to the very issues that agitated me – why can’t women be priests? how should we settlers establish relationships with Indigenous neighbours? do you think the Great Schism of 1054 that split the universal Church into East and West can be healed?

April 27 2022 By the wanton slaughter of innocents in Bucha, in Mariupol’, and throughout Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has stigmatized himself with the mark of Cain. Kirill has tried to mask that stigma. For the Bishop of Rome to have met with Kirill as if the Russian were a true religious leader would have bitterly disappointed Catholic and Orthodox Ukrainians, who would not unreasonably have regarded it as a betrayal; it would have depleted the Holy See’s moral capital in world affairs; and it would have contributed nothing to peace.

Abbey grounds in Feb 2022

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. But the monks of St Peter’s live according to the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, in whose Prologue Benedict exhorts: “Never departing from [God’s] guidance, remaining in the monastery until death…so we may eventually enter into the Kingdom of God.” Not even the war in Ukraine seemed to disturb their composure as a community, to judge from their website. Do you suppose there is a lesson in this?

May 11 2022 Francis names this truth, and defends the other logic—God’s logic, the path of mercy—even after most of us have given up on it. God’s logic recognizes the depth of human relationship. It demands our mutual recognition as fellow creatures. The pope’s stance needs no clarification. It could not be clearer. Amidst the roar of weapons and cries of grief, he stands among the victims, their blood on his cassock, begging for peace, and ready to talk to anyone and to do anything to bring it about.


Part Two: Peace in a Time of War







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Diana Stevan
1 year ago

Oh Myrna, such a time we’re living in. I’m appalled at Krill’s support of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. I guess he forgot about the commandment, “Thou shall not kill.”

I appreciated your overview of the dominant religions in Ukraine and how they’re historically tied to Constantinople, Moscow, Kyiv, and Rome. Whatever, Ukrainians are now united and fighting for their freedom. I wish the Russian Orthodox Church would play its hand at promoting peace, but I’m afraid the “devil” is whispering too loudly in Krill’s ear.