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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 06, 2023
Pope Francis leaves St. Peter's Square at end of his weekly general audience, at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

During an almost two-hour private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican today, Sept. 6, the bishops of the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church told the pope that certain statements from “the Holy See and Your Holiness are painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people, who are currently bleeding in the struggle for their dignity and independence.”

There were 45 Ukrainian bishops present, and in a statement released after the audience they said they engaged “in a frank conversation” with the pope and “expressed the Ukrainian people’s pain, suffering, and a certain disappointment.”

They explained that “misunderstandings that have arisen between Ukraine and the Vatican since the beginning of the full-scale war are used by Russian propaganda to justify and support the murderous ideology of the ‘Russian World,’” and said that “the faithful of our Church are sensitive to every word of Your Holiness as the universal voice of truth and justice.”

Ukrainian bishops told the pope that certain statements from “the Holy See and Your Holiness are painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people.”

For his part, Pope Francis sought to remove any doubt about where he stands on the war being waged by Russia against Ukraine. “I want to assure you of my solidarity with you and constant prayerful closeness. I am with the Ukrainian people,” he said.

Today’s statement from the Ukrainian bishops, and an earlier one issued by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk on Aug. 28, make clear that the bishops, Catholics and the people of Ukraine were particularly grieved by what Pope Francis said in a teleconference on Aug. 25 with young Catholics from all over Russia who were unable to attend World Youth Day in Lisbon.

Pope Francis concluded that encounter by telling the young Russian Catholics: “Do not forget your heritage. You are heirs of the great Russia—the great Russia of saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine II, the great, educated Russian Empire of so much culture, of so much humanity. Never give up this heritage.”

Those words offended Ukrainians of all backgrounds, not just the Catholics of that country. Both the nunciature in Kyiv and the Vatican subsequently issued statements seeking to clarify the pope’s words and limit the damage done. But the bishops, Ukrainian Catholics as well as government officials wanted Francis to explain and clarify what he had intended to say.

For his part, Pope Francis sought to remove any doubt about where he stands on the war being waged by Russia against Ukraine.

The pope did so on Sept. 4 in response to a question on the flight back from Mongolia, which he recalled in today’s meeting. “Returning from Mongolia, I stated that the real pain is when the cultural heritage of a people undergoes ‘dilution’ and is subjected to manipulations from the side of a certain state power, as a result of which it is transformed into an ideology that destroys and kills. It is a great tragedy when such an ideology intrudes into the Church and replaces the Gospel of Christ.”

During the in-flight press conference, Pope Francis said he “wasn’t thinking of imperialism” when he told young Russian Catholics “to take charge of their legacy.”

“I spoke of culture,” he said, “and the transmission of culture is never imperial, never. It’s always dialogue, and I was talking about that.”

He continued: “It’s true that there are imperialisms that want to impose their ideology. I’ll stop here: When culture is distilled and turned into ideology, it’s poison. Culture is used but distilled into ideology. We must distinguish the culture of a people from the ideologies that then appear from some philosopher, some politician of that people.”

During today’s audience, as a special gesture and symbol of closeness to the Ukrainian people, Pope Francis showed the bishops an icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God) and said: “This icon was given to me by His Beatitude Sviatoslav [Shevchuk] when he was a young bishop in Argentina. I pray for Ukraine every day in front of her.”

A statement issued by the Vatican press office said the pope spoke of his pain at his feeling of impotence in the face of the war, which he denounced as “a thing of the devil, that wishes to destroy.” According to the statement, Francis recalled meeting Ukrainian children “who look at you but have forgotten how to smile.”

“This is one of the fruits of war,” the pope said, according to the statement. “It takes away the smile from children.”

The pope emphasized the need for more prayer, for conversion and an end to the conflict, the Vatican said. He accepted a request from the bishops that the rosary be recited during the month of October for peace in Ukraine.

The statement from the office of Major Archbishop Shevchuk said that the bishops asked Francis to begin the meeting with a joint prayer for a just peace in Ukraine and for all those “who are dying in our country at this moment at the hands of the Russian aggressor.” The pope thanked them for the initiative and, together with the bishops, prayed the Our Father for Ukraine and its “long-suffering people.”

“The bishops also thanked Pope Francis for his constant support of Ukraine at the international level, his humanitarian actions, his personal efforts to free prisoners, the peace-keeping mission of the special papal envoy Cardinal Matteo Zuppi,” the statement said.

Major Archbishop Shevchuk told the pope, “Ukrainian youth were sincerely moved by the humility of your words in asking to forgive the fact that it was not possible to do more to end the war in Ukraine.”

An icon of Jesus Christ saved from the church burned by the Russians in the village of Chervone in the Zaporizhzhia region.
An icon of Jesus Christ saved from the church burned by the Russians in the village of Chervone in the Zaporizhzhia region (Photos courtesy of the Secretariat of the Major Archbishop Shevchuk)

The statement said the bishops “asked the Holy Father to continue his efforts for the release of prisoners of war, in particular, they mentioned the Redemptorist priests, Fr. Ivan Levytskyi and Fr. Bohdan Haleta, who are still in Russian captivity.”

At the conclusion of the audience, the statement said, Major Archbishop Shevchuk, on behalf of the bishops of the U.G.C.C. synod, presented Pope Francis with some of the captive Redemptorists’ personal belongings: a missionary cross, a prayer book and a rosary. He told him: “These things, Your Holiness, testify to the suffering of our Church together with its people amid the horrors of the war caused by Russian aggression. As a priceless treasure, we hand them over to you with the hope that soon a just peace will come to Ukraine.”

The statement concluded saying the major archbishop also presented the pope with an icon of Jesus Christ, which had been saved from the church burned by the Russians in the village of Chervone in the Zaporizhzhia region.

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