Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has caught the attention of the public for multiple reasons. The humanitarian catastrophe, the sheer horror of ceaseless shelling, the shooting of protesters in the streets, the attacks on nuclear plants, the threats to assassinate President Zelensky and other leaders, and the war on democracy.
One of the underreported consequences of Russia’s attack is the betrayal, isolation, and devastation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). UOC-MP clergy, faithful, and property are also under attack. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine surprised many, including Metropolitan Onufry, the primate of the UOC-MP. The tone of Metropolitan Onufry’s appeals to President Putin has been urgent, and his pleas continue to go unheeded. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) repeated his appeal for the unity of the Russian Church, anchored in the indivisibility of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus as one people – a historical narrative he shares with Putin. In a rambling sermon on Cheesefare Sunday, Patriarch Kirill justified the invasion of Ukraine by complaining about gay parades and repeating Putin’s assertion that Ukraine has slaughtered the people of Donbas for eight years.
The ROC’s abandonment of the UOC-MP has led it to a crossroads. Bishops and clergy in Ukraine, witnessing to devastation and brutality, called for an immediate stoppage of commemorating Patriarch Kirill in the Liturgy. This act is essentially a form of protest, and not a break in communion, as long as Metropolitan Onufry continues to commemorate Kirill. The angry letter sent by Metropolitan Evlogy of Sumy did not escape the ROC’s notice, however. The ROC warned Metropolitan Evlogy that failing to commemorate the patriarch at Liturgy was a violation of the canons.
Much has happened in the time that has elapsed since Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in 2018-19. The world continues to struggle through the pandemic. Natural disasters are destroying lives at home and abroad. Pictures of Afghans trying to flee the Taliban stun our consciences. Europe’s longest ruling dictator continues to brutalize citizens of Belarus.
When COVID brought the world to its knees in 2020, I thought that it would create a much-needed ceasefire in the longstanding informational war among Orthodox Ukrainians. Surely, the most hardened participants in confessional polemical warfare would cool off.
I was wrong. Anger continues to percolate among some Orthodox inside and outside of Ukraine. Opponents of the decision to grant autocephaly to the OCU were incensed by Patriarch Bartholomew’s acceptance of President Zelensky’s invitation to visit Ukraine on the occasion of the thirtieth year of national independence.
Among the patriarch’s opponents, clergy and laity came together to demand that he take responsibility for his actions in Ukraine and meet with them. The group is named “Myriane” (laity). They held a prayer vigil on August 21, the day of Bartholomew’s meetings with President Zelensky and the Ukrainian Parliament.
When COVID-19 first arrived on the scene as a nuisance, and not a pandemic, the Churches responded by making slight alterations to the rite of receiving communion. Catholic and Protestant Churches instructed people to refrain from partaking of the cup, and the people exchanged the sign of peace without handshakes. Eastern Church leaders instructed people that it was not necessary to kiss the icons, the cup, or the priest’s hand, and the people took the antidoron (unconsecrated bread) themselves, while refraining from drinking the zapivka (post-communion wine) from a common cup.
As COVID-19 evolved from nuisance to perilous threat, the Churches have continued to respond by altering their liturgies. Catholics and Protestants limited the number of people who could attend services before some cancelled them altogether. The Orthodox adopted the skeleton crew approach until more recently, when many bishops directed parishes to suspend services indefinitely.
The Churches have attempted to maintain some semblance of normalcy in their liturgical rhythms. Catholic priests celebrate private Mass on behalf of their people. All of the Churches use technology so that the people can participate online. Several communities livestream their services while smaller groups gather for virtual Liturgy on Zoom.
The global COVID-19 crisis has ignited a number of difficult
discussions among Christians. The method used to distribute Holy Communion is
fiercely debated. In the Churches that remain open, many Protestants and
Catholics are withholding the cup, so faithful are receiving in one kind only,
the body of Christ. In Orthodox communities, clergy and laity are discussing
the possibility of trying new methods for distributing Holy Communion that
prevents the spread of disease through a common spoon. This issue has generated
emotional statements claiming that it is impossible for the Eucharist to make
anyone sick because of the true presence of the Incarnate Christ. Most Orthodox
synods have issued guidelines on how to maximize prevention of infection in
church, and the Churches are in agreement on communion: it is impossible for
the body and blood of Christ to make anyone sick. The corollary to this defense
of the faith is that no changes to the method of distributing communion are
permitted, with two exceptions. The Romanian Church permits faithful to bring
their own spoons from home, and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine allows clergy to
administer communion to laity via intinction, hand-to-hand.
In the remainder of this essay, I will test both assertions by pointing to a selection of historical antecedents. My investigation will demonstrate that the Church has used numerous methods for distributing Holy Communion, and that her steadfast belief in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements does not come with the promise of guaranteed protection from illness.