Thursday, February 10, 2011

Now Open: B16's Great Gate of Kiev

As foreseen yesterday, this morning the Pope accepted the retirement of Cardinal Lubomyr Husar as major-archbishop of Kiev and head of the 5 million-member Ukrainian Greek-Catholic church worldwide.

Said to be his homeland's "leading moral authority," with the departure of the 77 year-old hierarch on grounds of poor health, the leadership of the largest Eastern fold in communion with Rome is now up for grabs, and going into next month's Synod to elect his successor, the stakes are high well beyond the ecclesial front.

For starters, the choice of the UGCC's 26th head will, in all likelihood, mark a generational shift at the church's helm. Each tipped to receive serious consideration to succeed to the (de facto) patriarch's chair, three of the body's four metropolitans -- the Synod's most senior figures after Husar, all likewise elected by it to their current posts -- are 60 or younger, two of them having spent their whole lives in the diaspora.

In the meanwhile, the church's second-ranking figure at home, Archeparch Ihor Vozniak, 58 -- Husar's onetime deputy in his former seat of Lviv -- has been named the church's temporary head pending the Synod of Election, which must convene within a month. Prior to his ascent, the now-retired cardinal was the lead aide to his predecessor, Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, who led the church for 17 years until his death in 2001 at 86.

Above all, though, the selection of the next major-archbishop will be watched with considerable attention far outside Ukrainian and Catholic circles alike for the decision's potential impact on the delicate relationship between the Vatican and the Kremlin -- a slowly warming rapport whose continued improvement ranks atop Benedict XVI's religious and geopolitical priorities all around.

For his part, Husar's decade-long tenure has had its share of tensions with Ukraine's predominant Orthodox church. The latter closely linked with the formidable Moscow patriarchate -- that is, the ecumenical constituency to which Benedict has invested his most intense energies as Pope -- the UGCC has long been accused of proselytism and interference by its Orthodox counterparts, and the two groups have sparred over the construction of churches.

Along the way, the Greek-Catholics prominently inflamed pockets of Orthodox tensions with Husar's 2005 move to Kiev (the traditional cradle of Russian Christianity and seat of the UOC), coupled with his push to build a grand cathedral there (above), the preliminary chapel of which was set ablaze in 2005 in an act immediately blamed on Orthodox aggression. (Dedicated to the Resurrection, the Kiev cathedral's exterior was completed last fall.)

Most recently, in one of his last major statements in office, the cardinal -- invariably a fierce advocate of his church's fullest standing in society -- blasted an enhanced state recognition for the UOC (one of three Orthodox branches in Ukraine).

Saying that the country's constitution ensured equal status under the law for each religious body, Husar warned that "when we can witness a clearly biased, despite all the assurances to the contrary, attitude of the regime toward a specified church, this favoritism begins to create tensions."

The development, he said, "is dangerous for the nation's peace."

In its relations with the Orthodox churches on post-Soviet turf, Rome has often found itself walking a delicate balance, and no more is that the case than in the sizable orbit of the Moscow patriarchate.

Even as its diaspora grew and the leaders of the persecuted fold were arrested before being scattered in exile, the Vatican has maintained a half-century reluctance to accord the patriarchal dignity to the head of the Ukrainian church, inventing the designation of major-archbishop in 1963 after Paul VI was petitioned to elevate the fold's then-head, Cardinal Joseph Slipyj, to the full status of an Eastern chief. While John Paul II naturally enjoyed a particular bond with the faithful just across the border from his Polish homeland, even he declined the step. And given Benedict's priority on improving relations with Orthodoxy's most hard-line branch, not only would the question seem even less likely to be broached in the current pontificate (at least, barring a sudden, epic detente with Moscow), but a realm of thought on this front has seen the reigning Pope as having given more emphasis to external relations than that of the churches within his own care. Whether this mindset reflexively plays out in the choice of a successor from Husar's mould of an unstinting, battle-ready defense of the church's prerogatives, as opposed to a more diplomatic figure, hangs as a key variable in the run-up to the Synod -- one which, again, could have ramifications far beyond Kiev.

Coincidentally, last week marked two years since Rome's most significant recent triumph on the Orthodox front -- the election of Metropolitan Kirill, the Russian church's chief ecumenist, who became particularly well-regarded at the Holy See, as patriarch of Moscow following the death of the more strident Alexei II.

To the degree that the Russian Synod was looking outside, its choice of the moderate, media-savvy dialogue chief was likely aided by the Vatican's 2007 appointment of a more collaborative cleric -- the Italian priest of Communion and Liberation Paolo Pezzi -- as the capital's Catholic archbishop, replacing a prelate whose departure the Orthodox had ardently sought.

Though Kirill and Benedict have built a history of warm relations from the former's prior assignment, to date, no meeting between a Roman pontiff and incumbent Russian patriarch has ever taken place… and to say that the historic encounter is high on B16's "bucket list" reaches the realm of understatement.

While the Moscow chief is thought to be just as personally disposed for the moment to happen, as patriarch, Kirill first has to assuage his hard-liners. And it's likewise on Benedict's radar that his hierarchs refrain from presenting any obstacles that would galvanize the significant resistance in both churches to better relations, largely thanks to the concessions each would have to make along the way.

To be sure, in a December address, Husar lamented the "stereotype" that "Greek Catholics are the problem for reaching agreements between the Moscow Patriarchate and Roman Pope."

"The pope and the Patriarch of Moscow cannot reach an agreement on many other things,” the cardinal said.

"You see, we are the unfortunate Greek Catholics on the border between the two great cultures – the Byzantine and Latin ones, between Roman Catholicism and confessional Orthodoxy – as we consider ourselves the Orthodox in unity with the Apostolic See."

Still, the truth remains the Vatican's prized path to Moscow could well be affected by what happens in Kiev. So on multiple points of the map, get ready for an interesting month.