Obituary: Patriarch Mstyslav
Thursday 17 June 1993
PATRIARCH Mstyslav of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church had one of the longest and most remarkable ecclesiastical careers of the 20th century. A nephew of the Ukrainian nationalist Simon Petlyura, he was a pre-war politician in Poland, bishop in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, emigre bishop in Western Europe and North America and, in June 1990, elected Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine and Patriarch of the newly re-established Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church at a synod held in Kiev.
Mstyslav Skrypnyk was born in 1898 in eastern Ukraine, part of the Russian Empire. He served briefly in the Tsarist and independent Ukrainian armies. He studied in Warsaw, completing postgraduate work at Warsaw University's school of political science in 1930. He was a Ukrainian politician in inter-war Poland, sitting in the Polish parliament from 1931 to 1939. He was ordained priest in 1942, as the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church - founded in 1919 but cruelly suppressed under Stalin in the 1930s - made its comeback in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Soon after, he was consecrated bishop of Pereyaslav.
The Nazis took an ambivalent attitude to the newly revived church, eventually preferring the rival Autonomous Church. The Autocephalous Church knew it would get no mercy from Stalin, and as the Nazis withdrew before the advancing Red Army all 15 bishops, including Mstyslav, fled westwards. Stalin immediately destroyed the remnants of the Autocephalous Church.
Bishop Mstyslav continued his work in exile, initially as secretary of the Council of Bishops in Exile. He was bishop in Western Europe and Canada before, in 1950, taking up residence in the United States. He became an archbishop and president of the church's consistory and was elected Metropolitan in 1971. A quiet life in South Bound Brook in New Jersey came to an end with the sudden and, to many, unexpected revival of his church in Ukraine.
Renewed enthusiasm for the church arose in Ukraine in the late 1980s, when glasnost allowed Ukrainian national aspirations to be voiced again. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the Russianising and pro-Soviet Moscow Patriarchate. The revived church's first bishop was Ioann Bodnarchuk, who had left Moscow's jurisdiction to lead the Autocephalists from October 1989. At the 1990 synod, the seven bishops of the church agreed to put themselves under Mstyslav's authority. Mstyslav had intended to attend the synod, but was refused a visa.
The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church was invited to send observers, but declined, considering the Autocephalous Church schismatic. A few days later the Moscow Patriarchate announced that it was raising its own Ukrainian Exarchate to the status of an 'independent and self-governing' church. Following Mstyslav's election as Patriarch, the Soviet authorities refused to issue him a visa to return to Ukraine. After a campaign by opposition parliamentarians in Kiev, he was finally granted a six-week tourist visa, and on 20 October 1990, at the age of 92, after 46 years in exile, returned in triumph. Crying with happiness he was carried on Cossacks' shoulders to the ancient St Sophia's cathedral in Kiev, still the subject of dispute between the two Ukrainian Orthodox Churches. He reconsecrated the cathedral, which had been used as a museum since 1926. (This was repeated by Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow a few days later.)
Mstyslav was enthroned as Patriarch on 18 November in St Sophia's cathedral. Thousands of believers, as well as MPs and opposition politicians, attended. To the church's disappointment, there were no representatives of the 14 autocephalous Orthodox churches in the world, who were reluctant to accept the validity of the revived church, which they consider uncanonical.
Disappointment with the lack of progress even after Ukraine was recognised as an independent state led to the Patriarch's eventual return to the US. Citing health grounds, he returned to New Jersey in summer 1991, complaining of prejudice against the Autocephalous Church in the Ukrainian leadership.
With full Ukrainian independence, President Leonid Kravchuk, a former atheist agitator, had his own designs on the church: he forced a merger between Mstyslav's group and the by now disgraced Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev, who had defected from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Ukrainian Church. Mstyslav angrily rejected the scheme whereby Filaret would become deputy patriarch. But, remote in the United States, his authority over the church in Ukraine was limited. His death leaves the Ukrainian Orthodox bitterly divided.
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