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Interview of His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Father and Head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, for the daily “Il Foglio”

  1. If you were to diagnose Ukraine’s state of health today, what would it be? In what state is your country?

My country, my people, are profoundly wounded. They continue to bear in the flesh the wounds of Communism and the Soviet past, of Stalinist totalitarianism, wounds from the Second World War, which were remained unhealed during the post-war period. Stalin’s armies were able to obtain victory in the Second World War but not in the spiritual war. A warlike spirit remained and the desire to dominate other countries, and even the Ukrainian people became enslaved to Soviet militarism. In addition to the wounds inflicted by totalitarian Communism, which remained open from the end of the Second World War, are now added wounds of Russian aggression. Officially, more than 10,000 people have been killed, thousands are missing, and millions have been displaced. We have tens of thousands with physical wounds but the entire country is suffering from a psychological wound. Only recently we came to understand how this war has harmed not only the body but also the human soul through the psychological trauma of post-traumatic syndrome. These wounds are still open in Ukraine in the form of a massive and growing sorrow, which is expressed in different ways: On the one hand, people need attention, to be heard, to be helped, solidarity. And on the other hand, we notice that a great will to conversion also exists, as our wounds can only be cured through the Mercy and Love of God. In this very painful context, the people are asking two fundamental questions: Is God with us, or has God forgotten us? It is worth taking the path to liberation? Is freedom a blessing or a curse? Is it worth being free or better to stoop to compromise by exchanging liberty for the easier lives of slaves? And we can find the same questions even in the pages of Sacred Scripture on the Chosen People’s liberation from the slavery of Egypt. For this reason, the Church in Ukraine has become a true and proper field hospital – as Pope Francis calls it – because only from the Church can the people hope to obtain the answers to those fundamental questions. But they also seek from the Church an authentic witness of solidarity and moral and spiritual direction, to find adequate and efficient cures for the great sorrow caused by the war.

  1. On different occasions, you stated that Europe is at war. These are strong words because we here in the West tend not to realize it. After all, historically, Ukraine is part of Europe, which is non confined to the borders of the European Union. What does it mean for the Ukrainian people to be at war and to see that Europe doesn’t seem to be very interested in their destiny?

First of all, I would like to emphasize that Ukraine is a European country, and not only from geographical point of. When we say eastern Europe it is always Europe. Even from the historical-cultural point of view, the Ukrainian people developed in the contest of European culture and at the encounter between two expressions of European culture, Byzantine and Latin. That encounter has always enriched a culture that has always been accepted as a member of the great family of European nations, whether from a legislative, artistic, theological, or philosophical point of view. The same is true with our way of conceiving the state, society, and the common good and, above all, in perceiving freedom as a truly important value. The Ukrainians are a free people made up of free persons. This attention to the freedom of the human person and the human heart is a part of European culture, and has been truly experienced in a strong way by the Ukrainian people throughout its history.

If we talk of the war in Ukraine then we are talking about a war in Europe, because everything that happens in Europe today has immediate global repercussions. Certain historians call Ukraine “the Eastern door of Europe” for, once aggressors knock at that doorm then all of Europe is besieged. For the moment, perhaps western European countries don’t perceive this aggression as being directed at them from a military point of view, but they can’t ignore it from the point of view of information, because today we talk of hybrid war of disinformation.

War is also carried out with economic arms: Europe is becoming more dependent on Russian gas and oil, and buying them from Russia at special offers not only converts its money into arms that are used to attack the European continent, but also generate political corruption within Europe. And thus, we need to consider that, in today’s day and age, war has changed its appearance. While this great evil attacks the heart, the mind, the body, above all it now attacks the human being in its capacity to be authentically free and to work together with his or her neighbour for the common good. This causes tremendous destruction. And so, on the one hand, Ukraine today is a country that is truly defending Europe and defending authentic European values, It is also a country that should be considered a problem for Europe but rather a solution, because all that we are living through in Ukraine, all that we are struggling to resolve, sooner or later will be inherited by all of Europe. I believe in Ukraine and I believe in Europe. I invite Europeans to visit our country, to see how European values are lived and practiced, those of the dignity of the human person, of the common good, of solidarity and subsidiarity, by the Ukrainian people, who with their own blood are defending their own country and are defending Europe. Sometimes it hurts us that western Europe forgets about us. We need your solidarity, we need your thoughts on the future of Europe in which, unfortunately, Ukraine is not always present. We need your collaboration because we have much to offer to you as well. And so together we can be stronger and have hope in a developed Europe, in a fraternal Europe where we can truly live and prosper.

  1. In various circumstances, you affirmed that it is thanks to its faith in Christ that the Ukrainian people rediscovered its own dignity, and this gave strength to resist persecution by Soviet atheism. Even today, does this faith help the Ukrainian people resist Russian aggression?

Your question truly brings out the main issue: what constitutes the foundation of the dignity of the human person and also the foundation of every just human society? The answer is that the dignity of the human person is not dependent on a status derived from human esteem or from civil legislation; rather, it comes from God the Creator. God created us in His own image and likeness. But there is more: God became man, incarnate in the human person, thus revealing that we are children of God. And it is precisely in the awareness of this intrinsic and sublime dignity lies the foundation of understanding who we are. I remember the words of Pope Benedict who said that rediscovering ones own dignity is, in itself, a revolution. That very thing happened in Ukraine in 2014, with the Revolution of Dignity (Maidan). When we say that our people, regardless of ethnicity, religious affiliation or political orientation, understood that, without respect toward human life, there can be no just society where one can fully live. For this reason, the divinized humanity rediscovered in Christ help us to construct a better country, a common home where every human being and every human person will be truly respected in its ontological dignity. But it also gives us the strength to resist, because now all Ukrainian citizens, even those who speak Russian in eastern Ukraine, are opposed to and resist Russian aggression, even paying with their own lives. They understand that they are not only defending Ukraine as a country, as a political entity, but are also defending their personal dignity and that of their children. This makes us strong and helps us to forge ahead and to be witnesses to the dignity of the human person. It is precisely that dignity to be the corner stone of every European society: it is an indispensible European value. I would go further: If in western democracies today, these values are not reclaimed, if human life will not represent the most precious value and if economic motivations will take precedence over the dignity of the human person, it will be the end of any kind of democracy. Therefore, I can state that, today, Ukraine is defending Europe not only from a geographical point of view but also from the point if view of fundamental values.

  1. Ukraine is also the land of an historical conflict of the two great centres of Orthodoxy, Moscow and Constantinople. Looking at it externally, is it only a religious feud or is it also political? Could this conflict also weaken the relations between Ukrainians of different Churches?

In these last few months, we have witnessed the two great centres of Eastern Christianity, Moscow e Constantinople debating the Ukraine question. But if we look closer, we can see that it is a conflict between two different visions of the Church concerning its role in society and in the world. Unfortunately, the Russian Orthodox Church is being used as an instrument of a Russian imperialistic war being fought in Ukraine. We hope that it will be the last such war in the modern world and that the other old empires will not resume wars of conquest for their former colonies, which have since become modern independent countries.  And thus Russia’s presence in our country is seen as that of an aggressor even by Orthodox Chrisians. But when we consider the vision of the Church of Constantinople, we see that this Church considers itself as the Mother Church of Christianity in Ukraine. We have to remember that the Church of Kyiv is also the Mother Church of the Church of Moscow, and this Church cares not so much for political and economic motivations, but for its children. We know that, for 25 years in Ukraine, there has existed a large Orthodox group considered by the Orthodox world to be “uncanonical.” They debated whether these millions of Orthodox believers could be saved or would all go to hell, as some representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate posited. To this question, Patriarch Bartholomew gave an answer: he opened the doors of heaven to millions of Ukrainians. In my opinion, Constantinople’s approach is above all pastoral. And when its patriarch è showed the Church’s motherly face, that is was worried about the sorrows and wounds of Orthodox Ukrainians, the people, wounded by war, truly received this as a ray of light of God’s grace. So this is not merely a conflict between two foreign religious centres on Ukrainian soil, as if a purely diplomatic or political conflict, but, in my opinion, it concerns the future of the Orthodox Church itself. I think that this discussion will help to rediscover what the Church is. Is it merely a political entity or is it the Body of Christ which suffers from the wounds of its members, the Body of Christ that in his wounds offers salvation and resolution?  And I believe it is also a battle for the liberty of the Church itself, in order that it can be itself and be capable of playing a pastoral and prophetic role in our time.

  1. We hear a lot and rightly about peripheries. Today it can be said that Europe is a periphery of the faith, where secularism is ever advancing.

I think that, today, the concept of periphery is no longer only geographic. The meaning of centre and periphery depend on that which we put at the centre of our lives. If a person puts as the centre of their life only material wellbeing, then even living in the periphery becomes secularized because their horizon ends at the border of their world. But if the person puts Christ at the centre of their lives or even the human person, as such, with its eternal aspirations and its transcendence which aspires to pass beyond the boundaries of this world, then they will rediscover human life as something that goes beyond la the world which we know. They will be open to transcendence and to a faith-filled way of seeing things. And thus, each person throughout the world, on whichever continent they may be, is called today to make their own choices and to decide who or what to place at the centre of their own life. I can say that, in contemporary Ukrainian society, people are putting God at the centre of their lives and the human person. In this period of bitter trial and suffering, Ukrainians try to be a people of faith, because only thus will we be capable of resisting the evils of this world.

  1. Your latest book, entitled Tell me the truth, is an effort to answer to the question about what is the truth. I will quote to you a phrase in Life and destiny: “There is only one truth, not two. To live without truth or with some piece, or some fragment with a chipped or trimmed-down truth is difficult, because a piece of the truth is no longer the truth.” What thoughts do these words bring to you?

How much modern man needs to understand what truly really means! In the Ukrainian language we have two words to say truth: “pravda” and “istyna”. The word istyna means the highest, objective and integral truth. This truth is the Person of Christ. Whoever discovers this truth becomes free, as the Lord said: “know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” But there is the other term – pravda, which means subjective truth, personal truth, a truth created by each person according to their own way of thinking and understanding the world, and their own way of knowing reality and making connections. According to the “atomized” truth of an individual, that part of truth seems to be true for one person but seems false to another. In order to get away from this individualism and to discern what is true from what is false, people need to be open, to enter into contact with others, especially with the Other Person (in capital letters), they must live in relation to the Other (in capitals). Only thus can we understand and experience Truth, because Truth is a person that we have met in the experience of a relationship. Let us recall Pontius Pilate’s question. Jesus told him: “I came into this world to bear witness to the truth,” and Pilate answered: “what is the truth?” The conversation ended there because truth is not a thing but a Person present before him.

  1. What is the connection between truth and freedom? 

According to the spiritual vision of Eastern Christian theology, freedom is not the capacity to choose between good and evil. Free will is only an invitation to freedom. We can become truly free only after having chosen the good. Let us recall the scene when the Chosen People ended its wanderings in the desert and had to cross the Jordan. It renewed its pact with the Lord and the Lord told it: “I place before you two choices: life and death. Choose life.” Freedom is to choose life. Whoever choses life, manifested by the truth and the word of God, becomes free. But if they choose evil and death then they become enslaved to evil and thus lose the possibility to choose. And so I hope that all of us, in our lives, choose that which is good and true, for only thus can we become truly free.

Translated by Secretariat of the Head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Rome