Ex Oriente Shock – In Easter(n) Jolt, US' Ukrainian Chief Resigns at 66


Four days ago, this scribe played backup to Metropolitan Stefan Soroka as the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic diaspora in the States paid tribute to Cardinal Lubomyr Husar a year since the "Moses" of his people died at 84.

Ironically enough, the theme for the journalistic reflection on Husar was drawn from the Pope's homage to the titanic late patriarch of Kiev: "He might've been blind, but he could see beyond" – a reference to the cardinal's near-total lack of sight over his last decade.

This morning, however, literally everyone just woke up blind: at Roman Noon, Francis had accepted Soroka's resignation at 66 as head of the US' largest and oldest Eastern Catholic Church, a subsequent statement from the Philadelphia-based archeparchy citing unspecified "medical reasons" as the rationale for the move.

Numbering some 13,000 Catholics, the metropolia spans the eastern half of Pennsylvania and all of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, its three suffragans – in Chicago, Stamford and Parma – extending its reach from coast to coast. Given the constant Eastern tradition – now fully brought out of the shadows in the US by Francis – roughly half its 55 priests are married.

Among Soroka's aides and clergy in the tight-knit community, the decision of the Canadian-born hierarch – named the church's Stateside head in late 2000 – has been received with shock. While he fought back a bout with prostate cancer at the turn of the decade and has rebounded well from a February knee operation, Whispers ops in the archeparchy expressed no awareness of ongoing health concerns early today. If anything, the metropolitan looked in unremarkably fine form at the Thursday event, not giving a single indication of his imminent departure over three hours of sitting together and warmly catching up, the time capped off by a lunch of Husar's beloved hot dogs.

Indeed, as some of his parishes observe Pascha according to the Julian calendar (and thus, as with the Orthodox, a week behind the others), Soroka talked glowingly of celebrating Easter twice across his scattered turf.

Together with the resignation, Soroka's freshly-named auxiliary – Bishop Andriy Rabiy, at 42 the youngest member of the US bench – was appointed apostolic administrator of the archeparchy, granting him the full authority of the ordinary during the vacancy. On being asked last week how his new deputy was faring, Soroka said he hadn't been able to utilize Rabiy enough so far as "he's still at the parish" where he's pastor some 40 miles upstate, in the old coal regions to which Ukrainian immigrants flocked at the turn of the 20th century, the catalyst for the US jurisdiction's establishment in 1913.

As for the compound on two square blocks of what's become immensely valuable Philadelphia real-estate over Soroka's tenure, unlike a Latin-church appointment, the succession to Franklin Street will be charted by the 25-man Ukrainian Synod, which will submit the terna of candidates to the Congregation of the Oriental Churches in Rome, whose own membership makes a final recommendation to the Pope.

While the US' Eastern Catholic population has grown markedly in recent years due to immigration from India and the Middle East – which has respectively spurred the establishment of new eparchies for the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Chaldean churches – the Ukrainian archeparchy holds a de facto primacy of place on the broader scene as the nation's oldest and most-established sui iuris (self-governing) community, as well as given the UGCC's place as the global church's largest Eastern fold. (On a related note, only over the last decade the Eastern churches have been constituted as a USCCB region unto themselves, ending the prior practice of the hierarchs' belonging to the Latin-dominant geographic areas where they are respectively based.)

All that said, today's move occurs against the backdrop of a striking generational shift in the leadership of the 7 million-member Ukrainian church, marked by an equal uptick of assertiveness after its Soviet-era persecution and existence "in the catacombs."

Six years since that movement began with another shock – the Synod's choice of one of its most junior members, then 40 year-old Sviatoslav Shevchuk, to succeed Husar at the church's helm – the changing of the guard has been reinforced by a steady tide of elections of new bishops in their early 40s or even late 30s; just last week, an auxiliary in Ukraine was named at 38 after barely a decade as a priest.

To be sure, the pattern extends to these shores – beyond Rabiy, of the UGCC's three domestic suffragans, Bishop Bohdan Danylo of Parma is 46 and Bishop Benedict Aleksiychuk of Chicago arrived last summer at 49. What's more, the trio – each named since 2014 and, as of today, the majority of the US' active Ukie bench – were all born in the church's Eastern European heartland, a trend ostensibly set to continue with the choice of the diaspora's next head.

All told, the movement reflects a fresh round of Ukrainian and Polish immigration to the States over recent years, which has accordingly altered the church's makeup.

While the appointment process is considerably less cumbersome than a Latin-church pick, the naming of a successor could still take several months – for starters, given the post's internal prominence as one of two UGCC metropolitan seats outside Ukraine (the other located in Soroka's native Winnipeg), the hierarchs' deliberations are likely to be equally intense. On another front, unless the terna is submitted by the executive council of the Ukrainian Synod or the full body is convoked in an extraordinary session to address the vacancy, the next global meeting of the eparchs isn't slated to take place until September.


Amid Abuse Probe's Hearing of "Many Crucified Lives," Pope Summons Chile to Rome


In but the latest striking turn of a home-turf debacle which has colored the broad perception of his pontificate, in a letter released tonight on two continents, the Pope told the Chilean bishops that "I have committed grave errors of judgment and perception" in a long-simmering abuse scandal which has rocked the country's church, specifically citing his lack "of true and balanced information" on it.

Released on roughly an hour's warning, the six-page typed missive – dated Sunday – was made public at Francis' insistence at 8pm Rome time in an unusual joint issue by both the Chilean episcopal conference and the Holy See Press Office.

In his message, addressing the 2,300-page dossier compiled last month by Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta – the Vatican's onetime lead prosecutor of abuse cases – the pontiff aimed to "beg for the forgiveness of all who I have offended," ostensibly in light of his prior, repeated defenses of Bishop Juan Barros, a protege of the country's most infamous predator priest, Fr Fernando Karadima.

In numerous earlier instances, Francis sought to base the opposition to Barros – whose 2015 appointment to a diocese sparked ongoing protests – on "calumny" and "Leftists who orchestrated all this." By contrast, the Pope's letter said that his reading of the interviews taken by Scicluna and a priest currently on staff at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "bring me pain and shame."

Even as the duo form the centerpiece of the entire fiasco, neither Barros nor Karadima – the latter restricted to a life of prayer and penance, but not dismissed from the clerical state – were cited by name in the letter.

Beyond issuing an extraordinary summons of all the Chilean bishops to the Vatican to discuss the situation – which the body's president subsequently said would take place over the third week of May – the Pope said he would likewise meet with at least some of the 64 victims interviewed "over the coming weeks," in the hope of expressing his apology personally.

Notably, Francis' letter made an explicit point of "thanking the various organizations and the means of communication for their professionality in treating this very delicate case, respecting the right of citizens to be informed and the good name of those who spoke out." That line was a starkly direct hit at the criticism voiced by Santiago's retired Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, 84 – a hand-picked member of the pontiff's "Gang of Nine" lead advisers – who blamed "profit" motives by Karadima's victims, Barros' own interviews and general media coverage of the abuse eruption for a "parallel focus" of bad optics that trailed the Pope over his January visit to the country.

Yet in another sign that Francis' Latin impatience had hit a boiling point – just with a fresh target – this week's letter rapped the Chilean bench in these memorable words: "Sometimes, when evils rumple our souls and throw us into the world, scared and buttoned-up inside our comfortable 'winter palaces,' the love of God goes into our encounter and makes our intentions pure, that we might love as free, mature and [self]critical men."

Albeit discreetly, today's move garnered a thumbs-up from the camps of both Scicluna and another "Gang" member, Boston's Cardinal Seán O'Malley OFM Cap., who arguably extended the scandal's visibility and range by publicly criticizing Francis after Papa Bergoglio's in-flight blast at victim-survivors seeking Barros' removal during the January trek.

Even if the letter made no clear determination on Barros' fate, the writing there is essentially on the proverbial wall. Well more, though, the message released today puts the fate of two even more critical figures in the balance: Errazuriz, for reasons stated above, not to mention being considerably past Conclave age yet still in Francis' official "inner circle"...

...and above all, the prelate long described as the last Vatican "Sacred Cow" which Francis hasn't dared touch – Cardinal Angelo Sodano: at age 90 still Dean of the College, who as Nuncio to Chile (1977-90) was said to be closely allied with Karadima, then as John Paul II's all-powerful Secretary of State worked to squelch the CDF's probe into the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Fr Marcial Maciel, who Benedict XVI could only banish from ministry after his election as Pope and a long Curial war, going on to place the entire community under Apostolic Visitation.

Here, something else bears recalling: while the wider world/press corps was focused on a tribunal's conviction of the then-Pope's butler in late 2012 amid the soap-opera known as "Vatileaks," Papa Ratzinger used the multiple distractions of that Saturday morning in October to slip then-Msgr Scicluna (above) far out of Rome and back to his island home as an auxiliary bishop.

On paper, the appointment was a considerable demotion – and, given the duo's history, a shocking one. But in a reality only to become clear with time, that stealth nod was the ultimate sign of the Resignation to come – a departing Pope's sense of his best shot to protect the aide who did the bulk of his footwork in purging at least 3,000 abusive clerics worldwide.

Maybe now, five and a half years later, you lot might finally begin to grasp why these things occurred as they did....

To say nothing of the stakes now ahead.