ROME – New Italian Cardinal Claudio Gugerotti, a former Vatican envoy in Ukraine and currently Prefect of the Dicastery for Eastern Churches, has called the Russian war in Ukraine “a slaughter” and “barbaric,” and has defended Pope Francis’s attempt at a balanced engagement with both sides to the conflict.
Gugerotti, who received his red had from Pope Francis Saturday and who from 2015-2020 served as the Vatican’s apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, having previously been nuncio to Belarus, also addressed tensions between Pope Francis and members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church who are troubled by favorable remarks he has made about Russia.
Ever since the Ukraine war broke out following Russia’s invasion in February of last year, further escalating years of conflict that began with Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Pope Francis has attempted to appease both sides of the conflict.
At times he has found himself in hot water with the Ukrainians, who have taken issue with statements Francis has made questioning the morality of arming Ukraine, praising “Great Mother Russia,” and suggesting that Russia had legitimate security concerns prior to invading.
In a bid to advance the possibility of peace talks, the pope this year tapped Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference as his personal peace envoy for the Ukraine war.
So far, Zuppi in that capacity has made visits to Kyiv, Moscow, Washington DC and Beijing, and recent comments from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggest that Zuppi could soon make a return visit to Moscow for discussions focused largely on the humanitarian situation and the return of Ukrainian children deported to Russia.
In a brief press point with journalists ahead of Saturday’s consistory, Gugerotti also addressed the ongoing dispute within the Syro-Malabar Church in India, one of the 23 Eastern Churches in full communion with Rome which is currently locked in a contentious standoff over liturgical reforms requested by the Church’s leadership, with opponents resisting an order of compliance from a Vatican-appointed mediator.
The following is a transcript of Gugerotti’s conversation with journalists.
Your appointment comes at an interesting time for dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church. What is the current status of relations?
Gugerotti: Dialogue with the Russian Orthodox is done by the Dicastery for Christian Unity. Mine is above all a presence that deals with the Eastern Catholic Churches, but right now it is impossible to distinguish. In dialogue, everyone must be involved. So, the reverberation is also (felt) within the Russian Orthodox Church. We try to do what is possible, having a position that is not a national position, as is the case with the Orthodox Churches.
It’s clear that the interaction continues. That one can hope for a solution in the short-term, I don’t want to put myself in God’s place, because he knows and I don’t, but rationally, I would say we don’t see a way out of the tunnel for the moment.
As a diplomat and ex-nuncio in Ukraine and Belarus, how do you see Cardinal (Matteo) Zuppi’s mission?
I see it, in the sense that I am watching, and I am waiting to hear (more). It’s a very reserved and special mission. There is no external sharing. I am watching it hoping that it can bring some results.
Were you consulted, being an expert?
No, because it has its special nature which refers directly to the Holy Father, with the help of the Secretariat of State. But I believe since, by choice, it is a mission above all tied to personal impact, making strategies beforehand is not necessary, we must see what the cardinal with his exuberant, very welcoming personality is able to obtain.
You were nuncio in Ukraine, and you recently met with the Greek Catholic bishops. What is your experience, having been nuncio there, in seeing the war now?
The experience was quite tragic and traumatic for various reasons, because Ukraine is a wonderful country with a lot of resources. The people are wonderful, but for historical reasons there have been a lot of divisions: East and west; Latin and Greek Catholic, among the Catholics; the Orthodox are now two Churches; government, one government comes after the other with very different perceptions and visions.
So, the main problem of Ukraine is to find unity, within itself. Of course, the disunity is not only their fault, it is something that was well-planned and ordered. So, my impression is that the most important thing is that Ukrainians can find the unity of their perception of the future, and the unity in their priorities. Paradoxically, the war is working in that sense, it is uniting Ukrainians, because they have to fight against a single enemy, so there is no space for quarreling inside.
Have you been in Ukraine since the war started?
Well, the war was already there when I was there. I was in Donbass seven times. [Cardinal Leonardo] Sandri went to the part of Donbass that was under the Ukrainian government, we also went to the part of Donbass that was under this separatist [government]. I had direct contact with various types of misadventures. So, both on one side and the other, there were dangers in these missions, and of course the media, the falsification of the media, is one of the fundamental problems. So, in these countries, what you do doesn’t matter, what matters is what they say you do.
What falsification of media?
It’s enough to say that you are a friend of the enemy, and it’s over. If you go to one party, the others tell you, ‘You go to them but not the other, because the Holy See is selective.’ You go to the others, and they tell you that ‘you are an enemy of the original homeland because you went to speak with the Ukrainians, who are traitors.’ You can’t get out, and you also risk being kicked out, without having done anything.
How do you see the war ending, in terms of Ukraine?
Very badly. It’s terrible, it’s a slaughter! It’s something impossible. It’s a barbaric war.
You know the Russian world. Do you think the Russians will need to pull back?
I know very well the Russian world. Listen, if there is one thing that I cannot do, it is to imagine what the Russians have to do. If they had asked me before invading Ukraine, I would have given an answer: Don’t do that!
Some members of the Greek Catholic Church have had problems with things that Pope Francis has said. Is that a problem…?
It is, it is a problem of communication, and the different roles. It’s very clear that the pope, in the whole history of the Church, has never been the loudspeaker of one side. Of course, we know who is right and who is wrong, generally, with exceptions, because black and white are never so clear cut, but the role of a father of the Church is never a word of priority in scolding. It is the attempt to use a word that can create peace, and sometimes, if you don’t shout in a loud voice what you don’t accept in the other, you are not accepted.
So, it’s physiological. I would say that it is difficult. The fact that they meet sometimes, and they can explain (to) each other, is very good, because as I said before, immediately the press is going to make the balloon explode. The main problem in this area is that everybody looks at what you are not doing, and what a person does not do is the vast majority of the possible actions, because you can do only one thing at a time.
What, in your view, are the priorities of the Church right now?
The priorities of the Church are always the same: To announce Jesus Christ, as the hope and savior of the world. Naturally, every era has its way of expressing it, its own way of incarnating this reality. This era is especially difficult due to the fragmentation of the culture. So, simultaneously we must interpret and translate the Gospel into a multitude of different situations, and this requires a great flexibility of pastors; a strong participation of the laity, because they know their language better than anyone; and at the same time great patience in accepting everyone.
Can you give us your take on the situation in India with the Syro-Malabar church?
The situation in India is another very difficult situation, which is apparently a liturgical situation, but it has very little to do with the liturgy so much as old internal tensions. There are questions of honor, questions of dignity, questions of desires, respect, and also of priority for some areas and not others, so it’s an extremely complex situation. We will continue to discuss whether to celebrate facing the altar or not, but this no longer interests anyone. The fundamental problem is how you who think differently than me treats me who thinks differently than you.
Is there a potential path to a solution?
Unfortunately, it will not be an easy path, and perhaps even a painful one.
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