“The drama of existential war brings a new perspective on ecumenism”

The first week of prayer for Christian unity since the start of the war in Ukraine nearly a year ago. Insights from Ukrainian Greek Catholic philosopher and theologian Pavlo Smytsnyuk.

Interview conducted by Delphine Allaire – Vatican City

This week’s prayer theme for Christian unity 2023 is taken from the book of Isaiah: “Learning to do good: seeking justice” (Was 1.17). A selected Old Testament verse by the Minnesota Christian Church in the United States. During the week, ecumenical initiatives will multiply worldwide to culminate in Rome on Wednesday 25 January, Saint Paul’s feast day of conversion. According to tradition, the Pope will then celebrate the second vespers at the Roman basilica of Saint-Paul-outside-the-Walls at 5:30 p.m.

This is the first week of prayer for Christian unity since the start of the war in Ukraine almost a year ago. More than 330 days of war that complicated relations between Ukrainian Orthodoxy, without even mentioning Russian Orthodoxy, but at times also brought certain Christian communities closer together.

Pavlo Smystnyuk, Ukrainian theologian, philosopher, is the former director of ecumenical studies at the Catholic University of Lviv. Now a research fellow at Princeton in the United States, he gives us his view of ecumenism tested by the drama of existential war.

Interview with Pavlo Smytsnyuk, Ukrainian Greek-Catholic theologian and philosopher

How do we approach Christian unity in times of war and how does ecumenism develop over time?

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus formulated his ideas about war as polemos, “the king who decides everything, who changes everything”. The war has changed the way we imagine, talk, pray for Christian unity. In peaceful situations such as in France, Switzerland, Italy, ecumenism is neither a practical nor a necessary question. The fact of separation is only felt at the theological level, such as historical mistakes, but has no effect on everyday life. In Ukraine, the war makes every moment of the lack of unity feel existentially; especially in Ukrainian Orthodoxy where relations are complicated between the two jurisdictions. The war has exacerbated these tensions. On the other hand, it also unites Ukrainian Christians, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, practically through humanitarian assistance – the acceptance of East Ukrainian Orthodox refugees by West Ukrainian Catholics from the first days , in particular at the Catholic University of Lviv , but also through cooperation internationally, where it is a question of bringing, together, the voice of Ukrainian Christians abroad.

How is ecumenism viewed in the Orthodox world?

The term ecumenism itself is somehow disqualified. They interpret it as a form of syncretism and religious compromise of theology, which is not ecumenism. Therefore, be careful about this. There is tension with the independent autocephalous Church, which has no experience of ecumenical dialogue at the international level. He is not a member of the World Council of Churches, has no ties to the Holy See or any other ecumenical actor. This is the moment for him to find this dialogue today. There are many projects under consideration. For example, the Institute for Ecumenical Studies in Lviv has a project to create a seminary, bringing together Catholic and Orthodox, but also Protestant seminaries. It is a long and arduous path, complicated by war, even if, through the existential drama it represents, it also makes us realize that our conflicts between religions may have less reason and importance than we don’t always believe.

This week’s theme of Christian Unity is “Learn to do good, seek justice” (Was 1.17). How does this verse apply to Ukrainians who are currently fighting for their freedom?

Justice and peace go hand in hand when we think of war. But there is a tension between these two ideas. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them together. I think for most Ukrainians, if we make peace today, it’s not a really fair situation. There is discomfort in talking about peace without justice. Conversely, if in seeking justice one does not think about peace, that is also a problem. Pope Francis has often warned about this: when we seek justice in too abstract a way, we can forget about the victims. This prayer for unity invites us, on an abstract, theological, social, but also very practical level, to make our society more just.

You are now in the United States. Christians in Minnesota have chosen a theme for this year’s week of prayer. How do you feel about the American Christian view of the war in Ukraine?

The United States as a country supports Ukraine in its struggle to maintain its sovereignty. There is a lot of solidarity on a practical level. At the same time, the United States participated in many wars. American Christians also recognize that any participation in conflict can make the situation more complicated with visible consequences only in the long term. There is a lot of solidarity, but also caution. Americans have learned a great deal from their history, from their participation in wars in Latin America, the Middle East, or Asia. They read this participation critically, which informs their approach to the war in Ukraine.

What will you say to Russian Catholics during this week of prayer for Christian unity?

This is a difficult question. I know many Catholics in Russia, having visited communities in Moscow and Siberia, in Novosibirsk and Irkutsk. They are in a very complicated situation to the extent that they consider this war senseless and terrible, but cannot condemn it, because the government’s pressure is too strong on the Russian people. In order to survive, they have to be very careful and sometimes silent. Like many other Christians around the world. They must pray, still human, still Christian. They must remember that they are part of a large Catholic community which is also a member of Ukrainian Catholics. I hope that when this war ends, and one day it will end, Russian and Ukrainian Catholics can jointly embark on a path of reconciliation. But for that, we must remain Christians. Remain true to the Gospel in its radicality. The more Christian voices in Russia, which are truly evangelical, the more complicated it is to say that all Russians are guilty and responsible for this war. The more Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, or even secularists in Russia remain more Christian, condemning this war explicitly or implicitly in their hearts, the more likely and faster reconciliation will be.

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