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

The first week of prayer for Christian unity since the war in Ukraine began almost a year ago. Thoughts of Ukrainian Greek Catholic philosopher and theologian Pavlo Smitsnyuk.

Interview conducted by Delphine Allaire – Vatican

The theme of the week of prayer for Christian unity 2023 is taken from the book of Isaiah: “Learn to do good: seek justice” (is 1.17). Old Testament verse selected by Minnesota Christian Churches in the United States. During the week, ecumenical initiatives will multiply around the world to culminate in Rome on Wednesday, January 25, the solemn day of St. Paul’s conversion. According to tradition, the Pope will then celebrate 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 war in Ukraine began almost a year ago. The more than 330 days of war, which complicated relations between the Ukrainian Orthodox, not to mention the Russian Orthodox, but at times managed to bring certain Christian communities closer together.

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

Interview with Ukrainian Greek-Catholic theologian and philosopher Pavlo Smitsnyuk

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

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus expressed his idea of ​​war like this polemics, “The king who decides everything, changes everything”. The war changed the way we imagined, talked about, and prayed for Christian unity. Ecumenism is not such a practical and necessary question in peaceful conditions as in France, Switzerland, and Italy. The fact of separation, like a mistake of history, is felt only on the theological level, but does not affect everyday life. The war in Ukraine makes every moment of the absence of unity existentially felt; especially in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, where the relationship between the two jurisdictions is complicated. The war exacerbated this tension. On the other hand, it also practically united Ukrainian Christians, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, with humanitarian aid – through the reception of Eastern Ukrainian Orthodox refugees from the early days by Western Ukrainian Catholics, especially at the Catholic University of Lviv. , but also through international cooperation, where it is about bringing together the voice of Ukrainian Christians abroad.

How is ecumenism viewed in the Orthodox world?

The very term ecumenism is somehow disqualified. They interpret it as a form of syncretism and religious compromise over theology, which ecumenism is not. Therefore, it is necessary to be careful in this matter. There is tension with the autocephalous church, which has become independent and has no experience of ecumenical dialogue at the international level. It was not a member of the World Council of Churches, nor was it connected to the Holy See or other ecumenical actors. Today is the time for him to discover this dialogue. Many projects are under consideration. For example, the Institute of Ecumenical Studies in Lviv has a seminary formation project that brings together Catholic and Orthodox seminaries, as well as Protestants. It’s a long, hard road, made more difficult by war, even through the existential drama it represents, which makes us realize that our interfaith conflicts may have less reason and importance than we always believe.

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

When you think of war, justice and peace go hand in hand. But there is a tension between these two concepts. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them together. I think that for the majority of Ukrainians, if we made peace today, it would not really be a fair situation. There is discomfort in talking about an unjust peace. On the other hand, if in search of justice one does not think of peace, that is also a problem. Pope Francis often warns about this: when we seek justice in too abstract a way, we can forget the victims. This prayer of unity invites us to make our society more just on an abstract, theological, social and very practical level.

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

The United States as a state supports Ukraine in its struggle to protect its sovereignty. On a practical level, there is a lot of solidarity. At the same time, the United States participated in many wars. American Christians also know that any involvement in the conflict can only further complicate the situation, with visible consequences in the long run. There is a lot of solidarity, but also caution. Americans have learned a lot from their history, from their participation in wars in Latin America, the Middle East or Asia. They read this participation critically, which shows their approach in this war in Ukraine.

What would you say to Russian Catholics during the week of prayer for Christian unity?

This is a difficult question. I know many Catholics in Russia, visiting communities in Moscow and Siberia, Novosibirsk and Irkutsk. They are in a very complicated situation because they consider this war absurd and terrible, but they cannot condemn it, because the pressure of the government on Russian citizens is very strong. They have to be very careful and sometimes silent to survive. Like many other Christians in the world. They must pray, remain human, remain Christians. They should remember that they are part of a large Catholic community to which Ukrainian Catholics also belong. I hope that when this war is over, and one day it will be, the Catholics of Russia and Ukraine can walk the path of reconciliation together. But for that we must remain Christians. Stick to the Bible with its radicality. The more Christian voices, indeed evangelical voices there are in Russia, the more complicated it will be to say that all Russians are guilty and responsible for this war. The more Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, and even secularized Christians in Russia remain Christians, openly or secretly condemn this war in their hearts, the more possible and faster reconciliation will be.

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