Vinnitsa, Ukraine, January 22, 2021
The clergy of the Vinnitsa Diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were under extreme pressure in 2018-2019 to abandon the Church and join the schismatic “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” (OCU).
Pressure came from Simeon Shostatsky, the former canonical hierarch of Vinnitsa who defected from the Church to join the schism, in tandem with the Ukrainian authorities, according to the current canonical ruling hierarch of the Vinnitsa Diocese His Eminence Metropolitan Barsanuphius in a new interview with the press service of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The text of the interview was also published by the Information-Education Department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Among the defector bishop’s tactics was a scheme to transfer church properties to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is also known that Patriarch Bartholomew agreed to grant the OCU autocephaly in exchange for the promise of numerous Church properties from then-President Petro Poroshenko.
While the events surrounding the creation of the OCU took place in Kiev, Vinnitsa was perhaps the “epicenter,” Met. Barsanuphius said, where Poroshenko “decided to test the schemes for transferring churches to the new structure.”
The government approached Church affairs like a business, “But they did not take into account that … the faithful would not trade in the most precious thing for anything—loyalty to Christ,” His Eminence commented.
Shostatsky was already working to prepare his clergy and parishes to accept the schism before the “unification council” took place in December 2018. Significantly, he forced them to change parish statutes such that in the event of liquidation, all property would pass to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
“Many priests didn’t understand this at that time, but then it became clear that this was a preparation,” Met. Barsanuphius said.
It is likely that this move was the price for the “canonical protection” that Constantinople afforded Shostatsky to attempt to shield him from any canonical sanctions for abandoning the Church. On the eve of the “unification council,” both he and his brother-in-schism Alexander Drabinko were “received” into the Patriarchate of Constantinople, though this was, of course, done without the necessary canonical release from the Ukrainian Church.
Shostatsky also had dreams of becoming the primate of the new structure, with the backing of Constantinople, though his plans did not work out.
Pressure on the clergy also came from the city authorities, who summoned them and offered them help if they would move into the schismatic OCU. “In general, they wanted to buy priests,” His Eminence commented.
But the vast majority of priests remained faithful. Only about 20 priests who were directly dependent upon Shostatsky followed him out of the Church, while the other roughly 260 priests remained loyal to Christ despite the oppression, Met. Barsanuphius explained.
In each district of the Vinnitsa Province, leaders had to report how many priests they had managed to force into the OCU, but the chairman of the Vinnitsa Provincial State Administration later admitted in a personal conversation with Met. Barsanuphius that their plan failed.
The authorities believed that throughout December 2018, when the so-called “unification council” was held, 30% of Vinnitsa priests would transfer, and by Pascha, the number would reach 70%. In the end, only 7% of priests decided to leave the Church, and that even with the help of unconstitutional laws that required the re-registration of all UOC parishes and that allowed even the non-Orthodox to vote on the fate of a parish.
Met. Barsanuphius, who was appointed to the Vinnitsa Diocese two days after Shostatsky left it pastor-less by participating in the “unification council,” was also personally pressured and oppressed, he recalls. Immediately after his appointment, the local authorities, working on orders from Kiev, attempted to prevent him from even entering his diocese to meet his flock.
His Eminence has also been physically assaulted by the nationalistic schismatics.
The canonical diocese is still working to legally defend its parishes and to get back those that were illegally seized and re-registered, including the cathedral.
The day after the “unification council,” Shostatsky was issued power of attorney for the diocesan council and diocesan administration through a team of lawyers and held an illegal vote on the transition of the diocese to the schismatics. The authorities helped Shostatsky and his few supporters seize the cathedral and diocesan administration building, including the many holy icons and sacred relics housed therein.
Met. Barsanuphius also spoke about how the Ministry of Culture tried to reregister the Kiev Caves Lavra, because it is considered an object of cultural and historical heritage, but seeing the faithful’s zeal in defending simple village churches, they realized they would meet immense resistance if they tried to give the Lavra to the schismatics.