Commentators could be forgiven for thinking that Pope Francis’s call for a special collection in all Catholic Churches of Europe on Sunday to support the suffering people of Ukraine might be little more than Vatican politics.
After all, in February the pontiff drove most Ukrainians to anger, Catholic and Orthodox alike, by signing a Joint Declaration with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill that included three very dubious paragraphs, which could only have been composed in Moscow.
So the question is hard to avoid: Could the pope be trying to win back the hearts of Ukrainians and their allies by taking up this collection?
The declaration, signed at an airport lounge in Havana on February 12, includes 27 paragraphs in a beautiful ecumenical tone, and three that most Ukrainians in Ukraine and in the diaspora (fifty-some million people) find alarming, if not offensive:
Paragraph 25 refers to the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, which is in full communion with Rome, as an “ecclesial community,” a term normally used by the Catholic Church for Protestants. However, it also notes that this Church has “a right to exist” … which is, actually, significant progress from the Russian side.
Paragraph 26 speaks of “the hostility in Ukraine” without even the slightest allusion to the fact that Russia has breached the territorial integrity of Ukraine by occupying and annexing Crimea, and by sending troops and some of the most destructive new weapon systems into Eastern Ukraine under the guise of a “separatist rebellion.”
Paragraph 27 irritates many Ukrainian Orthodox who are not aligned with the Moscow Patriarchate by referring to “existing canonical norms” as a way of settling the enormous schism among the Orthodox in Ukraine, with a majority rejecting Moscow’s authority. The Russian Orthodox Church refers to these bishops, clergy and faithful as “un-canonical” and “deprived of grace.” Thus, the usually innocuous term “canonical norms” becomes laden with prejudice.
When the declaration received significant pushback from Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox commentators, especially His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the UGCC, Pope Francis backtracked significantly by calling the declaration “debatable.”
The Moscow Patriarchate’s department of External Affairs and its head, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev had attempted to whip up a firestorm by claiming that Ukrainian Greco-Catholics do not listen even to the pope and are therefore impossible to work with, thus undercutting somewhat the statement in the declaration that they have a right to exist. But the tactic did not work.
Pope Francis exerted significant energy during an in-flight press conference on the way home from Mexico to defending the head of the UGCC, whom he knew as a young bishop from his days in Argentina. By mentioning that he had met with the presidents of both Ukraine and Russia, he also tacitly acknowledged that the conflict in Ukraine was not an internal civil war —as the Moscow Patriarchate claims— but rather a matter of two countries.
In early March Sviatoslav and the Permanent Synod of the UGCC (its governing body between meetings of the full Synod of Bishops) met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The meeting had been scheduled long before, as it fell on the seventieth anniversary of the Pseudo-Synod of L’viv, an attempt by Stalin’s regime to destroy the UGCC and incorporate its parishes into the subservient Moscow Patriarchate.
Significantly, the Russian Orthodox Church has never renounced its claims that the sham council was valid, even though all of the Ukrainian Catholic bishops were imprisoned at the time. A very imposing list of Orthodox clergy and scholars from around the world have signed an open letter apologizing for this brutal event and the collusion of an Orthodox Church in the destruction of the UGCC in 1946 and afterwards.
Even though the meeting was originally to be about papal recognition of the fidelity of Ukrainian Greco-Catholics in the face of bloody persecution and the amazing flowering of this Church after an underground existence for half a century, the timing was ripe for the hierarchs of the UGCC to bring to the pope’s attention not only the problematic nature of several of the Havana Declaration’s paragraphs, but also to the immense humanitarian crisis in Ukraine that has been caused by the Russian government’s aggression.
In the short period between the Havana Declaration and the Ukrainian bishops’ meeting with the pope, the new papal ambassador to Ukraine, Archbishop Claudio Guggerotti, was savvy enough to visit the front lines in Eastern Ukraine and report back to the pope, together with extensive video footage of the devastation.
This, of course, struck a chord with Pope Francis, who insistently calls the Church to solidarity with the poor and suffering in the world. He listened intently to the reports of the Permanent Synod of the UGCC and informed them that he had watched Guggerotti’s video in preparation for the meeting. He wanted to do something.
Francis is a master of gestures. His oral interventions and even his texts leave many bewildered at times, but his gestures come across clearly.
By now, the war in Ukraine had been forgotten by Europe. The invasion, which was occasioned by the Maidan “Revolution of Dignity” with it’s clear choice of Europe over Russia, had slipped from the headlines. In Ukraine people were dying for their pro-European choice, and Europe seemed unconcerned.
So the bishops of the UGCC under the leadership of their patriarch and Bishop Borys Gudziak, who heads their Department of External Affairs, devised a plan that would not only address the suffering but also bring Ukraine back into the news and into the imaginations of Europeans. Together with Pope Francis they came up with a grand gesture: a collection in all the Catholic Churches of Europe to aid in the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine caused by the ongoing war.
On Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Francis made the appeal, choosing April 24 as the date of the collection.
What exactly is happening in Ukraine? Gudziak gives some clear answers. Some ten thousand have been killed. Tens of thousands have been maimed by the war. It is estimated that those suffering from post-traumatic stress is in the hundred of thousands. The amount of infrastructure destroyed equals in value the annual budget of the Ukrainian government.
Estimates of people affected by the war range up to five million people. Some two million left the country. Another two million are internally displaced refugees, and another million suffer in place.
All the while, many in North America and Europe think the war is over because it no longer gets media coverage. The conflict is a hybrid war unlike most military invasions where uniformed troops clearly represent a combatant country. This war is undeclared and fought with a deliberate deniability on the part of Russia, even though Western satellite information has established that some 80,000 Russian troops are either in Ukraine or massed on its border.
Putin has also launched the most intense propaganda effort since Goebbels in World War II, utilizing both mainstream media assets and newly available social media. The Russian government is also funding extreme right-wing groups throughout Europe to both denigrate Ukraine’s fledgling democracy and undermine European unity.
A hybrid war does not necessarily lead to conquest, as it did in Crimea. Putin’s main thrust in Eastern Ukraine seems to be aimed at the destabilization of the country. Thus, he can demonstrate to his own people that democracy and “European values” lead to dissolution and decay.
The average salary of Ukrainians today is one third of what it was two years ago before the start of the war. The ousted president and his corrupt regime embezzled some 50 billion dollars by most accounts, leaving the country and especially its military in a sad state.
Now figure in the internal refugee situation. Forty million impoverished Ukrainians have generously accepted two million refugees and are doing whatever they can to return their lives to some semblance of normalcy.
In comparison, the European Union has accepted two million refugees from the Middle East. The difference is that if you add up the annual state budgets of the EU countries, the total is 400 times the resources available in Ukraine. This truly puts the humanitarian crisis in perspective.
Pope Francis wants Catholics to take notice and get involved. Caritas Ukraine and other charities are doing an incredible job getting the help to where it is needed most. The April 24 collection is meant to support that work.
What better way to get Europeans to get in touch with their Christian roots again than to have them realize that their Christian charity can assist a nation that chose to identify with those roots over the legacy of Soviet empire?
Is this Europe-wide collection a gesture to calm Ukrainian criticism of the Havana declaration? Perhaps. Is it a gesture of mercy toward a long-suffering Christian people? Most certainly.