On the last Sunday in January, Pope Francis will step across the threshold of the Basilica of Santa Sofia in Rome. For decades this exotic-looking building served as the mother church of Ukrainian Greek Catholics while they were being ruthlessly suppressed in their homeland.
The visit is a delicate one for Francis, who has had a turbulent relationship with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church since his election in 2013. While many Ukrainian Catholics would like Rome to defend them more energetically, the Holy See is anxious not to be drawn into the present conflict, sensing that its relations with both Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church are at stake.
Hence the diplomatic crises that arise whenever this issue is discussed. In January 2015, Francis provoked uproar in the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches when he described the war in Ukraine as “fratricidal”. Ukrainian Catholics do not see the conflict as a clash of brothers but rather as a David and Goliath struggle between Kiev and Moscow. They were further offended in 2016, when Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill held their historic meeting and issued a joint statement that appeared to play down Ukrainian concerns.
These misunderstandings are surprising given Francis’s longstanding ties to the Ukrainian Catholic community. In his youth the Pope met a Salesian missionary called Fr Stefan Czmil, who introduced him to the soaring Greek Catholic liturgy. The young Jorge Mario Bergoglio would rise early to serve the priest’s Masses. “It was Fr Czmil who taught me how to participate in the Ukrainian Rite of the Mass,” he recalled last year, “opening me to a different liturgy.” Fr Czmil later became a bishop and is buried in the crypt of the Basilica of Santa Sofia.
Francis became friends with another influential figure in Buenos Aires: the future Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who served as apostolic administrator of the local Ukrainian Church.
The Pope has had to repeatedly assure Ukrainian Catholics that he has not forgotten them. In 2016 he asked churches in Europe to hold a special collection for Ukraine. In his annual speech to diplomats earlier this month, he spoke mournfully of a war that has claimed 10,000 lives so far and called for a “shared commitment to rebuilding bridges”.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection