Sunday, June 09, 2024

Vatican weighs Ukrainian eparchy for Germany

The Vatican is considering a request to establish a fully fledged Ukrainian Greek Catholic diocese in Germany.

The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Eastern Churches has asked the German bishops’ conference for its view on whether the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Apostolic Exarchate in Germany and Scandinavia should be upgraded to an eparchy, equivalent to a diocese.

The move could have significant consequences for the Catholic Church in Germany,  with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) playing an enhanced role within the country’s bishops’ conference and wider Catholic life.

The Synod of Bishops of the UGCC — the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome — decided at a September 2023 meeting in Rome to elevate the German exarchate to an eparchy, a step requiring Rome’s sign-off.

Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk referred to the decision at a May 26 celebration in Munich, marking the exarchate’s 65th anniversary.

Speaking after a May 21-24 meeting of the UGCC’s Permanent Synod in the southern German city,  Shevchuk said: “We submitted this decision to the consideration of the Holy Father Francis and now we want to confirm it once again at the end of the Permanent Synod of the UGCC.” 

“Sixty-five years of the exarchate is already a bit too much,” he added. “According to Church law, the exarchate is the embryo of the diocese. This is the first, temporary step.” 

“Further, the structure develops into a fully fledged diocese, where the bishop has all the necessary rights and competences of the ruling bishop, and is also not a guest, but a full member of the German bishops’ conference.”

According to the German bishops’ conference website, the head of the exarchate is “an advisory member of the plenary assembly of the German bishops’ conference.” 

The exarchate, established in 1959 and currently led by Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh, has grown significantly since the Russo-Ukrainian War began in 2014. The structure had around 41,000 members in 2013 and 77,000 by 2021 — almost as many as Germany’s Diocese of Magdeburg and more than twice as many as the Diocese of Görlitz.

The exarchate, which receives substantial support from the German bishops’ conference, has expanded even further since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The latest Vatican yearbook reportedly estimates that it now has 150,000 members. Its seat is in Munich, the site of its Cathedral of the Intercession of the Mother of God and of St. Andrew.

German bishops’ conference spokesman Matthias Kopp told the Catholic news agency KNA that the Vatican had asked for its input.

He said: “The Dicastery for the Eastern Churches has asked the German bishops’ conference for a statement on the request submitted to the Holy See by the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to elevate the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Apostolic Exarchate in Germany and Scandinavia to the rank of an eparchy.”

“The German bishops’ conference will issue this statement as soon as possible. Before this, however, a number of complex questions of state-Church law and practical implications that would be associated with such a decision must be examined and discussed.”

A KNA report published June 7 on the Catholic Church in Germany’s official website said that German bishops “seem reserved” about the request.

Regina Elsner, a professor of Eastern Churches and Ecumenical Theology at the University of Münster, told KNA: “What it is actually about, or should be about, is putting the eparchy on an equal footing with the other dioceses and including the bishop as a full member of the German bishops’ conference with voting rights.”

“To achieve this, the statutes of the bishops’ conference would have to be changed, and this would have an impact on other issues — commissions, finances, etc. It seems appropriate to me to clarify this as comprehensively as possible before making a decision.”

Elsner added that another consideration would be how other Eastern Catholic Churches present in Germany saw the move and whether they would be likely to make similar requests.

Another factor could be the apparent theological differences between the German bishops’ conference and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. 

For example, German bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing welcomed Fiducia supplicans, the Vatican’s declaration on blessings, while Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader Major Archbishop Shevchuk said that the document did not apply to the autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is likely to have reservations about some of the changes to Catholic teachings and practice demanded by supporters of Germany’s “synodal way.”

Participants at five synodal way assemblies between 2020 and 2023 endorsed 150 pages of resolutions calling for women deacons, a re-examination of priestly celibacy, lay preaching at Masses, a bigger lay role in selecting bishops, and a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on homosexuality.

In recent years, the Vatican has granted several UGCC requests for eparchies and exarchates outside of its heartland of Ukraine. 

The UGCC currently has two eparchies and two exarchates in Western Europe. 

The Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of the Holy Family of London, established in 2013, covers England, Wales, and Scotland. Its Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski is also responsible for the faithful in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The Eparchy of St. Volodymyr the Great of Paris, also created in 2013, serves Ukrainian Greek Catholics in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

The Apostolic Exarchate of Italy was founded in 2019, 60 years later than the Apostolic Exarchate in Germany and Scandinavia.

Asked what would change if the German exarchate became an eparchy, its Bishop Bohdan Dzyurakh told KNA: “In terms of canon law, the exarchate represents a preliminary stage on the way to a fully-fledged ecclesiastical structure, an eparchy, i.e. a diocese.” 

“This change of status would mean that the highest ecclesiastical authorities recognize the full development and maturity of our Church community in Germany and the Scandinavian countries.” 

“Furthermore, such a step would express the understanding of the Catholic Church in Germany for the particularities of the Eastern Catholic Churches, as well as the appreciation of their presence and contribution to Church life in Germany.”

He added: “The recognition of our faith community as a diocese will be concrete evidence of the synodal thinking and actions of the Catholic Church in Germany and Scandinavia, if Eastern Catholics are not seen as something exotic in the bosom of the Latin majority, but as equal brothers and sisters in faith.”