Pope Francis met with leaders of the Permanent Synod of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (UGCC) on Saturday, praising their people's “tireless witnesses of hope” in Christ amid decades of hardships.
“In some circumstances, our human condition is made even more fragile due to difficult historical situations, which mark the life of the People of God, of the Community that Jesus Christ our Lord purchased with his blood,” Pope Francis said in his March 5 message to Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the UGCC.
The UGCC is the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches, with some 4.42 million faithful. Many of its faithful live in Ukraine, though it has large expatriate communities in Argentina, Canada, Brazil, Poland, and the United States.
The audience coincided with the anniversary of the 1946 pseudo-synod of Lviv, a council orchestrated by Josef Stalin's regime as part of the forcible absorption of the UGCC into the Russian Orthodox Church.
At that time, all of the UGCC bishops, hundreds of clergy, and tens of thousands of Catholics had been imprisoned, while all the Church's property was either transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church or confiscated for non-religious use.
“A particular ideological and political context, as well as the existence of ideas that were contrary to the very existence of your Church, led to the organization of a pseudo-synod in Lviv, and caused decades of suffering for the pastors and the faithful,” the Pope said, remarking on the 70th anniversary of the event.
“In sad memory of these events we bow our heads in deep gratitude before those, who at the cost of suffering and even martyrdom, continued to witness the faith in the course of time and to show dedication to the Church in union with the Successor of Peter.”
At the same time, Pope Francis continues, “with eyes lit by the same faith, we look to the Lord Jesus Christ, to place in him, and not in human justice, all of our hope. He is the true source of our trust in the present and in the future, as we are called to announce the Gospel also in the midst of suffering or difficulties.”
The Pope expressed his deep gratitude for the loyalty of Ukrainian Greek-Catholics and encouraged them to be “tireless witnesses of that hope which makes our existence and the existence of all of our brothers and sisters more luminous”.
Pope Francis also renewed solidarity with the pastors and faithful for all they do in "this difficult time marked by the hardships of war, to alleviate the suffering of the population and to seek the ways of peace for the beloved Ukrainian land.”
“In the Lord is our courage and our joy. It is to him that I speak, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the martyrs of your Church, so that the divine consolation may illuminate your communities in Ukraine and other parts of the world”.
He offered an apostolic blessing as a sign of his "constant affection and prayers" to Archbishop Shevchuk and to the bishops, priests, consecrated, and laity of the UGCC.
The Permanent Synod of the UGCC issued a statement after the meeting with Pope Francis, reiterating their unity with the Bishop of Rome.
“We came to reaffirm our communion with the Holy Father and to ask for his help for the suffering people of Ukraine during the Jubilee Year of Mercy,” said Archbishop Shevchuk in the statement, who added: “And the Holy Father heard us.”
“We reaffirm what no totalitarian regime could break: our communion with Rome and the Universal Church.”
The statement goes on to condemn the violence and atrocities against human dignity which has taken place in Ukraine, especially against religious communities and ethnic groups.
“The Church condemns the atrocities, the kidnappings, imprisonment and torture of citizens of Ukraine in the Donbas and Crimea — especially abuses directed at religious communities and ethnic groups, especially Muslim Tatars, as well as broad violations of civic rights and the human dignity of millions,” according to the message.
The UGCC “ceaselessly prays for and promotes peace,” the statement continues, and calls on the Pope and the global community to “help stop the war and stem the humanitarian crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
10,000 people have been killed, tens of thousands injured, and over 2 million have been left homeless due to the “ongoing undeclared hybrid war,” the statement asserts.
The crisis has also taken its toll on Ukraine's infrastructure, and its currency has two-thirds of its earlier value, which in turn has impoverished the nation, the UGCC said.
“The people are suffering, Holy Father, and they await your embrace,” Archbishop Shevchuk is quoted as saying. “Pope Francis made it clear that he would act.”
The statement went on to recall the long-term suffering endured by the people of Ukraine, between “two World Wars, genocides, a state-planned famine, and ethnic cleansing” which claimed the lives of some 15 million people during the twentieth century.
The statement decried the attempts by Stalin's regime to “brutally” suppress the UGCC and to remove it from the “Catholic communion” and the Roman Pontiff, citing the pseudo-synod of Lviv.
Despite the hardships endured by the faithful during that time, “the Church has revived miraculously and is a thriving, dynamic body active throughout Ukraine and on four continents, with young clergy and a dedicated laity inspired by the example of their twentieth century martyrs.”
Archbishop Shevchuk stressed Pope Francis' “moral authority” over the people of Ukraine.
“For Ukrainians who belong to different Churches and religious organizations and even secular citizens, the Holy Father is a global moral authority who speaks the truth,” the archbishop told the Pope.
“This voice of truth is particularly important for the suffering people of Ukraine. If the people do not hear or understand this voice they become confused, anxious, and feel forgotten,” he added.
Archbishop Shevchuk responded to the Pope Francis' emphasis on not solving “ecumenical problems at the expense of an entire Eastern Catholic Church.” He said the UGCC is “ready to provide responsible, transparent, ecumenically sound administration of international aid,” to the Ukrainian population, regardless of “ethnicity, political or linguistic preferences or religious affiliation.”
“Enough of this suffering. It can be prevented. It can be healed. Let us make the 'Year of Mercy' a reality for the people of Ukraine.”