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The Man and the Nation nobody expected: Andrei Sheptytskyi and Ukraine

Andrei Sheptytskyi. Source: prolviv
The Man and the Nation nobody expected: Andrei Sheptytskyi and Ukraine
Article by: Colette Hartwich
Out of the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire emerged Ukraine, a nation nobody expected. Equally unexpected was the Polish nobleman who dedicated his life to the creation of an independent, sovereign Ukraine and the reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christian Churches. His causes remain today as controversial as they were back in his day.

History knows providential people. History remembers people, who correspond with their very nature to what a nation and a culture needs at a given point in time in history. The recent movie about Joan of Arc (“Jeanne”, dir. by Bruno Dumont, 2019) shows how an uneducated village girl felt and embodied the passionate need of the French for liberation. Coming from a very different background, Charles de Gaulle also knew how to “drape himself” in history. Both historical personalities were definitely unexpected in both the history of France and the World. On the other side of Europe, the surprise of Ukraine’s history was the resurgence of a young and wealthy nobleman with all facets of modern and eternal Ukrainian identity: Andrei Sheptytskyi.

John-Paul Himka, a professor of history at the University of Alberta, wisely noted:

After all convulsions that followed the disappearance of the Habsburg Empire and the violence of WWII, many relatively artificial nations were created.”

Ukraine was the unexpected one.

Andrei Sheptytskyi as a European and Polish nobleman and above all as a Christian spent his whole life dreaming of the Unity of East and West Christian churches. Such a unity today is a fight between moral and religious principles, between longing for humanist principles and Christian decency. To an extent, it largely characterized the long reign of the Habsburgs and the new harsh realities of the many new nations after the Habsburgs. Such an ardent fight to reconcile what cannot be reconciled not only marks Sheptytskyi’s life with heroism and tragedy, but also makes his life controversial to many.

At the turn of the century, when Ruthenians (Ukrainians) in Galicia were considered by the Polish people to be uncultured peasants, in Lviv, the capital of Galicia, according to the Austrian census of 1910, which listed religion and language, 51% of the city’s population were Roman Catholics, 28% Jews, and 19% belonged to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Linguistically, 86% of the city’s population used the Polish language and 11% preferred the Ruthenian.

Here, Sheptytskyi’s choice of all things Ukrainian, including the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Ruthenian/Ukrainian language, was considered treason, at least by Poland.

We must not forget it was a time when Roman Catholic Church was a defining factor in Polish identity. Sheptytskyi’s possibly emotional rejection of his Polish roots might explain the constant battle not only against overt international enemies such as Germany and Russia (both Romanov and Soviet, mind you), but also the religious Polish resentment both inside and outside of the Vatican.

Young Andrei Sheptytskyi, a monk in the Dobromyl monastery, 1888–1892. Source: prolviv

For Sheptytskyi, education meant a great deal, in which the role of the clergy is and was paramount.

Following Sheptytskyi’s teachings and legacy, the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv has become not only a national, but also an international center par excellence.

Sheptytskyi was particularly well suited to furthering the cause of education and erudition. He held three doctoral degrees (law, theology and philosophy) and had studied about a dozen foreign languages (including Polish, Ukrainian, German and French to the level of native speaker and Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Church Slavonic, English, Italian and Russian to a lesser lever of proficiency).

Sheptytskyi had travelled extensively and lectured as a professor (church art and architecture at the Lviv’s Theological Academy, Greek at the monastery at Dobromil and moral theology in Krystonopil). The late Metropolitan of Lviv was a member of the Shevchenko Scientific Society and the author and editor of various scholarly works (about Fathers of the Eastern Church and a volume of documents pertaining to the history of church union). Throughout his career, he also collected a huge library of manuscripts, archival materials, old prints and rare editions.

In short, Sheptytskyi was a Renaissance man.

Thanks to his background, his various interests and diverse knowledge enlightenment and education were not empty words for him.

As a philanthropist, Sheptytskyi insisted not only on efficiency of management, but also on giver’s moral obligation to educate.

He must have been following in the footsteps of past Chiefs of Ukrainian Cossack Republics: the Hetmans. The Hetmans, back in their day, had moral and social obligations as patrons of the Church and the Arts. Thus, one of the most famous and generous Hetmans, Ivan Mazepa, would give complete libraries to noblemen of particular generosity and education. Sometimes manors would accompany such gifts as a place to house the library.

Sheptytskyi and the Jews

Ukraine, today, is one of the least anti-Semitic countries in Europe. According to a 2016 report by Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, there was a significant drop in xenophobic violence in Ukraine, with the exception of the Russian-occupied areas in Eastern Ukraine.

In January 2017, thousands of Ukrainian nationalists marched in Kyiv while celebrating the birthday of Stepan Bandera. These many participants chanted “Juden raus” (“Jews out” in German). Since 2018, the United Jewish Community of Ukraine has been systematically monitoring cases of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.

In January 2019, UJCU published its first report, “Anti-Semitism in Ukraine-2018.” In that report, UJCU recognizes the existence of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, but notes its household nature. The report refers to an increase of cases of indirect anti-Semitism and vandalism. At the same time, the organization draws attention to the fact that in 2018 not a single case of physical violence was recorded due to intolerance towards Jews.

Already in 1908, when a Ukrainian student murdered the Governor of Galicia, Sheptytskyi condemned the murder as “the terrible sin of politics without God.”

As early as 1904, in his pastoral letter “On the Social Question,” Sheptytskyi attempted to elaborate and coordinate a Christian social program, which took into account social changes and redefined the purpose of charity: protection of the least fortunate against exploitation by defending the dignity of human labor.

Sheptytskyi criticized liberal capitalism of the time because the dignity of human labor was being trampled and exploited.

He drew the attention of the rich to the fact that “your poorer brother needs not only your money… help him stand on his own feet.”

It was a time when, thanks to Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, almost every village in Galicia had a farm cooperative and a credit union. Sheptytskyi based his clergy’s social policy on four principles: solidarity, enthusiasm, reflection and common sense.

The Ukrainians of Galicia ended up as an ethnic minority in Polish state that discriminated ethnic minorities in many ways. The OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) in time became a radical right wing party under Stepan Bandera.

In June 1941, hoping that the Germans would let them establish an independent Ukrainian state, the Banderites coordinated the underground action against the Soviets in collaboration with the Germans. In 1943, Stepan Bandera broke away for good from the Germans to establish the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) and started ethnic terror against the Polish and the Jews. This in turn provoked a strong conflict with the Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytskyi.

In a century that saw the collapse of multinational empires and brutal competition between ethnic groups, how should a metropolitan react to radical nationalism? Already in 1932, in his “Sermon to Ukrainian Youth,” Sheptytskyi had warned the young people about dangers of extremism, violence and intolerance.

Judaism was part of Sheptytskyi’s cultural background. At the age of twenty, Sheptytskyi started studying Hebrew and by the time he was Metropolitan of Lviv he spoke it fluently. Jewish culture and languages was also one of cultural interests he had shared with a friend and ally Cardinal Eugene Tisserand.

Sheptytskyi travelled to the Holy Land in 1905. In 1906, he went to the Holy Land again, this time on a Christian pilgrimage. As a philanthropist, Sheptytskyi regularly contributed to the Pre-Passover fund-collection for the Jewish poor and orphans in Galicia. He also made regular canonical visits to the Jewish elders of Lviv.

Accusations of Judaizing his church, especially because he spoke to the Jewish elders in Hebrew, were prevalent in Sheptytskyi’s time.

A rebuttal from Sheptytskyi to such accusations was “I consider it my duty to convey to them the Lord’s revelations in their own tongue.”

In his pastoral letter, following the occupation of Galicia by Nazi Germany, Sheptytskyi defined the new hope for independent and modern Ukraine:

“From the new government, we expect wise and just leadership, leadership that would take into consideration the needs and welfare of all citizens inhabiting our lands without regard to their faith, nationality or social status.”

A kind of “everyone is welcome” state of mind is a very modern idea for the times, though it certainly did not go together with the ideals of Nazi Germany.

Bu tSheptytskyi was a figure of supranational conviction and a religious leader striving for a reunion of Eastern and Western Christianity. He asked himself and his faithful the right questions about antisemitism in Central and Eastern Europe.

He himself saved at least 150 Jews in Western Ukraine, at a time when execution followed upon capture for such deeds. The Metropolitan also promised Rabbi Lewin, that the saved Jewish children would not be baptized. In other parts of the world, the Catholic Church did not keep such promises.

In 2005, Corriere della Sera published a document dated 20 November 1946 on the subject of Jewish children baptized in wartime France. The document ordered that baptized children, if orphaned, should be kept in Catholic custody and stated that the decision “has been approved by the Holy Father.” The Finaly Affair kept the French public on their toes in the 1950s. It is an affair worth familiarizing with.

It is unfair and illogical of Yad Vashem to refuse Andrei Sheptytskyi the title of Righteous among Nations, considering that his brother Klymentii was granted such title, for the deeds, that possibly Andrei has helped to conceive if not organize. Sheptytskyi’s name has been throughout the Soviet years, after his death in 1944, accused as a collaborator with the Nazis. Many Soviet publications of more satirical than research-based character had mudded the metropolitan’s name and retributions must be made.

Historian John-Paul Himka’s article in Kyiv Post “Be Wary of Faulty Nachtigall Lessons” (2008) remembers President Yushchenko’s visit to Israel in November 2007. During the visit, Yad Vashem raised the old accusations against Nachtigall. Himka further described, how

in the wake of Yad Vashem’s accusations, Nachtigall’s reputation was vigorously defended in the Ukrainian press by a historian of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), Volodymyr Viatrovych. Using material in the public domain, he carefully traced the origin of the accusations against Nachtigall to a Soviet attempt to discredit the Adenauer government in Germany in 1959.”

The State Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) citing newly declassified documents confirmed that Soviet “agentura” was behind the entire campaign and demonstrated that “agentura” had not genuine evidence of Nacthigall’s participation in the pogrom. After Viatrovych, himself, travelled to Yad Vashem and demanded to see the proof demonstrating Nachtigall’s guilt, Yad Vashem was unable to produce any.

The uncritical resurrection of allegations that had already been questioned by leading scholars of the Holocaust indicates a lapse in professionalism on the part of Yad Vashem and suggests a prejudice beclouding scholarly objectivity.

Certainly, this incident has not contributed positively to Yad Vashem’s efforts to promote Holocaust awareness in Ukraine. Yad Vashem should look for the truth, not decade-old accusations and this way reconsider Sheptytskyi as Righteous among Nations.

Sheptytskyi and Waffen SS Galizien

One of the controversial decisions of the Metropolitan Archbishop Sheptytskyi was his limited support to the Waffen SS Galizien.

After Sheptytskyi’s death, allegations of support of Nazi causes were proactively used by the Soviet propaganda machine to discredit Sheptytskyi himself, his work and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

It later led to the ban of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the Soviet Ukraine and pushed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s “move underground.”

It was widely known that Stalin was out to destroy the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Sheptytskyi’s cause against the wave of atheistic communism in Eastern Europe and national hopes for Ukraine did not blind metropolitan’s sharp wits.

Sheptytskyi’s decision to allow the priests to take part in to SS Division Galizien was certainly a tactical mistake on Metropolitan’s part. His motivation however must have been strategic for the future of a possible independent Ukraine. He was more than certain about Hitler’s defeat, which Sheptytskyi hoped would leave Ukraine to create a sovereign and independent country with a trained national army division.

Freeing Ukraine from Political and Spiritual Dependency

The Roman Curia envisaged both Ukraine and the Greek Catholic Church as a bridge between Catholicism and Orthodoxy (between West and East), thus the Catholic Church would fulfill Christ’s wish of a universal church.

In 1882, Pope Leo XIII entrusted the reformation of the Basilian order (Order of Saint Basil the Great, O.S.B.M.) to the Jesuits, which induced a new life into this order. Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church at the same time was under threat of being absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church. Shortly after becoming the Metropolitan Archbishop of Lviv, Andrey Sheptytskyi derived a concept on how to reintegrate eastern religious tradition in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and remove the threat of Russian Politics and Russian Orthodoxy.

In 1914, on the first Sunday after the occupation of Galicia by the Russian Empire, Andrey Sheptytskyi declared in his sermon,

Ukrainian Greek Catholicism was based on religious teachings while Russian Orthodoxy was based on the power of the state.”

Andrei Sheptytskyi welcomes Kost’ Levytskyi, the leader of the Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance, the largest Ukrainian political party in the Second Polish Republic. Source: risu.

After the outbreak of World War I, Sheptytskyi was arrested by Imperial Russia and imprisoned in the monastery of Saint Euthymius in Suzdal.

The ultimate Russian goal with respect to the Ukrainian Catholic Church that dominated Ukrainian religious life in Galicia was its complete annihilation.

The Metropolitan’s imprisonment caused anger in the Duma and diplomatic protests from both the Vatican and the United States. While Tsar Nicholas II issued a decree forbidding forcible conversion from Catholicism to Orthodoxy (except in cases where 75% of the parishioners approved) hundreds of Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests were exiled to Siberia and replaced by Orthodox priests. The parishioners were demanded to convert and speak only Russian.

More than anything else, Russian persecution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church turned Galician peasants and even formerly Russophile intellectuals against the occupation.

On 6 January 2019, in Istanbul, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew handed the official decree of autocephaly (independence from Moscow) to the head of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), Metropolitan Epifaniy (Dumenko). On 15 December 2018, the election of Epifaniy as Metropolitan by the unification council finalized the merger of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), as well as some parishes of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) under the name of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).

Two months earlier, on 11 October 2018, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople had announced their decision to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which deemed itself to be the successor of the historical Orthodox Church, created in the aftermath of the conversion and baptism of Prince Vladimir of Kyiv in 988, at a time when Moscow did not even exist.

On 14 October 2018, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko declared on television that the autocephaly of Ukrainian Orthodoxy is a question of national security.

Since the regime change initiated by the overthrow of President Yanukovych in 2014, President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian parliament have expressed serious concerns about the “ambiguous” stance or silence of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) regarding crucial national security issues. They failed to support the Maidan Revolution of Dignity, aiming, among other things, to thwart Moscow’s influence and interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs. They failed to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the eradication of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church/ Kyiv Patriarchate parishes in the peninsula. They failed to condemn the Moscow-sponsored separatist war in Donbas. The result was that they were perceived as Trojan horses following the political agenda and interests of Moscow.

Moscow’s break from Constantinople is now consummated. After its territorial and political independence, Ukraine is now on the way of conquering its spiritual independence. Noteworthy is that the Orthodox Church in Poland, an EU member state, has decided not to recognize the OCU’s autocephaly. With autocephaly of Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Ukraine will have more political power and unity. This way maybe one day soon, we can see the fulfillment of Sheptytskyi’s dream: the spiritual unification of Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Final Thoughts

Sheptytskyi’s strong outspoken sermons against mass killings which had happened during the WWII in Lviv and in Western Ukraine only shows that his idea of independent Ukraine was very different from that of the Nazi Germany. His sermons “Christian Mercy” and “The Ideal of National Life” describe in a very broad way the concepts of “neighbor” and “unity of humankind.” Others present killing as a sin: “May it be killing your enemy, your friend or yourself,” this way also going against interchanging the anti-Christian systems, which ruled over western Ukraine with a bloody iron fist.

Andrei Sheptystkyi receiving the award of gratitude from Ukrainian scouts. Source:

Many choices that Metropolitan had to make in his lifetimes were, in fact, choices between two evils. Yet, he maintained Christian ideals and teachings.

We should not tire of demanding Yad Vashem’s reconsideration of Sheptytskyi’s good deeds, just like the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine. It would help Ukrainians and Jewish people to find a mutual understanding in today’s world of social distancing for Sheptytskyi in terms of honesty and courage will be the Saint of our times.

The newly unsealed Vatican Archives shone a new light on Pope Pius XII’s knowledge of the Holocaust and the time in Europe between 1930 and 1945. Documentation related to the pope’s wartime activities has long been housed in the Vatican Archives, which remained largely closed to researchers until earlier this year.

Now, historians examining newly opened files from the vast collections say they have found evidence that suggests Pius learned of the mass slaughter of Jews in fall 1942. It was as matter of fact, Sheptytskyi himself, who informed the pope of the mass killings in the streets of Lviv. While sifting through the papers, the researchers found a memo from a Vatican staffer that warned against believing the reports, dismissing these accounts on the grounds that Jews “easily exaggerate” and “Orientals”—a reference to Archbishop Sheptytskyi—“are really not an example of honesty.”

The main causes to which he courageously dedicated his difficult life were the creation of an independent, sovereign Ukraine and the reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christian Churches. His causes remain today as controversial as they were back in his day. Today, perhaps, these causes have a much greater importance. No servant of God faced moral and political questions in a more tragic context. Regardless of his strong sympathy for the Ukrainian national cause, he never compromised his Christian principles of morality or ethics.

The Catholic Church’s actions during World War II have long been a matter of historical debate, hopefully the archives can and will further Sheptytskyi’s beatification process. In 1958 the cause for his canonization begun, but was stalled at the behest of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. Pope Francis approved his life of heroic virtue on 16 July 2015, thus proclaiming him Venerable. However, for us this is not enough.

Colette Hartwich is a creator and founder of Hadassah Luxembourg, WEGA Aide Humanitaire a.s.b.l Luxembourg; Co-Founder of L’Ukraine and ALPHEE Paris. She has 40 years of experience in humanitarian and environmental assistance projects in 7 different countries all around the world: Philippines, Ukraine, Armenia among others. For more than 25 years she is educating and coaching in fields of microfinance, humanitarian and development assistance project drafting.

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