Orthodoxy in Dialogue’s partial hiatus until late spring or early summer has proven already to be rather less a “hiatus” than originally planned. Yet certain events demand a response.

This article started off with the title “The Moral Bankruptcy of the OCA on Full Display.” I added  “Synod of Bishops” to underscore the fact that the clergy and laity of the Orthodox Church in America have no say in the abject servility, spinelessness, and cowardice of their bishops collectively toward the Kremlin Orthodox Church and its Patriarch.

In fact, as we reported in The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) Ignores Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, Bows to the Will of Moscow, Rejects the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), on January 28 the OCA Synod directed “the Clergy, Monastics, and Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America” to comply obediently with its servility, spinelessness, and cowardice. I know of at least one OCA clergyman threatened with suspension if he voices his disagreement with this directive publicly.

Six weeks earlier, in my Ukrainian Autocephaly: An Awkward Spot for the OCA, I noted:

The creation of the OCA as an autocephalous church beholden to the KGB-infested Moscow Patriarchate for its existence, and to the Putin-controlled Moscow Patriarchate for its ongoing recognition (complete with the OCA’s “representation church” in Moscow, of which the actual purpose seems clear to no one), must have suited and continue to suit the Kremlin’s geopolitical objectives very well. The moral price that the OCA paid and continues to pay for its autocephaly, the true extent of its independence or non-independence from the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate, and the ways in which the OCA might knowingly or unknowingly aid and abet Russian aggression on the world stage, are questions worth asking. The answers might lie buried for a very long time in the OCA archives, or forever in the graves of the principal actors as they pass one by one to their eternal repose. At any rate, it seems tragically laughable to give any credence to the KGB Church’s “maternal love and concern” for the Orthodox Church in North America, its “striving for the good of the Church” and “for the peace of Christ,” and its desire “to build a peaceful and creative church life,” so movingly expressed in the Tomos delivered to the OCA on April 10, 1970.  

In the OCA’s own report of February 10, Metropolitan Tikhon, OCA Delegation Participate in Anniversary Celebrations, the moral price of its autocephaly becomes all the more chillingly—and appallingly—clear. I would like to emphasize that our bilateral relations have stood the test of time and have never been overshadowed by anything since the establishment of the OCA, Patriarch Kirill reassured Metropolitan Tikhon soothingly. Good boys!


Being Ukrainian in the OCA

A brief personal reminiscence:

My mother’s family is Ukrainian and Lemko, and Orthodox. My grandfather was a priest. In the early 1910s my grandmother’s parents were founding members of Holy Trinity Church (now OCA) in Willimantic CT. St. Nikolai Velimirović was a beloved family friend. We have some truly lovely oral tradition about his interactions with my family that will never make it into his official hagiographies. 

Yet I myself was received formally into the Orthodox Church on Pascha 1976, three months before my 21st birthday, in a tiny OCA church in Edmonton, Canada. When I mentioned to the hieromonk there—an Italian convert—that I was Ukrainian on my mother’s side, he took that as license to tell an unending litany of “jokes.” This one was his coup de grâce:

The “Ukrainian language” is when a Russian with a speech impediment gets drunk and tries to talk.

Ask me why I remember this 43 years later. But I feigned amusement at the time: I was 20, I wanted to become Orthodox, and a friend from my hometown of Jamestown NY had insisted that the newly autocephalous OCA was the only way to go.

This same priest predicted with merriment that one of two things would happen over time: I would start calling myself Russian to fit into the OCA, or leave the OCA.

During my studies at St. Vladimir’s Seminary (1986-89) I got my fair share of eye-rolling from the faculty at the mere mention of my being Ukrainian.

I still don’t call myself Russian; and frankly, I am finished with the OCA. What the Synod of Bishops could not accomplish in 24 years of shitting on my person (starting with a bishop now deposed for being convicted of sexually abusing a 10-year old altar boy, a primate now forcibly “retired” for embezzling church funds to pay hush money to his gay lover, a seminarian-seducing chancellor now deposed for his involvement in the same embezzlement scheme, a prominent priest who died before his own misdeeds could catch up with him…)—recall that I wrote as recently as December 16 (here) that I remain fundamentally pro-OCA—they have achieved with exactly one Archpastoral Letter and one sycophantic visit to the Kremlin Patriarchate.

Yet “being Ukrainian in the OCA” isn’t just about me. In the OCA’s Archdiocese of Canada the vast majority of cradle Orthodox, at least in the prairie provinces, are Ukrainian-Canadians. Virtually all of the OCA’s historic parishes in Canada—i.e., those which date back a century or more—were founded by Ukrainian homesteaders. Take my word on this: in the early 1990s I served as an OCA supply priest in some of these parishes, where my ability to use Ukrainian liturgically and to prepare simple sermons in Ukrainian was deeply appreciated.

It cannot be lost on the OCA’s large numbers of Ukrainian-Canadians that their own Archbishop Irenee (Rochon)—in adding his signature to the aforementioned Archpastoral Letter of January 28—not only ignores the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine which enjoys the Moscow Patriarchate’s blessing, but brands the majority of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine as “schismatics” despite their restoration to communion by the Ecumenical Patriarchate four months ago.

Lest anyone defend Archbishop Irenee by arguing that he could have hardly opposed the rest of the Synod in this matter, the OCA’s large numbers of Ukrainian-Canadians cannot help but notice how frequently he shares on Facebook the anti-Ukrainian propaganda manufactured daily by the Russian disinformation industry.

It gets even worse.

Canada has the world’s largest population of Ukrainians outside of Ukraine. Given that Canada’s overall population is only about 1/10th that of the US, but there are about 50% more Ukrainian-Canadians than Ukrainian-Americans, Ukrainians in Canada make up a significantly larger percentage of the national population, and enjoy a correspondingly much higher level of visibility in the nation’s multicultural mosaic, than in the US. Canada hosts two of the world’s largest annual Ukrainian festivals, one in Toronto and the other in Dauphin, Manitoba.

The great majority of Ukrainian-Canadians who remain faithful to their ancestral religious roots, however, do not belong to the OCA’s Archdiocese of Canada. They belong either to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada (UOCC), an autonomous church under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, or to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), a Byzantine Rite church in communion with Rome.

To this day virtually every town and farming community in a wide swath of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta has its two Ukrainian churches—one Orthodox and the other Eastern Catholic, often side by side, most of them still well maintained and organized into circuits of parishes under the care of itinerant priests. All of Canada’s major cities have large churches belonging to the UOCC and the UGCC.

The UOCC has advocated tirelessly for the newly granted autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. It provided one of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Exarchs to Ukraine in the weeks and months leading to the Unification Council and the Tomos of Autocephaly. On February 3 its Primate, Metropolitan Yurij (Kalistchuk), played a central role in the enthronement of Metropolitan Epiphanius of Kyiv and All Ukraine. 

The UGCC, for its part, has followed the project of Ukrainian autocephaly with keen interest and unstinting support. Its Primate, Patriarch Sviatoslav (Shevchuk), attended the enthronement of Metropolitan Epiphanius as an observer, very prominently positioned in the nave during the Divine Liturgy and enthronement. He properly did not wear any liturgical vestments or do anything that could be construed as concelebrating.

Then we have the matter of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto, which encompasses all of Canada. Its Primate, Metropolitan Sotirios (Athanassoulas), sits on the Holy and Sacred Synod of Constantinople. There’s no need to ask where he and the Greek-Canadian clergy and laity stand on the Ukrainian Church’s autocephaly.

Archbishop Irenee’s signature on the OCA Synod’s Archpastoral Letter, and his open purveyance of Russia’s anti-Ukrainian disinformation on Facebook, do not only offend the Ukrainian-Canadians under his own omophorion. His actions have likely done more to set back both pan-Orthodox and Orthodox-Greek Catholic relations than any other single event in the history of Orthodoxy in Canada. He is left with one true blue friend among the Canadian hierarchy: Archbishop Gabriel (Chemodakov) of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia—who has argued for the restoration of the Russian Monarchy in an interview with the anti-Semite and phony monk, Nathanael Kapner. 

The message of the OCA and its Canadian Archdiocese seems clear: If you identify as Ukrainian, Ukrainian-American, Ukrainian-Canadian, and Ukraine’s joys and sorrows are your joys and sorrows on a deeply spiritual and emotional level, the OCA is not the church for you.

Making this all the more ironic, the OCA’s historic parishes in the US—like those here in Canada—were never ethnically Russian. They were Ukrainian, Lemko, Carpatho-Russian, Rusyn, etc. Many the stories I have heard from my grandmother’s generation, when “Russian-Russian” priests came to serve and the people could not understand a word they said. My own mother, who spoke fluent Ukrainian as a child, once had confession with a priest whose language may as well have been Greek to her.

Perhaps the only truly Russian parishes in the Metropolia-later-OCA were those on the West Coast, made up of World War II Russian refugees from Harbin. 


How could the OCA Synod have handled this whole situation differently, more honourably—more morally?

As I wrote in December, the autocephaly of the OCA remains unrecognized by most of the Orthodox Church almost half a century after its unilateral grant by the Soviet Patriarchate. Yet no one—not even the Ecumenical Patriarchate—has ever broken eucharistic communion with the OCA. OCA priests, and later bishops, and finally even its Primate, have been warmly welcomed to concelebrate the Eucharist at the Phanar from 1970 to the present.

Realistically, no one expected the OCA to recognize the autocephaly of the OCU. For one thing, the puppet strings that connect the OCA to the Kremlin Patriarchate are a secret to exactly no one. (Said Patriarch Kirill to Metropolitan Tikhon two weeks ago, I would like to emphasize that our bilateral relations have stood the test of time and have never been overshadowed by anything since the establishment of the OCA.) For another, the OCU does not recognize the autocephaly of the OCA.

What shocks is the OCA Synod’s characterization of the OCU as schismatics. This requires of the OCA, of course, the rejection of eucharistic communion with the OCU. In other words, the OCA Synod has withheld from the OCU the same hospitality, generosity, and understanding that the entire Orthodox Church has always extended to the OCA.

The OCA Synod could have, should have:

  • Expressed its regret at being currently unable to recognize the autocephaly of the OCU
  • Declared itself in full eucharistic communion with both the OCU under Metropolitan Epiphanius and the Russian Church in Ukraine under Metropolitan Onufriy
  • Offered to send a bishop or at least a senior archpriest (Father John Jillions, the former chancellor?) to concelebrate at Metropolitan Epiphanius’ Enthronement Liturgy
  • Invited OCU hierarchs (but not yet the Primate), clergy, and laity to visit OCA parishes, seminaries, monasteries, and other institutions, and to study at St. Vladimir’s and St. Tikhon’s Seminaries
  • Appealed forcefully to the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate to cease all hostilities against Ukraine, including the lawless occupation of Crimea (not to mention Russian aggressions against, you know, the United States?)

It’s not too late for the OCA Synod to correct course—and perhaps make the OCA the force for Orthodox unity that it delusionally imagines itself to be already.

But they probably won’t.

See the extensive Ukraine section in our Archives by Author.

Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto and founding editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He has written for Public Orthodoxy, the Toronto Journal of Theology, Milwaukee IndependentThe Wheel, and the Kyiv Post.

Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue is on partial hiatus until late spring/early summer 2019.