He heads up a 1,000-year-old church, carries several lofty titles, and leads a flock numbering in the millions, but His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk is also ensuring he meets as many of Manitoba's Ukrainian Catholics as possible during his two-week stay here.
During his first pastoral visit to Canada since his election to the highest office in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the 42-year-old major archbishop based in Kyiv, Ukraine, visits nursing homes, nursery schools, parishes and religious communities. He leads the liturgy Sunday at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of Sts. Volodymr and Olga at 115 McGregor St.
Fluent in nine languages, including English, Shevchuk presides over an increasingly diverse denomination of six million, now dispersed beyond its roots in Ukraine to Canada, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and several European countries. Ukrainian Catholics are a minority group in Ukraine, where most Christians belong to Eastern Orthodox traditions.
"We are here to share our experience of God that our nation has had for more than 1,000 years," explains Shevchuk, in an exclusive interview with the Free Press at the start of his visit to Winnipeg.
"We can share that experience in English."
Increasingly, the largest Eastern Rite church in the Catholic fold is moving beyond its traditional language due to intermarriage and immigration.
"I think the Ukrainian Catholic Church is a global church," says Shevchuk, who studied for his doctorate in Rome and served as bishop in Argentina.
"We are here to share our heritage and the spirituality of our eastern church."
Beginning Monday, Shevchuk presides over the annual synod of bishops, held this year in Portage la Prairie. This is the first time the Ukrainian Catholic hierarchy has met in Canada, and only the third time the bishops have met outside of Ukraine. About 40 bishops from four continents will meet for five days in a closed-door session to discuss church business, common concerns and for prayer.
"According to the theology of the church, synod reflects the very nature of the church. Synod is the work of God carried out by the work of men," says Shevchuk of the meeting attended by the male bishops, as well as a handful of religious sisters.
Metropolitan Lawrence Huculak, who heads up Canada's 122,000 Ukrainian Catholics, invited the bishops to Manitoba to mark the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Bishop Nykyta Budka, the first Ukrainian bishop in Canada.
A century later, one of the major challenges facing the Ukrainian Catholic Church is how to maintain its distinctive theology and unique liturgy, known for appealing to the senses, while worshiping in local languages.
"We want to be integrated, but we do not want to be assimilated because assimilation means losing our heritage. We want to enrich our tradition," says Shevchuk, who spent two years as a bishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, before being elected major archbishop and returning to Ukraine in 2011.
Traditionally, the language of worship is Old Slavonic, but increasingly Canadian parishes are using more English, explains Huculak.
He has witnessed Canadian culture moving from valuing ethnic diversity to becoming more homogenous, especially with the advent of social media and the Internet.
"They (Ukrainian Canadians) lose the feeling or don't value the feeling they are part of a significant ethnic group," explains Huculak, who is also archbishop of Winnipeg's Ukrainian Catholics.
For Shevchuk, preaching and proclaiming the Christian gospel remains the focus of the long tradition of Ukrainian Catholics, no matter what the language. He actively promotes dialogue with other faith traditions in Ukraine and beyond, and remains convinced people everywhere are interested in religion.
"Humankind is spiritual by nature," says Shevchuk, who began his seminary studies in Ukraine during the Communist era, when churches were forced into hiding.
"Humans are searching for transcendental being, searching for some being that is bigger than (they are)."
Shevchuk travels to Dauphin to serve Sunday morning liturgy on Sept. 16, and returns to Winnipeg that evening as the guest of honour at a gala banquet.
He is scheduled to address the plenary session of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops at the end of the month.