ROME -- The new head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, its youngest bishop, said he believes the other bishops elected him to promote unity within the church and with other Christians.
The 40-year-old Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, visiting Rome to meet Pope Benedict XVI, told Catholic News Service he believes he was elected "despite my age."
Ukrainian bishops from around the world, who met in a synod in late March to elect a new major archbishop for their church, were looking for a leader who could "unite the church in Ukraine and outside Ukraine," who could "promote the unity of Christians in Ukraine and establish some sort of dialogue with the new Ukrainian government," he told CNS March 30 at the Ukrainian church office in Rome.
Archbishop Shevchuk said the suffering -- including imprisonment and martyrdom -- endured by Ukrainian Catholics under the Soviet regime from 1946 to 1989 "was a sacrifice for communion with the See of Peter" and the Catholic Church.
In 1946, the Soviet government dissolved the Ukrainian Catholic Church by forcibly uniting it with the Russian Orthodox Church. But for more than 40 years, Ukrainian Catholics continued to live and to worship clandestinely.
Archbishop Shevchuk said there are tensions between generations of Ukrainian Catholics over relations with the Orthodox, considering the fact that older Catholics risked their freedom and even their lives to remain Catholic.
But, he said, people seem excited by his election, "and I think this is the work of the Holy Spirit, which is the spirit of unity. And that's why I was so courageous to open my arms to the Orthodox without fear and with great assurance that my church, which I represent, is an open church."
While the majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox, they are divided into three churches: one in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church, one with a patriarch in Kiev and the third known as the Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
All three Orthodox communities sent bishops to Archbishop Shevchuk's enthronement, or installation, liturgy March 27.
"For Eastern Christians, liturgy is the main expression of doctrine and of the life of the church. When we were chanting the creed, I approached each of them saying, 'Christ is among us' -- that is the liturgical greeting -- and each of them responded, 'Yes, he is and will be,'" the archbishop said.
With the exchange of greetings in such a solemn setting, "maybe we started a new moment in our relationship and I hope this new openness in the dialogue will grow," he said.
Archbishop Shevchuk, who was born in Ukraine and entered the seminary after the Ukrainian Catholic Church won its right to live freely, was the apostolic administrator of a Ukrainian diocese in Argentina at the time of his election.
Being so far from home and from the headquarters of his church, he said he kept in touch and up-to-date through the Internet and the church's website.
He has a Blackberry phone, but no Facebook page. He said that as major archbishop he plans to continue developing a media strategy for his church because communications is key to promoting unity.
Speaking to reporters immediately after a private meeting with the pope March 31, Archbishop Shevchuk said the purpose of the meeting was to express his communion with the pope and to thank him. "Confirming the election of such a young bishop is a sign of great trust," he said.
For decades, the heads of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and many of its faithful have been calling on the Vatican to give the major archbishop the title "patriarch" -- a title that recognizes the holder as the father of a self-governing church and a title which would place him on par with the heads of the Orthodox churches.
Archbishop Shevchuk said that while having the title is important recognition of the maturity of an Eastern church like his, convincing the pope to grant the title is not his first priority.
"The No. 1 priority for each head of a church is evangelization, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in today's world," he said. "Of course, our church is growing, is developing its structures ... but we are conscious that the decision about the patriarchate belongs to the Holy Father and we would never press him. We respect his freedom."
Archbishop Shevchuk also said his age is not really so shocking when one considers the fact that the average age of his priests is about 35.
"In our tradition, we do have a married clergy, but a married clergy is not the main reason we have so many young priests," he said.
The large number of priests in their 30s and 40s today is the result of young people looking for strong values when communism fell apart 20 years ago and finding those values in the church, the archbishop said.
Religious orders, which accept only candidates willing to embrace celibacy, were just as full as the seminaries, which accept married men, he said.
"The possibility of being a married priest is not the main cause of an increase or decrease in vocations to the priesthood because this vocation comes from God," he said.