ROME – During a historic visit Sunday to Saint Sophia, the national church of Ukrainian Greek Catholics in Rome, Pope Francis said that he was near to, and praying for, Ukraine, also encouraging them not to lose hope.
“I understand that, while you are here, the heart throbs for your country, and not only palpitates with affection, but also with anguish, especially for the scourge of war and economic difficulties,” the pope said Jan. 28.
“I am here to tell you that I am close to you: close with the heart, close with prayer, close when I celebrate the Eucharist. I pray that hope may never be extinguished in the hearts of each person, but that the courage to go forward, to always start again, is renewed.”
Saint Sophia, which is also a minor basilica, was built in 1963, and consecrated in 1969 by Blessed Paul VI. Francis is only the third pope to visit the parish, the last being Pope St. John Paul II in 1984.
The church was modeled on the designs of medieval Ukrainian churches in Kiev, and is home to about 14,000 Ukrainians living in the Diocese of Rome.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the biggest of the sui iuris Catholic Churches, the eastern ritual Churches in full communion with Rome.
Last week, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, told EWTN that the Saint Sophia community was very excited for Francis’s visit.
“Today we have a very significant presence of Ukrainian immigrants here in Italy,” he said. “Of course, here in this basilica we have a very vibrant Ukrainian community. So, the pope is coming to visit his people.”
He also mentioned a charitable mission Francis started in Ukraine two years ago. The Vatican donated over $6 million to help those in need in the country.
“The Holy Father is our voice, he is our protector, but also, he is one who is with us in this, I would say very tragic and difficult, moment in our history,” Shevchuk said.
During his visit, Francis listened to an address by Shevchuk before speaking to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic community gathered in the church, as well as those watching outside on screens.
“Together with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic communities throughout the world, you have clearly expressed your pastoral program in one sentence: The living parish is the meeting place with the living Christ,” he said.
From this, he said he wanted to draw attention especially to two words: Meeting and living.
The Church, he explained, is a place of meeting, a place to overcome the temptation to loneliness and isolation, a place “where to share joys and hardships, where to carry the burdens of the heart, the dissatisfactions of life and homesickness.”
The second word is ‘living.’ Jesus is the living, he said. “He is risen and alive and so we meet him in the Church, in the Liturgy, in the Word. Every one of his communities, then, can only smell of life.”
Francis also encouraged the youth to be present in the life of the parish, saying “young people need to participate in the Church.”
He also spoke off-the-cuff about the importance of Ukrainian mothers and grandmothers for transmitting the faith. Praising their strength, he said, “Ukrainian women are heroic.”
After his speech, the pope prayed in front of the tomb of Bishop Stefan Czmil, who served as a missionary to Argentina, and was a childhood mentor to Francis himself as a child.
“From him I learned the beauty of your liturgy,” he said Sunday. “From his stories (I learned) the living testimony of how much faith has been tried and forged in the midst of the terrible atheistic persecutions of the last century.”
The pope also visited the tomb of Cardinal Josip Slipyi, who was responsible for raising the funds to build the basilica in Rome after spending 18 years in Soviet prison camps in Siberia and Mordovia.
Slipyi “wanted and built this luminous Basilica, so that it would shine as a prophetic sign of freedom in the years when access to many places of worship was prevented,” Francis said.
“But with the sufferings endured and offered to the Lord he helped to build another temple, even bigger and more beautiful, the building of living stones that are you all.”
He also made reference to Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, who was the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church until his retirement in 2011 due to poor health. He died May 31, 2017 at the age of 84, and is buried in the crypt of Patriarchal Cathedral in Kyiv.
Husar “was not only ‘father and head’ of your Church, but guide and older brother of many,” Francis said.
All three of these “witnesses of the past,” he continued, “have been open to the future of God and therefore give hope to the present. Several of you may have had the grace to know them.”
“When you cross the threshold of this temple, remember,” he said. “Remember the fathers and mothers in the faith, because they are the bases that govern us: those who have taught us the Gospel with life, they still orient us and accompany us on the journey.”