An interview with Rev. Dr. Athanasius D. McVay, historian of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
By: Dorothy Cummings McLean
Source: The Catholic World Report
The Reverend Doctor Athanasius D. McVay is a Canadian-born historian and priest of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC). He specializes in the 20th-century history of Vatican diplomacy and of the UGCC. He is an authority on the 1932-1933 Holodomor famine in Ukraine, and has just released a new book, God’s Martyr, History’s Witness, Blessed Nykyta Budka, the first Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Canada, published by the Edmonton Eparchy together with the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies in Ottawa.
Novelist and European correspondent Dorothy Cummings McLean contacted Father McVay for CWR recently to talk about his book and ongoing events in Ukraine.
Father Athanasius D. McVay: Thank you. It was worth the five years of toil.
McLean: How was Blessed Nykyta a martyr? I know he died in 1949 in a Soviet gulag, but was that a religious martyrdom, or a purely political, nationalist martyrdom?
Fr. McVay: Nykyta Budka was appointed bishop in 1912 for the Greek-Catholic faithful in Canada. He resigned in 1928 and was re-assigned to western Ukraine (then under Polish rule). When the Soviets invaded in 1945, he and his fellow bishops were condemned to the gulag because Stalin ordered the destruction of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in the conquered territories. The hierarchy, clergy, religious, and laity who would not cooperate and join the Russian Orthodox Church were executed or sentenced to hard labor. In order to justify themselves before history and world opinion, the Soviets charged the bishops with crimes against the Communist revolution, the Party, the Soviet Union, and even with opposing the Russian Orthodox Church, which had largely passed under state control and was infiltrated by the KGB.
McLean: Are there still pressures on the Ukrainian Church to separate from Rome today?
Fr. McVay: There are some calling for the Eastern Catholic Churches to be suppressed.
McLean: Can you give an example?
Fr. McVay: Since ostensibly entering into ecumenical talks with Rome, the Russian Orthodox Church has been calling for “The Uniates” to be suppressed. In recent years, with the rise of Vladimir Putin, whose program aims at restoring much of the worst aspects of the Russian/Soviet Empire, the ROC’s anti-Eastern-Catholic rhetoric has increased and overt persecution has begin in the occupied territories.
McLean: Since we last spoke, Ukraine has replaced its government, Russia has annexed the Crimea, ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine have risen up against Ukrainian rule with the Kremlin’s blessing, and a group of these rebels shot down Malaysian Airlines MH17, killing all 298 people on board. Have I missed anything?
Fr. McVay: The people of Ukraine, not politicians, led the Maidan (pronounced My-dan), a revolution of dignity, against the Yanukovich kleptocracy. These included people of various ethnic origins, Orthodox and Catholic faithful, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and non-believers. Ukraine is united on the basic issues, as recent elections have demonstrated. Whatever their religious and ethnic differences, Ukrainian citizens want to work together for a prosperous and independent Ukraine. They want it to join the civilized world and not be dominated by a resurrected Russian Empire
There is a larger percentage of Orthodox believers and religious vocations in Ukraine [than in Russia] because the Churches in Russia were decimated by the Soviets. The Russian Orthodox Church is fearful that if Russia loses its political domination over Ukraine, the Moscow patriarchate will lose its religious domination over the more vibrant Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The Moscow Patriarchate criticized the UGCC for speaking out against injustice and corruption, and for ministering to the faithful during the Maidan protest. In areas occupied by Russia (Crimea) and Russian mercenaries (Donbas), UGC priests have been threatened and abused, and have had to flee for their lives. Other churches not controlled by the Kremlin and other religions have also experienced persecution. Some Protestant pastors were murdered, and the Roman Catholic bishop in Crimea is worried that he and his faithful might be next. People are being tortured and killed there for speaking Ukrainian in public.
McLean: It seems that Ukraine has been relegated to the back pages of the newspapers. Certainly it has been replaced in the Catholic newsreader’s mind lately by the Synod on the Family. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Hilarion gave an address. What was it about?
Fr. McVay: Metropolitan Hilarion was asked to give a Russian Orthodox perspective about the family. Instead, he used his intervention to attack the UGCC and blame it for problems in Ukraine, following it up with an extremely unfortunate radio interview.
CWR: I see that he is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for External Church Relations. Does that make him the public relations man of the Russian Orthodox Church?
Fr. McVay: Metropolitan Hilarion is one of the most virulent critics of the UGCC. In many public appearances, his actions and words (not only against Greek-Catholics) have been rude and anti-ecumenical (for example, his behavior at the Anglican-Orthodox Nikean Club in London). He has made slanderous accusations against Patriarch Sviatoslav, the Head of the UGCC, and against out our hierarchy and clergy.
McLean: How would you characterize the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Catholic Church?
Fr. McVay: In Ukraine, despite theological differences, all the Churches and religions cooperate well in the Pan-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Communities, which includes the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in union with the Moscow Patriarchate. Patriarch Sviatoslav and the late Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolitan Volodymyr had a particularly good relationship. The problem appears to be the imperialist disease in politics and religion that the Kremlin has suffered for centuries.
McLean: A number of Roman Catholic journalists—Robert Moynihan and Frances Phillips among them—seem very impressed with a renewal of Christian practice in Russia, not to mention Russia’s championship of the traditional family. What is the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state?
Fr. McVay: Any renewal of Christian practice is good news to all Christians. Ukrainian Catholics rejoice at any renewal of the Russian Orthodox Church. Unfortunately, since the 1940s any material and political support which the Kremlin has given to the ROC has always come at a terrible cost: for example, the ROC was once forced to become a state puppet in the destruction of the UGCC in western Ukraine. Today, Moscow Patriarchate appears to be enabling their “Dear Leader” in his wars which are causing the deaths of thousands of Ukrainian citizens, including Orthodox believers.
At the end of the 18th century, the (in)famous Russian statesman Potemkin built sandcastles and fake towns in Crimea to fool Empress Catherine II into thinking that he had brought civilization to the newly acquired territory. Many naive westerners, especially those desperate for allies against encroaching secularism, view Putin’s sandcastles from a distance and think them to be authentic, sturdy edifices representing real, conservative, pro-Christian policies.
In the 1930s German conservatives, including some Catholics, supported Hitler because they thought he would save them from Communism. If they had read Mein Kampf more carefully, as Blessed Clemens von Galen had done, they would have seen his destructive pagan ideology lurking below the surface.
McLean: I suspect many Latin Catholics wish the Greek Catholics put aside old hurts to work for Christian unity and the much desired healing of our thousand year old Schism. What do you think is the way forward?
Fr. McVay: Eastern Catholics are fully committed to good relations and dialogue with other Churches, and participate at the ecumenical table alongside Orthodox, Latin Catholics, Anglicans, Protestants, and others. Recently, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware called upon all Christians to cultivate ecumenical friendships as the foundation to all ecumenical dialogue. Pope Francis blessed this path in a recent audience with the Orientale Lumen Foundation.
At the local level, grassroots ecumenism is making the best progress, especially in areas where the “official” dialogues has become encumbered with political baggage. Sometimes dialogues are perpetuated for their own sake, even when one side is not willing to play by basic ecumenical rules. Some dialoguers are reluctant to defend persecuted Churches against anti-ecumenical abuse. Recently Protopresbyter Chaplin has been quoted as saying that the ROC would not be opposed to the Catholic Churches in Russia separating from Rome. Is Putin looking to repeat what the Communists did in 1946 in western Ukraine and in 1951 in China?
McLean: Cardinal Dolan of New York seems to feel very passionately about the Ukrainian cause.
Fr. McVay: Cardinal Dolan knows the Ukrainian community in the United States well, and his heart breaks when he sees the persecution and suffering that it endured in the past (even sometimes from its Latin Sister Church) and is enduring today. Despite their age difference [the Patriarch is only 44], Dolan respects Sviatoslav for his authenticity and profound religious faith, and also recognizes his sincere respect for the Orthodox Churches.
When a brother is falsely accused, family members are morally obligated to defend their good name. Understanding this, Cardinal Dolan immediately intervened to defend Sviatoslav and the UGCC after Metropolitan Hilarion’s attack at the Synod. Unfortunately, some bishops appeared to greet Hilarion warmly, perhaps just trying to be polite. But we know that real “charity begins at home.” Dialogues with others can be rendered inauthentic if the dialoguers are lacking in charity towards their own.
McLean: Thank you very much for your thoughts, Father McVay.
Fr. McVay: You’re welcome, Dorothy and CWR. Let us pray for peace in Ukraine and Russia, and among Orthodox and Catholics.