Vatican’s man in Ukraine saying Mass in kitchen to avoid shelling

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ROME –  When it comes to being a papal diplomat, there are some posts that are easier than others, and situations can change in a matter of weeks. Few today have a harder job than Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the papal representative in Ukraine.

Following Russia’s invasion of its neighbor on Feb. 24, Kulbokas has to help coordinate humanitarian aid and keep his bosses in the Vatican regularly updated about the situation on the ground.

“When we hear the Holy Father talking about war, there is no neutrality: He condemns it with the strongest wording, underscoring that every war is an invention of the devil, is a satanic work,” Kulbokas told Crux from the nunciature in Kyiv.

“We should altogether try and stop any wars, immediately,” he said, because “war kills people – children, elderly, anyone who is on the road.”

The church is focused on the “action” of making a war, he added, as it is “sinful, evil,” and as such, worthy of forceful condemnation.

Appointed apostolic nuncio to Ukraine by Pope Francis last year, the Lithuanian-born polyglot was appointed after a year-long stint in Kenya. Earlier in his career, he worked in the pontifical missions in Lebanon, the Netherlands, the Russian Federation, and at the Vatican in the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State. During his time at the Secretariat of State, he served as the interpreter between the pontiff and two major Russian leaders: President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“Even in the worst situations, we have this vocation to look for dialogue,” he said Friday. “We would no longer be the church, I would no longer be able to call myself a priest, a bishop, if we were to say, ‘from this moment on, no more dialogue’.”

Father Visvaldas Kulbokas, center, serves as translator as Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchange gifts during a private audience at the Vatican in this July 4, 2019, file photo. Archbishop Kulbokas, now the Vatican’s top diplomat Ukraine, said he has no intentions of leaving the country following Russia’s invasion. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

Kulbokas spoke with Crux over the phone. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: You are currently in Kyiv. Can you tell us what your days have been like since the invasion began?

Kulbokas: We are now two weeks into this situation, but some days before the war started, we saw that it was coming and began preparing some essential things like food and water. And when the war began, we saw just how serious it was.

Our days have been completely transformed: We no longer live in our rooms. We are all living on the ground floor, living in corridors and the rooms that have no windows that look to the streets, because you never know if a direct attack or shelling will occur. They are normally not directed at residential areas, but we see that there is a lot of damage to civil houses in Kyiv, Mariupol, and others.

We are always ready to head to the basement. Several times during the day we have alerts telling us to go to the shelters, so a lot of our day is lost doing this.

We begin our day celebrating the Holy Mass in the kitchen, because it is in our protected area. When we pray, we pray especially in spiritual union for the children, the elderly people, all those who are sick, those who are the most vulnerable during war time. Because if it is difficult for us who are in good health, who have something to eat, what about the children? When you are a small child and find yourself without heating for several days, electricity or food … Imagine how difficult it is for them. Our morning Mass is very intense.

After that, we try to do the best we can. Our normal life is no more, but our routine has become keeping contact with our superiors at the Holy See, updating or discussing together what is the situation, what could be the next steps that the Holy See could take in order to try to stop the war. And we are also in contact over humanitarian aid with many, especially with those who are willing to send assistance and help to Ukraine. They are numerous, with incredible solidarity. We try our best to keep a registry of all the offers, and try to understand whom we have to put those parishes, dioceses, or countries willing to send humanitarian aid in contact with.

It is not easy to coordinate this from Kyiv, because all the humanitarian aid has to go through Poland, Hungary, or Moldova, so we try to put Caritas offices in Western Ukraine with those who are willing to send aid, because they are closer to Poland.

Part of our aid is redistributing the help that is still arriving in Kyiv. With the exception of the very first days of the war, when we had a lot of battling on the roads in Kyiv, the very first three days were very dangerous, with no one able to leave their homes because of the many battles on the streets. Then, when the second stage of the war started, people were able to move a little bit around the city, buy some food from the stores that were able to stay open. Some help has also reached the city.

But everyone at this point is a “node” in the redistribution of aid. For example, if an organization brings something to somewhere, they come through the nunciature and ask us if we need anything. Often, they bring more than what we need, and ask that we redistribute among those who we know need something. A spontaneous network has formed among many, including private people, organizations such as Caritas or parishes.

Many times, those volunteers are risking their lives to bring aid to others.

I would say that a big part of our day is for technical things, like preparing to or actually hiding from shelling, another is being in contact with the Holy See, and another receiving requests and offerings of humanitarian aid.

Here I would add that most of our attention goes to the children, because there are some cities where the humanitarian corridors don’t work efficiently because of a lack of security. There have already been several occasions when the volunteers lost their lives attempting to evacuate children. We keep the Holy See particularly informed on these things, to see what it is possible to do thanks to our bilateral contacts, between the Holy See and the Russian Federation, in order to receive guarantees that orphanages and children’s houses can be evacuated safely. This is a very beautiful aspect of my actual mission, but also very dramatic, because you hear about children who have to go several days without heating.

You mentioned the bilateral relationship between the Holy See and the Russian Federation. Many people in these past weeks have been asking Pope Francis to condemn Russia for this war when he talks about the importance of peace in Ukraine. But those ongoing bilateral relations is what’s allowing hundreds of children to survive …

In some sense, it would be right to say [this is why]… But it’s not the essence of the answer. Yes, it makes sense for these [relations] to continue, because the church and the Holy See, we have this particular mission of helping in the humanitarian field. Yet the Holy See is not a country, it is not a state like any other. So you cannot apply to the Holy See the categories you would apply to a country. This is impossible because when we hear the Holy Father talking about war, there is no neutrality: He condemns it with the strongest wording, underscoring that every war is an invention of the devil, is a satanic work.

We should altogether try and stop any wars immediately. War kills people – children, elderly, anyone who is on the road. This is a very important aspect, and where the church is focused: action. If an action is sinful, evil, we condemn it forcefully.

But we also have to consider the essential mission of the church. It is never against somebody, anybody. We cannot be with someone against anybody else. Our mission is, spiritually speaking, to save everybody. In this sense, when a pastor speaks personally to a politician or those who have responsibility, we can remember the words of Jesus to St. Peter: “Stay away from me Satan.” But this was said in a direct, personal relationship.

When you give a public statement, if you condemn not only the action but the person/people perpetrating those actions, the situation immediately acquires a political meaning. What pastors, priests, normally do, is speak in person, avoiding public condemnation, even if at some point in the church’s history condemnation was used in this way. If we condemn a person today, it is in our direct exchange, not in public. 

I am convinced that it is not the logic of the church to do so in public, because we have no land. We try to be everywhere, engage with everybody.

I would also like to underscore as an example the interconfessional prayer for peace in Ukraine written a few days ago by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches. Yes, it mentions that “we pray for the Ukrainian people suffering from the aggression coming from the Russian Federation.” But then the prayer focuses on ourselves, saying that, when we ask the Lord to give us peace, a gift that is first and foremost a gift from God, we have to ask for it humbly, thinking about ourselves, what wrong have we and our politicians done? It leads us to pray for the aggressor, because he too is our brother, our God is the same God, and created us as brothers. What we do is pray even for the one who is aggressing us, because our vocation is to help him to convert. Not only him, but actually ourselves first.  

As you see, it is not only the Holy See that has this attitude, but all the Christian churches in Ukraine too.

Hearing you speak, it sounds that “fraternal correction” and “condemning the sin but not the sinner” are put in practice in diplomatic, bilateral relations too …

Yes.

Has the bravery displayed by the Ukrainian people in these past 17 days surprised you?

Yes, they have been very brave, courageous. But I have seen even more solidarity. From everyone: Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox and Catholic communities have been able to come together, putting their differences aside. Now all the Ukrainians try to stay united. And this is, for me, the most beautiful experience I have had in this country.

Another beautiful thing has been hearing from all over the world that people, entire parishes, are praying for us. A lot of people tell us that they cannot do anything but pray for Ukraine. But I assure you, these prayers become almost materialized here. We can feel them, they become something beautiful. When you feel that so many people are loving you, supporting you, it is a unique spiritual experience, that you can only live in a dramatic situation.

And this spiritual experience allows us to look into our own consciences. Allow me to give you an example, a story shared with me by a friend I trust. Some nights ago, an atheist here in Kyiv had a dream in which he was walking around the city looking for his family following a bombardment. And he met Jesus crucified, and he asked Christ to help him find his family members. As he was talking with Jesus, he saw how the Russian military was hurting God on the cross, and thought of the military as bad people and himself as good. And Jesus answered his thought: “You should choose. Do you want to make me suffer, or do you want to receive my help?” And he woke up. In the morning, he decided that he has to change his own life. Christ was clear, what he was doing with his life was not enough. Not doing war or attacking others is not enough in life.

How important was the visit of two cardinals sent by Pope Francis to Ukraine this week?

Both Cardinal [Konrad] Krajewski and [Michael] Czerny arrived a few days ago, and their mission continues. Their mission is to stay in Ukraine for as long as they are needed and are able to do something. Theirs is mostly a humanitarian visit. Personally, I find this to be a very, very beautiful sign of Pope Francis’s proximity, because, as you know, as apostolic nuncio, I am already a papal representative. But knowing that there are two cardinals, one in the north-western and another in the western region of Ukraine, I feel much, much stronger. We are three papal envoys to Ukraine! Can you think of any other country or state in the world that has three ambassadors in the same country at the same time?

I think that the proximity of the Holy Father is very, very clear. I can give you many examples of this closeness, but here is just one: Yesterday, Cardinal Krajewski had a prayer with members of other religious denominations in a sign of union among confessions in Ukraine, and not only the Christian ones. In the afternoon, I spoke with him about some children who had thankfully been safely evacuated. And he said to me, “If you see that there are difficulties with children somewhere and there are no guarantees for their safety, come to me, and I will go there personally and try to collect them. Maybe, I won’t be able to due to the shelling. Maybe, I will be killed. But I will try.” Having cardinals with such a determined heart, makes me feel really strong.

In 2016, you had a first-row seat to the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Cuba’s international airport, where they signed a declaration that included an invitation to “prudence, social solidarity and action aimed at constructing peace” in Ukraine. At the time, did you imagine something like this could happen? And do you think a second meeting between them is possible?

It is not my role to comment on such big things, because these concern the church as a whole, not only Ukraine. But what I would like to stress is that this war, in my eyes, to my understanding, has no possible motivation, no justification. Every war is too big to be started. Nobody has the legitimacy to start any kind of war. 

And yes, political things, war situations, can also damage the relations between churches. But we, as churches, have this vocation to always try to go forward, to make the first step. Always. Even in the worst situations, we have this vocation to look for dialogue. We would no longer be the church, I would no longer be able to call myself a priest, a bishop, if we were to say, “from this moment on, no more dialogue.”

Yes, the damages are very big, the situation very serious. But I would no longer consider myself a Christian if I were to close all doors, burn all bridges.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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