International News

Ukrainians Meet Pope Francis to Bridge ‘Ambiguous’ Communication Gap

People stand near newly made graves at a cemetery outside of Mariupol, Ukraine, May 22, 2022, during the Ukraine-Russia conflict. (Photo: CNS/Alexander Ermochenko, Reuters)

By Elise Ann Allen

ROME (Crux)  — A prominent Ukrainian academic, who recently met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, said the pontiff has tasked a handful of cardinals to study the topic of “just war” in light of the current conflict with Russia.

Myroslav Marynovych, vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, was one of three Ukrainians who met with the Pope on June 8. The discussion centered on Ukrainian concerns over “ambiguous” rhetoric about the war coming from the Vatican and Pope Francis  — particularly remarks suggesting the pontiff is against arming Ukraine.

In an article summarizing the nature and contents of the meeting, published in the Religious Information Service of Ukraine (RISU), Marynovych said it had been organized by a long-time Argentine friend of Pope Francis named Alejandro.

Alejandro had invited two friends from Ukraine — Yevhen Yakushev from Mariupol and Denys Kolyada, a consultant for dialogue with religious organizations — to meet with Pope Francis to discuss the situation in Ukraine, and Marynovych joined at Kolyada’s request.

According to Marynovych, the informal meeting was organized to create open communication to address Alejandro’s concern “that Ukrainian society perceives some of His Holiness’s steps ambiguously.”

Pope Francis, he said, has received several letters from public institutions and religious and community leaders in Ukraine voicing concern and seeking clarity. Kolyada had authored one of the letters, which the pope responded to personally “with great humility.” Marynovych said the exchange built trust and made the meeting possible.

In the course of the nearly two-hour conversation, each of the participants took turns speaking and “openly analyzing the reasons for the critical attitude of many Ukrainians towards the Vatican’s position on the current Russian-Ukrainian war, as well as towards certain steps of solidarity by the Pope himself.”

Pope Francis meets Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, during a private audience at the Vatican March 28, 2022. In an interview with the Polish Catholic news agency KAI after returning from a recent visit to Ukraine, Archbishop Gadecki said the Vatican’s policy toward Ukraine was “too naive and utopian” and needed “greater maturity,” particularly in attitudes to Russia. (Photo: CNS /Vatican Media)

Pope Francis has faced pressure from Ukrainians, including his longtime friend Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, for public statements that observers find confusing, and for decisions he has made, such as the one to have a Russian and Ukrainian woman carry the cross together during the Good Friday Via Crucis in Rome.

On May 2, Pope Francis gave an interview to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in which he accused Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, of being Putin’s “altar boy,” but at the same time he also suggested that the conflict may have started due to “the barking of NATO at Russia’s door.”

Pope Francis has been photographed kissing a Ukrainian flag from Bucha, where alleged war crimes occurred, but he has yet to name “Russia” or “Putin” as the aggressors in the conflict, which began Feb. 24, when the Russian military invaded Ukrainian territory.

Pope Francis has consistently backed the creation of humanitarian corridors to guarantee fleeing civilians safe passage, but traditionally opposes the use of force to resolve conflicts.

In his interview with Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis responded to the question of supplying weapons to Ukraine by saying, “I can’t answer, I’m too far away, the question of whether it’s right to supply the Ukrainians.”

His stance on war has traditionally been to condemn the global arms trade and appeal for a peaceful de-escalation of conflicts.

“The clear thing is that weapons are being tested in that land. The Russians now know that tanks are of little use and are thinking of other things. Wars are made for this: to test the weapons we have produced. This is what happened in the Spanish Civil War before the Second World War,” Pope Francis told the newspaper.

“The arms trade is a scandal; few fight it,” he said in the interview.

According to Marynovych, the way in which Ukraine is traditionally viewed by the Vatican was a topic of conversation with Pope Francis.

“Ukraine was viewed through the Russian prism for a long time, particularly in the Vatican. However, the Christian choice in favor of the offended means it is unfair to look at them through the prism of the aggressor’s information propaganda,” he said, saying the topic of disinformation also came up in the meeting.

“The time has come for the Vatican to develop its own Ukrainian policy, the one not derived from its Russian policy,” he said.

Marynovych also cautioned against placing blame for the current war exclusively on Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying Russian leadership is primarily responsible “for this criminal war,” but the alleged war crimes being committed are done by Russian soldiers, “and the Russian people, who for the most part approve of the war, are responsible for it too.”

“That is why loving Russians means revealing to them the true scale of their crime, allowing them to feel the horror of what they have done, and ushering their souls towards sincere repentance in the eyes of God and people,” he said.

Marynovych said the group asked Pope Francis to support Ukraine’s application to the European Union, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been aggressively pursuing since the conflict began. The EU has apparently said it will finalize its position on Ukraine’s request as early as next week.

Pope Francis allegedly told the group that he would back Ukraine’s EU membership in his meeting with Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, which took place at the Vatican on June 10.

The topic of arming Ukraine also came up in the conversation with Pope Francis, Marynovych said, with him and his fellow Ukrainians reminding the pope that Ukraine was the first country to renounce nuclear weapons.

“Russia was to guarantee our security and territorial integrity, only to wage war against us later,” he said, saying Ukraine reduced its army from half a million to just 150,000 in 2014, “which also did us a disservice.”

“That is why today, Ukraine has the right to defend itself,” he said, saying Pope Francis acknowledged the right to self-defense, “otherwise, it may resemble a suicide.”

Near the end of the conversation, “the issue of ambiguity in Catholic doctrine regarding the concepts of ‘just war’ and ‘just peace,’” was mentioned, Marynovych said, saying the group insisted that “it would be important for the entire world if the Church paid particular attention to clarifying this issue.”

In a March 16 video conference with Patriarch Kirill, who has been increasingly supportive of Putin and his war in Ukraine, Pope Francis said that there is no such thing anymore as a “just war.”

However, according to Marynovych, the Pope in the meeting “actively reacted” to their proposal and agreed that clarification on the issue was needed.  Pope Francis, he said, has already tasked some cardinals to study the topic of “just war” in more depth.

Calling Pope Francis an “attentive listener,” Marynovych said the pontiff, after each of the Ukrainians had spoken, outlined the steps he’s taken to intervene in the conflict since it began, including several phone calls with Zelenskyy, his visit to the Russian Embassy to the Holy See at the beginning of the war, his refusal to meet with Patriarch Kirill despite ongoing plans for a second meeting, and his decision to send cardinals to Ukraine as a sign of his affection and closeness.

Pope Francis, Marynovych said, also apparently attempted to arrange a visit to Moscow to speak with Putin, “but was politely declined.”

A papal visit to Ukraine was also discussed, with Pope Francis repeating his desire to go. According to Marynovych, Pope Francis’ knee problems are the “major obstacle” standing in the way, and the Pope’s doctors “strongly advise him against any trips.”

Pope Francis recently postponed his visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, which was set for July 2-7, due to his knee pain.

“However, if a trip to Ukraine becomes technically possible, Pope Francis wants to come to Kyiv and not to the border with Ukraine, as some would advise,” Marynovych said.

He said the small group left the meeting “feeling grateful to the Pope for the opportunity to share our thoughts and were truly inspired.”

“This conversation was very significant for all of us. Of course, it does not mean that from now on, the pope will view the world through the Ukrainian prism,” he said.

“Indeed, in the future, it might be important for Ukrainians to hear the Vatican’s perspective on certain issues,” he said. “However, today there is one thing we can be certain about: Communication crises must be resolved via friendly communication. And that is what we tried to do while in the Vatican.”