Official Vatican news organs have reported that Pope Francis has affixed his signature to a decree affirming the “venerable” status of Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky. The adjective “venerable”—and great deal many other synonyms—are undeniably apt in the case of the great cleric. As Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church he led the church through four decades of strife (1900-1944), war, and multiple foreign occupations. In the absence of an elected political elite, Sheptytsky, was a defacto political leader in Western Ukraine.
This designation comes two weeks before the anniversary of Sheptytsky’s 150th birthday, and recognizes that Sheptytsky lived a heroic life of Christian virtue. This recognition is an introductionary step in the beatifcation process that would lead to his canonization as a saint. It is also an obvious ecumenical olive branch proffered by the clericy in Rome to their Eastern Rite Orthodox brethren. The gesture has been warmly welcomed and has excited many people across spectra of Ukranian society—from Kiev and Lviv, to Toronto and Chicago—which is in line with Sheptytsky’s own storied interest in strengthening ecumenical bonds between various branches of the church.
But the process of Sheptytsky’s canonization had long been stalled because of Cold War sensitivities. Thus, the process did not begin in earnest again until the collapse of the Soviet Union, and only quickening with the assumption of the new pope. On theological grounds, this was not a move that could ever have taken place under the purist pope Benedict’s watch.
However, Sheptytsky remains a controversial figure in other quarters. While shepherding the church through the war, he welcomed the Germans as liberators (from Soviet occupation) into Lviv. Later, along with his brother Klementiy, he personally hid more than a hundred Jewish children from slaughter. And yet, as I reported in November from Kiev, despite concerted lobbying on his behalf, Yad Vashem has consistently denied him the status of “Righteous” among the nations, even though he is, in fact, likely the last great savior of Jews from the Nazis to lack recognition (which is of course the secular Jewish equivalent of sainted). This decision has perturbed many partisans the world over, including—to drop the mask of journalistic impartiality—me, or someone who has researched the case files and combed through much of the extant scholarship.
In Ukraine itself, Sheptytsky represents the rare ecumenical figure beloved both by ethnic Ukrainian patriots and Ukrainian Jewry. He has become a symbolic figure in histiographic attempts at reconciling the traumatic World War II era histories of both. Where many other complex figures remain tarnished, he is a noble and unifying figure in the history of the Ukranian nationalism who had nothing to do with massacres of ethnic Poles, Jews or Russians. Understandably, he has been taken up as an icon in the current moment of construction as a positive post communist Ukrainian identity. Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, a Canada-based organization focused on bridging historical divides and ameliorating mutual antagonisms between Ukrainians and Jews, awarded its “Sheptytsky prize,” together with the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, to philanthropist Victor Pinchuk in Kiev this past November. As well, there are have also been signs that Yad Vashem is also realigning its position:
The intense lobbying of Yad Vashem on behalf of Sheptytsky is led by the impassioned but dwindling group of the survivors that he personally hid. They include former Polish Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, David Kahane, the former chief rabbi of the Israeli Air Force, and the pediatric cardiologist Leon Chameides. The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman is an ally of the cause. The mounting chorus of voices calling for Yad Vashem’s reappraisal of the Sheptytsky legacy also includes its former Director Avner Shalev, who recently declared that Yad Vashem needs to rethink its position. But the case is by no means an uncomplicated one.
There were not many churchmen or political figures of stature during the war who sent personal pleas to Himmler to quell the killing. The Ukrainian Catholic Church was liquidated as an independent organization by Soviet authorities after his death of natural causes in November of 1944. Though Yad Vashem’s imprimatur and recognition of his deeds remains some way off, the increased worldwide recognition of Sheptytsk’s actions is welcome news for anyone with a sense of historical justice.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.