Andy Hunder: World’s youngest Catholic bishops energetically lead church in Ukraine

Monday, 29 March 2021, 22:57
Out of the world’s 5,600 Catholic bishops, 10 of the youngest are Ukrainian. This weekend marks a decade since the selection of a 40-year-old to lead the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. Svyatoslav Shevchuk was elected to lead the 5.5 million Ukrainian Catholics in March 2011. The choice of such a young individual in an organization whose leaders have traditionally been associated with long grey beards raised eyebrows. Ten years on, however, the church is among the most trusted institutions in the land, with a 62% vote of confidence among Ukrainians.

The surprise resignation of Cardinal Lubomyr Husar in 2011, a leading moral authority across Ukraine, left a vacancy and large pair of shoes to fill. The Synod of Ukrainian Bishops made a further surprise by choosing Shevchuk, then a 40-year-old bishop who at the time was serving as the bishop for Ukrainian Catholics in Buenos Aires to lead the church. Little did we know then that another resignation of a church leader would also bring a bishop from Buenos Aires across the Atlantic to Europe – in 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as Pope Francis in the Vatican. Shevchuk and Bergoglio together were bishops in Argentina.

A decade on, and still at an ecclesiastically youthful age of 50, Patriarch Svyatoslav demonstrates prudent, energetic, and courageous leadership by service during Ukraine’s most challenging decade in recent history. One of the successor churches to Christianity accepted by Volodymyr the Great, the UGCC main cathedral is on the banks of the Dnipro river, where the nation took on Christianity in 988.

The UGCC, a Byzantine Rite Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Pope and the worldwide Catholic Church, is no stranger to hardships. For 40 years, until 1989, it was the largest officially banned religious organization in the world. Persecuted by Soviet authorities for 43 years, the Church managed to survive “underground,” in the Gulags, in exile outside the USSR, and clandestinely across Western Ukraine.

As the church misses a generation of priests because of the persecutions, a new young generation has come through. The new generation of bishops is Western-educated and multilingual. Shevchuk himself speaks six languages. The challenges that the church has faced over the last decade have been massive: Russia’s invasion in 2014, the ongoing war today with over 15,000 people killed, over a million internally displaced persons, with Ukraine becoming one of the poorest GDP per capita countries in Europe.

Patriarch Svyatoslav has managed to rebuild the organization – he has appointed 17 new bishops, extensively traveled to his flock worldwide, and led the church in a digital era. The 10th-anniversary festivities will all be online only because of the ongoing COVID pandemic, which has already taken 30,000 lives in Ukraine, a country with widespread vaccine skepticism. Shevchuk was asked by the government to be among the first to be vaccinated in front of the media to boost trust in the vaccination campaign.

Possibly the most significant achievement of the church over the past decade has been the development and growth of the Ukrainian Catholic University, where Shevchuk serves as grand chancellor. UCU has become widely recognized as one of the top academic centers of excellence in Ukraine, a country with widespread reported corruption, especially in higher education institutions.

All three of Shevchuk’s immediate predecessors were cardinals, the most senior members of the clergy of the Catholic Church. Over the next decade, Shevchuk should be top of the candidates’ list to receive the red biretta from the Pope. However, no cardinal is as young as he is – the average age of a cardinal today is 72.

The next 10 years will not get any easier for Shevchuk. With an ongoing hybrid war, propaganda, migration, and poverty, it will not be an easy ride. In western Europe and the U.S., church attendance and its influence in society have massively declined.

This Sunday, the church will be presenting a strategy on how it will move forward, help heal the wounds of a country still at war, fight poverty, and support its widely dispersed flock. Issues of mental health, alcoholism, and mistrust all need to be addressed in a society plagued by a pandemic. The role of female leadership in the church must also be addressed. Two thousand years ago, the church’s founder looked at the needs of the people and then began to preach about good deeds.  The church today must live up to its true billing — meeting the needs of the people.

In a society with much anger and mistrust, the focus could be aimed at going back to the very basics of what the church’s founder preached two millennia ago.

Andy Hunder is president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine. A former seminarian, he studied at Pontifical institutions in Rome between 1984 and 1994.


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