Abbess Seraphima (Shevchik) serves as abbess of the Convent of the Holy Archangel Michael in Odessa. For the past ten years she has headed the UOC-MP’s Church and Culture Synodal Department. She is a renowned Orthodox journalist, writer, and author of over twenty books. She was awarded an honorary title, the Best Christian Journalist of 2006, by the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine; and the title, “Woman of the Third Millennium”, was conferred on her by the State Commission. She has also devoted her energies to studying spiritual heritage of Ukraine.
In the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the enthronement of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry as Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine we talked with Mother Seraphima about the life of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
—Mother Seraphima, for many years you have carried out important obediences in the Church and headed the Synodal Department for Culture. Now all of us can see how a political knife is cutting into our historic past, culture and the Church. What should the reaction of Orthodox Christians be?
—The life of the Church has always been very hard, and it is something His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry reminds us about. In his sermons he more than once said that the Church shouldn’t seek for a “comfort zone”. And we cannot help but agree with this statement. “Hothouse conditions” are the most dangerous thing for the Church. It is something the Russian Church experienced in the Synodal period (from 1721 till 1917), when the Church was placed under the state tutelage, and in effect the state began to govern the Church. We remember the aftermath of that era: the Empire collapsed, leaving the Church structure shaken.
Today, as a result of the political interference into the Church life in Ukraine the Church was under constant danger of being dismantled. The feelings were running high. Hard blows aimed at the Church fell thick and fast both from inside and from abroad, from its members and the adversaries, from above and from below. However, contrary to the expectations of many, the Church remained steadfast. What saved it?
Of course, it was its own Chief Shepherd and great High Priest, That is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God (Heb. 4:14). His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry reminds us that we can live with the Lord under any conditions, enduring any disasters, withstanding any trials. The Church must be with God and people rather than with politics, politicians and the powers that be.
—August 15 marked the fifth anniversary of Metropolitan Onuphry’s enthronement. Over these five years the secular media controlled by the ruling elite indulged in imposing various stigmas on him. For example, they labelled His Beatitude as a very selective person who has allegedly surrounded himself with politicians from the opposition…
—People of different occupations and social standing come to the services presided over by His Beatitude. Our primate distances himself from both politicians and tycoons. Instead, he is very close and open to the most ordinary people. If you ever go inside his reception room, you will see that the metropolitan receives orphaned children, priests’ families, ordinary parishioners, journalists, cultural and sport workers every day. These are the people he feels close to.
—In early summer Metropolitan Onuphry met with Christina Velushchak in his residence. This girl who had completed the ninth grade at a high school in the Chernovtsy region was not permitted to attend the graduation party because she was a parishioner of the UOC-MP. How can we explain phenomena like this?
—There is no explanation. Our country is an independent European state that proclaims the principles of democracy, which it won back from the previous regime. And at the same time we see that the same principles are being blatantly flouted! We saw a huge wave of repression directed at the UOC-MP over the five years of Metropolitan Onuphry’s primacy. The entire state machinery was involved: the ideological apparatus, the officials, and the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU)—a structure that is not authorized to interfere in the Church life because it’s not its jurisdiction. While the USSR had a special department which put the faithful under state supervision, was responsible for internal policy, kept a close watch over dissenters, those who posed security risk, the citizens who were displeased with the Soviet system, and neutralized them in different ways, the current Ukrainian Security Service doesn’t have such a department. It ought to be guided by firm and law-based obligations, be in charge of foreign and domestic intelligence instead of summoning clergy and bishops for questioning, searching them at airports for hours, and bursting into their homes with arms. In a word, this resembled the reality of 1937.
True, the times are different, but the attempts to plunge us back into the atmosphere of fear, when every step, public statements and printed materials are controlled by a repressive, state-run apparatus, are still being made. Adherents of this ideology called statism can be found among our Democrats as well. Its main idea is that the state must dominate everything. The state decides everything for you: what language you speak, what you think about, what you believe in, which church you go to, which party you vote for, and so forth.
—An aide of President Zelensky recently stated that the newly-elected authorities would be guided by the libertarian ideology. How should we interpret this, Mother Seraphima?
—Libertarianism is a collection of political doctrines and movements that advocate liberty as a basic principle. Libertarians strive to maximize personal liberty and full individual autonomy. They place the human beings above all other values, including even the state. This is what Europe is like today. What am I driving at? We live in an ever-changing world, which goes from one extreme to another.
His Beatitude became our primate in the period of the most dramatic events in Ukraine, which began in 2014 and is still continuing today. Now we have found ourselves in a new reality. After the elections we are facing the era of libertarianism. The pendulum has suddenly swung to the opposite direction. But we are already used to this. For example, earlier, about thirty years ago, living in the Soviet Union, we found ourselves in the independent Ukraine overnight. However, our nation is immune to sociopolitical changes.
—Who can defend people now? While we formerly had social safeguards prescribed in the Ukrainian Constitution, currently no one is really responsible for our health care, education or pensions. As before, they keep promising us a bright future, a vague shadow (like that of Morgan le Fay), which is barely seen from far beyond the horizon…
—His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry teaches us to live in union with God in our ever-changing crazy world and be afraid of nothing: neither social cataclysms, nor violence and spite, nor the information poured down on us from news round-ups in the media—the gloomiest forecasts about global warming, mutating viruses, epidemics, harmful food, etc. Human beings are intimidated, confused, and demoralized.
Who should they rely on in this world? On God, His Beatitude teaches us. Metropolitan Onuphry keeps his discourse very simple, so it can easily be understood by country tractor drivers, urban taxi drivers, teachers, doctors, politicians and scientists: Above all else, we must rely on God in current circumstances. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me (Ps. 22:4). This is what we love His Beatitude for. He proclaims the universal truth of life that is available to everyone.
—People are very sensitive to the behavior and character of pastors. Metropolitan Onuphry has gained great popularity and authority in Ukraine as a pastor and a human-being.
Many millions of Ukrainians have enormous trust in him. How can we explain this?
—You are right. They completely trust His Beatitude, and his nature, which has not been undermined even by the trial of the tomos of autocephaly of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, has become clear to everyone. Just imagine: the Ecumenical Patriarchate declares that Metropolitan Onuphry is no longer the primate of the UOC-MP but is just an ordinary bishop of his structure, though it had officially recognized his status shortly before then; those from the higher echelon of Government brand the UOC-MP hierarchs and clergy as “public enemies”, just like under Stalin. But to no effect! People follow His Beatitude and not the fake pastors which are backed by the powers that be.
It can be explained very simply. Let me cite a specific example. Last year an event of national importance was held in European Square in Kiev. The President along with all the country’s religious leaders, including His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry, were present. The former head of state mounted the highest rostrum and hurled a stream of terrible criminal accusations against our Church, claiming that it “worked for the aggressor state”, “welcomed the annexation of regions of Ukraine”, and was nearly involved in shooting our young people. I saw how the cameras of national TV channels showed close-ups of Metropolitan Onuphry’s face. However, despite the monstrous insults and slander, the primate’s face radiated peace and the spirit of prayer. It became clear that he was with God in his heart, mind and soul.
It was then that a repressive campaign against the UOC-MP was launched. Many believers were confused. But the steadfastness, courage and power of the righteous prayer of the entire Church with our primate managed to hold back the avalanche of evil.
Though his position was expressly apolitical. Many were surprised with and even indignant at his behavior. They expected him to give some counter-arguments, show proofs and say words of protest. They hoped that his apologetics would be directed at specific individuals and specific actions as its targets. Many then told me that he must demand, denounce, and attack.
And I recalled a similar situation that took place many years ago, in 1992, when all of us were meeting the newly-elected primate, His Beatitude Vladimir (Sabodan; †2014), at the Kiev railroad station. If you remember, the situation was very similar to ours. In its official statement Parliament declared that the Council of Bishops in Kharkov was “illegal and invalid”, thus violating the Constitution of Ukraine, which established separation of the Church from the state. President Leonid Kravchuk and his entire chain of command supported Philaret Denisenko, who had embarked on the path of schism. Strong passions were aroused on both sides. Our parishioners—rather radical pensioners, young people, seminarians and priests—were standing and holding banners, demanding the return of St. Volodimir’s Cathedral, which had been seized by the schismatics. We could see dramatic events of the same kind in Odessa as well.
Once His Beatitude Vladimir had arrived, his first order was to remove all the banners and picket signs. He rejected the calls to join the column of demonstrators and walk towards St. Volodimir’s Cathedral to forcibly take it away from the schismatics. Like today, that position was not met with approval of the majority of people, not least the parishioners of St. Volodimir’s Cathedral who had prayed in it for many years and loved it. And we didn’t understand the logic of His Beatitude Metropolitan Vladimir until some time later, just as we are only beginning to comprehend the logic of His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry now. Let us note that Jesus Christ didn’t argue with the scribes and Pharisees, gave no answer to Pontius Pilate, and forbade His disciple to defend Him with the sword from those who had come to the Garden of Gethsemane to seize Him. And He didn’t curse His persecutors on the Cross either; rather, He prayed for them.
However, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act, that we should remain passive observers and be silent. The UOC-MP Holy Synod called on the faithful to stand firm in their faith. All of the UOC-MP’s legal services were stirred up to activity. After all, the crimes committed against our Church contradicted the norms of the Constitution of Ukraine and international law: The seizure of churches was initiated, and the Verkhovna Rada [Ukrainian Parliament.—Trans.] remembered the practice of 1992 and began to churn out anti-Church laws. A wave of criminal charges, police interrogations and search followed. But the primate called on us to pray, show patience, and respond to persecution in a peaceful and balanced manner.
His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry is our good pastor. And we see that he decides all things with God, through God, and in God. He humbly and meekly endures the trials and tribulations with his flock, suffering with his flock and praying for his flock. Apostle Paul compares the Word of God to a double-edged sword (cf. Heb. 4:12). It neutralizes all traps of the enemy of mankind.
His Beatitude teaches us how to solve all vital problems, including those associated with persecution of the Church. First and foremost, we must pray. And the Lord will put our lives in order according to His good and perfect will.
—After the election of the new President of Ukraine, people expect a change in the Church-state relations. Vladimir Zelensky had a long talk with His Beatitude. Do you think this meeting has left an imprint on the politician’s soul?
—His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry had a heart-to-heart conversation with President Zelensky as with the servant of God Volodimir. They neither discussed political issues nor analyzed the latest political developments. It was an ordinary, warm, human meeting. After the President’s inauguration he said to him in a friendly manner that we should strive to ensure peace in our state. By the way, we pray for the same thing in the litanies during every service in our churches: “For our God-preserved land, its civil authorities and armed forces…, that we may live calm and serene lives in all piety and purity, let us pray to the Lord”. We must pray for our civil authorities so that our lives may be calm and serene, that they (the civil authorities) may listen to reason and hear the voice of God and the voice of people.
The Church loves everyone, embraces everyone, prays for everyone, worries about everyone, even about those who oppose it. We pray for the persecutors who have raided and seized our churches too. We invite them with our open arms and call them to repentance. Our flock is composed of both the “Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone” soldiers and those on the opposite side of the barricades. After all, Donetsk, Lugansk and the Crimea are still the canonical territory of the UOC-MP. We are trying to reconcile everybody, make them human again and restore them to the state of the love of Christ. And he who has this great ability—to love his neighbors—won’t open fire, realizing that it is better to pray for stray sheep, try and reach out to them and enter into a dialogue with them.
His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry helps us understand that we must make the love of Christ, the commandments of Christ, and the peace of Christ the cornerstone. Then divine peace and harmony, which is the most precious treasure for human beings, will reign in our country and in the soul of each one of us. This is the call of the good shepherd of the blessed Ukrainian land addressed to all of us.