In the days ahead of the Pope’s visit to Rome’s Greek-Catholic Community of Ukrainians on Sunday, the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halyc, says he is very grateful for the Holy See’s attention given to Ukraine, but still not satisfied with the declaration signed by Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill in Cuba two years ago.
In an interview with ZENIT, His Beatitude Shevchuk discussed the historic gesture.
Four years ago, he said, Ukraine suffered the aggression of a neighboring country, Russia. According to UN agencies today in Ukraine there are 2 million internally displaced persons. It is a crisis that continues and escalates. These statistics demonstrate the most serious humanitarian crisis in Europe after the Second World War. In spite of this, it is a ‘forgotten war,’ as was said by Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, during his visit to Russia last August.
The Pope’s visit Sunday to the Basilica of St. Sophia on Via Boccea, northwest of Rome. will be followed by Ukrainians all over the world. Although it is not technically a parish, it will be the first ‘parish visit,’ if you will, by Pope Francis since the start of the New Year.
The Pope will arrive at 4 p.m. and about 3,000 people are expected. There will be jumbotrons outside the church transmitting coverage to the faithful unable to be inside. For Greek-Catholic Ukrainians, following the Julian calendar, it is still Christmastime, since the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple is February 18. Therefore, Major Archbishop Shevchuk said we should not be surprised to hear Ukrainian Christmas songs welcoming the Supreme Pontiff.
During the encounter, the Major Archbishop of Kiev will present the community to the Pope, there will be some greetings, and the Pope will descend into the crypt to pray at the tomb of Salesian Ukrainian Bishop Stepan Czmil. Then, before returning to the Vatican, he will see the mosaics of the basilica. With January 22 marking the 40th Anniversary of the bishop’s passing, Bishop Czmil was sent as a missionary in 1948 to Buenos Aires and would teach at the Salesian school that young Jorge Bergoglio attended. Through him, one of his first educators, Bergoglio would be introduced to the Byzantine rite and get to know the Greek Catholic Community of Ukraine.
Discussing the current situation in Ukraine and how so many have been forced to flee, the Major Archbishop of Kiev noted that the Pope knows us and is very sensitive to the theme of migration. Stressing the big heart Francis has for mothers and grandmothers, he added, the Pope will see that many who find themselves in St. Sophia are women.
On a lighthearted note, the Major Archbishop spoke about the vitality of the Greek-Catholic Community of Ukrainians in Rome. He shared about the enthusiastic children who partake, some of whom will welcome the Pope Sunday, and how often Ukrainians bring elderly Italians with them to the Masses, and that already, they know some of the Ukrainian hymns. In Italy, Ukrainian women often take care of the elderly.
During an encounter with journalists in the Vatican, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk was asked whether a possible trip to Ukraine is foreseeable. He responded: “We have made the invitation, we hope it will be a prophetic step, which can guide the Pope’s steps towards Ukraine. The Pope has already been invited to the Ukraine by both the Latin and Greek-Catholic bishops and by the Ukrainian President and government.”
ZENIT: How are the relations between the different Churches in Ukraine?
There are different levels of relations. There is a fundamental question of unity. As we know, Ukraine is a multiethnic and multireligious country. There are Latin and Byzantine Catholics. The Orthodox Church is majority, but fragmented into three: Patriarchate of Moscow, Patriarchate of Kiev and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church.
I must say that various people of various Churches when they meet me they tell me, ‘Enough. Enough with these divisions.” But unfortunately in these four years, the divisions still exist because of a certain instrumentalization of the religion in Ukraine. Therefore, let’s pray that the Church, the Churches in Ukraine and in all the world, can be free, can remain their own, and not be, if we may say, at the ‘service’ of a political power, geopolitical forces or some worldly government. In Ukraine, an unique organism exists called the Council of the Churches and the Unity of the Religious Communities, that brings together all of us Christians, but not only, as also there are Jews and Muslims. We can meet among ourselves. And, until now, we were capable of putting that common good in Ukraine above our, we could say, confessional desires: to collaborate for assisting those afflicted, to free the imprisoned, for helping those who are the victims of the war.
ZENIT: So the religions succeed in having this cooperation and active collaboration …
I must say that all the religions put this common good above their own, if you could say, confessional vision. In my opinion, all understand that religious peace that we have had so far in Ukraine, thanks to God, is a value that we cannot lose or disdain because from the religious peace depends and follows the peace of the society in Ukraine, and on it, our survival depends. They understand this, whether it is our simple faithful, or the bishops or religious leaders.
ZENIT: Your Beatitude, you had expressed some reservations about the passage relating to Ukraine in the declaration the Pope had signed with Patriarch Kirill of the Patriarchate of Moscow in Cuba two years ago. Do you feel as you did in the past? Do you still have these reservations?
Mostly, yes, because none of these wishes have been applied yet in Ukraine. We have not reached the peace. We did not reach the possibility to establish proper respecting of one another. We encounter unfortunately the situations when the Orthodox priests of one church do not want to celebrate the funeral of a baby of two years old of another church, or of a soldier killed in war, and so on. This unfortunately exists in Ukraine. These written declarations signed in Havana still do not function. Therefore, it is necessary to really commit ourselves. Also, I must say, that this declaration afterwards did have a positive effect. Most of all, we are happy that they met, the leaders of the Churches. In my opinion, there needs to be second, third and fourth encounters [smiling] because subsequent ones could reflect that the scope or goal of the first encounter was not reached. If people do not meet, conflicts cannot be terminated. No? We cannot play back our memories to have results, but only through meeting can we reconcile and go forward together.
Therefore, I wish there will be another encounter. Then, also, this declaration, and also our reservations, gave us the possibility to enter into the dialogue as the Greek-Catholic Church of Ukraine, a Church sui iuris (‘self-governing’). We were not involved in the preparation of this text, but now we are part of the dialogue. So everyone is interested in this question, even you, if you are asking this question of what we think.
This declaration created publicity for us! We also can express our point of view, but I must reiterate the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine sees the ecumenical mission as the integral part of its identity, even if we must point out and uphold the truth and it is hard or uncomfortable. But this is us: the Lord has given us this, lifting us out from secrecy of the Soviet Union, for a mission. And we think that this mission means being witnesses, participants of a sincere, authentic ecumenical dialogue.
ZENIT: The Holy See has acknowledged this war and made efforts to help, correct?
Ukraine is a vast 600,000 square kilometers and there are 42 million inhabitants. Currently, seven percent of the territory is occupied by the Russians. Here, everyday, we fight again. Schools are destroyed. There were five million living in this area, today there are two. According to UN agencies, today in Ukraine, there are two million internally displaced persons. It is a crisis that continues and escalates. This is why I say it is the most serious in Europe after the Second World War.
I found it very positive that Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, when visiting Moscow in late August, denounced the world’s lack of attention to Ukraine’s suffering, saying it is inadmissible to manipulate the truth of what is happening. He correctly called this war, ‘a forgotten war.’
Recognizing Ukraine is in great difficulty, the Pope, two years ago, donated 5 million euros and promoted a collection throughout Europe that yielded 15 million euros. But the crisis is getting worse, and we endure the consequences. I think of the people, not statistics. I think, for example, of those children who have lost their legs, and are forgotten by the world.