The Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church defended the Pope while lamenting some of his more polemical statements.
“The Pope’s public image is destroyed in Ukraine,” declared His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, at a press conference held on September 14, 2023, in Rome, on the occasion of the synod of his Eastern Church. The Ukrainian representative defended the Pontiff, saying that Pope Francis had told them, “I assure you: I am with you.”
A synod of hope
From September 3 to 13, 45 bishops of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church gathered in Rome for their synod. The prelates came from Ukraine, Western Europe, North and South America, and Australia, wherever their country’s diaspora is located. This assembly, whose theme was the accompaniment of the war-affected population, was a “synod of hope,” said Shevchuk.
During the 10 days of work, the synod participants had the opportunity to visit the Vatican for a meeting with Pope Francis on September 6. The encounter lasted two hours, as the Pope had extended the meeting by an hour to “allow the bishops to speak,” said Shevchuck.
In a statement published shortly afterwards, the bishops thanked the Pontiff, but also said that they had expressed to him the “suffering” of their people and “a certain disappointment” over the “misunderstandings” between Kiev and Rome. The Pontiff’s comments on historical Russian leaders during a recent video conference with young Catholics greatly affected Ukrainian public opinion.
A mixed reception for papal diplomacy
Shevchuck also returned to the comments made by an advisor to President Volodymyr Zelensky, who criticized the Pope’s diplomatic action in the Italian press, claiming that he was “philo-Russian” and that his willingness to play a mediating role was therefore “not credible.”
The major archbishop explained that Ukrainian diplomats at the Holy See and in Italy had assured him that this was the advisor’s “personal opinion” and not an official Ukrainian statement. “I’m not sure that the Ukrainian government has closed its doors,” he said.
Still, the Ukrainian religious leader claimed that the Pontiff’s popularity rating had recently fallen sharply in Ukraine, and that polls which made him the main “moral leader” for almost half of Ukrainians before the war, gave him “6%, even 3%” confidence now. “The Pope’s public image has been destroyed in Ukraine,” he lamented, echoing the words of the Latin Bishop of Kiev, Vitaliy Krivitskiy. He added: “This is a real problem for the Catholic Church in Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian Catholic pastor was keen to combat this rejection: “We must not despise friends.”
“Without global support from the international community, Ukraine will not resist,” and affirmed his confidence in the formula for peace put forward by Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the Pope’s envoy currently in Beijing.
He did, however, underline the difficulty of the mission of the cardinal, who is seeking to free Ukrainian civilians present in Russia. For Moscow, accepting such a deal — particularly concerning children — would be tantamount to recognizing that they have abducted them, and have therefore committed war crimes.
The “very high price” of communion in Rome
Shevchuck recounted the Pontiff’s remarks during their meeting, which left a lasting impression on him. “Perhaps you doubt the Pope’s position. I assure you: I’m with you.” This was a “message of consolation” for them, he said, before continuing: “Now it’s up to us to convince our people of this message and to pass it on.”
The Ukrainian Catholic representative referred to the Pope’s astonishing 227 public interventions in support of Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict. He also highlighted the 3,000 Ukrainian participants at the Mass celebrated by the Greek-Catholic bishops on September 10 in St. Peter’s Basilica. The decision to hold their synod in the Italian capital had enabled “Catholic communion to grow,” he said. This Eastern Church of which he is the head has been united with Rome since the end of the 16th century and their separation from the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate.
“We have paid a very high price for this communion. Today, this Catholic and universal communion is the force of our people’s survival,” said Shevchuck. He cited the case of the martyrdom of Saint Josaphat (1580-1623), the “marks” of Soviet torture that some Greek-Catholic bishops still bear, and the tragic fate of a 34-year-old priest, Oleg Tsunovskyy, who lost an arm and a leg in the current conflict.
For a just and lasting peace
The Archbishop of Kiev explained that during their meeting, the Pope was able to hear the testimony of bishops from the dioceses most affected by the war, notably those of Odessa, Kharkhiv, and Donetsk — now exiled in Zaporijia. He was reminded that there are currently no Catholic priests — Latin or Greek-Catholic — working in the Ukrainian territories occupied by the Russian army.
Archbishop Shevchuk defended the Pontiff, but seemed to lament some of the Pope’s polemical statements. In particular, he cited the Pope’s reference to the 13th-century “pax mongolica” during his recent visit to Mongolia.
Shevchuk considers this hardly in keeping with what the populations invaded and subjugated by the Mongols — notably those of Ukraine and Poland — felt at the time. “We can see how the word peace can change its meaning,” he asserted, recalling that when Russia invaded Georgia during the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, it presented its military action as “pacification.”
The Ukrainian religious leader was keen to defend a vision of peace, echoing the words of the Pope’s envoy, Cardinal Zuppi: “Peace must be just and lasting.” Otherwise, he warned, it will only be a “truce.”
During the meeting with the Pope, Shevchuk brought to the Pope’s attention once again the desire of Ukrainian Greek Catholics to see their Eastern Church, currently a major archdiocese, elevated to the rank of patriarchate — the highest rank for an Eastern Church. He assured the Pontiff that, from their point of view, this was not a “privilege” but a model of ecclesial organization that would correspond to their reality today.