MEETING WITH THE RECTOR OF THE UKRAINIAN CATHEDRAL OF SAINT-VOLODYMYR IN PARIS
Father Ihor Rantsya did me the honour of receiving me at the Cathedral of St. Volodymyr the Great, which he leads: an impressive moment. A confident and dynamic conversation.
David Laurençon: Before meeting you, I took some notes, of course, and I thought of a lot of things. And now that I am here, in your Cathedral, I realise that I don’t know how to address you. I haven’t spoken to a man of the cloth for a long time. Since my baptism, in fact, when I only babbled a few times. Father? Rector?
Father Ihor Rantsya: I am Father Ihor Rantsya. I am the rector of this cathedral, the Ukrainian Cathedral of St. Volodymyr the Great. « Rector » means that I run the parish. I am also the Vicar General of the Diocese for Ukrainians in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg.
dL: Okay. In Paris, how many parishioners do you have… « Parishioners », is that the right word?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Yes, that is correct. How many parishioners, it’s difficult to say, because we don’t have a register. It seems to me that there are, at least 600 or 700 regular parishioners, that is to say those who visit our church every Sunday.
dL: You were born and educated in Ukraine, in Lviv. How did you end up in Paris?
Father Ihor Rantsya: I was a seminarian, i.e. a student preparing to be a priest. During my last year of studies, my archbishop in Ukraine proposed that I be sent here to study Theology in France. I accepted. I arrived in 2014, as a student. I started learning the French language. In 2015, I was ordained as a priest.
AFTER THE ANGER: LIFE
dL: 2014. It is an important year in the history of Ukraine, of Russia.
Father Ihor Rantsya: Yes. You know that in 2014 (it was one month before I arrived in Paris), Russia occupied Crimea and then created this special “independent” territory, Donbass. Indeed, by chance, that was the year I arrived in Paris.
dL: So you were a student… Do you remember how you felt at that time?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Of course. It was a year of many demonstrations, and there were also money-raising campaigns, a lot of help… Like now. What I’m trying to say is that this war did not start on 24 February 2022. In February, it was a new phase in the escalation of the war.
dL: A new phase that you expected?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Before 2014, I did not think about the possibility of Russian aggression, because despite everything, there were good relations between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had accepted, and was amongst the first countries to have recognised the independence of Ukraine, to have recognised the borders. And there was the Budapest Memorandum, an agreement between Ukraine, the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia: Ukraine gave up possession of the nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union, in exchange for a guarantee of our independence and respect for our borders.
dL: So what happened in 2014 was a violent shock…
Father Ihor Rantsya: Yes. A very big shock. Nobody expected this occupation, this annexation of Crimea. Hence, this February, we were already ready.
dL: What do you mean?
Father Ihor Rantsya: It was obvious. Russia had accumulated weapons near our border. The question was, « When? »
dL: The war will happen, yes, but when?
Father Ihor Rantsya: That’s right. And it happened on February 24.
WAR AND SPIRITUALITY
dL: When we spoke on the phone, when I requested this meeting today, I made it clear that I didn’t want to direct the interview towards political, military or economic questions (there are so many specialists for that!), but towards, let’s say, spiritual visions. What does this inspire in you?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Many questions present themselves. You know, all of us, all Ukrainians are hurt because it is their country, an orthodox country, which is attacked by another orthodox country. It is a war between two orthodox countries. This means that the aggressor is a country of the same Christian faith, of the same Christian confession. This is a big issue. In Ukraine there are three principal churches, one of which is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church ( Moscow Patriarchate). Its centre is in Moscow. So Moscow, that is, Russia, is attacking its own faithful. It is really very painful and it is a very bad role-model for other religions. For Muslims, for Buddhists, for all the other religions: people of the same faith are at war and attacking each other.
dL: I understand perfectly. We are not there yet, thank God,- I know you will forgive me the expression – but is it completely idiotic, in these strange and crazy times, to evoke, to talk about a « religious war »?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Religion is not directly involved in the war in Ukraine, not in military terms. That particular factor does not exist and does not influence the situation in any way.
dL: What I meant was that even if nothing is spoken of openly, one can imagine some
Father Ihor Rantsya: This is a very delicate question. First of all, you need to understand that in Ukraine there are three great Churches, as I told you, three great Churches that are of the same tradition: the Orthodox tradition. There is the independent Orthodox Church; there is the Orthodox Church which is attached to the Moscow Patriarchate; and there is our Church, called the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It is a Church of Orthodox tradition, it is the same tradition, the same spirituality, except that it is attached to the Pope of Rome. It recognises the Pope as its Head.
dL: Okay. We are in a Catholic Church here.
Father Ihor Rantsya: Yes, but in the Orthodox tradition. There are these three branches: two of these churches, our church and the independent Ukrainian church, are very patriotic churches. In these two, nobody supports the Russian invasion. It is in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church attached to the Moscow Patriarchate that there are divisions. Because there are some priests and bishops who are of Russian origin, who trained in Russia or in the Russian spirit. Some are indifferent. But there is another section, which is the same as ours: patriotic, and against Putin. Several local leaders of this church have spoken openly against Putin and against Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow.
dL: They are against Putin. They remain peaceful. How and where do their voices reach?
Father Ihor Rantsya: They have openly asked to stop the war. Some of them say that Russia will be forced to rebuild what has been destroyed.
dL: Are you angry?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Angry? In what sense?
dL: Anger is a negative feeling. You are a man of the cloth. I wonder if a man of the cloth can feel anger, in such horrible circumstances. You are a man of the cloth, but you are first and foremost a person, an individual, an individuality, call it what you like.
Father Ihor Rantsya: The reality is that often people fall into anger. For example, when I get up in the morning, my first reflex is to watch the news, and if I see that my city has been bombed, that the university that I knew has been destroyed, of course my first reaction is anger.
You have to distinguish between spontaneous feelings, and life. And yes, there is life. I can’t be angry all the time. Anger as a first reaction is obvious, when I see destruction. It is the first reaction. You need to distinguish between the two: spontaneous feelings, and life.
dL: Understood. Tell me, I read somewhere that you have done research in geo-ecclesiology. What is that? In this era of geopolitics, what is geo-ecclesiology?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Yes, indeed. But where did you read that?
dL: Well, I’ve been looking around on the internet.
Father Ihor Rantsya: I started my doctorate at the Catholic Institute of Paris, three years ago, then I took this new position as Vicar General and I stopped. So, geo-ecclesiology is, first of all, a field of theology, there is no analogy with geo-politics, that is something else. My aim was to explain what the Church is, from a theological point of view, as a geographical phenomenon. As you know, the Church has a geographical dimension. This means that there are territories, there are churches, sometimes there are territories where a certain church has a complete monopoly, as for example in Russia (on Russian territory there is only one dominant church, the Russian Orthodox Church).
In the diaspora, there are often several intersecting churches. For example, here in Paris, in France, there is the Roman Catholic Church, but there are others. This always raises the question of how to live together in the same territory. All this, taken from a theological point of view. When I was a lecturer at the University of Lviv, I worked on Geography as an academic discipline, and now I would like to make a kind of synthesis between Geography and Theology: to explain what the church is as a geographical phenomenon. Again, from a theological point of view.
To give you an idea: there is astronomy. Astronomy, which explains things about the universe. Many astronomical phenomena can be described either by means of mathematics or by physical viewpoints. This is what I would like to do: explain the geography of the Church, from a theological point of view.
ALL KINDS OF SOLIDARITY
dL: Fascinating. And prone to many digressions… I’m refocusing on current events: Earlier, I saw and read a poster, several posters, on the doors of the Cathedral, information and directives concerning the « logistics » of the aid and donations you are organising. I read that the collection of donations has finished?
Father Ihor Rantsya: The « big collection » has finished, because we were halted by small village councils who, without warning, sent trucks here, to unload them here.
dL: Small villages here in France? Villages in the Ile-de-France region?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Villages in the Île-de-France, Normandy, everywhere… Because they know that this is the principal Ukrainian Church. In addition, there have really been a lot of collected items which have been sent to Ukraine from Poland, Germany and other countries. We have a logistics problem, and we don’t have enough space. In the crypt of Saint-Sulpice, we have some space to receive donations for refugees who have already arrived in Paris. There is also an association, l’Œuvre d’Orient, which helps us a lot… We are a parish, our concern is also to organise the reception of refugees, and to listen to them. We must, and we are always ready, here in the Cathedral, to speak to the refugees.
dL: How many refugees are there today?
Father Ihor Rantsya: This will be the fifth « arrival ». The first four times, 400 Ukrainians came each time to take food, hygiene products, etc.
dL: You organise « prayer chains ». What are they?
Father Ihor Rantsya: We started these prayer chains in February, because it was obvious that the war was coming. Every evening at 9 p.m., those who want to can say two small prayers in their homes: that is the chain of prayer. And when the war started, we also had prayers here in the Cathedral after the evening mass. At 7:30 p.m. there is a rosary for peace in Ukraine and for the conversion of Russia.
In addition, the Cathedral is open until 9 p.m. for the permanent prayer service. This means that Parisians are invited to come and pray, light candles…
dL: Okay. From one subject to another, I’m jumping from this presence, from this spiritual and impressive state of being, to something completely different: to the world as it runs in the political sphere, and the famous economic « sanctions »… I am interested in your point of view on this topic (set apart from any spirituality). Do these sanctions seem relevant to you? Useful?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Of course. I think it is an effective way to influence Russia and to do something about this war. I think it’s working, and it’s also a sign of solidarity: because in this way the world is not ignoring this reality, the reality of this war, the Russian aggression. International organisations, the state governments are doing something.
dL: Is this solidarity really felt by the Ukrainians, those who are « on the spot »?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Yes, of course!
dL: And solidarity… For example, the sort that consists of putting a small Ukrainian flag on one’s facebook profile picture… Does it count to a Ukrainian who is « over there »? I don’t know, I guess it does, a little. But less than financial or food aid.
Father Ihor Rantsya: All kinds of help, all kinds of solidarity are very important. Of course, you can send help but not say anything. And you can talk about a lot of things on facebook, but not give concrete help.
dL: Agreed. You need both. You have to talk and you have to act, and when you act, it has to be made known. Is that what you mean?
Father Ihor Rantsya: That’s it. Well in any case, every gesture of solidarity, whether it’s through the media, whether it’s money; whether it’s diplomatic, political, or economic solidarity: the Ukrainians notice all of it, of course, and it’s very important.
ZELENSKY: A PRESIDENT AND A HERO
dL: These days, you hear on the radio or read in the newspapers that there are positive advances… That the beginning of a dialogue is in the air. Do you believe this?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Personally, I don’t believe in the word of the Russian government and I don’t believe in the word of Putin. Putin’s word is always a trick to win something. This is my own conviction and I believe that the vast majority of Ukrainians think like this. Because there have already been many words. You know, Putin said that he would never enter Ukraine.
dL: Yes. That’s not the least of his deceits. Of his lies.
Father Ihor Rantsya: It is necessary to negotiate, to do something, but personally I don’t think it will work. This is the same thought shared by several of our ministers. Ukrainians as a whole know this, because there have already been too many lies. And our President, of course, knows it as well.
dL: Is Zelensky a hero?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Yes. Firstly, because he has remained in Kiev. You have to start with that, in talking about his heroism. That’s the first point, and really, in my opinion, he has become president during this war. Before, he was not a strong leader, but he is going to play his role very well, in the deepest sense of the term and so yes, he is a hero.
dL: What is your vision of the future? In the short, medium or long term?
Father Ihor Rantsya: First of all, my vision is that Ukraine already has the moral victory. In a moral sense, Ukraine has already won this war. What will follow, military, etc., I don’t know. Our resources and possibilities are limited, so it’s complicated to say.
dL: We talked about sanctions. Well, a military intervention by France is not conceivable for a thousand « geo-political » reasons, but supposing we could put our weight behind it?
Father Ihor Rantsya: As a Christian, I can say that might is not enough to stop evil. An escalation of military power could lead to World War III. That is why believers ask the question of how to overcome evil with love. What we are doing here is a daily prayer for the conversion of Russia.
dL: Okay, I’ve lost my way, with my idea of entering into the fray….
Father Ihor Rantsya: I would like to say that in spite of this tragedy, we Ukrainians keep our courage and we have already started to think, to reflect, especially in the diaspora, on how to rebuild our country. We have projects. In my opinion, therefore, we have entered into victory, even if as a result of this war, a certain region will be occupied, or other bad consequences: but, mentally, despite the suffering, we are in the context of victory.
For me, for example, it is a great sign that my family is still in Ukraine. My sister, who has two children: they are remaining in Lviv. Lviv, which has already been bombed. She tells me: « I’m staying at home, this is my country! She is a volunteer, she prepares shelters and security cellars.
I would like to say that we are thinking in terms of victory and of the reconstruction of our country.
And also, if I speak as a priest, we have to wait for this conversion of Russia.
dL: « Conversion »?
Father Ihor Rantsya: Let me explain: it is not conversion to a religion. It is the conversion of evil into happiness. It is a change of heart. You know that the internet is blocked in Russia. And due to propaganda, people don’t understand the reality. We have a prayer for conversion, that means a prayer for the change of heart of the Russian people because we are aware that the Russian people are also suffering because of Putin’s regime.
dL: What made you decide to say ‘yes’ to doing this interview with me? Amuse-bec is not part of the mass media, and is interested in art, rather than politics and religion.
Father Ihor Rantsya: My perception, my first perception was that you are a man of goodwill, with good motives. That is one thing. And the second thing is that this interview is another way for me to talk about Ukraine. These are the two reasons why I accepted.
And then, art is involved in all this. Our prayer, the Byzantine prayer, is always a sort of art. There are always Icons, and that is art – painting. There is also the art of singing – religious songs, and often these two kinds of art accompany our soldiers. They carry the Icon in front of them and they have these melodies in their heads. It is a spiritual method of resistance. We need to mention and discuss the awareness of our soldiers, of our people: they are on their own territory, to protect it. It seems to me that art always accompanies the spirituality of Ukrainians. Including that of our soldiers.
Interviewed on 30 March, 2022. St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, rue des Saint-Pères, Paris
Translation from French by Hilary Burgess (30th March, 2022)