No one should need persuading that what’s happening in Ukraine right now is alarming. A fragile cease-fire between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces could unravel at any moment, and even more lives may be at risk this winter as the country scrambles to make up for lost Russian gas.

Most basically, if one nation can slice off a piece of another with impunity, it’s hard to know what international law means.

Yet if Catholics require an additional reason for concern, it’s this: What’s at stake in Ukraine isn’t just geopolitics or the military balance of power, but also one of the most remarkable Catholic communities anywhere in the world.

The Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine is the largest of the 22 “Eastern churches” in the Catholic fold. Mostly located in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, these churches follow Eastern Orthodox rituals and spirituality, but acknowledge the pope as their leader. There are roughly 3 million Greek Catholics in Ukraine, around 7 percent of the population, and 6 to 10 million worldwide.

Though little known in the West, the church’s recent history is the stuff of Hollywood drama.

In the Soviet era, the Greek Catholic Church was the largest illegal religious body in the world, and suffered mightily for it. In percentage terms, no church produced more 20th century martyrs. Pope John Paul II beatified more than two dozen victims during a trip to the country in 2001, and most experts believe the total number of Greek Catholics who perished in that era of violent oppression is in the thousands.

After Communism, the church experienced a rebirth that has flowered in some extraordinary creative energy. One example is the Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv, founded in 1994. It’s the only Catholic university in the former Soviet sphere; as they like to say, it’s the only Catholic university “between Poland and Japan.”

Its bold aim is nothing less than to rethink what a Christian university can be in the 21st century. During a reflection process in the early 1990s, planners identified two challenges:

  • Building on the legacy of the martyrs. The idea, according to Bishop Borys Gudziak, the founding rector, is to pioneer “a new social, intellectual, and theological synthesis” of that experience – a theology of the catacombs.
  • Repairing social trust. Gudziak said “the Ukrainian soul and psyche were profoundly damaged” by the Soviet period, because they were taught from early childhood “to think one thing, say another and do a third,” and to never fully trust anyone, even family and friends.

To address that deficit, the university turned to the insights of Catholic luminaries Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, a movement that emphasizes building friendships with disabled persons.

Gudziak’s idea was that because people with mental disabilities tend to trust others instinctively, having them around could produce an emotional leaven. The university invited them to join the community, not as charity cases but as “professors of human relations.” Residences include apartments for the disabled to live among the students, becoming part of the daily fabric of their lives.

Greek Catholics have also become prominent players in national affairs. They were major proponents of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004/2005, and helped lead the Maidan protests earlier this year that swept pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych from power.

The Catholic cathedral of Kiev was converted into a makeshift field hospital during the uprising, which saw at least 100 people killed by security personnel. At times, emergency operations were performed on the church’s main altar.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the charismatic 44-year-old leader of the Greek Catholic church, emerged as a forceful advocate for the Maidan protestors, insisting they weren’t “nationalist extremists” but rather supporters of a “free, democratic, and European” Ukraine.

At the moment, Shevchuk and other church officials are leading the charge against Russia’s intervention and calling on the international community to stiffen its resolve.

Meeting this week in L’viv, the Greek Catholic bishops put out a statement titled “Ukraine is bleeding,” which included this warning about Russian aggression: “Whoever kills people in Ukraine will not hesitate to turn their weapons to attack any country in the world tomorrow.”

Given that track record, it’s no surprise that whenever a pro-Moscow regime takes over, tightening the screws on Catholics tends to be high on the to-do list.

Under Yanukovych, Gudziak got chilling visits from Ukrainian security agents. Rather than kowtowing, he published a memo outlining the campaign of harassment, which included tapping his phones.

More recently a Greek Catholic priest was briefly kidnapped in eastern Ukraine, and most clergy and bishops have been driven from the region. The Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow has issued worrying statements blaming “uniates” and “schismatics” for fomenting the violence — both are pejorative terms for Greek Catholics.

What all this means is that when Greek Catholics speak out, they know they may pay a price.

In their statement on Wednesday, the bishops called for “coordinated efforts … to stop the bloodshed, to defend human dignity, and to restore life-giving peace,” warning that war isn’t just the fault of those waging it, but also those who could have stopped it but did nothing.

Anyone with eyes can see how urgent the appeal is. Catholics inspired by the verve of this courageous Ukrainian flock, however, have a special motive for paying heed.

Pope Francis goes to Turkey

As Crux and other news outlets have reported, plans are afoot for Pope Francis to travel to Turkey in late November, possibly with an excursion near the Iraq border for the pontiff to meet refugees from the self-declared Islamic State and to express concern for the violence.

Details are still being worked out, but assuming the trip materializes it will be significant for at least three reasons.

First, Pope Francis and the Vatican are deeply concerned about Iraq in part because of the country’s Christian minority. Iraq had one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East prior to the first Gulf War in 1991, estimated at somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million believers, but it’s been decimated by the subsequent chaos and today is on life support.

At the same time, the Vatican is also keen about not framing the conflict in Iraq as Christian v. Muslim, in part out of fear that if it’s seen that way, it would represent a propaganda and recruiting boon for the Islamic State, which is already drawing ardent jihadists from other parts of the world to its cause.

It’s a small but telling example that when Francis became the first pope to attach a photo to one of his tweets, it was a Catholic Relief Services photo of a Yazidi family from Erbil currently living under an overpass. Subtly, the pope was making the point that it’s not just Christians who are at risk.

Turkey is a country with its own troubled history of occasional anti-Christian outbreaks. A Catholic missionary priest named the Rev. Andrea Santoro was killed there in 2006, and Capuchin Bishop Luigi Padovese was murdered in Turkey in 2010.

Francis would thus face the challenge of not going silent on anti-Christian violence, but while also being careful in what he says not to antagonize his hosts or inflame the nearby Iraqi conflict.

Second, this would be the pope’s first outing to a Muslim nation outside the Holy Land, and thus his first real opportunity to lay out a vision for Muslim/Christian relations in the 21st century.

Francis met with Muslim leaders when he visited Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, and Israel in May, but he had much more to do on that trip, including outreach to Jewish leaders in Israel and trying to kick-start the stalled Israeli/Palestinian peace process.

The last time a pope came to Turkey was when Benedict XVI did so in 2006, shortly after a controversial speech he delivered in Regensburg, Germany, linking Muhammad with violence, had set off a firestorm of protest across the Islamic world. Obviously, that controversy looks different today given the rise of ISIS and the carnage that’s followed.

At the time, however, the do-to list for the trip was largely about putting out fires, which Benedict did with a stop at Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque where he paused for a moment of silent prayer.

Today, Francis has the opportunity to present a more positive, forward-looking agenda for Muslim/Christian ties, which arguably has never been more urgent in light of the perceived need to give greater visibility to moderate Muslim voices.

Turkey is an important platform for the pope to make his pitch, given its aspirations to a leadership role all across the Islamic world, and also its proximity to the region’s most volatile conflicts.

Third, there’s an ecumenical subtext to the Turkey trip in that Francis will likely go to the Phanar, the headquarters of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, to visit Bartholomew I and to continue his press for Christian unity.

Nov. 30 is the feast of St. Andrew, considered by Orthodox believers as the founder of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in something of the same way that Catholics regard St. Peter as the first pope.

Bartholomew has become Francis’ favorite geopolitical partner, having joined him on June 8 in the Vatican gardens for his peace prayer with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents. Presumably, he and Francis will not only talk about healing the wounds of the past between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but also how the two churches can pool resources on other shared moral and humanitarian concerns.

The details of the pope’s program in Turkey may still be up in the air, but there’s no doubt that whatever they turn out to be, a great deal is at stake.

The vision behind Crux

Crux sponsored an event Thursday night at Boston College to present itself to the world, featuring remarks on Pope Francis from Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, described by Crux columnist Margery Eagan as the pope’s “BFF,” followed by a panel discussion, moderated by Eagan, with Mary Ann Glendon, former US Ambassador to the Holy See and a member of the Vatican bank’s supervisory board; Robert Christian, an editor of Millennial Journal; Hosffman Ospino, a theology professor at Boston College, and myself.

O’Malley was clearly the star of the show. He alternated between intriguing and often humorous insights about the pope, and passionate commentary on issues of special concern to him such as immigrant rights. He also took questions on the sex abuse crisis, outreach to LGBT Catholics, and more.

A good write-up by Crux national reporter Michael O’Loughlin is here.

Toward the end, I fielded a question about the vision for Crux and whether it can do something about the widespread polarization that many American Catholics perceive in the Church.

The truth is that if someone should be laying out a vision, it’s really not me. Brian McGrory, editor of The Boston Globe, and Teresa Hanafin, editor of Crux, are the decision-makers responsible for overall direction.

That said, it’s a legitimate question, and obviously I have my own reasons for getting involved. For what it’s worth, I’ll recap my answer.

To begin, the basic ambition of Crux is simple: To get the story right. Catholicism is a complicated and difficult beat; it’s hard enough to be accurate, comprehensive, and balanced in the way we cover the news without trying to accomplish another agenda.

That said, I also believe that if Crux can get the story right on a regular basis, one natural consequence could be softening divisions in Catholic life.

I told the audience a story about my liberal Jewish wife becoming friends with some people in Opus Dei, a Catholic group which has a reputation for being fairly conservative, back when I did a book on them in 2005. The moral of the story is that what took the edge off my wife’s suspicion wasn’t some rational argument (and certainly not my book!), but the experience of getting to know these folks on a personal basis.

Friendship doesn’t make disagreements disappear, but it does tend to make them manageable.

If Crux becomes a trusted forum for all voices in the conversation, it will create a virtual space in which members of different Catholic tribes can build friendships. Over time, that can’t help but have a positive effect.

So, yes, I suppose helping to mitigate polarization is part of the plan. Just don’t ask us to think too much about it, because most of the time we’ll be too busy trying to nail down today’s news.

Women in the Church

Also at the launch event, a question came up about women in the church. It’s a fair one, because even though Pope Francis has said a firm “no” to female clergy, he’s also said he wants women to play more visible and meaningful roles.

Glendon fielded the question, and she herself is an example of what some of those options in Catholicism look like. A Harvard law professor, she’s a former president of a pontifical academy, she was named to a panel created by Francis shortly after his election to study reform of Vatican finances, and today she sits on the supervisory council of the Vatican bank.

Another reminder of the possibilities for female leadership came on Friday with news that the Focolare, one of the largest and most influential lay movements in the church, have re-elected an Italian woman named Maria Voce for a second term as president.

The Focolare were born in Trent, Italy, in 1943, amid the rubble of the Second World War, by an Italian woman named Chiara Lubich who saw it as a vehicle to promote unity and brotherhood. Today it operates in more than 180 countries and claims a following in excess of 100,000.

The Focolarini, as members are known, place special emphasis on unity among Christians and dialogue with other religions, as well as outreach to non-believers. They’re well regarded both in the Vatican and at the Catholic grassroots, among other things because they’re extremely difficult to pin down ideologically.

I’ve known the Focolare movement for 20 years, and even if you put a gun to my head I’m not sure I’d be able to say whether I find them “conservative” or “liberal.” Honestly, those categories really just don’t apply.

That’s not to say they don’t have critics. In his 1999 book “The Pope’s Armada,” journalist Gordon Urquhart identified them as “ultra-traditional” and “bizarre.” Others see the Focolare as a feel-good operation without a lot of substance, with wags sometimes calling them the “Up with People” of the Catholic Church.

Whatever the case, the Focolare have powerful friends at all levels and their president is a major player. Interestingly, they’re the only movement in the Church whose statutes require the president to be a woman.

What Mary Ann Glendon and Maria Voce illustrate is that if Francis is serious about expanding roles for women, he doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. He can build on what’s already there.