Being a man of faith in times of war: how do Ukrainian priests react?

In Odessa (Ukraine).

Originally was destruction. To visit places of worship in Ukraine is to go from one persecution to another. During the Soviet period, the vast majority of churches were converted into places of life, when they were not simply razed. Since 1991, like the nationalist monuments, the churches have been rehabilitated, if not rebuilt. But while the communist persecutions were finally beginning to be healed, the war is tearing apart Orthodox Christianity today. Worse still, division threatens.

The independence of Ukraine had led to a split in 1991 which the war definitively confirmed: on the one hand, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church affiliated to the Metropolitan of Moscow, Kiril, and on the other, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church which wants to be independent, headed by the Metropolitan of kyiv. The political rupture was of such magnitude that theology itself was infected: it produced a schism, from which orthodoxy could never return.

A corrupt church

“They are scoundrels, mafiosos, corrupt people! They’ve already fired me twice. They can keep trying, I will stay. Father Vyacheslav Rubesky has no harsh enough words for his hierarchy and his «boss» Kirill. With a well-trimmed beard, protruding jaw and piercing gaze, Vyacheslav looks more like an American actor than an Orthodox priest. Playing a role, however, does not interest him. Vyacheslav is on a mission, he has his little chapel, his faithful in Odessa, and everything else disgusts him.

“I am the basis of the Moscow Orthodox Church, I am just an atom. Unlike the Catholics, we had a democracy in the Orthodox Church… In theory at least. Because today, all the Orthodox Churches, in Moscow, kyiv or Constantinople, are mafias, he assures. For us, the boss is Kiril, Metropolitan of Moscow. Everything is done according to the relationship we have with him. Especially with money. If you can collect money, so much the better. For the more you give, the more you receive… The whole Church is rotten with corruption.”

Father Vyacheslav, in front of his chapel, in Odessa, Ukraine, June 3, 2022. | Pierre Polard

If Father Vyacheslav accuses everyone, the war is only an epiphenomenon for him: “I am not political, I have nothing to do with the war. I don’t even follow the news. I don’t want to dive into emotion, into what damages the population. Only what can be touched, can be healed. It is corrupting oneself to face the virtual. I am an internet hermit today.”

When told that not taking a position in this conflict, that refusing to see, is perhaps already dubbing, Vyacheslav replies: “War is about resources, gas, oil… It’s up to God to decide, he will decide anyway. Men are abandoned today to their hubris. They think they are saving their country but they are losing themselves, and their lives with it. The conquest is not outside but inside: God is inside. God accepts those who defend their country but God also forgives the Russians: they too think they are defending their country. Putin and Zelensky are not that far apart… In the end we are all the same. My own war is elsewhere, in the salvation of souls. The injustice of the moment, political, does not count. Jesus never rose up against the Romans who occupied Palestine.”

“Whoever wins the war, will win the Church.”
Father Vyacheslav, priest in Odessa

Vyacheslav comes back to his real enemy: the corruption and authoritarianism of the Orthodox Churches, of kyiv or Moscow: “Normal, simple people feel abandoned and need a system to not be scared, like a dome over them. In Ukraine we are too desperate to be free. It would take a world without borders, without community… I am in rebellion not only against the Éorthodox church but against all the USchurches. The problem is not politics, countries, history… but human nature. It poisons any structure. We should decentralize, a federation. There should be nothing around it, so that we are no longer afraid of being free.

Vyacheslav’s final word is tragic: “Priests turn like weathervanes. Some follow the money. Others don’t want to abandon their followers… Whoever wins the war, will win the US.slip. ”

The jealous brother

At the Church of the Nativity, another priest, Andrei, chose a completely different path. He left the Metropolitan of Moscow for that of Kyiv. In front of the church, a fresco brings together the faces of soldiers who have died since 2014. War is not a contradiction here, nor a sudden appearance, but the beating heart of faith.

“Like a priest, I ask God to give them a heart and to call them back to him. As a Ukrainian citizen, I blame them and wish them defeated.”
Father Andrei, of the Church of the Nativity of Odessa

When we arrive in the church, Father Andrei baptizes a young child, nicknaming him “Young Cossack”. Mass is obviously in Ukrainian. War and Ukrainian identity, and therefore opposition to Russia, form the same thing here, which leaves its mark absolutely everywhere. “It is a conflict between evil and good. This is Abel and Cain: Russia is a jealous brother.” Andrei not only understands and explains this conflict, he also leads it: his church against that of Moscow.

“500 parishes have joined the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church since the beginning of the war, he counts. Many priests already wanted to change Church but Moscow threatened them. The Russian patriarchate said: “Even if you change your Church, it is useless because Moscow does not recognize you.” Moscow mainly held the parishes through financing, through dependence. The Donbass and the Crimea favored the rupture but it was the invasion that changed everything, when Kiril said that killing “Ukrainian nationalists” was tolerable… The Metropolitan of Moscow is still very powerful in Ukraine. Police recently arrested a priest in Kyiv who provided Russian information and propaganda. In the occupied territories, in Kherson or Mariupol, priests collaborate.”

Storefront of the Church of the Nativity, in Odessa, Ukraine, June 3, 2022. Portraits of Ukrainian ‘martyrs’ are displayed at the entrance. | Pierre Polard

Again, as with Father Vyacheslav, Father Andrei gives the impression that the future of Orthodoxy and that of Ukraine are linked: “It is the fight of the two Romes. Moscow is afraid that kyiv will take its place in the Orthodox world. We have already begun to replace all Russian institutions, never to depend on them again. The rupture is linguistic, political… It is also religious. The Bible does not change, but its reading, with regard to this war, has been upset.

Father Andrei’s tone is quiet, his gaze is calm. He speaks with calm assurance. This dilemma remains: “By their actions, the Russians have renounced Christianity. To attack them, to fight them is today something permitted, even a duty. Like a priest, I ask God to give them a heart and to call them back to him. As a Ukrainian citizen, I blame them and wish them defeated.”

The Russian Lie

Between Moscow and kyiv is Rome. Pope Francis has taken a relatively neutral stance since the beginning of the conflict, which many neutralizing fear for Ukraine. In a Catholic church in Odessa, however, Father André held a completely different discourse than that of his hierarchy: “The invasion is without excuse. Like an act of the Devil. It’s less the evil than the lie. Russia today is corrupted by lies. It is a lie that cannot be escaped. If we were Russians, we couldn’t escape it either.”

Father André, in a Catholic church in Odessa, Ukraine, June 3, 2022. | Pierre Polard

In the era of perpetual manipulation, of the virtual as a world that adapts and transforms everything, Father André’s truth hangs on the wall, it hangs around a neck, of gold or wood: “The Christ therefore.” His blue eyes are dry, cold. He doesn’t seem pained and yet he goes from regret to regret: “We have been trying for a long time to reconcile the Orthodox in Ukraine. I’m afraid it’s now impossible… Yet we are all Christians and beauty comes from our diversity. Two eyes are better than one! To vary the points of view is therefore good, as long as they do not oppose us.

For the end of the war, Father André returns not to good and evil, but to the truth: “We are witnessing how the lie will gradually destroy itself. I am without hatred, despite all the crimes. It is the lie that deceives. When Russia realizes the lie, it will seek its salvation.”

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