Like many former Soviet republics, Ukraine is still in the throes of an identity crisis.
Unfortunately, the events in Ukraine have also taken on a religious hue. The Yanukovych government has threatened the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church with decertification if its priests don’t stop organizing prayer vigils among protesters in the capital. The last time Ukrainian Catholicism was decertified was in 1946, by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The vigils have resulted in dramatic photos of scenes not witnessed since the days of the Solidarity trade union in Poland, with clerics standing shoulder to shoulder with protesters, and sometimes even interposing themselves between the crowds and authorities.
In response, Roman Catholic figures like New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan are actively supporting the Euromaidan movement and urging Western governments to do likewise. Patriarch Filaret, head of the UOC/KP, also a supporter of the Euromaidan movement, urged all parties to act nonviolently, but noted that the government had been the first to break the peace. "People expected that the agreement (with the EU) would be signed, and it did not happen,” he said. “Students resisted but they were beaten. The nation is outraged.”
On the other side, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill I of Moscow, who claims ecclesiastical jurisdiction over all Orthodox Ukrainians, including UOC/KP, has called for protesters, including clergy, to stand down and join him in resisting Ukraine’s absorption into the secular West. “When clergymen appear on the barricades goading the people, it is not a church message,” he said. That elicited a stinging response from Patriarch Filaret: "If we take the idea that Kirill defends – Rusky Mir (Russian World) – it is not unity, it is empire, wrapped in a nice package. In fact, it is about creating a new empire.”
For his part, Pope has simply been praying for peace. He knows that if the Roman Pontiff wades too deeply into the fray it can only exacerbate the situation, and perhaps risk overtures to the Orthodox Churches, especially Kirill, who is the least amenable to reconciliation between the two “lungs” of the universal Church. At his audience last Sunday, the Pope, speaking about Ukraine, said, “I hope for constructive dialogue between the institutions and civil society, and that – without recourse to violent action – the spirit of peace and the search for common good may prevail in the hearts of all.” After offering his prayer for peace in Ukraine, the Holy Father and some schoolchildren released two doves from the windows of the papal apartments overlooking St. Peter’s Square. In what could be taken as a dark omen, a seagull and a large black crow immediately attacked the doves.
Like many former Soviet republics, Ukraine is still in the throes of an identity crisis, figuring out what kind of society it will build and what sort of culture will animate that society. Ukraine is like Janus, the Roman god of doors and transitions, with two faces looking in opposite directions. Will it be a Western nation with an Eastern past, or an Eastern nation that resisted the Western temptation? The answer has important implications for us all.
Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.