St. George Greek Catholic Cathedral in L’viv, Ukraine (Wikimedia Commons/Haidamac)

Into the Breach

The role of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church

In February 2022, as the Russian military crossed into Ukraine and marched toward Kyiv, Ukrainians and foreigners alike spilled into L’viv, a city thought to be safer because of its proximity to the Polish border. More than six months later, L’viv has become more than a temporary refuge—it has become a center for humanitarian aid, a cultural capital, and a safe haven for thousands of displaced people. As the world has turned its attention to L’viv, observers have recalled the city’s past as the diverse Austro-Hungarian city of Lemberg. An urban center in the borderlands of the Habsburg Empire, Lemberg produced political activists, artists, and writers who wrote in Ukrainian, Polish, German, and Yiddish. These figures were critical to the creation of a transnational European culture.  

Still overlooked, however, is the city’s role as a Ukrainian spiritual center: under the Habsburgs L’viv became the seat of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. While most Ukrainians today identify as Orthodox (80 percent), a sizable minority are Greek Catholics belonging to this Eastern-rite Catholic Church. These nearly four million Greek Catholics, about 9 percent of Ukraine’s population, are concentrated in L’viv and its surrounding area. Indeed, most of the historic churches in L’viv’s downtown are Catholic.

The Catholic presence in L’viv is not simply a historical curiosity. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has played an outsized role not just in the local culture, but in the creation of the Ukrainian nation. Historically, it has been in the moments when the fate of Ukraine hung in the balance that the Greek Catholic Church made its largest impacts. As L’viv takes on new importance in the Ukrainian war effort, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has again become more visible, not only locally but throughout the region. What can history tell us about how this current war will influence this overlooked religious community? Will the Church yet again be in a position to shape Ukrainian history?

 

Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church is a product of the shifting borders that have characterized so much of Eastern Europe’s history. When an alliance of principalities coalesced to form the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569, its leadership had to figure out how to absorb Orthodox Slavs from the territories of what is now Ukraine into their Catholic realm. The nobility and the clergy settled on a church union in 1596, which would allow locals to continue to practice the Eastern-rite customs of Orthodox Christianity while accepting the spiritual authority of the pope, creating what was known then as the Ruthenian Uniate Church and is known today as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Although the institution was founded in 1596, this Church traces its Christianity to Grand Prince Volodymyr (Vladimir in Russian) who adopted Byzantine Christianity for his kingdom in medieval Kyiv in 988. In this way, Greek Catholics see their spiritual heritage as emanating from the same source as the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches.

When the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth weakened in the late eighteenth century, its territories were partitioned and Greek Catholics found themselves divided between two empires with radically different approaches to this Church: the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Imperial Russia saw the Greek Catholic Church as an imposition of Catholicism on a population that it deemed part of the Orthodox world. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the imperial Russian state banned the Church and forcibly transferred clergy, believers, and properties from the Greek Catholic Church to the Russian Orthodox Church. All the while, they called this process a “reunification,” claiming they were “reunifying” Greek Catholics with their Orthodox brethren as their lands and sacred spaces were annexed by Russia. Tellingly, Putin and his allies use similar rhetoric of “reunification” to justify Russia’s current war in Ukraine.

The treatment of the Church by Catholic Austria-Hungary was quite the opposite. As Catholics, the Habsburgs poured resources into the Greek Catholic Church to place it on more even footing with the Roman Catholic Church. This included state funding for seminaries, programs to allow Greek Catholic clergy to study in Rome, and money to build opulent cathedrals in the styles of the day. In 1817, the support of the Habsburg emperor allowed the Vatican to establish a metropolitan in Lemberg for the Greek Catholic Church. For the Habsburgs, this move was also meant to fight Russian influence. A well-funded and state-supported Greek Catholic Church, it was thought, would insulate the population from Russian state-funded Orthodox missions in the borderland city.

Because the Greek Catholic Church, like the Orthodox Church, permits married clergy, these highly educated clergy soon became scions for families that served as the foundation of an intelligentsia in Austria-Hungary.

Yet, perhaps the most consequential impact of Habsburg state support for the Church was the creation of a highly educated clergy deeply ingrained in European networks of both religious and secular scholarship. And because the Greek Catholic Church, like the Orthodox Church, permits married clergy, these highly educated clergy soon became scions for families that served as the foundation of an intelligentsia in Austria-Hungary. It was these educated priests and their children who laid the foundation for the Ukrainian national movement in the late nineteenth century, a movement that emerged alongside Russian, Polish, and Jewish national movements in the region. These activists sought to forge connections with Orthodox Ukrainians across the border in imperial Russia, grappling with a key question: Could a population that straddled multiple empires and confessions become one people?

 

As Europe entered the twentieth century, the clergy of the Greek Catholic Church found that their visions for the Ukrainian nation were quickly being overtaken by more radical forms of nationalism. At the same time, some of their parishioners were eschewing national identifications altogether, embracing socialism and class-based solidarities along with it. How could the Church remain a meaningful presence in the lives of its flock with all of these shifts? This question fell to the man who was selected as metropolitan in 1900, serving until his death in 1944: Andrei Sheptytsky. The Church’s history in the twentieth century came to be defined by Sheptytsky, not just because he was an extraordinary leader, but because in those forty-four years, Sheptytsky radically redefined the Church’s role in society and left a legacy that shapes the Church to this day.

From 1900 to 1944, the seat of the Church, then Lemberg and today L’viv, and its surrounding region changed hands from Austria-Hungary to Poland (1918), and later Soviet Ukraine (1939), weathering two world wars. There were also short-lived but incredibly consequential occupations as imperial Russia fought Austria-Hungary during War World I; Reds fought Whites during the Russian Civil War; Soviets fought Nazis during World War II; and partisans of various loyalties fought each other, all in the city of L’viv. In the absence of a stable government, Sheptytsky positioned the Church to serve as a government for his stateless flock and, as metropolitan, was given a seat at tables normally reserved for diplomats. A statesman as well as a churchman, Sheptytsky used his own family’s vast personal wealth and the Church’s holdings to create institutions where the string of states in the region had failed, founding museums, schools, and charities to serve L’viv’s vulnerable population, including veterans of the countless wars. With each new government, he used his position as head of the Church to advocate not just for Greek Catholics but for the Ukrainian minority as a whole, lobbying for Ukrainian-language rights and religious tolerance for both Orthodox and Catholic Ukrainians.

Despite this advocacy, Sheptytsky would have bristled at the suggestion that he was a nationalist, at least in the way it was understood at the time. Indeed, Sheptytsky was a vocal critic of radical nationalist movements taking hold in the region. He especially criticized violence between Poles and Ukrainians, using his platform to condemn the Polish government’s treatment of its Ukrainian minority in the 1930s, as well as terrorist acts committed by right-wing Ukrainian nationalist groups against Polish rule.

But there were limits to his influence among a population of believers that then numbered around three million. Sheptytsky may have condemned radical nationalism as counter to the Church’s teaching, but his parishioners and even members of the clergy did not always see it that way. The combination of the Great Depression and an increasingly repressive Polish government left the local population desperate for fundamental change. The Church’s refusal to engage in a real way with mass politics caused many to search elsewhere for advocacy, including among the local nationalist and socialist movements. In letters preserved in the Vatican’s Archive for Eastern Churches, Sheptytsky wrote to the Vatican in the 1930s about these developments, fearing that nationalist politics were replacing Christian values among his flock, including within the priesthood. He feared the consequences of a population committed to the nation above all, instead of service to God.

Even with these prescient insights, Sheptytsky could not have predicted what he and his Church would face during the Second World War. In 1939, L’viv and its surrounding region were annexed to Stalin’s Soviet Union after the Nazi–Soviet pact split up Poland. From 1939 to 1941, Sheptytsky did his best to serve as a diplomat yet again, negotiating with the officially atheist Soviet state to protect his Church in exchange for a promise that the Church would not criticize the new Stalinist order. For their part, the Soviets understood that because of the Church’s influence in the region, an all-out assault against Sheptytsky and the clergy would only inspire anger. That assault would come later—once the Soviet Union had decisively won the war and Sheptytsky was no longer alive to combat it.

In letters to the Vatican that Sheptytsky managed to smuggle out during this first Soviet occupation, he did not hide his true feelings about the regime he publicly declared loyalty to. He documented the crimes perpetrated against the local Polish population, which was singled out by Soviet authorities for mass arrest and deportation as a remnant of the old regime. He noted that the ubiquitous secret police presented the population with a series of impossible choices and commented on an overall moral degradation in the face of the violence of Soviet occupation.

Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky (CNS Photo)

When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Sheptytsky was forced to face a new reality. The series of choices Sheptytsky made in this period have come under a great deal of scrutiny by historians and remain a topic of debate. Although many avoid engaging with the complexities of the Church’s history during World War II, the full picture offers insight into what Ukraine faced during this era, and crucially, what the Church might mean for Ukraine today.

Like many other L’vivians, Sheptytsky initially saw the Nazi invasion in 1941 as a liberation from Soviet rule. While some locals, especially radical nationalist groups, welcomed the opportunity to participate in violence against Jews and “Soviet collaborators” in service to the Nazi regime, this was not the case for Sheptytsky and many of his fellow clergy. Rather, Sheptytsky simply believed that nothing could be worse than the imposition of Stalinism his community had faced in the past two years. He took seriously promises from the Nazis that they would honor religious freedom and support movements for Ukrainian independence. It was this hopefulness that perhaps explains why Sheptytsky said nothing when pogroms against the local Jewish population broke out in the first months of Nazi occupation in the summer of 1941. Many of his own flock were the perpetrators of these pogroms, and, according to reports gathered later, Greek Catholic priests condoned the violence as revenge against the Soviet secret police, blaming local Jews for the crimes of the Soviet state.

But Sheptytsky’s compliance with Nazi authorities was short-lived. As the Nazi occupation grew more violent and repressive, Sheptytsky used the little freedom he had to make his views known. His pastoral letters were banned by the Nazis, but he found ways to circulate them anyway to his parishes. In these letters he condemned those who had collaborated with the Nazis and the violence being committed by both the German occupiers and the local population against Jews and later Polish civilians. He was the first religious leader to report to the Vatican about the mass killings of Jews that later became known as the Holocaust and pleaded that these crimes be made known to the world.

Considering how many of Europe’s religious leaders openly collaborated with Nazi occupation, this alone distinguishes Sheptytsky and the Greek Catholic Church from other religious institutions. But Sheptytsky went further. He and his brother Kliment, also a Church hierarch, were instrumental in helping conceal Jews from the Nazis, allowing them to hide out in rural monasteries, ultimately saving the lives of over a hundred local Jews. He managed to orchestrate all this while confined to a wheelchair by injuries and illnesses caused by old age and the trauma of war.

Still, despite Sheptytsky’s objections, Nazi authorities hoped to use the Church and its symbolism to give themselves moral authority. As Soviet forces were closing in, the Nazis formed a special SS unit to be made up of local Ukrainians and asked for the Church’s assistance in mobilizing it. While Sheptytsky sanctioned this, he also lobbied for this unit to have Greek Catholic priests serve as chaplains—making it the only Nazi SS unit with a chaplaincy. Scholars have been split on the meaning of this decision: Was it an attempt by Sheptytsky to encourage these draftees to remember their values and the Church’s teachings as they fought a thoroughly unjust war? Or was it a way for the Church to give its blessing to these soldiers, in support of their ultimate mission to defeat the rapidly approaching Soviet army?

Here lies the central dilemma in interpreting the Greek Catholic Church and its leadership during a cataclysmic war. Those who denounce Sheptytsky as a “collaborator” ignore both the moments he risked everything to resist, and even more significantly, the limitations imposed on anyone trying to negotiate between Hitler and Stalin. At the same time, Sheptytsky himself argued that war should not be used as an excuse to abandon one’s values. Therefore, to get a full picture of the complicated people and institutions of the Church, it is necessary to acknowledge the moments it did not lead the way it should have.

Andrei Sheptytsky died in 1944, a few months after the Soviets retook L’viv and annexed it to Soviet Ukraine, where the city would remain until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Soviet state authorities allowed Sheptytsky an official funeral in acknowledgement of, if not respect for, his authority. In Soviet state reports from the funeral, informants said that mourners came from all sectors of society—including workers, peasants, students, and members of the intelligentsia—and remarked upon the massive influence this man and the Church had on the local population. Soviet authorities took this to mean that his death had left open a power vacuum and an opportunity to repress the Church once and for all.

Indeed, a few months after his death Soviet authorities began attacking the Church and Sheptytsky himself, claiming the Church had supported Nazi occupation and had to be punished along with all other “collaborators.” Soviet authorities banned the Church and forcibly transferred its clergy, property, and believers to an official, state-run Russian Orthodox Church, echoing the policies previously pursued by imperial Russia. Those who resisted faced arrest, exile, and death. Under duress, some clergy and parishioners accepted the imposition of Orthodoxy, finding ways to outwardly appear dedicated members of the Orthodox Church while holding on to their Greek Catholic faith. Others formed an underground Greek Catholic Church that operated in secret throughout the rest of the lifespan of the Soviet Union. When movements for independence gained momentum in Soviet Ukraine in the 1980s, members of the underground Greek Catholic Church played a pivotal role. Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was once again permitted to operate legally from its seat in L’viv, now a city in independent Ukraine.

 

The Church’s role as a spiritual bulwark for Ukraine’s armed forces takes a physical form in the Garrison Church in L’viv.

What lessons does this history offer the Greek Catholic Church today, as it once again confronts an unexpected war? The Church of today wants the public to understand its historical role as a moral authority for Ukrainian society. In this way, it can offer a powerful alternative to Russia’s narratives about Ukraine. Unlike the Orthodox Church, its spiritual heritage is separate from Russia. The role of its clergy and believers in the Ukrainian national movement in Austria-Hungary ties Ukrainians to Europe. In response to Russian charges of Ukrainian “fascism,” the Church can demonstrate that it was one of the few churches in Europe that resisted full collaboration with Nazi rule.

But how to apply the lessons of history in practice? In some ways, the legacy of Sheptytsky is carried on through the Church’s active engagement in Ukrainian civil society. In the early 1990s the Church’s ability to draw on European Catholic networks, as well as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic diaspora in the United States and Canada, gave the institution access to people and resources that other Ukrainian institutions did not have. Through these networks the Church helped to found one of Ukraine’s most prestigious universities, Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv, in addition to a plethora of humanitarian organizations and NGOs. Critically, the Greek Catholic Church’s access to global Catholic institutions allowed the Church to mobilize a Ukraine-wide network of social outreach that extends far past west Ukraine and has outpaced smaller charitable endeavors by Ukraine’s Orthodox Churches.

A true test for the Church’s role in post-Soviet, independent Ukraine came with the outbreak of war in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. Between 2014 and 2021, over fourteen thousand soldiers were killed fighting in eastern Ukraine and over one million Ukrainians were internally displaced. While the battles took place in eastern Ukrainian regions with few Greek Catholics, the Greek Catholic Church managed to mobilize extensively for the war effort—far more so than Ukraine’s Orthodox Churches. As anthropologist Catherine Wanner has argued, the Church’s ability to draw on Roman Catholic war relief networks allowed the Greek Catholic Church to fill in gaps left by the Ukrainian state, including through direct support for the Ukrainian armed forces.

Most critically, in 2010, the Greek Catholic Church established a military chaplaincy that took on a new urgency when the war began in 2014. These chaplains were called to address the spiritual needs of Greek Catholic soldiers, overrepresented in the armed forces due to west Ukraine’s high level of military service, as well as the needs of soldiers from various Orthodox denominations.

The Church’s role as a spiritual bulwark for Ukraine’s armed forces takes a physical form in the Garrison Church in L’viv, which is run by Greek Catholic chaplains and dedicated to soldiers and their families. While the church structure and much of its sacred art date back centuries, the church intentionally mixes traditional religious objects with modern symbols of warfare, like shell casings and pieces of shrapnel. Reporters who have attended Mass at this church note the presence of military families among the congregants and sermons that are specifically about the challenges of the war. As a Times of Israel journalist recalled, priests at the Garrison Church were as likely to be found packing up food and supplies for soldiers, military families, and refugees as they would be leading the liturgy. This building offers a clear example of how the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church sees its role: not simply as a spiritual guide, but as an active participant in shaping Ukrainian society at war, just like Sheptytsky’s Church.

 

Still, debates that engulfed the Church in the previous century remain unresolved. What is the role for a minority Catholic Church in Ukrainian nation-building, especially for a nation that draws so much on its Orthodox heritage? In 2019, the Orthodox world recognized the existence of an independent (autocephalous) Ukrainian Orthodox Church, separate from the Russian Orthodox Church. While Russia denies the legitimacy of this independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, its existence has been a powerful tool for the Ukrainian state to assert a religious foundation that cannot be claimed by Moscow. Where does this leave non-Orthodox religious groups like the Greek Catholic Church? There is an opportunity for the Greek Catholic Church to advance the same idea some Ukrainian activists supported in the nineteenth century: a Ukrainian nation with roots in multiple spiritual traditions. Just as Sheptytsky advocated for the rights of Ukrainian Orthodox alongside Ukrainian Greek Catholics, the present-day Church has supported the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s campaign to be recognized as autocephalous. But the two Churches remain in tension as they grapple with the idea that only one Church can claim to be the moral authority of the Ukrainian nation.

And just as in the twentieth century, many Ukrainians remain unsure of the Church’s capacity to address the problems Ukraine faced before this war and that have only worsened since. The Church remains more conservative on social issues than the rest of Ukraine’s population, recently opposing Ukraine’s participation in the Istanbul Convention on preventing violence against women. As Ukraine attempts to promote an image of itself to the world as more progressive than Russia on women’s and LGBT rights, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church consistently opposes legislation meant to protect these communities from violence and discrimination. Moreover, in the project of reckoning with Ukraine’s complicated past, the Church has remained mostly silent. In some cases, Greek Catholic organizations have even sponsored initiatives to present a whitewashed version of Ukraine’s history, such as in the case of the controversial Lonsky Prison Museum, which lionizes some radical nationalists whom Sheptytsky himself condemned.

In wartime it is tempting to gloss over these complexities. It is clear to Ukrainians of all faiths that the Church is involved in multiple projects to sustain the country through this brutal war, building on a tradition of serving the needs of the Ukrainian people when other institutions fail them. In this way, the Church is certainly molding itself in the image crafted by Sheptytsky.

In a recent piece for the Economist, Fr. Andriy Zelinskyy, chief military chaplain for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, offered his view of the Church’s role during this brutal war: There was never a reason for this war and the Russian army has never had a mission. It was void of sense right from the very beginning. That’s why it is imperative that, if we are to restore global security and personal dignity, we answer the questions it raises.”

In the twentieth century, Sheptytsky’s Church saw itself in the same role as it endured brutal occupations by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union’s repression ultimately made it difficult for the Church to confront the trauma of war and reckon with life after. Today, as Fr. Zelinskyy reminds us, it seems that the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine may have the chance to answer the questions raised by the war. What answers it will provide, and whether they are the right ones for today’s Ukraine, remains to be seen.

Published in the January 2023 issue: 

Kathryn David is a historian of Ukraine and Russia. Her research focuses on the role of religion in the complex and contested ties between Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe. She received her PhD in history from New York University.

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