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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 20, 2023
Archbishop Borys Gudziak, metropolitan-archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, listens during a news conference at the Pontifical Ukrainian College of St. Josaphat in Rome, Sept. 14, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

“If Russia puts down arms, the war’s over. If Ukraine puts down arms, Ukraine’s over.” That is what Borys Gudziak, the Ukrainian Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia and Metropolitan for the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the United States, told me in an interview at the Ukrainian Pontifical College of Saint Josaphat in Rome on Sept. 14, when I asked what he would say to those in the West who are calling for an end to the sending of arms to Ukraine.

He also expressed concern about Pope Francis’ standing in Ukraine, where some of the pope’s comments on Russia, and especially his remarks to young Russian Catholics on Aug. 25, in which he seemed to praise Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, deeply upset Ukrainians and caused his popularity to plummet from 64 percent before the war started on Feb. 24, 2022, to 6 percent today.

“We want the pope to be very popular in Ukraine, not because of a popularity contest, but because the successor of Peter represents the Gospel. And we need all the help and all the moral authority that can be harnessed to address the incredible suffering that the people of Ukraine endure today,” the archbishop said.

Archbishop Gudziak, 62, said all this after a press conference he gave with the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine (U.G.C.C.), His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, at the conclusion of their church’s synod, which was held in Rome Sept. 4-13.

Pope Francis received the 45 U.G.C.C. bishops in a two-hour private audience on the morning of Sept. 6. Sixteen bishops from different countries spoke at that meeting, including Archbishop Gudziak; metropolitans from Ukraine and Brazil; as well as bishops from Poland, England, Wales Canada. Archbishop Gudziak said they presented to the pope “a mosaic of the life and pain of our church.”

When the metropolitan from Brazil spoke about “three sources of pain of our people during this war,” he said, the pope added, “There’s a fourth one: There’s a sense among Ukrainians that I am not with you, but I am with you!”

“I want to assure you of my solidarity with you and constant prayerful closeness. I am with the Ukrainian people,” Pope Francis said, according to a statement issued by the office of the major archbishop immediately after the audience.

Ukrainian bishops express gratitude for international support

“The Holy Father brought copies of the 226 statements that he had made [since the start of the war], and we thanked him for these statements,” Archbishop Gudziak said. “We thanked him also for his advocacy for the liberation of prisoners of war, and for the liberation of the abducted children who were forcibly deported to Russia.” The pope’s statements are “always a call to prayer,” he said, “and we believe that without God’s grace…we’re not going to get out of this.”

Furthermore, he said, “We’re grateful to the Holy Father for the letter that he wrote to the people of Ukraine on Nov. 24, 2022, nine months after the outbreak of the war. It was quite unique. It’s not often that the pope of Rome writes to a [national] people a letter.”

He also expressed gratitude for “the mobilization of the global Catholic community for humanitarian aid and for the reception of the refugees.”

The pope’s statements are “always a call to prayer,” he said, “and we believe that without God’s grace…we’re not going to get out of this.”

Speaking about “the role the Holy See plays in our structured church life,” Archbishop Gudziak recalled that in 1900 the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church had only three dioceses, each with one bishop, and subsequently under communism “we were doomed to extinction.” Yet “through the assistance of Rome,” the church now has 37 eparchies and exarchies and 56 bishops, “despite an attempt to crush our church.” He added that 1,000 Ukrainian students have been sponsored by the Holy See to study in Rome over the last 30 years and that many of the bishops at the synod received scholarships from the Holy See and Catholic agencies.

He also said that the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, which he helped to set up and where he served as rector from 2002-12, “would be unthinkable without [Catholic agencies’] involvement.”

“Today it is the model for higher education in Ukraine,” he said. “President Zelensky came in January and had a conversation with the rector, and a week later he called back and asked him if he would be Minister of Education because, he said, ‘I want our whole education system to be like that.’”

The impact of Pope Francis’ comments in Ukraine

Archbishop Gudziak said that for all these reasons “our Catholic communion means the world to us, and the Holy Father is a representative of that communion.”

“It is also the reason why, when there’s ambiguity in a time of great suffering, that people in Ukraine are knocked off balance,” he said. “It’s not a theoretical question: People are being killed, people are dying, and they’re dying because of an imperialist ideology.” He added, “Pope Francis condemned that imperialist ideology in our presence…. So, we’re hopefully moving forward.”

When asked if he thinks Pope Francis really understands the Ukrainian situation, Archbishop Gudziak said: “I think so. It was pretty clear [at the audience].”

When I asked what he took away from the synod’s meeting with Pope Francis, the archbishop said: “It was free. It wasn’t scripted. There was a sense of gratitude that the Holy Father listened. And there was a sense that we did jointly, [like] a mosaic, express what our people feel.”

He added, “I personally believe that the pope has his heart in the right place, especially around victims, and the suffering of the people. And our hope is that the clarity of this evil can be refined…the understanding that we are dealing with a murderous system that is explicit in its intent and has demonstrated its methods and its results. And there can be no acquiescing with that.”

Ukrainian bishops request additional Holy See aid

When I asked what more Pope Francis or the Holy See can do to help Ukraine, Archbishop Gudziak mentioned “a few things which we discussed directly.” He said he asked the pope “to create a kind of an ad hoc committee that would coordinate global Catholic resources for the spiritual, psychological and physical therapy of victims of this war.”

He explained that he had just returned from Ukraine where he had visited Oleg Tsunovsky, a graduate of the Saint Josaphat College, who is currently in a facility for a prosthetic fitting, which is a very complicated process. He said there are about 20,000 people in Ukraine, according to one estimate, that need prosthetic legs or arms, but there are only 20 accredited specialists in prosthetics for legs in Ukraine and three for prosthetic arms. During his visit, Archbishop Gudziak met a team of specialists from the Washington area who had come to help; five of them spent two weeks in this facility. They doubled the pace of the process, so instead of doing 23 operations per month, they can now do 45. He said: “That kind of sharing can happen. People want to do that. But there needs to be a kind of coordinated effort. And I think this is something that the Holy Father could do and would want to do.”

“That kind of sharing can happen. People want to do that. But there needs to be a kind of coordinated effort. And I think this is something that the Holy Father could do and would want to do.”

He recalled that next year is the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament. “I asked the Holy Father to summon Catholic intellectuals, universities and movements such as Sant’Egidio, Communion and Liberation and others to reflect theologically and spiritually in this coming year on this prophetic act of disarmament that Ukraine dared to make.”

He said the synod had “other requests pending” at the Holy See “regarding the creation of structures.” For example, he said, “we have 40 parishes in Spain. Is it the time to create a diocese there?” He said that “often, it is the Holy See, the pope, that breaks through the resistance of the local Latin diocese for the creation of an Eastern Catholic Diocese, not only Ukrainian Catholic, but also Melkite [and] Maronite.”

‘Somebody has to be prophetic’

Archbishop Gudziak also expressed a concern of the U.G.C.C. bishops, one that is shared in Rome:


We’re concerned, I’m concerned, for the Gospel of Christ among the Russian people. How is it so that not even one of the 400 [Orthodox] bishops in Russia has said a word against this war? How was it so that the day before yesterday, I think, Patriarch Kirill reiterated a call for everybody to support this war? How was it that 700 university rectors and presidents in Russia signed a document in support of the war? How is it that out of 40,000 priests and deacons in the Russian Orthodox Church globally, only 300 signed a petition against the war; less than 1 percent?” He acknowledged that some are in prison, “but most [who have spoken out] are outside of the country. Some of them have been defrocked or sanctioned. But somebody has to be prophetic.”


I asked the archbishop how he would respond to those in the West who have called for an end to providing arms to Ukraine. He responded by saying that “in the 20th century, 15 million Ukrainians were killed by wars, Nazis, Soviet persecution, artificial famines, etc. When Ukrainians talk about the possibility of genocide it’s based on clear experience, which is in the history of every single family in Ukraine.”

“If Russia puts down arms, the war’s over. If Ukraine puts down arms, Ukraine’s over.”

“A Russian invasion is the elimination of the Ukrainian Catholic Church,” he continued. “That happened in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, and it’s happening now.” He recalled that two Ukrainian priests, Ivan Levistskyi and Bohdan Heleta, both Redemptorists, have been abducted. “Nobody knows where they are, what their state of being is.”

Today, he added, “in the far eastern part of the Donetsk area that is occupied [by Russia], not a single Catholic priest is functioning, neither Eastern Catholic nor Western Catholic.” So, he said, “our culture, our language, our spiritual life, our statehood, will be eliminated under Russian occupation. We’ve seen Bucha, Borodyanka, Irpin, and everywhere the Russian occupation occurred and was pushed back, there [have been] war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Archbishop Gudziak said, “If Russia puts down arms, the war’s over. If Ukraine puts down arms, Ukraine’s over.”

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