WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk greets some of the 600 children from Ukrainian bilingual programs at schools in the Edmonton area prior to celebrating the Divine Liturgy June 6 at St. Basil's Church. Edmonton Bishop David Motiuk (left) looks on.
In spite of persecution under the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Catholic Church has grown exponentially in the past two decades and now has more than six million adherents worldwide.
"Now our faithful are located in the whole territory of Ukraine," said Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who was recently enthroned as head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. "We can now provide pastoral care to the faithful in different parts of Ukraine."
In the past, most Ukrainian faithful were located in Western Ukraine and so the head of the Church was in Lviv. In 2005 the headquarters of the Church were moved to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to reflect the national character of the Church.
The growth outside Ukraine is due to what Shevchuk termed "the very huge phenomenon of new immigration," with Ukrainians leaving not just for Canada and other places where the Church has solid structures but also to countries like Greece, Italy, Israel, Ireland, Spain and Portugal, where the Church was not present before.
"So we are trying to reach our people all over the world where they are present to give them the pastoral care (they need) and to develop our structures in order to provide the normal function and existence of our communities," Shevchuk said at a June 6 news conference.
"Canada is the third largest Ukrainian community after Ukraine and Russia," he said. "But in Russia we do not have such a development of our structures. Everywhere we have our faithful we will provide for them pastoral assistance."
Shevchuk was elected head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in March of 2011. He replaced Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, 77, who retired for health reasons in February.
Shevchuk's youth and his position as bishop of an eparchy in Argentina from 2009 until 2011 made him an unusual choice to succeed Husar. His previous appointments included positions at Lviv's Holy Spirit Theological Seminary as well as the Ukrainian Catholic University. He also served as Husar's personal secretary from 2002 to 2005.
When the synod announced his election as leader he could not believe it.
"I'm the youngest bishop in the Ukrainian Catholic Church," he said. "Why me? I don't know. I feel God is calling younger people to lead the Church."
Shevchuk is a bright, well-read and jovial prelate with a gift for languages. He speaks Ukrainian, English, Italian, Polish, Russian and Spanish.
He made a pastoral visit of Alberta June 6-10. His visit is part of the Edmonton Ukrainian Eparchy's celebration of the 100th anniversary of the installation of the first Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Canada, the Blessed Nykyta Budka, who came to Canada in 1912. Pope John Paul II beatified Budka as a martyr in 2001.
Shevchuk presided at a Divine Liturgy at St. Basil's Church with 600 students and staff of all Catholic schools that offer the Ukrainian bilingual program.
"I'm very excited to meet with you and to see you," he told the children in his homily. "It's my pleasure to start my first visit to Edmonton with you."
He asked the youngest children in the church to raise their hands. Many did. "Very good," he said. "I'm the youngest of the bishops. It's strange to me to hear Bishop David Motiuk address me as the father of the Church. I'll try to be a good father."
Speaking directly to the children, Shevchuk said, "You are our future so with you I'm supposed to build our Church."
In the news conference Shevchuk said he had discussed the possible restoration of his Church's historic status as a patriarchate with Pope Benedict during a recent visit to the Vatican.
"I told him that we cannot resign to the patriarchal dignity because each Eastern Church through its own development has grown toward the patriarchal dignity," he said.
"And for us this is a matter of development, progress or regress. If we one day we say 'OK, we'll not aspire to the patriarchal dignity (anymore),' it means that we will stop in our development and we'll start to die.
"And the Holy Father responded me, 'OK, you have all those good reasons for aspiring to the patriarchal dignity but you have to be patient. We have to pray and one day this very title will come.'"
Ukrainian Catholics, whose church reunited with the Roman Catholic Church in 1596, have generally regarded their leader as a legitimate patriarch - particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Church came out of illegal existence.
In fact, the Church's faithful regarded Husar as the patriarch of Kiev, and applied the title to him in liturgical settings. Although the Vatican did not officially recognize him under this title, the announcement of his retirement significantly made reference to the portion of canon law that describes the retirement of Eastern patriarchs.
For Ukrainian Catholics, the patriarchate is not a matter of recognition but a matter of existence, Shevchuk said. "And we do exist step by step as a patriarchal Church."
In his meeting at the Vatican following his election, Shevchuk also told the pope, "For the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the communion with the Holy See is a part of its own identity."
Bishop David Motiuk said he, like the majority of the Ukrainian bishops, selected Shevchuk as the head of the Church "because he is a man of vision" who can look at the needs of the Church of today and tomorrow.
"I was looking for someone who for many years can develop a pastoral response to the needs of the Church and have the time to put that plan forward. In other words, I was looking for someone younger who can do that."
Motiuk also said that in choosing a new leader he was looking for someone who can represent the universality of the Ukrainian Catholic Church which has adherents both inside and outside Ukraine.
"(Shevchuk) has impressed me beyond all expectations," Motiuk said. "He has been able to capture the hearts of the young people in these past few days."
Shevchuk will be back in Canada in late August to visit the Ukrainian Catholic faithful in British Columbia before going to Winnipeg in September to lead the International Synod of Bishops. After the synod he will visit the faithful in Saskatchewan. He will complete his pastoral visit next year with a visit to Ontario and other areas.