ROME – As tensions between Russia and Ukraine continue to foment, one of the country’s top Catholic prelates has reiterated his desire for a papal visit, which he believes will help calm escalations and put an end to a nearly 8-year conflict.
Speaking during a Feb. 8 online media roundtable, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Sviatoslav Shevchuk said that whether it happens now or once a solution is reached doesn’t matter, but what Ukrainians want is that “the pope goes to Ukraine.”
“We can’t wait 10 years until all the conditions are there, all the pre-conditions,” he said, insisting that Pope Francis “is the greatest moral authority in the world.”
“Of all religious leaders,” including Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and other Orthodox patriarchs, “in a majority Orthodox country the greatest moral authority is Pope Francis. They all say it: If the pope comes to Ukraine, the war would end,” Shevchuk said, adding, “The pope is truly a messenger of peace.”
He praised recent initiatives of the pope regarding Ukraine, including prayers during the traditional papal Christmas Urbi et Orbi address and the pope’s decision to designate Jan. 26 as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.
These gestures, Shevchuk said, were “strongly felt throughout the world.”
Shevchuk said he reiterated his invitation for Pope Francis to visit during a meeting he had with the pope at the Vatican while he was visiting Rome in November.
“Gestures are very eloquent in themselves and visiting Ukraine would be very beautiful for all of humanity,” he said. While no one is expecting “miracles,” a papal visit, he said, is a strong spiritual event that would “conserve us all in the faith. We need tangible gestures.”
The Eastern Rite Catholic bishops of Ukraine have been pushing for a papal visit for years, and Shevchuk has made recent statements indicating that a papal visit could happen as early as this year, with some speculating that it could happen over the summer.
Pope Francis, who has been vocal in his advocacy for peace in Ukraine, has also been invited to visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who first extended the invite during a visit to the Vatican in February 2020 and who reiterated the invite during a private phone call with the pontiff in June 2021.
Shevchuk’s latest plea for a visit comes as tensions with Russia could be reaching a boiling point.
In recent weeks, Russia has amassed thousands of troops at its border with Ukraine, with the number of Russian soldiers surrounding the territory numbering close to 150,000, Shevchuk said.
Russia has denied that it is preparing for an invasion, but said it is ready to take unspecified “military-technical measures” if its demands, that NATO promise never to admit Ukraine and that it withdraws a portion of its troops from Eastern Europe, are not met.
In 2014 Ukrainian citizens ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych, and shortly after, Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimean Peninsula and backed separatists who overtook large swaths of the country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Since then, shelling and sniper attacks have become a daily occurrence in eastern Ukraine, with the United Nations estimating that so far around 1.5 million people have been displaced and an estimated 14,000 have died, many of whom were civilians.
Russia has long resisted Ukraine’s advances toward European institutions and its efforts to join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
With Russia continuing to send troops to its borders with Ukraine, the United States and other European countries such as Germany and France have stepped in to negotiate, as observers increasingly warn that a Russian military offensive in Ukraine would put the security of the whole of Europe at risk.
French President Emmanuel Macron is currently visiting Moscow in an attempt to mediate the situation.
Last week U.S. President Joe Biden ordered that nearly 3,000 troops be deployed to Poland and Romania in order to better protect NATO’s eastern flank. Germany Monday announced that it would deploy 350 troops to Lithuania to reinforce NATO’s presence there.
In his remarks Tuesday, Shevchuk said the current escalation with Russia is different than the beginning of the conflict in 2014 in that now “It’s no longer bilateral, between Ukraine and Russia.”
Ukraine “cannot solve this conflict through bilateral dialogue,” he said, noting that the conflict has become “an escalation between Russia and the western community, countries grouped in this defensive military bloc, and Ukraine is in the middle; two blocs facing off, and we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”
Shevchuk said the current, in his view, is a war happening at four levels, the first of which is the “increasingly worrying” threat of military escalation, and the second is the use of “misinformation” and “propaganda” to stoke fear.
“Every day you read what the Americans, Germans, Russians say,” and the presence of misinformation in international reports “is often tied to certain scope of stoking fear in reader. The people are scared, they don’t know what to do,” he said.
Shevchuk also insisted that the conflict is part of a political and economic war in which Russia is attempting to secure its regional influence
“If we have military advance from Russia,” the goal, he said, is “to change government, for a regime loyal to Russia.” If this happens, “For the churches, this means returning to the catacombs, retreating from religious freedom. We remember well the time of the Soviet Union,” he said.
In terms of the economic impact of the conflict, Shevchuck said the years of violence are taking their toll, with increased prices on gas and other necessary resources “causing the impoverishment of the people.”
“In Ukraine, the people are increasingly poor,” he said, and referred to a recent survey in Ukraine which found that the number of citizens unable to pay property taxes has tripled. There has also been an increase in welfare programs, and psychological services for people struggling with fear and uncertainty, he said.
Everything must be done “to prevent further aggravations, a military escalation,” Shevchuk said, yet as citizens, “we must prepare so we aren’t taken unprepared if the situation worsens.”
In terms of the Church’s own role in the conflict, Shevchuk said the first and most important step is prayer.
“It is what we must do, be together and pray for peace,” he said, saying the pope’s declaration of the Jan. 26 day of prayer and fasting for Ukraine “a very strong spiritual moment for us, also on universal level.”
It was comforting to know that Catholics in Russia were also praying for peace in Ukraine, he said, adding, “This unity in prayer is a great strength.”
The Church, he said, must also focusing on caring for those who are suffering most, whether it be materially due to economic fallout from the conflict, or psychologically from the constant pressure and uncertainty.
He also stressed the need for Church leaders “to be preachers of hope,” because when all incoming news and information causes fear, “the church is praying for hope, the Lord is with us, he will give us the strength. He will save us.”
A “consolidation of society” in which different actors come together to promote peace and unity is also needed, Shevchuk said, noting that according to a recent survey, the most trusted social structures in Ukraine are the national arm, volunteer organizations, and the country’s various Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
“These churches are important for building trust. It’s a big responsibility for the Church,” he said, because “our voice is heard, our example is followed.”
He called for greater cooperation among Church leaders, including Church leaders in Russia, in opposing further military escalation.
“Right now, it is important to say with all of your voice no to war. War is not an instrument to resolve problems, geopolitical problems between states. The only way to avoid military action is international law and diplomacy,” he said.
As the situation continues to unfold and NATO allies continue attempts to negotiate a solution to escalating tensions, Christians, Shevchuk said, “must say no” to war, because “The only way to overcome difficulties is respect, love, toward our neighbor, solidarity. It will give us the strength to go forward.”
Asked about accusations that Pope Francis is hesitating to visit Ukraine or to speak out more forcefully to avoid putting his courtship of Russia and his budding connection with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill at risk, Shevchuk said the Vatican’s style is not to be forceful, but to be a mediator.
Vatican diplomacy tries “to be above the conflict so as to have the freedom to mediate, to reconcile the opposed parties,” he said. “It doesn’t make great condemnations.”
Shevchuk voiced confidence in the effectiveness of the Vatican’s strategy with regard to the Ukraine-Russia conflict, saying, “for what I understand, I see that the strength of Vatican diplomacy is very strong.”
“This work that Vatican diplomats are doing is very important. Their style is different than secular diplomacy. There is no specific condemnation and pointing of fingers to who is responsible, but we have assisted in recent years in mediating, to be a mediator of peace,” he said.
“The Holy See, in a discreet way, is trying to save the situation, to promote communication,” he said, adding, “I think this situation will evolve and for me, the Holy See is prepared to respond in an adequate way.”
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