Ukraine: Catholic and Orthodox leaders can help bring peace

Priests defy government

Clergy have a vital role to play in helping stamp out the fires of Kiev, writes Jonathan Luxmore in The Catholic Herald.

When the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Mykola Azarov, resigned last week, as his government repealed controversial anti-protest laws, there was hope that an end could at last be in sight to the country’s bitter political feuding. But, with parts of Kiev resembling a war zone, and unrest still spreading nationwide, a durable political settlement could still take time. 

Last November, when president Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of a deal with the European Union, citing fears for Ukraine’s trade ties with Russia, he could hardly have expected the angry mass backlash that followed. Two months on, if peace finally returns, it may well owe something to Ukrainian Catholics.

During separate, late-January meetings with Yanukovich and his opponents, Church leaders offered to act as 'mediators and peacemakers.' But they also made it clear where their own sympathies lay. 'Our mission is spiritual, not political,' Fr Ihor Yatsiv, spokesman for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, told me. 'But we’re concerned for the good of Ukrainians and we believe this good lies with Europe. Being part of Europe has to be more important than preferential gas prices from Moscow.'  

Since the conflict erupted, that conviction has underpinned the stance of Fr Yatsiv’s influential Church, which combines eastern rites with loyalty to Rome. Although Ukraine’s smaller Latin Catholic Church has been more guarded in its response, its leaders too have appealed repeatedly for a peaceful, negotiated outcome.    

Ukraine has long been divided between a predominantly Orthodox east, traditionally looking towards Russia, and a largely Catholic west which feels closer to western countries. This made the 500-clause Association Agreement, establishing a Ukraine-EU free trade zone, crucial to the country’s economic and geopolitical future.    

Yanukovych became president in February 2010, five years after a previous disputed election win was overturned during Ukraine’s pro-western Orange Revolution. But he was never accepted by many Ukrainians, including followers of his main rival, former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed for seven years in October 2011 on alleged fraud charges. The EU criticised Tymoshenko’s imprisonment as politically motivated, and demanded her release as a precondition for the new agreement. When Yanukovych suddenly reneged, it shocked western governments and provoked outrage among pro-western Ukrainians. 

FULL STORY Catholic and Orthodox leaders can help bring the crisis in Ukraine to a peaceful end (The Catholic Herald)

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