Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, has urged those considering allowing priests in the Latin rite to marry in order to help solve a crippling shortage, to proceed with caution, saying marriage has not curbed shortages in his own rite.
With five blooming seminaries in Ukraine alone, “thanks be to God we do not lack vocations,” Shevchuk said, but noted that despite the fact that priests in his church - the largest of the 23 sui iuris eastern churches in full communion with Rome - have the ability to marry, the high numbers don’t appear for Greek Catholics in other countries.
“The same church with the same way of living the priestly vocation in other countries around the world does not enjoy this quantity of vocations,” he said, noting that numbers in the United States and Canada, among others, are few.
“So, the familial state does not favor the increase in vocations to the priesthood. This is our experience,” he said.
Speaking to journalists Sept. 11, Shevchuk responded to a question on the married priesthood in light of the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, which will reflect on whether to allow the ordination of older married men to help curb a priest shortage in the region.
Insisting that the call to the priesthood comes from God alone, Shevchuk said it is “a vocation which can neither be increased nor decreased based on the state in which this vocation is lived,” including whether the priest is married or celibate.
Priesthood, he said, is “a way of offering one’s life for the good of the Church.”
The shortage of priests, even in Ukraine, is “a challenge for everyone,” he said, insisting that while he doesn’t have “recipes” to solve the problem, what is important is to “look to the essential: That is, the vocation to the priesthood” as a call from God.
Shevchuk said there can be other complicating factors with married priests, explaining that in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, a priest must be married before his ordination, and if his spouse dies, he is unable to remarry.
The priesthood, he said, is “a profound call by the Lord to be his priest. All the rest must be submissive to this central call.”
Offering an example, he recalled how one young man was ordained a priest, and just two months later his wife was killed in a traffic accident, meaning the man had to live the rest of his priestly life in celibacy.
Speaking to Crux, Shevchuk said that if he could give some advice to the bishops meeting for this year’s Synod on the Amazon, it would be this: “Don’t look for easy solutions to difficult problems.”
With the priesthood as a whole in crisis, Shevchuk said the essence of the vocation in itself “must be developed,” and called for a Synod of Bishops on the priesthood in order to “understand the best way to live this vocation.”
Shevchuk spoke to journalists during a press conference after the close of the Sept. 2-10 annual synod of bishops for the Greek Catholic Church, which this year drew some 47 Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops from all over the world to Rome to discuss the theme, “Communion and unity in the life and testimony of the Ukrainian Church today.”
The synod, which took place after a two-day meeting between Ukrainian bishops and Vatican officials in July, was focused on deepening the identity of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, its unity with the pope and the Latin rite, and it was also an occasion for bishops to again appeal for a papal visit to Ukraine.
Participants also paid a visit to retired Pope Benedict XVI on the final day of the gathering, speaking with him at his residence in the Mater Ecclesiae monastery inside the Vatican.
Beginning Thursday, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops will participate in a Sept. 12-14 meeting with bishops from all Eastern Catholic Churches in Europe to discuss common challenges and how to forge stronger ecumenical relations among the various rites.
Speaking to journalists, Shevchuck stressed that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is not a “regional Church,” but universal, with members spread throughout the world, many of whom have never been to Ukraine and do not speak Ukrainian.
He underlined the importance of unity with Rome, noting that this relationship is something for which many of his predecessors gave their lives.
“Our martyrs are martyrs of unity with the Church,” he said, insisting that this be remembered in ongoing discussions. “Our communion with the pope,” he added, is not “for convenience of politics or pragmatics,” but is “a question of our faith.”
In their meeting with Benedict XVI, which Shevchuk described as a “moment of great affection,” the retired pontiff offered his own reflections on the importance of unity and communion with Rome to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic identity, telling the bishops that “before the divided and fragmented world, you need to be witnesses of unity.”
“He made a crown of the entire experience we lived together,” Shevchuk said, explaining that as an Eastern church, the “fragmentation” they experience in being dispersed throughout the world can be “an instrument which builds unity” on a larger scale, not only for Greek Catholics, but for “everyone in the Church.”
Benedict also voiced concern over the “militarization” of the eastern borders in Europe, specifically the occupied areas of eastern Ukraine, Shevchuk said, saying it brought back “bad memories” of the Second World War for the retired pontiff.
“Ukraine is a large country, but we are the poorest country in Europe,” Shevchuk said, noting that this is in large part due to the conflict with Russian separatists, which so far has caused a humanitarian crisis in Europe “bigger than World War II,” as well as an ecological crisis, as much of the water in the conflict areas has been contaminated.
“Today the whole world is trying to seek a diplomatic solution to the war, because to stop an aggressor like Russia is not easy. We know that a military solution doesn’t exist,” he said.
Referring to the repeated invitations for Pope Francis to visit Ukraine, which many of the county’s Greek Catholic bishops believe would lead to an end in violent war with Russian separatists in the country’s eastern region, Shevchuk said they extended yet another plea for a visit during the synod.
“Every time we meet the pope, we remind him that Ukraine is waiting for him,” he said, but explained that the bishops must also evaluate the conditions under which a papal visit could take place.
In weighing these conditions, consideration must also be given to the stance of the largest ecclesial presence in Ukraine - a slot currently held by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has had a contentious relationship with Greek Catholics since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, largely due to property rights and grievances stemming from communist persecution.
Tensions heightened earlier this year when the Patriarch of Constantinople formally recognized the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which Moscow refuses to accept, accusing Greek Catholics of supporting the split.
“On our side, there is a great desire for this visit,” Shevchuk said, explaining that Francis’s constant attention to the poor, to the environment and his desire to bring peace “give us hope that one day we will see him among us in Ukraine.”