Beyond Identity

18 February 2012, 09:39 | Andrew Sorokowski's column | 0 |   | Code for Blog |  | 


Ever since the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (1962-1965), the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church has been concerned with restoring its “Eastern” identity – or more properly, its Kyivan-Byzantine identity. The Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches (1964) called upon Eastern Catholics to “preserve their legitimateliturgical rite and their established way of life,” to“attain to an ever greater knowledge and a more exact use of them” and, if needed, “take steps to return to their ancestral traditions” (no. 6).

There has been good reason for this. The Kyivan-Byzantine heritage that the Ukrainians and Belarusians brought into the Universal Church with the Union of Brest in 1595-1596 was rich in theology, spirituality, ritual and culture. Yet by 1720, the Synod of Zamoscwas codifying various Latin importations. The struggle to preserve the Uniate Church’s identity in the face of Latin-rite pressure compounded by polonization led to the Russophile movement in 19th-century Austrian Galicia. The bitter controversies over “ritual purification” in the 1860s and 1870s,satirized by Ivan Franko in his poem “The Botocudos,” drove many into schism. The dispute over clerical celibacy that had arisen in the 1890swas revived with the establishment of the Second Polish Republic in 1918. The suppression of the UGCC in 1946 froze these controversies for over forty years. But after his release from Soviet confinementand exile to Italy in 1963, Metropolitan Josyf Cardinal Slipyj’s calls for a return to Byzantine tradition, while faithfully following Vatican II, prompted further controversy in the Ukrainian diaspora over ritual, celibacy, and the church calendar. The diaspora church had already been subjected to misunderstanding and prejudice on the part of some Latin-rite bishops and clergy since the 1880s. In the 1960s and 1970s, the call of both lay and clerical activists in the United States for a return to Byzantine Ukrainian traditions was reinforced by the identity politics of the time. Today’s general agreement on the importance of the UGCC’s Kyivan-Byzantine identity in both the diaspora and the revived church in the homeland has thus been the result of many years of struggle.

But is identity enough? Today, the UGCC still faces ignorance and misunderstanding. Yet too much concentration on identity can be counter-productive. Indeed,one can say that a church that tries too hard to save its identity may lose it.

An analogy may help explain this. Typically, an adolescent goes through a process of establishing his identity. This can be a complicated and painful process, involving social, psychological, ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious factors. In the best cases, the identity crisis is resolved in a few years, and the individual goes on to an active and fulfilling life. But in some cases, the crisis is not resolved for years, or ever. In those instances, the unfortunate individual continues to dwell on his identity, losing touch with the surrounding community and society and lapsing into solipsism and even neurosis. Often, the best cure in such cases is to focus on something outside the self. Christians would say that it is by turning to others, or to the Other, that a young person can best find himself. It is in the love of others that one’s true identity is revealed.

The same can be said of a Church. And while the UGCC has had good reason to focus on its identity, it may be time to move on. In a recent article, IuriiChornomorets’ commented that the Church’s theology is still stuck in the 1970srediscovery of its Eastern traditions (“Bohoslov’iav  UHKTs: nevykonanizavdannia,” “Patriiarkhat,” No. 6, November-December 2011, p. 8). Moreover, as Fr. OlehHirnyk has related, in recent decades Ukrainian Catholic theology students have sought to discover those Eastern traditions in Russian theology, which in the past century conducted its own search for its patristic roots. Fr. Hirnyk recommends that Ukrainian theologycreate its own contextual theological discourse in tandem with post-colonial criticism, rather than remaining mired in “the absolutely fruitless and colonially dependent theology of ‘the rebirth of Eastern identity’” (“Ukrainian Theology: vid  novoiievanhelizatsii do kontekstual’noiteolohii,” “Patriiarkhat” no. 6, November-December 2011, p. 7). As Chornomorets’ points out, “we cannot go back to tradition just for the sake of going back. Rather, we must do so in order to form new images of the future” (Chornomorets’, p. 11). In a similar vein, Fr. MykhailoDymyd has called on the UGCC and the Ukrainian Catholic University to support the development of creative academic theology.

If Ukrainian Catholic theology needs to move forward beyond a mere affirmation of its identity, developing new ideas, then the church must do so in other areas of its life.It is worthwhile to note how the Latin-rite Catholic Church has done this. Over the centuries, it has developedand realized its identity by action on several fronts. Foremost among these was preaching the word of God, but the church was also active in political theory, socio-economic life, and culture, imbuing all of these with Christian values. In great part it could do so because of its own political power and the wealth it accumulated through donations by wealthy benefactors. Much of its activity was later subsumed by the state, and today, its resources are limited. The resources of the UGCC are even scarcer. But action is also a matter of leadership and will. The Ukrainian church can realize its Kyivan-Byzantine identity by focusing on doing, not just being.This could mean new initiatives in such diverse areas as culture, social criticism, and ministry to the poor and sick. As the church carries out these initiatives, its Kyivan-Byzantine identity will become manifest, uniquely coloring its actions.

Paradoxically, it is by shifting its attention from its own identity to the world around it that the UGCC can best confirm that identity. Foridentity, while essential, is not an ultimate goal. A church’s ultimate aim is to bring people to God. This means it must reach out to the society around it.One cannot carry out the “new evangelization” by appealing to an identity that is unintelligible to outsiders. To be sure, the Kyvian Byzantine heritage is a vital contribution to the universal Church and to the world. Both clergy and laity have an obligation to preserve and develop it. But there is a danger that the Ukrainian church may become merely a vessel of ethnic or national culture,or  even be hijacked as a vehicle forpolitical aims. If it allows this to happen, it will be mistaking incidentals for fundamentals. Moreover, it will isolate itself from the world, compromising its global evangelizing mission. For ultimately, what it does is more important than how it does it. A church wrapped in the cloak of its identity might forget to share that cloak with the naked stranger. The sick child in a Brazilian favela does not much care whether the priest who comforts it adheres to the correct forms of the Byzantine or Latin or Syrian rite, anymore than the dying AIDS patient in Kyiv or the injured miner in Donetsk. Yet it is here, at the margins of society and the borders of earthy existence, that the church is most intensely itself. In ministering to the poor, the sick, and the dying, it will naturally find the right balance between ritual identity and local inculturation. For the church can best realize its identity by looking beyond it.

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