Pastoral or Provocative? Patriarch Bartholomew’s Visit to Ukraine

Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and President Zelensky
Photo: Press Service of the President of Ukraine

Much has happened in the time that has elapsed since Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in 2018-19. The world continues to struggle through the pandemic. Natural disasters are destroying lives at home and abroad. Pictures of Afghans trying to flee the Taliban stun our consciences. Europe’s longest ruling dictator continues to brutalize citizens of Belarus.

When COVID brought the world to its knees in 2020, I thought that it would create a much-needed ceasefire in the longstanding informational war among Orthodox Ukrainians. Surely, the most hardened participants in confessional polemical warfare would cool off.

I was wrong. Anger continues to percolate among some Orthodox inside and outside of Ukraine. Opponents of the decision to grant autocephaly to the OCU were incensed by Patriarch Bartholomew’s acceptance of President Zelensky’s invitation to visit Ukraine on the occasion of the thirtieth year of national independence.

Among the patriarch’s opponents, clergy and laity came together to demand that he take responsibility for his actions in Ukraine and meet with them. The group is named “Myriane” (laity). They held a prayer vigil on August 21, the day of Bartholomew’s meetings with President Zelensky and the Ukrainian Parliament. 

The situation surrounding Bartholomew’s visit to Ukraine was combustible. The opposition was angry, but so are Bartholomew’s supporters. They were determined to welcome him with gratitude and hospitality, and to show that most Ukrainians revere his legacy and spiritual authority.

The Opposition’s Perspective

On the surface, it appeared that the UOC-MP and their supporters objected to Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision to create a new autocephalous structure in Ukraine. They claimed that Constantinople had no canonical jurisdiction in Ukraine, and accused the patriarch of violating the integrity of their canonical territory. They contributed to and circulated rumors that the American government bribed the patriarch to take this action for political favors. They claimed that he caused irreparable harm to the Orthodox Church by causing a schism.

A more nuanced explanation awaits the patient investigator willing to tune out the frenzy on the surface and understand these accusations. The Moscow and Constantinopolitan Patriarchates have endured increasingly tense relations from the Bolshevik Revolution to the present. Moscow objected bitterly to Constantinople’s granting of autonomy to the Orthodox Churches in Finland and Estonia in 1923, and autocephaly to Poland in 1924. An examination of the correspondence between Moscow and Constantinople reveals Russian angst over Constantinople making important decisions about Orthodox people who had lived within Russian borders.

Moscow essentially challenged Constantinople’s primacy in the Orthodox Church. The main challenge concerned the process of granting autocephaly to a Church requesting it. The ecumenical councils did not provide a mechanism for autocephaly, and several Churches began to seek it during the decline and fall of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires.

An InterOrthodox commission drafted a proposal that granted concessions to both sides, but the churches never ratified it. Autocephaly was supposed to be resolved at the long-planned pan-Orthodox council, but the lack of consensus resulted in its removal from the agenda. When Moscow withdrew from its participation in the Council of Crete in 2016—along with the Churches of Georgia, Bulgaria, and Antioch—relations with Constantinople became even more strained.

This abridged background on modern relations between Moscow and Constantinople might lead one to believe that Constantinople’s decision to grant autocephaly to Ukraine in 2019 was retaliatory. The background is essential to understand the increasing alienation of the Churches, one that was exacerbated by external factors throughout the modern period.

This brief description of the situation and the background leads to the big question: why did Patriarch Bartholomew visit Ukraine?

Was his visit a pastoral act, or a provocation?

Patriarch Bartholomew has considered the Ukrainian Church crisis for thirty years. I am convinced that a pivotal moment occurred in July 1991, when Metropolitan Bartholomew visited Ukraine and had an audience with Metropolitan Filaret (Denysenko), who was the primate of the UOC-MP at the time. This visit occurred one month before Ukraine broke from the Soviet Union and declared independence. In the previous year, Patriarch Aleksy II wrote Patriarch Dimitrios of Constantinople and requested his support for the UOC-MP. Patriarch Aleksy II alleged that Ukrainian Greek Catholics and autocephalous Orthodox were using violence and aggression to seize temples from the canonical Church. Dimitrios offered a terse, but supportive response.

Filaret, then, must have assumed that Bartholomew—traveling on behalf of Dimitrios—would condemn the autocephalists. Bartholomew’s response, however, was not one of appeasement. He said that Constantinople was willing to engage a peaceful dialogue involving all of the aggrieved parties, to determine a solution together.

It would have been more convenient for Bartholomew to avoid the issue and affirm the UOC-MP’s accusations.

Appeasing the dominant narrative and acting pastorally are not, however, always compatible.

Soon afterwards, Filaret and the entire episcopate of his Church, the UOC-MP, petitioned the Moscow Patriarchate for autocephaly. It is almost certain that they would have reached an agreement with the autocephalists or absorbed most of their parishes and people had Moscow responded favorably.

Moscow denied the Ukrainian petition for autocephaly in 1992, claiming that the request was politically motivated and did not represent the will of the Ukrainian people. For twenty-six years afterwards, Orthodox Ukrainians were divided, and clergy and faithful who belonged to the two autocephalous structures in Ukraine found themselves excommunicated from the Church.

The religious status quo of uneasy coexistence at best and downright enmity at worst became semi-permanent from 1992-2018. Noble gestures of interOrthodox dialogue emerged on occasion, including dialogue committees of the UOC-MP and UOC-KP. Orthodox Ukrainians never agreed on a path to unification, however. And the world’s Orthodox Churches seemed to become comfortable with the status quo that left millions of people outside of Church communion.

When the Ecumenical Patriarchate annulled the canonical penalties on the UOC-KP and UAOC in October 2018, it created a path for restoring millions of people to communion with the Church. Autocephaly established new terms of Ukrainian relations with the Church—there was no longer any question about their subordination to this or that Church outside of Ukraine.

Some readers might stop here and claim that this explanation is inadequate. They might say that the OCU’s tomos subordinates it to Constantinople, or that Filaret and the other leaders never repented of their sins. A rigorous examination of the situation would nuance such simplistic suppositions. For example, who truly knows the entirety of the story of this historical period? A thorough report would expose errors by many figures, not only Filaret. He is far from the only figure who needs to atone for his actions.

Patriarch Bartholomew seemed to understand the most pressing dilemma of the Ukrainian Church crisis. Two realities collided in the religious status quo: there was no consensus on a solution, and millions of faithful were outside of communion from the Church. Any decision that changed the status quo would upset a certain cohort, yet the status quo of division was incompatible with the Gospel. Pastoral acts are often unpopular—he chose to grant amnesty to millions, and those who claimed exclusive access to righteousness protested vehemently. The pastoral act was unpopular among many; it was also merciful to millions.

In this case, Patriarch Bartholomew faced the proverbial music by visiting the people to whom he had granted amnesty by restoring them to communion. In the process, he was the recipient of a great deal of angry backlash, in and outside of Ukraine. He could have stayed home—it is, after all, dangerous to be out and about in a deadly pandemic. Leaders don’t stay at home and try to appease everyone. They act decisively and commit to the entire process demanded by their decision. It is for this reason that Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit to Ukraine was actually pastoral, and not provocative. 

Rev. Nicholas Denysenko is Emil and Elfriede Jochum Chair at Valparaiso University.