Fr Robert Taft was a rare figure in Rome who spoke up for persecuted Ukrainian Catholics

“To hell with Moscow!” It is manifestly unfair to sum up thus the long and distinguished academic career and ecclesial life of Fr Robert Taft, the American Jesuit of the Byzantine Rite who presided like a colossus at the Pontifical Oriental Institute (PIO) in Rome for 46 years. The greatest contemporary scholar of the Byzantine Rite – author of the six-volume A History of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom – died on All Souls’ Day in retirement at the Jesuit house in Weston, Massachusetts. He was 86.

But unfair does not mean unfitting. The “to hell with Moscow” remark was from a 2004 interview granted to John Allen, then of the National Catholic Reporter. That year the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was preparing to move its headquarters from Lviv to Kiev in Ukraine, and to assert its historical right to a patriarch. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow was vehemently opposed to this assertion of Catholic identity in Ukraine, which it regards as its “canonical territory”.

“So the Catholic Church is never going to persuade the Orthodox to accept the patriarchate?” Allen asked.

“No, and I don’t think we should even try. To hell with Moscow,” Taft replied.

Fr Taft’s blunt and deprecating remarks caused an uproar in Russia and the Vatican, and he regretted them. He was a blunt man whose caustic comments could be startling. Yet regarding the Russian Orthodox, he was the rare figure in Rome who would speak the truth, and the persecuted Ukrainian Catholics – the largest of the Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome – took great encouragement from his words.

Fr Taft regretted the friction his remarks caused between Moscow and Rome, as he had devoted his brilliant scholarly life to demonstrating the dignity and vibrancy of the Byzantine Greek tradition – the eastern of the Church’s two lungs – in the Church universal, and its commonalities with the history of the Latin West.

The Rhode Island Jesuit, with distant links to the powerful Taft dynasty in American politics, liked to speak truth to power, or at least knowing that powerful people were listening. After decades of distinguished scholarship, he was something of a power himself, presiding at his “cathedra” in the PIO library – the desk he often occupied from opening to closing. He was even named an archimandrite by in the Ukrainian Catholic Church (similar to the old Latin rank of monsignors who were allowed to dress as bishops on certain occasions). One of his fellow students and friends at the PIO became an actual bishop in the Greek Orthodox Church: Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople.

Priest, professor or archimandrite, he delighted in calling things as he saw them, without sentiment either for persons or pieties, and with a scorn for historical arguments which did not bear scrutiny. That often made him a thorn in the Vatican’s side; he argued that more synodal-style governance akin to Orthodox praxis was in keeping with the Latin Rite’s own tradition.

It would be interesting to know what he thought of the recent emphasis by Pope Francis on “synodality”. More relevant, though, is that his death comes at a time when the Patriarch of Moscow has broken off ties with Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch, over the latter’s decision to recognise an autonomous Orthodox Patriarchate of Kiev, independent of Moscow.

Pope Francis appears to have sided with Moscow, despite his excellent relations with Bartholomew and despite the support of Greek Catholics in Ukraine for autonomy for their Orthodox brethren. That reflects the multi-generational policy of the Vatican to placate Moscow, even when it requires pretending not to notice Russian falsehoods and betrayals. Though he departed Rome seven years ago, Taft’s voice in recent controversies would have been illuminating – as it always was – even if he usually brought not only light but heat too.

My friend Fr Peter Galadza, director of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at the University of Toronto, was a student of Fr Taft.

“As the [Ukrainian Greek Catholic] Church emerged from the underground in the late 1980s and early ’90s, he was passionate about exposing the folly of the old Ostpolitik,” said Fr Galadza in an interview with Aleteia, referring to the Vatican foreign policy conceived by St Paul VI to seek a modus vivendi – or more accurately, a modus non moriendi – with communist regimes.

“And the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv would not be where it is today without his long-time support on the Vatican front,” Fr Galadza added.

That university is one of the strongest signs of the rebirth of the Ukrainian Catholics. Hence it is fitting that Fr Taft’s funeral Mass will be offered by the university president, Bishop Borys Gudziak.

In his most well-known book, Fr Taft wrote nearly 500 pages on the first 15 minutes of the Byzantine liturgy. Few people will be as well prepared – praying that his time in purgatory will be brief – for the eternal liturgy of heaven.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca

This article first appeared in the November 9 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here