ROME – In a sign of his concern for one of the world’s most chronic, and often neglected, conflict zones, Pope Francis will travel cross-town in Rome on Sunday, Jan. 28, to visit the Basilica of Santa Sofia and meet the Ukrainian Greek Catholic community which worships there, in what served for decades as their “Mother Church” during the period of Soviet domination in Ukraine.
The Vatican announced the pope’s visit on Friday, saying it comes in response to an invitation by Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the leader of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, and an old friend of Francis’s from the time Shevchuk served as Apostolic Administrator of a Greek Catholic diocese in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Shevchuk said on Friday that the visit is also a sign of the pope’s pastoral attention to immigrants.
The visit “is a sign of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, the victim of the war in Donbas [eastern Ukraine], and a manifestation of closeness to Ukrainian migrants in Italy, for whom the Basilica of Santa Sofia represents their home and a symbol of their native land,” Shevchuk said.
With a following in Ukraine estimated at somewhere between four and seven million people, the Greek Catholic Church is the largest of the 23 Eastern churches that acknowledge the pope as their spiritual authority.
In Italy, Shevchuk said there are roughly 17,000 people who attend Greek Catholic services each Sunday, with 145 communities and 62 priests serving them.
Although Friday’s Vatican statement did not provide any reason for the timing of the pope’s Jan. 28 visit, it’s well-known that the Greek Catholic community in Ukraine has been deeply affected by the long-simmering conflict in the eastern part of the country that pits government forces against Russian-backed separatists, which over the past three years is believed to have left 10,000 people dead and sparked a humanitarian crisis.
In addition to Greek Catholic efforts to participate in relief efforts for the affected populations, the church has long identified itself with the Ukrainian nationalist cause, seeing a Ukraine independent of Russian domination as the best guarantee of pluralism and democracy, including the rights of religious minorities in the country.
In some zones of eastern Ukraine controlled by separatist forces, Greek Catholic churches have been vandalized and its clergy intimidated, since the separatists tend to see any form of religious expression other than the Russian Orthodox Church as “foreign.”
Occasionally, the tensions surrounding the conflict have affected even Francis’s relationship with the Greek Catholic Church. In late January 2015, when the pontiff prayed for an end to the “fratricidal” conflict in eastern Ukraine, some Greek Catholics were outraged, insisting this isn’t a struggle among brothers but the product of foreign aggression from Moscow and the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the wake of the pope’s remark, Shevchuk issued a statement saying the pope’s description of the conflict was “particularly painful for all the people in Ukraine.”
Some Greek Catholics were also disappointed in a February 2016 joint declaration between Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, feeling the pontiff should have been more forceful in insisting that Kirill accept the legitimacy of the Eastern Catholic churches.
Since that time, Francis has reached out to Greek Catholics on multiple occasions, and has also continued to voice concern for the conflict in Ukraine.
Most recently, Francis touched on Ukraine in his annual speech to diplomats accredited to the Vatican on Jan. 8.
“A shared commitment to rebuilding bridges is also urgent in Ukraine,” the pope said. “The year that just ended reaped new victims in the conflict that afflicts the country, continuing to bring great suffering to the population, particularly to families who live in areas affected by the war and have lost their loved ones, not infrequently the elderly and children.”
Rome’s Basilica of Santa Sofia was built in the late 1960s at the request of Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, the then-leader of the Greek Catholic Church who had spent twenty years in a Soviet gulag. It served until 1991 as the “Mother Church” for Greek Catholics while the Cathedral of St. George in L’viv, their traditional center, was under the control of the Russian Orthodox.
While in the basilica, Pope Francis will visit the crypt of Bishop Stepan Chmil, a Salesian Greek Catholic who was once a missionary in Argentina, and a figure to whom Shevchuk said Pope Francis is “especially close.”