A session of the Holy Synod of the UOC: decision analysis
In the session of the UOC Synod held in Feofaniia, an Address to the faithful was adopted, as well as a series of decisions caused by the current situation. Here’s their analysis.
On September 25, 2023, a meeting of the Holy Synod of the UOC took place at St. Panteleimon’s Monastery in Feofaniia, during which a series of personnel decisions were made, and the episcopate and laity were addressed.
The Synod took place during an extremely challenging time for the Church. In addition to the widespread violent seizures of churches and unlawful transfers of UOC communities to the OCU, which have become the usual background of our lives, the Verkhovna Rada has become more active. Ukrainian parliamentarians once again started talking about adopting a law banning the Church. Recent statements by Verkhovna Rada Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk that there are insufficient votes for such a ban only mean that active efforts are being made to collect these votes. According to an outspoken opponent of the UOC, MP N. Poturaev, there is no harm in applying pressure on the deputies to obtain them. On the other hand, the Russian Orthodox Church is transferring entire eparchies "under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch" in annexed territories.
All these challenges must be addressed, and that's precisely what the Holy Synod of the UOC is doing. The article presents a more detailed analysis of its decisions.
Address to the faithful
The Synod adopted an Address to the episcopate, clergy, monks and all faithful members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the text of which is available in full on the website of the Synodal Information and Education Department of the UOC. Here we will examine its main theses.
Thesis 1: The UOC does not divide its flock into good and bad
The Address says: "Our Church, like a loving mother, embraces all Her children with its prayers and mercy. Just as a mother loves all her children, regardless of whether some of them heed her guidance, while others audaciously disregard their mother’s care, our Ukrainian Orthodox Church never divides Her flock based on political and social preferences."
It is no secret that Ukrainian society is currently highly polarized, especially if we consider it within the boundaries of Ukraine in 1991, including the population residing in temporarily occupied territories. In areas under Ukrainian control, people hear one set of ideological narratives, while in the occupied territories, they hear completely different ones.
However, the UOC says that both on one side and the other are our flock, the spiritual well-being of which we will care for, pray for before God, and maintain the love commanded by Christ. This is, by the way, a question that Ukrainian society is currently hesitant to even ask itself: how to treat the population in the occupied territories, how to interact with them when these territories are liberated and these people fully integrate into the political and social life of Ukraine? The Church provides an answer right now: UOC believers in these territories are and will remain children of the Church, just as they have always been. And their individual sins carry the same weight as the sins of any other members of the Church.
This thesis is also directed towards UOC believers residing in the territories under the control of the Ukrainian government. Among them, there are supporters of various political forces, different social concepts, and so on. They are also children of the Church unless they consciously choose to leave Her. This message is especially important for the following reasons.
Today, during the war, any political confrontation, the struggle of political forces, debates, and rivalry are counterproductive. They undermine the unity of the country in the face of the enemy and work against Ukraine's victory in the war. However, this political confrontation does not disappear; it builds up in a hidden form and will erupt with tremendous energy after the end of the war, or perhaps even earlier (if a decision is made to hold presidential and parliamentary elections during the ongoing hostilities). It is at that time, when various political and societal forces will ruthlessly fight for power, that the Church will still consider all its believers as equally beloved children of the Church. This is a message to the believers.
There is also a message for those who have left the Church, for apostates and traitors. It sounds like this: "The Ukrainian Orthodox Church never divides <...> Ukrainian society into those who are faithful to Her (the Church – Ed.) and those who have forgotten the place of their baptism, the place where their parents and ancestors were baptized, and who now dare to blaspheme the Church of God."
This means that the Church continues to consider those who betrayed Her and joined the ranks of Her opponents as full-fledged members of Ukrainian society; it does not stigmatize them as second-class citizens. In other words, the UOC does not divide Ukrainian citizens into good and bad based on their relationship with the UOC. This sharply distinguishes the UOC from the majority of those in power and supporters of the OCU who deny UOC believers the right to be called law-abiding citizens and patriots of their country simply because they remain faithful to the Church.
Thesis 2: The people of Ukraine vote with their feet for their Church
The Address mentions a fact that has been repeatedly proven in recent months – raided UOC temples stand empty, and in many of them, church services have ceased altogether. At the same time, UOC believers gather in other places and continue their life of prayer and the Eucharist.
"Joint prayers and worship services, uniting thousands of believers of our Church around the Orthodox shrines, testify that the people of God cannot be swayed from the path defined by their religious convictions through coercion and slander. This becomes particularly clear when we see that the churches, which were seized or taken away from the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, remain empty even on major holidays," the Address states.
The Address also issues a stern warning to those who dare to raise their hand against our shrines. It states that they become outright desecrators: "The sacrileges committed by people who violently seize altars, mercilessly break doors and windows, deface holy altars, and assault Christians not only do not invoke God's blessings but also challenge God."
Moreover, in relation to the Ukrainian state, such individuals become enemies. "We must call things by their proper names: the initiators and executors of church raiding are outright spiritual enemies of the Ukrainian state, and their actions only exacerbate the destructive consequences of Russian aggression. After all, ‘God is not mocked’ (Galatians 6:7)," the Address concludes.
Thesis 3: The state tramples on Ukraine's main shrine, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra
The Address also specifically addresses the situation surrounding the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra: "No less disgraceful and shocking to Christians from various parts of the world has been the situation surrounding the Holy Dormition Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, entirely created by the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine."
The Ministry of Culture and the subordinate Reserve, established in 1926 by the Bolshevik Council of People's Commissars, are currently confiscating the monastery's premises in free and independent Ukraine. They prohibit conducting religious services, deny believers access to their holy sites, and declare the relics of the venerable Kyiv Caves Saints as museum exhibits. What further evidence is needed to realize that this is a genuine resurgence of Bolshevism, a continuation of the anti-Church campaign initiated by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s?!
Thesis 4: The UOC does not abandon its bishops facing criminal persecution
The Address states: "Today, the hierarchs who are subjected to criminal prosecutions and forcibly limited in their communication with their flocks are in particular need of prayerful support. As lawyers have pointed out, the charges brought against them lack compelling evidence in the materials of the court cases, and the process of gathering evidence and conducting judicial proceedings is accompanied by blatant violations of Ukrainian legislation."
These words refer to the lawyers' claims that the accusations against UOC bishops are unfounded. Therefore, the UOC considers the persecution of its bishops to be unlawful, and the charges against them baseless. If they are not actually being persecuted for crimes against the state, then what are they actually being persecuted for?
The answer here is evident: it is an attempt to intimidate the clergy and pressure the Church to force it into the OCU. It is widely understood that these bishops could gain their freedom and even the status of "patriots" by declaring their subordination to the head of the OCU, Epifaniy (Dumenko). Security forces and government officials made this clear to them in no uncertain terms. The Synod also calls for prayerful and other support to the persecuted bishops and thanks those who do so, in particular from abroad.
Thesis 5, the most important: do not respond to evil with evil
This paragraph is so significant that it makes sense to present it in full:
"Dear brothers and sisters! The Lord has blessed us to live in a time that particularly demands living faith filled with love. Against the backdrop of extensive violations of state legislation and international norms concerning the rights and freedoms of human beings—believers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church—we often wonder how Orthodox Christians should respond to these challenges. The answer was given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself: "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Entrusting their church life to God, a Christian should demonstrate love and kindness towards others ‘not in word or tongue but in deed and in truth’ (1 John 3:18) amid a constant shortage of these virtues. In challenging historical periods of church history, Christian love and kindness in response to all forms of evil have transformed the world and elevated the Church to new heights of prosperity. Therefore, even now, in our concerns for the future of the Church, each of us should focus not on noisy confrontation with people who are hostile towards us, but on effective testimony to Christ and His Church, reflecting in our words and deeds the very God Who is Love."
It is important to note that the UOC Synod does not call for responding to violence, reclaiming seized churches or adopting a hostile attitude towards enemies of the Church. It does not encourage retaliation for insults, offences and sometimes even physical violence. The UOC does not advocate using force to resist church raiding or employing any other unlawful or morally damaging methods. The most crucial message is not merely to defend a church, outshout a mob of raiders or achieve momentary victory over persecutors of the Church. The main thing is to remain a Christian, to demonstrate to everyone, and first of all to our enemies, that we are true followers of Christ’s teaching. Since the Lord commanded us to love our enemies, we will do so to the best of our spiritual strength, regardless of the cost.
Sviatogorsk Lavra receives stavropegial status
From now on, the Holy Dormition Sviatogorsk Lavra will be directly subordinate to the Primate of the UOC, His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry of Kyiv and All Ukraine, in the status of a stavropegial monastery. His Beatitude Onuphry will be the Archimandrite of the Sviatogorsk Lavra, as he is in relation to the Kyiv-Pechersk and Pochaiv Lavras. The current abbot of the Sviatogorsk Lavra, Metropolitan Arseny of Sviatogorsk, will continue to oversee the monastery as a vicar of the Kyiv Metropolis, not of the Donetsk Eparchy. What is the significance of this decision?
Firstly, this decision upholds the tradition that all monasteries with Lavra status are directly subordinated to the Metropolitan of Kyiv. Secondly, it serves as a safeguard against potential actions by other religious organisations that may seek to take control of the Lavra. While the stavropegial status of the Sviatogorsk Lavra may not offer foolproof protection against potential raiding, all possible measures should be taken, as demonstrated by the decision made by the Ukrainian Synod.
Vicars of Horlivka to be made vicars of Kyiv
According to the decision of the Synod, His Grace Archbishop Spyridon of Dobropillia and His Grace Archbishop Paisiy of Konstiantynivka have been appointed vicars of the Kyiv Metropolis. They will continue to provide spiritual care to the parishes of the Horlivka Eparchy however, these will be the parishes determined by the Synod.
The reasons for this decision seem to be the same as those for the Sviatogorsk Lavra.
Metropolitan of Donetsk is excluded from the Synod
Additionally, following the Synod's consideration, a decision was made to remove Metropolitan Hilarion of Donetsk from the permanent members of the Holy Synod and replace him with Metropolitan Serhiy of Ternopil and Kremenets. This was done with the wording: "Due to the inability to attend meetings."
Indeed, Metropolitan Hilarion is in temporarily occupied Donetsk and cannot attend the meetings of the Synod in Kyiv. However, there is a format of video communication, which has been used not once in the Synod sessions. Therefore, a more plausible explanation may be that the risk of pressure on the Donetsk bishop is currently so significant that it is not advisable to maintain his permanent membership in the Synod.
Metropolitan Longin is no longer abbot of the Bancheny Monastery
The Information Department of the UOC reported: "In addition, there has been a change of the abbot of the Holy Ascension Bancheny Monastery of the Chernivtsi-Bukovyna Eparchy."
The reason for this change is not specified, but according to UOJ sources, it is related to his health. In late July 2023, Bishop Longin suffered a severe stroke. Additionally, he is facing a trial on completely fabricated charges. Metropolitan Longin is known as a true patriot of Ukraine, a father to more than 400 adopted children, many of whom have incurable diseases or severe disabilities. He has built several beautiful monasteries, a hospital equipped with the latest technology, open to all, and a complex of buildings for orphaned children. Legends abound about his kindness, charity and good deeds are countless. He is a man who so clearly bears the gifts of the Holy Spirit that everyone who has had even a brief encounter with him can feel it. The criminal persecution of such a person, especially a Hero of Ukraine, is a great shame for the Ukrainian authorities.
There is no doubt that despite his formal dismissal from the position of abbot of the Holy Ascension Bancheny Monastery, Bishop Longin will continue to provide spiritual care and pray for the monks, nuns, doctors, sisters of mercy, parishioners and all those who have come to the Church through his call and his devotion. The authority of Bishop Longin will always remain at the highest level in Bukovyna, throughout Ukraine, in Romania and everywhere his name is known.
Other decisions of the Holy Synod
The Synod also made the following decisions:
- to dismiss of the abbot of St Panteleimon’s Monastery of the Odesa Eparchy;
- to appoint the abbot for St Elijah Monastery in Vinnytsia;
- to appoint the abbess of the Holy Dormition Convent in Domboky of the Mukachevo Eparchy;
- to move the celebration of the Synaxis of the Baltic Saints to the first Saturday of October.
In conclusion, we reiterate the main message of the UOC Synod to the faithful: under all circumstances, amid all conflicts, lawlessness, offences, insults, violence, and everything else – follow the words of Christ about love and humility.