Just a day after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis met with the bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who have strongly opposed Russian meddling in the conflict-torn Eastern Ukraine.
Russian-backed separatists have battled Ukrainian government forces since Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
In a speech to the bishops Friday, Francis said Ukraine for five years has been marked “by a conflict which many call ‘hybrid,’ composed as it is of acts of war where those responsible are camouflaged.”
It is a conflict, he said, “where the smallest ones pay the highest price, a conflict aggravated by propagandistic falsifications and manipulations of every type, even by the attempt to involve the religious aspect.”
He voiced hope that political leaders would not seek “the so-called partisan good, which in the end is always an interest to the detriment of someone else,” but rather peace and the common good.
Asking God to console all those who have been displaced or lost loved ones in the conflict, Francis noted that every morning and every evening he contemplates an image of the Virgin Mary given to him by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
“In front of that icon I begin and end my days entrusting to the tenderness of the Madonna, who is Mother, each of you and your Church,” he said, stressing that the Church’s role in conflict is to bear witness to hope.
He also encouraged the bishops to prioritize their spiritual lives, focusing on prayer and being present for their people, especially those who are suffering.
Shevchuk is at the two-day meeting at the Vatican along with members of the church’s permanent synod, its metropolitan archbishops and the heads of all relevant Vatican departments.
Announcing the meeting earlier this year, the Vatican said in a statement that it was intended “to give a sign of his closeness to the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church that carries out pastoral service both at home and in various places in the world.”
“This meeting will also offer a further opportunity to deepen the analysis of the life and needs of Ukraine, with the aim of identifying the ways in which the Catholic Church, and in particular the Greek-Catholic Church, can dedicate itself ever more effectively to preaching the Gospel, contributing to the support of those who suffer and promoting peace,” the statement said.
To date, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, while thousands of others are missing and millions displaced. In addition to the physical wounds of the conflict, many are dealing with the psychological strain of being engaged in an endless war, which has cost many people their homes and livelihoods.
Greek Catholic bishops in Ukraine, and Shevchuk in particular, have been loudly outspoken on the conflict, calling Russia an aggressor and insisting the conflict, though largely forgotten in the international community, is the worst Europe has seen since the Second World War.
Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who was sworn into office May 20, said resolving the conflict with Russian-backed rebels in the country’s eastern region would be his top priority.
A political outsider, Zelensky was most known in his homeland as the star of a 2015-2019 comedy TV series in which he portrayed the country’s president.
At the time of Zelensky’s inauguration, Putin said he would not congratulate the new Ukrainian leader on taking office but would wait to see signs of success in resolving the conflict first.
Zelensky, who has voiced his desire to establish dialogue with residents in occupied territories in the east, met with Shevchuk in May prior to his inauguration.
According to a statement from the government press office, Zelensky thanked Shevchuk for his spiritual support of citizens during the years of conflict, making note of the Greek Catholic Church’s service in the conflict area.
Mainly operating through their local Caritas branch, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has offered humanitarian support to residents in the region suffering from a lack of basic foods and supplies, as well as medical treatment. They have also assisted thousands in evacuating the area, including many elderly unable to leave without assistance, and have offered help to the displaced.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church makes up roughly 10 percent of the population, and is the largest of the eastern Catholic churches in communion with Rome.
Francis, who has known Shevchuk from his time in Argentina, has been keenly attentive to the conflict in Ukraine, consistently offering both statements and gestures of support to the Greek Catholic Church in the country.
In 2016, he took up a special collection throughout Europe to support all those suffering due to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, making his own $5 million donation. Funds gathered during the collection have gone into the “Pope for Ukraine” project, which continues to offer aid to both residents in the war zone and those who have been displaced.
In his speech to Ukraine’s Greek Catholic bishops, Francis said this first project is nearly finished, and would like “that other special projects follow,” ideas for which would be part of discussion during the bishops’ meeting in Rome.
Friday’s meeting with the Ukrainian bishops came just a day after Francis met with Putin, an encounter that focused largely on “various questions of relevance to the life of the Catholic Church in Russia,” according to a Vatican statement following the July 4 audience.
Other areas touched on, it said, were “various themes relating to current international affairs, with particular reference to Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.”
Francis’s decision to hold back-to-back meetings with both Putin and Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops was no doubt a bid to give more visibility to the conflict, but it also marks his desire to engage both sides in a concrete example of his continued insistence on dialogue as a path to peace.
Whether or not this will bear fruit is something to be seen, however, one certainty is that this issue will not fall off the pope’s radar anytime soon.