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Pope’s Peace Envoy Meets Ukraine Bishops Amid Fallout Over ‘Great Mother Russia’ Remarks

Pope Francis embraces Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of Kyiv-Halych and head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, during a meeting with members of the Eastern-rite Ukrainian Catholic bishops’ synod in a meeting room in the Vatican audience hall Sept. 6, 2023. (Photo: CNS/Vatican Media)

By Elise Ann Allen

ROME (Crux) — In a session with Catholic bishops from Ukraine Thursday, Sept. 7, Pope Francis’s personal peace envoy told the Ukrainian prelates that “victory” in the war with Russia would be “peace, and never the humiliation of the enemy.”

Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, said that humiliation simply “leads to future enmity and hostility.”

Cardinal Zuppi’s remarks came during a Sept. 3-13 synod of Greek Catholic Bishops in Rome, discussing as a theme, “Pastoral assistance to the victims of war.” The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, numbering some six million faithful, is the largest of the eastern Churches in communion with Rome.

As part of his peacekeeping mission, Cardinal Zuppi traveled to Kyiv, Moscow and Washington, D.C., over the summer, and is expected to visit Beijing this fall.

The meeting takes place against the backdrop of controversy over remarks by Pope Francis to a group of Russian youth, during which the pope praised “Great Mother Russia” and lauded “the Great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that great enlightened empire.”

The rhetoric generated immediate backlash by civil and ecclesial authorities, with national leaders accusing the pope of recycling Russian “imperialist propaganda” and the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halyć, issuing a statement saying the pontiff’s words caused “great pain and concern.”

While not directly addressing the contretemps, Cardinal Zuppi quoted the late Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, former Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halyć who died in 2017, calling him a “figure of great spiritual authority” and saying “the true final victory will be possible if we all behave like human beings in the full sense of the word. All other victories are only partial or imaginary and will never lead to true peace.”

Cardinal Zuppi defined his participation in the Greek Catholic synod as “a further sign of communion with the Church of Rome and that in Italy,” and highlighted various areas of collaboration since the outbreak of the war last year, including the decision of several seaside towns in Italy last month to welcome 80 Ukrainian children and their companions for a beach holiday to escape the war.

“Our strength is communion which is, at the same time, hierarchical and synodal: the vertical dimension helps to experience openness and sensitivity, and the horizontal one to verify them with history and with communion,” Cardinal Zuppi said.

He voiced sorrow for the suffering of the Ukrainian people and for the senselessness of wars, which he said, “are always fratricidal defeats.”

“We must work to address the humanitarian issue, in particular the most fragile and for all those children who must be able to return to Ukraine,” he said, and closed highlighting the pope’s request that the Church, and particularly all shrines, pray the rosary during the month of October for world peace, and especially peace in Ukraine.

On his return flight from Mongolia to Rome Monday, Pope Francis distinguished between culture and imperialism, saying that in his remark to Russian youth, “I wasn’t thinking of imperialism when I said that, I was thinking of culture, and tradition and culture is never imperialist, never. It’s always dialogue.”

“There are some imperialists who want to impose their ideology. When a culture is distilled and becomes ideology, this is poison. A distilled culture becomes ideology, we must distinguish between this,” he said, saying, “Russian culture must not be canceled because of politics.”

The issue also came up during the pope’s Sept. 6 meeting with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops, with a Vatican statement on the meeting offering no specifics, but merely stating that the pope had repeated what he told journalists on his return flight from Mongolia.

In their own statement, the UGCC said they had a “frank conversation” with the pope, which they said began an hour early at the pope’s request in order to have a longer conversation, and during which they expressed “the Ukrainian people’s pain, suffering, and a certain disappointment.”

The UGCC said the bishops “expressed to the pope everything that our faithful in Ukraine and throughout the world entrusted us to convey to His Holiness,” including statements from some bishops that certain gestures and statements made by the pontiff “are painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people, who are currently bleeding in the struggle for their dignity and independence.”

Bishops, the UGCC statement said, indicated that “misunderstandings” had arisen between the Vatican and Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict, and that these misunderstandings are being used by “Russian propaganda” to justify “the murderous ideology of the ‘Russian World.’”

Therefore, “the faithful of our Church are sensitive to every word of Your Holiness as the universal voice of truth and justice,” they said.

During the conversation, the Vatican said Pope Francis voiced closeness to those experiencing “a dimension of martyrdom,” which he said is not spoken about enough, and conveyed his pain at the sense of impotence often experienced in the face of war, which he called “something of the devil, which wants to destroy.”

Pope Francis, according to the Vatican, also pointed to Ukrainian children he has met since the war broke out, saying, “they look at you and have forgotten their smile. This is one of the fruits of war: taking away the smiles of children.”

Both the Vatican and the UGCC noted that as a special sign of closeness to the Ukrainian people, the pope had brought with him an icon of the Theotokos, or Mother of God, that Archbishop Shevchuk had given to him while the two were still in Buenos Aires and told the Ukrainian bishops that he prays before the icon every day.

In their meeting, the Ukrainian bishops also asked Pope Francis to continue his efforts to secure the release of prisoners, especially of the Redemptorist priests Father Ivan Levytskyi and Father Bohdan Haleta, who were detained by Russian forces in November 2022, and they gifted the pope some of Father Levytskyi and Father Haleta’s personal belongings, including a missionary cross, a prayer book, and a rosary.

Archbishop Shevchuk also presented the pope with an icon of Jesus Christ saved from a church burned by Russian soldiers in the village of Chervone in the Zaporizhia region.

Other Vatican officials have also met the UGCC during their synodal proceedings this week, including Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin; Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity; and Italian Cardinal-designate Claudio Gugerotti, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Eastern Churches, who will get his red hat from Francis on Sept. 30.

Cardinal Parolin said he was praying for Father Levytskyi and Father Haleta and praised the UGCC for the spiritual care shown to soldiers fighting on the front lines, saying, “You have spiritually supported them with your prayers and taught them that, while defending the sovereignty and freedom of their national territory, Ukrainians also have to guard their hearts so as not to succumb to hatred, which can make them easy prey in the face of so many atrocities.”

Cardinal Parolin said the Vatican’s priorities are currently the exchange of prisoners and the repatriation of Ukrainian children from Russia, which is an issue that was addressed by Cardinal Zuppi during his visits to Kyiv and Moscow.

Other priorities Cardinal Parolin highlighted include the recent deal on grain exports, as well as the humanitarian aspects of the peace plan proposed by the Ukrainian authorities.

Cardinal Koch said the war has had a negative impact on ecumenical dialogue, insisting that “The consequences of this war are still unpredictable, and it will take time for the wounds on the body and soul of many people to heal.”

Cardinal Koch voiced hope that “a just peace in Ukraine” would be obtained.

Gugerotti, who was nuncio in Ukraine from 2015-2020, spent around two hours with the UGCC bishops Sept. 6, according to the UGCC, conveying “closeness and affection in this moment of pain, of heartbreak, and continuous suffering.”

“It will take great sacrifices and great effort to try to restore a sense of dignity to people who have had their personalities torn to pieces,” Gugerotti said, saying it was important for him to hear the testimonies of the bishops, which he said “helps to better understand and to seek to do my duty better, and also to inform the Holy Father of all the things I am aware of.”