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ROME – Pope Francis has lamented that the “absurd and cruel” war in Ukraine is still raging a year after Russia’s invasion and have condemned the failure of national leaders to achieve a diplomatic solution.
Speaking during his Feb. 22 general audience address, Pope Francis noted that in just two days, on Feb. 24, the world will observe the one-year anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine.
Calling Feb. 24 a “sad anniversary,” the pope said “The balance of dead, wounded, refugees, displaced people, destruction, social and economic damage, speaks for itself.”
“Can the Lord forgive so many crimes and so much violence? He is the God of peace,” he said, and assured the Ukrainian people of his closeness while challenging the international community, asking them, “was everything possible done to stop the war?”
“I appeal to those who have authority over nations to commit themselves concretely to ending the conflict, to reaching a ceasefire and the start of peaceful negotiations. The one built on rubble will never be a true victory!” Francis said.
Though the total number of casualties is impossible to determine at present, current UN estimates place the number of civilian deaths at 8,000, many of whom are children, while another 13,300 have been injured. There have been an estimated 300,000 casualties among armed forces on both sides, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Eight million Ukrainians have fled the country as refugees, while an additional eight million are internally displaced.
The war has also caused a global energy and food crisis due to sanctions on Russian oil and a shortage of Ukrainian wheat, while critical energy infrastructure in Ukraine has repeatedly been targeted by Russia, leaving millions without heat amid frigid winter temperatures.
Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, Maria Amparo Alonso Escobar, who is on the temporary administrative board governing Caritas International, said that over the past year, 5.3 million people have received aid from the emergency relief appeals Caritas has launched.
Fifteen million units of food and non-food aid have been distributed in Poland alone, while local branches Caritas Spes and Caritas Ukraine, which is run by the Greek Catholic church, are assisting Ukrainians on the ground through a network of close to 100 support and resource centers for IDPs, and hundreds of local parishes have become hubs of shelter and humanitarian aid.
Father Vyacheslav Grynevych, secretary general of Caritas Spes, is currently in Rome and met with Pope Francis Tuesday, presenting him with a cross made of glass from buildings destroyed during the war.
In honor of the anniversary, Caritas Spes is also organizing a ‘366th Station’ Way of the Cross event for the 1-year anniversary of the war on Friday, which likens Jesus’s suffering to that of the Ukrainian people over the past year.
The reflection for each station was written by a Caritas Spes or Caritas Ukraine employee. Together, they are assisted in their work by a network of over 8,000 volunteers.
Attempts at negotiating a ceasefire have so far failed to yield any notable results, with Russia set on a list of demands – including the annexation of Ukrainian territory – to which Ukraine refuses to submit.
Pope Francis and his top aides have repeatedly offered the Holy See’s service as a mediator in peace negotiations; however, that offer has so far gone unanswered, and while a slew of other heads of state, including United States President Joe Biden, have visited Ukraine in a show of solidarity, Francis has not, insisting that he will only visit if he is able to travel to both Kyiv and Moscow.
On Tuesday, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, kicked off a week of prayer organized by the Ukrainian Embassy to the Holy See by celebrating a special Mass for Ukraine at Rome’s Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle.
In his homily, Gallagher lamented the “madness” of the beginning of the war one year ago, calling it “a sad event which we hoped to never experience.”
“The balance of this conflict, which seemed an unthinkable fact in the 21st century, is shocking, and the suffering that accompanies it is unimaginable,” he said, noting that there are “increasingly concerning news from the front,” while diplomacy has failed.
“Diplomatic efforts seem incapable of interrupting the vicious cycle of violence,” he said, and urged Mass attendees, among whom was a group of Ukrainian MPs currently visiting Rome, to take comfort in the word of God.
Offering a reflection on human freedom and stressing the importance of always turning to and relying on God in moments of difficulty and suffering, Gallagher noted that temptation and trials are to be expected for those who choose to follow God.
“Suffering is never desired in itself, but can be a source of good,” he said, saying difficult moments are never a punishment from God, but are occasions “for conversion and growth.”
“God thus allows difficulty … to make us more virtuous, (and) not to abandon us, but to make us more united to him. Because of this, in moments of trial, we must not separate ourselves from God,” or resign to fear, but rather, “seek justice, the Lord, and do good.”
Gallagher insisted that “God does not abandon his faithful,” and that rather, “the salvation of the just comes from the Lord. In times of anguish, he is their reward.”
“We cannot let ourselves be spared of suffering and trial, but in the midst of it all, we have the certainty that God is always with us and that there is no tear or drop of blood that is lost,” he said, noting that the church’s Lenten season is beginning, and serves as a reminder of God’s ability “to transform evil into good, suffering into joy in the resurrection.”
He closed his homily urging faithful to “always put our greatest trust in God, without ever forgetting that the only true logic is to serve good, which gives strength.”
Opening one’s heart and choosing love, he said, “is the logic Jesus teaches us, not only for our neighbors, but above all, with our own lives…it is the logic of truth that overcomes lies, of good that overcomes evil, of love that overcomes hatred, of life that overcomes death.”
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