Since 2012, I have devoted a significant portion of my research to the Church in Ukraine. The motivation for my research is personal, as my Ukrainian grandparents arrived on these friendly shores after World War II and some years in displaced person camps in Germany.
Ukraine also interests me because of her ecumenical history. Her capital, Kyiv (Kiev in Russian transliteration), was the location of the Baptism of Rus’ in 988 under the patronage of the grand prince Volodymyr (Vladimir). [Footnote: July 15/28 is the feast of St. Volodymyr, typically a solemn celebration in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus’, and quite possibly in a parish of your neighborhood]. The patrons of the Kyivan Church were Constantinopolitan. In 1596, the bishops of the Kyivan Church restored Eucharistic communion with Rome at the Union of Brest-Litovsk. The majority of the laity rejected this union, and in 1620, Patriarch Theophanes of Jerusalem restored an Orthodox hierarchy in Kyiv. In 1686, Constantinople transferred canonical jurisdiction over the Orthodox Church to Moscow.
In 1921, following the October revolution and a fledgling period of Ukrainian national sovereignty, many Ukrainian Orthodox Christians severed communion with Moscow in search of ecclesial independence (autocephaly). Ukrainian Christians thus found themselves divided between Greek-Catholics (who had remained in communion with Rome after 1596), and separate Orthodox churches with irreconcilable loyalties to a church center. These divisions were muffled by Soviet persecution of both Orthodox groups, and worsened with Stalin’s coerced liquidation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church via a pseudo-synod in 1946.
When the Greek Catholic Church regained legal status in the Ukrainian SSR in 1989, L’viv became a powderkeg for the explosion of conflict between Greek Catholics, Orthodox independent from Moscow, and Orthodox remaining loyal to Moscow. The primary dividing issue was the restoration of Church property previously belonging to Greek Catholics. Violence erupted in some areas, and anger and resentment remain to this day. There is no doubt that the existence and activity of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine is the primary stumbling block between any constructive dialogue between the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate.
The news announcing a series of ecumenical prayer services shared between independent Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, and Russian Orthodox in L’viv seems to break this pattern. The ecumenical prayer services are occurring in parishes belonging to each of these Churches in L’viv, and the occasion is the common veneration of the icon of the Mother of God of Perpetual Help, a copy of a thirteenth-century Constantinopolitan original brought by Roman Catholics for Orthodox and Greco-Catholic veneration.
The fact that these churches, divided for centuries along ecclesial and ideological lines, will gather for common prayer before an icon during a fierce war in Ukraine is remarkable. In the history of the veneration of wonderworking icons, one of the more prevalent motivations for venerating an icon is the invocation of Mary’s protection of the city from foreign invaders. Mary became a military figure who defeated invaders, her icon carried into battle. Mary as one who delivers God’s people from their enemies became a prominent theme in Byzantine hymnography, especially in the Akathistos celebrated annually on the Friday of the fifth week of Lent. [For detailed information on Byzantine and Russian veneration of Marian icons, see the excellent works of Bissera Pentcheva and Vera Shevzov].
It appears that these ecumenical prayer services in L’viv are redefining Mary as the mother who reconciles her children, and who (hopefully) heals schisms. Mary’s act of protecting the city would consist of healing the wounds that fester division among the Christians in the city. One could hope that L’viv could become a model for the rest of Ukraine to adopt.
Only time will tell if the people who venerated the icon of the Mother of God of Perpetual Help in L’viv produce a generation of Christians who are ecumenically-inclined and seek to heal schisms instead of eradicating their enemies. I hope so, more for the good of Ukraine and her neighbors than for the inevitable enrichment of my own scholarship.
I would like to hear from Catholics: what new motifs are emerging about Mary in your communities, among the people?