Appreciation for the Catholic Church in Ukraine is increasing during the war that began on February 24, when Russian troops invaded the country of 40 million inhabitants, which, like Russia itself, is predominantly Orthodox.
The Ukrainian Orthodox faithful are divided between the approximately 25 million who follow the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, canonically recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2019; the 5 to 7 million who continue to adhere to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, linked since 1696 to the Moscow Patriarchate; and those who identify themselves as Orthodox without specifying any jurisdiction or affiliation.
Catholics number 6 million and have as their local leader His Beatitude Sviastoslav Schevchuk, Major Archbishop of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, based in Kyiv. This Church is in full communion with the Catholic Church.
According to Fr. Antonio Vatseba, superior of the Incarnate Word Institute in Ukraine, many residents in the Donbas area under Ukrainian control are grateful to the Catholic Church. “Through the work of Caritas, many residents of Donetsk and Luhansk got to know the Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine. In fact, thanks to their acts of charity, many people in Ukraine began to see the Catholic Church in a good light,” he told Gaudium Press.
The priest also believes that relations are very good between the Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine and the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine—but there remains a greater distance on the part of the Orthodox Church led by the Moscow Patriarchate.
Orthodox historian Antoine Arjakovsky, founder of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies in Lviv and co-director of the Politics and Religions department at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, also highlights the respectability of the Catholic Church in the Orthodox majority country.
According to Arjakovsky, Ukrainians keep “very strong memories of the visit of John Paul II in 2001, and they dream of seeing Pope Francis” in their country. He believes, however, that such a visit “does not seem to be on the agenda,” regardless of the war, due to the Vatican’s delicate commitment to maintain a respectful dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate, which in turn considers Ukraine’s Autocephalous Orthodox Church schismatic.
Despite these diplomatic intricacies, the Catholic Church in Ukraine has stood out to the population for the steadfastness of its priests, religious, and nuns, who refuse to abandon the country during the war and courageously maintain both their spiritual and pastoral activities and their heroic support for the population—including sheltering many people inside churches, convents, and monasteries.