UOC and the diaspora: is the opening of parishes abroad reasonable?

Ukraine may lose over 5 mln people as a result of the war, most of whom are UOC believers. Photo: UOJ

Ukraine has already been abandoned by 7 mln people. The country is losing its citizens, the UOC is losing its believers. How can the Church exist under new conditions?

One of the points in the Resolution of the Council of the UOC (para 8) was a decision on the pastoral care of the diaspora. It says that because of the war 6 million people have left Ukraine, most of whom are UOC believers:

"Therefore, the Kyiv Metropolis of the UOC receives requests from various countries to open Ukrainian Orthodox parishes. Obviously, many compatriots will return to their Homeland, but quite a few will remain for permanent residence abroad. In this connection the Council expresses a deep conviction that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church cannot leave its faithful without spiritual care, it must be with them in their trials and organize church communities in the diaspora."

And this is one of the most important decisions of the UOC Council in Feofania. The critics saw it only as an attempt to appropriate the rights of the autocephalous Church, but in reality, the opening of parishes abroad is a vital necessity, and first of all, for the believers. After all, the figure of 6 million refugees indicated by the Council of the UOC has become outdated in a short time. According to the UN, more than 7 million people have already left Ukraine since the start of the war. Of course, some of them will want to return, but if the war drags on, according to Ella Libanova, Director of the Institute for Demography and Social Studies, Ukraine could lose around 5 million people. And it is very important to realise who those millions are. And they are young women with children – the future of the country.

Journalist and writer Elena Sachko writes:

"I know that many people will never come back. Even if they don't think so now. But they won't. Just because now they are starting from scratch. And in three months, six months, a year they will have at least one, not zero. And someone will have a three. And some will even shoot a ten. And when they come back, they will have to zero out again. Will they want to? I don't think so. It is a resource, and it is not infinite.

To start from scratch every time is very hard. And when they start twittering in Polish, German, Hungarian, etc. the thought will come to them: they are here, why should they go back? What does it mean to me? That the gene pool of the country will be impoverished. That our little world, the world here, will never be the same again.

Yes, the war will end one day, but those who have already left are not our only possible losses. "When the ban on men leaving will be lifted, many men from these families will go there to join them. Families will be reunited, but not in Ukraine," Libanova claims.

When a person is seriously injured or traumatised, at first, he/she is in a state of painful shock and is not able to realise what will happen to him/her next. Ukrainians are in this state so far. But we already now should try to look into our "tomorrow", to understand how we can live in the new, post-war conditions.

We are no longer 52 million

In the early 2000s, there was a social advertising slogan on billboards and TV channels: "There will be 52 million of us. Let’s make love!".

Social advertising in Uzhhorod, 2005. Photo: 4studio.com.ua

Since then, that figure has become an unattainable dream. According to Gosstat (State Statistics), the last time Ukraine's population grew was during the Soviet era, in 1990, and it has only been declining since then. Without any wars, Ukraine's population has been declining catastrophically. In 2020, Cabinet Minister Dmytro Dubilet announced a figure of 37 million. But according to many experts, it was too optimistic. And there were many reasons for that.

According to Viacheslav Kaminsky, director of the Kyiv City Centre of Reproductive and Perinatal Medicine, Ukraine has been experiencing a demographic crisis throughout its years of independence. After Euromaidan, the death rate in Ukraine exceeded the birth rate twice. Natalya Vlasenko, Advisor to the Chairman of the State Statistics Committee of Ukraine, claims that over the last eight years our country has been losing over 350 thousand people every year. Whereas in 1991 the country had 12 million children, in 2021 there were only 7. And now more than half of this figure has left the country as refugees.

The UN says the world has not seen such widespread displacement of children and civilians in such a short period since World War II.

"Families and communities have been disrupted and uprooted. In just over three months, nearly 14 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes, the majority women and children – a scale and speed of displacement not witnessed in history.," said United Nations Crisis Coordinator in Ukraine Amina Awada in a statement.

And since we do not yet see any preconditions for the end of the war in Ukraine, it is safe to say that such displacements, including emigration from the country, will continue.

Challenges before the UOC

But the territories in the centre of Europe will never remain empty. If Ukrainians leave them, someone else will come.
Even in peacetime, the deputy director of the Institute for Demography and Social Research, Aleksandr Gladun, said that because of the demographic crisis there is a threat of gradual replacement of the Ukrainian nation with migrants from Asian regions. We already have quite many abandoned villages (about 20 disappear each year), which will be gradually filled with non-Ukrainians. There is a great probability that the immigrants will not even be Christians.

Therefore, both the state and the Church will face two serious but related problems.

  1. Mass emigration of Ukrainians to other countries.
  2. Replacement of those Ukrainians who left with "strangers" – people of another culture, mentality and faith.

These problems pose very difficult tasks for the Church. If missionary work among "strangers" is a matter for tomorrow, support for those who left the country is needed now.

Today almost every parish of the UOC in central and south-eastern Ukraine is suffering heavy losses. Men are fighting at the front and women and children are abroad. And the UOC faces a very serious task – how not to lose its parishioners, how not to alienate them from the Church in foreign lands, how to support them spiritually, etc.

UOC parishes abroad: possible or not?

So, about 7 million Ukrainians have gone abroad since the start of the war, there is a huge possibility that about 5 million will stay there. What is the UOC to do? Because until recently it could only act abroad as part of the Russian Church.

There is plenty of evidence that Ukrainian refugees either refuse to visit the churches of the Russian Orthodox Church in Europe or do so with great reluctance. Of course, from a Christian point of view, this is wrong, because "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever". But it is still very hard for many people to get over themselves. If a person has lost loved ones as a result of the Russian invasion, if the war has destroyed their home, they need time to calm their inner turmoil. The word "Russian" evokes only negativity in them even if it is the Church. Yes, we can rebuke such people angrily, but they need support, and consolation more than others, they need God.

As we know, there is only one Church of Christ in the world. The Local Churches in Serbia, Poland, the Czech Republic, etc. are the parts that together form one universal Orthodox Church. Accordingly, if the faithful of the UOC went to another country, to the territory of another Local Church, they can confess, receive communion and participate in other sacraments in the same way. But, let us be honest, it is not easy to join a community in another country, especially if you don't know the language. Therefore, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church organizes parishes for refugees abroad.

The deputy head of the DECR UOC, Fr Nikolai Danilevich, stressed: "We have a principle, we open parishes of our church only in the countries where there are no autocephalous Orthodox Churches, in particular in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, etc. If we are talking about Europe, it is about 19 countries". During the war, 10 parishes have already been opened in these countries, and another 10 are in the process of being organized. However, Ukrainian parishes are also being opened in 'Orthodox' countries: Poland, Serbia, and Romania. According to Fr Nikolai, in the organization of such communities, "jurisdictional issues are being resolved. The Local Churches meet our needs.”

If refugees in a given country want to open a parish, they write a petition to His Beatitude Onuphry with their signatures and a priest is sent to them. "First of all, for a parish to be created there must be people, secondly, there must be a priest, and thirdly, there must be a place for ministry, which is looked for after the first two conditions are met," says the deputy head of the DECR UOC.

Interestingly, the role of the priest, who not only comes to the temple and conducts worship, changes in such parishes. He becomes a spiritual support for people, a shepherd.

"The specifics of the work and mission of a priest abroad is that he should not sit in the church and wait for someone to come to him, but he himself should go to people, look for them, communicate with them, go to places of distribution of humanitarian aid, to places where buses from Ukraine arrive, where people gather. In fact, it is a missionary, apostolic ministry in the sense that 'apostle' means 'sent forth' – that's why priests are sent abroad in order to gather people, to provide them with spiritual assistance," said Fr. Nikolai.

***

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is at the very beginning of its "diaspora" path. It did not initiate this journey, nor did it force millions of Ukrainians to leave their homes and seek salvation in foreign lands. Therefore, it is hardly appropriate now to lead fingers along the lines of church statutes, teaching who has the right to care for Ukrainians abroad and who does not. The UOC cannot abandon its children in difficult times. And this is precisely the moment – people need the sacraments, a word of wisdom, and just simple consolation.

We hope that the war will soon be over, and our compatriots abroad will be able to return home to their native churches, we are waiting for them here. But if this does not happen, they should be able to live a full church life in the circumstances in which they have found themselves unwillingly. And they must know that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church cares about each of its believers, that it is the Church of Ukrainian people even if these people are not in their own country.

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