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Amidst Strife in Ukraine, a Unifying Voice Falls Silent

Volodymyr Sabodan


John Burger - published on 07/08/14

Metropolitan Volodymyr, leading Orthodox in the wake of communism, worked for a new Church-state paradigm.
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Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, who led the Moscow-affiliatd Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the tumultuous years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, has been laid to rest. The 78-year-old primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church died July 5 of internal bleeding, following a lengthy battle with cancer.

As his country continues to be beset by a separatist movement of those who favor closer ties with Russia, those mourning Volodymyr’s passing point to the work he did in trying to heal splits in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He was elected metropolitan after Filaret, his predecessor, was excommunicated for leading a breakaway. Filaret now heads the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate. Volodymyr, as head of the UOC-Moscow Patriarchate, managed to prevent even more splits, observers say.

“He will go down in history as the savior of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy during a very difficult historical moment, as the preserver of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy,” Andrei Zolotov, a Russian journalist and expert on Orthodoxy, told AP.

Father Cyril Hovorun studied for the priesthood under Metropolitan Volodymry and later headed the Church’s Department for External Relations. Now doing post-doctoral research at Yale University, Father Cyril spoke with Aleteia about Volodymyr’s legacy and what lies ahead for his Church.

What can you tell us about Metropolitan Volodymyr, from your perspective?

I worked with him for many years and admired him and loved him because I considered him one of the most prominent Orthodox hierarchs of our days. I had many chances to compare him with other figures in the Orthodox world and I think he’s so exceptional, for a number of reasons. I  think he was very human and could be considered a human face of the Church.

He had an interesting evolution as a Church administrator, because he was a high-ranking hierarch in the system of the Moscow Patriarchate. He was kind of a chief executive of the Russian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate under Patriarch Pimen. He was one of the candidates to become Patriarch of Moscow in 1990, when Pimen passed away. But eventually Alexei was elected, and Volodymyr was second. He got a number of votes very close to Alexei’s.

To be a high-ranking hierarch in the system of the Church at the time meant that a hierarch, a bishop, was quite removed from his flock. This kind of isolation of a bishop from his people was encouraged by the state. It was the way the state oppressed the Church—not through direct persecution but often through bishops.

The state encouraged the bishops to stay isolated and to be on their own. But that wasn’t the case with Volodymyr, who was really a bishop of peoples. He liked to converse with people; he went to their homes and had many friends. Those friends were from many different tiers of society. Usually, those classes don’t converge; they don’t even meet each other. The only point of reference that united them was his personality. So he was really familiar with every class of society. And he continued to be so as metropolitan of Kyiv and he was really accessible, approachable. Anyone could come and talk to him, ask his assistance.

In what capacity were you working with him?

I studied at the Theological School of Kyiv, and he was my bishop at the time, but we never were in touch, really. But when I came back from Moscow in 2007, I took the position as chair of the Department of External Relations of the Ukrainian Church, so I began seeing him every day. I was in charge of relations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with other Churches in Ukraine and outside Ukraine, with political and public organizations. So I had to be in touch with him, and I think we developed a kind of personal relationship, at least in the way of his doing business. He always did Church business through personal relationships. So I had opportunities to observe him closely in his everyday life. He actually tonsured me as a monk and gave me the name of Cyril.

How did he respond to some of the Church’s greatest challenges?

He was given exceptionally difficult circumstances to face. He served for a long time in Russia and Western Europe but came back to Ukraine in 1992. He was elected primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church after Metropolitan of Kyiv Filaret created his own Church, a schismatic Church. It was a very difficult situation because the Church of Filaret was backed by the state, and what Volodymyr had to develop was to build a Church with a new identity, an identity of a Church not affiliated with the state. He actually took a tremendous step in confiscating the Church from the control of the state. So he contributed to a new paradigm of church-state relationships. And what he managed to do was kind of reorientation of the Church from the state to the people. He closely addressed the issue of the schism in Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Some people considered the schism not as a tragedy but a punishment for those who dissented from Moscow. But it was not for him, I think. I think he considered it not as something natural that one can understand, but as a tragedy he really struggled to overcome.

What will happen now?

The Ukrainian Church doesn’t have many factors that keep it together. He was one of the most important ones. He was a keystone who kept the whole structure as one thing, as one Church. So it will be a great challenge for the Church.

After 40 days there will be a council of bishops from Ukraine to elect a new primate.

What issues do you think will be at play?

It’s difficult to say because the Ukrainian Church has to balance between different loyalties. On the one hand it has to demonstrate loyalty to Moscow, to the Ukrainian state, and now to the Ukrainian society. In the situation of war between Russia and Ukraine, this is a real challenge. Imagine two countries at war and their people belonging to one Church. This has affected the situation in Ukraine, and a Church electing a new primate has to take seriously these considerations.

Do people expect there to be any outside influence on the election?

There will definitely be some influences from different sides—inside and outside. But I think these influences will be exercised, if they are exercised, through the bishops, not otherwise. There will be a secure vote, and the bishops will decide who will be the next Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

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