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ROME – According to the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Pope Francis might visit Ukraine in the near future.
“Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to personally communicate with Pope Francis about Ukraine,” Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk said at the Kyiv Security Forum. “He is very worried about the fate of ordinary people. Those people who today may not be fully heard.”
“We have good news. We expect his visit to Ukraine to take place. This has not yet been announced, but we are already living in anticipation and preparation,” he said.
“This would be a very powerful signal of support for our people and our state,” he said.
The two met in Rome Nov. 12, when Francis welcomed Shevchuk in the Vatican.
Shevchuk was chosen to lead the UGCC when he was 41 years old in 2011. Like Pope Francis, he was found “at the end of the earth,” in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he served as the apostolic administrator of the Eparchy of Santa María del Patrocinio.
He replaced Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, who much like Francis’s predecessor, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, broke with tradition by retiring as head of the church.
For a visit to materialize, an invite from the government is needed, something the Argentine pope already has: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy first issued the invitation when he visited the pontiff in Feb. 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary hold on all papal travel.
Earlier this year, he reiterated the invitation during a private phone call the two shared on June 30. The last time a pope visited Ukraine was in 2001, when Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff in modern history to set foot in the country.
In a statement released at the time of the call by Zelenskyy’s office, the president said that Ukrainians have a fond memory of that visit, and recalled the Polish pope’s famous declaration that “Europe should breathe with two lungs: Western and Eastern,” with Ukraine being part of the eastern lung.
In this context, Zelensky said a papal visit to Ukraine would be the “oxygen that is so needed.”
Though the possibility of a papal visit is in the heart of many Catholics in Ukraine – and sources have told Crux that it might happen as soon as next year – the Synod of Bishops of the UGCC are asking the faithful to fast and pray for an even loftier reason: “to spiritually support the nation that is now experiencing a new threat given by the escalation of hybrid warfare and the regrouping of ‘unprecedented Russian military troops around our borders’.”
Tensions have been rising again along the Russian-Ukrainian border, with Kyiv and Washington raising the alarm at what they say is an unusual build-up of Russian forces. Ukraine’s defense ministry claimed in November that about 90,000 Russian soldiers were stationed near their border and in rebel-controlled areas in Ukraine’s east.
“What we see is a significant, large Russian military build-up. We see an unusual concentration of troops. And we know that Russia has been willing to use these types of military capabilities before to conduct aggressive actions against Ukraine,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last month, soon after reports that the United States had warned the European Union that Moscow might be planning an invasion of its ex-Soviet neighbor, something that Russia denies.
“The last few weeks have been marked by the resumption of bloody fighting in eastern Ukraine,” the bishops wrote in a statement released Dec. 2, nothing that the death toll and the number of injured people continues to grow, once again finding the Ukrainian people “united and willing to defend the homeland, and to safeguard its unity and the right of every citizen to live in a free, democratic and European state.”
The bishops also expressed their concern over the “rapid impoverishment of people and the new manifestations of social inequality, exacerbated by the repeated waves of the pandemic,” a challenge that brings new migrants, while the middle class and small businesses disappear.
In contrast, the bishops emphasize that “our Church takes constant care of its people, their health and well-being, their social order and care for the needy.”
Faced with this situation, the bishops urge the faithful to “pray and fast for peace in Ukraine” and to not “allow despair and frustration to reign over us, we must not give up but must continue to pray, fast and do good deeds.”
They ask for the fasting and prayer for peace to continue at least for the next four months, so that the “enemy threat” might be removed and a better future for Ukraine be achieved.
The bishops also appreciated the support Ukraine has received from the international community, beginning with Pope Francis and all the “major democracies of the world.”