ROME — One of the most articulate prelates in Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church believes that by visiting their onetime mother church in Rome today, Pope Francis is speaking to the people of his violence-scarred country, certainly, but he’s also delivering a clear message to somebody else: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“He’s sending a signal to Putin,” said Bishop Borys Gudziak, who heads the Ukranian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Paris, and who’s a Harvard PhD and former rector and president of the Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv.
What’s that message to the Russian leader? “That violence and aggression are unacceptable,” Gudziak said. “That I’m with the people who are suffering.”
Pope Francis’s pilgrimage to the minor basilica of Santa Sophia will take place Sunday afternoon, following an invitation by the vibrant, mostly expat Ukrainian community gathered there. He will be welcomed by Ukrainian Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of Kiev-Halych and head of the UGCC, the largest of the 22 Eastern churches loyal to Rome.
Francis’s visit to Santa Sophia, Guziak told Crux over the phone on Saturday, is one to a church and a people going through a war. Yet when it comes to talking about that war, he can’t avoid revisiting the past 30 years of Ukrainian history.
For the past three decades, he said, Ukraine as well as other post-Soviet countries have been emerging from a “terrible, traumatic, genocidal, totalitarian experience,” and undergoing a healing process that isn’t like “Nescafe, [where you can] mix water and powder and get instant satisfaction.”
The moral depravation of a police state, the bishop said, gave way to corruption — present everywhere to some extent, he said, but “particularly problematic in all the former totalitarian countries.”
“Claiming their God-given human dignity,” Guziak said, in 2013 and 2014, millions of people rose up and demonstrated peacefully for an end to this corruption, in defense of liberty, freedom of speech and in the media, and justice in the courts, the political process and electoral contests.
“This revolution of dignity had a Paschal quality, in the sense that over 100 innocent, unarmed protesters were slaughtered in a Christ-like manner,” he said. “The sacrifice of the so-called ‘Heavenly 100’ led to a political schism, and the president fled to Russia.”
The response of Putin, according to Guziak, was to block the development of this movement of dignity. In order to impede it from spilling over to Russia, Gudziak said, Putin’s strategy has been to discredit it in Ukraine by rendering Ukraine a failed state.
In March 2014, Gudziak said, “came the annexation of Crimea, and in April-May a war was instigated, an invasion.”
Back then, Putin claimed the violence was being carried out by “little green men with no national affiliation,” but eventually had to acknowledge that Russian special forces were involved. According to Guziak, “it’s clear now there’s a war of invasion going on, one that has killed 11,000 people and created two million refugees.”
In the era of Communist rule, the UGCC was considered the largest illegal religious body in the world, when the Soviet Union forced it into clandestine status at home and exile abroad.
Rome’s Santa Sophia, along with an adjoining university, were built during that time, in the 1960s. Construction began in 1963, thanks to a collection launched by then-Archeparch Josyf Slipyj, who’d recently arrived in Rome after spending nearly two decades in Soviet Gulags in Siberia.
“I had the privilege, during my youth, during the last years of Patriarch Josip, to live there,” Guziak said, adding that he’d had the opportunity to experience first-hand the vision of Slipyj, “considered fantasy by many.”
When the archeparch set up to build the church and university, Gudziak recalled, there were some 500 Ukrainians living in all of Italy, half of whom were priests and religious men and women.
“The Church in Ukraine was completely underground,” he said. By the time he arrived in Rome, Guziak said, there was an entire second generation of Ukrainians who’d grown up with no “visible form of the church,” and what was left of if was behind a “fearsome wall defended by a nuclear arsenal. There was no chance the church could survive.”
Yet by building the university and church, both through architecture and the creation of a community, Gudziak said Slipyj was making a statement: evil will not prevail.
Santa Sophia is a modern interpretation of classical Byzantine architecture, characterized by iconography and mosaics, which were purposely copied from mosaics from the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Kiev — which, was in turn, modeled on the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople.
Hagia Sophia in Rome, Guziak said, is also a sign of the eastern presence in Rome, in unity with the Church of Rome, that already exists in the UGCC, and also “a hopeful representation of that unity we pray for with the Orthodox churches.”
As a personal note, the late Bishop Stepan Chmil, a Salesian priest who ministered in a Buenos Aires school attended by a young Jorge Mario Bergoglio — today Pope Francis — is buried in the crypt of Santa Sophia, and the pontiff is expected to pray there for a few minutes during his Sunday visit.
Speaking with journalists on Thursday, Shevchuk said that he hopes Francis’s visit to the church will be a “prophetic step, that might lead [Francis’s] feet towards the Ukrainian land.”
Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of New Westminster, Canada, told Crux on the phone that Sunday’s visit is the closet thing Francis can do right now to visiting Ukraine.
“The Holy Father has traveled to many places [scarred by] unrest and conflict, and this is another example of him standing in solidarity with people who are suffering,” Nowakowski said.
In 2016, the bishop was named counselor for the “Pope for Ukraine” initiative, launched by Francis to provide aid to those affected by the ongoing war, often labeled a “forgotten” one.
“The pope, through his benevolence, is already in Ukraine,” Nowakowski said. “His visit on Sunday is yet another gesture of his care and love.”
The bishop also detailed how the millions of Euros raised in an unprecedented action by the Vatican are being allocated to help hundreds of thousands who are still living near the occupied areas.
During one Sunday in April 2016, at Francis’s express request, the collections of every Catholic church in Europe were set aside to form the “Pope for Ukraine” fund. Some 15 million Euros were raised, almost $19 million, plus an additional five million Euros the pontiff donated himself.