The Byzantine Jesuit who stood up to Moscow


Catholic Herald, 10 November 2018

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

o 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.

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