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'A strange type of ecumenism' - Francis faces criticism in Ukraine

Pope Francis greets Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Credit: UCGC.

As war continues in Ukraine, Catholics in the country say they are looking for more support from Pope Francis, who has long called for peace in the country but has not explicitly condemned Russian leaders, who began an invasion of Ukraine Feb. 24, or specifically discussed the role of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in justifying the invasion.

Ukrainians have fiercely debated the Holy See’s approach to the conflict, and the meaning of ecumenical overtures between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the Orthodox patriarch who is widely seen in Ukraine as a supporter of Russia’s invasion.

While some Ukrainian Catholics have told The Pillar they have been offended or discouraged by Vatican efforts toward ecumenism with the Russian Orthodox Church, others say the Holy See needs better communication from Ukrainians about the reality facing their country.

“The experience of war is challenging for everyone, and we are looking for support and resources in something lasting and stable, which for me is faith and the Church. The head of our Church - the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church - has an unequivocal position. But when the head of the universal Church, from whom I also expect support, shows a lack of understanding of the situation… that hurts me a lot,” said Olena Bidovanets, an infectious disease specialist in Kyiv, who is head of Obnova- the Society of Ukrainian Catholic Students.

When the war broke out, Bidovanets was in the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship, studying public health. She returned to Kyiv March 14, to work with a group providing humanitarian medical assistance in the country.

Bidovanets told The Pillar that, like many Ukrainians, she would like to hear from Pope Francis a more clear and direct judgment about Russia’s invasion of her country, and about the complicity of the Russian Orthodox patriarch in supporting the war.

The physician said she was disappointed by a Vatican decision last month to invite Russian and Ukrainian women living in Italy to participate in the Good Friday Way of the Cross celebrated by Pope Francis — with both women holding aloft the cross at the 13th Station of the Cross.

While Vatican officials said the gesture was intended to be a call for peace, Bidovanets said it was inappropriate. Her perspective has been widely echoed among Ukrainian and Latin Catholics in Ukraine.

A Ukrainian and Russian woman hold a cross aloft during Good Friday Stations of the Cross led by Pope Francis. Credit: Vatican Media.

“In my opinion, it was worth inviting a woman from Bucha and asking her if she was ready to carry this cross. With all due respect to the Ukrainian woman who has been living in Italy for 20 years, a person who is far from the reality that exists here couldn't carry that cross,” Bidovanets said.

Bidovanets, a member of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, told The Pillar that she was shocked when Pope Francis said last month he had “regrets” about the cancellation of an anticipated June meeting with Patriarch Kirill.

Speaking about the Church’s ecumenical relations with the Moscow Patriarchate, Bidovanets recalled the 1960s and 1970s, when the Vatican's “Ostpolitik” policies reached their peak, as the Holy See avoided open condemnation of the persecution of Catholics and other Christians behind the Iron Curtain.

“For what did our Church suffer for 45 years in the underground?” she asked.

The Vatican’s Ostpolitik — its diplomatic approach to Russia and Eastern Europe — is one of the most debated subjects among Catholic intellectuals in Ukraine today.

Yurii Pidlisnyi is chair of the political science department at the Ukrainian Catholic University, and chairman of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s Commission on Family and Laity.

Pidlisnyi told The Pillar that he thinks “the position of the Vatican concerning the Russian-Ukrainian war is veiled, and that looks like a sacrifice of truth for the illusory profit of Ostpolitik.”

“It is difficult for me to judge why they choose that, because such a policy will not bring any benefits to the Catholic Church. If there was a hope that Kirill would act as a partner in achieving global goals, or as a person who would help in the negotiations with Putin, it is an illusion, because he is not the person on whom something depends.”

“[Kirill] cannot speak on an equal footing with Putin because the Church in Russia, especially under Kirill, has become 100% dependent on political power and works as its servant. He is a mouthpiece of Kremlin policy, not a moral authority that can solve some humanitarian issues,” Pidlisnyi said.

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Many Catholics and Orthodox believers in Ukraine were relieved when the Vatican announced last month that an anticipated June meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill had been cancelled. In fact, after the summit’s cancellation was announced, later news that Pope Francis would not visit Kyiv went almost unnoticed in the country.

For many priests, the cancellation of the planned meeting between Francis and Kirill resolved questions they had expected to hear from their parishioners.

Several priests told The Pillar that their parishioners do not follow the nuances of Vatican diplomacy, but that joint photos of Francis and Kirill would have been demoralizing to the Ukrainian people, and explanations or interpretations would have been hard to provide.

“People going through a state of war are outraged and insulted by any positive gestures towards Patriarch Kirill, who approves and blesses this war,” said Fr. Mykola Myshovskyi, a Latin Catholic priest from Vinnytsia, who is director of a popular Catholic current events site in Ukraine.

Fr. Myshovskyi said the Church’s ecumenical gestures toward the Moscow Patriarch - along with controversy over the Good Friday Way of the Cross - have largely erased 30 years of work to assert the credibility of the Catholic Church in Ukraine: “Today in Ukrainian society the degree of negativity towards the Catholic Church is quite high, and it can be observed both among Catholics themselves and those who treated our Church with sympathy. For many believers, this is too difficult a test.”

“People have sensitive nerves; their psychological state is bad, and in such a situation, they feel betrayed. For many people, the Church was the last thing left. Literally, they lost relatives, property, and jobs. And when, after all, things happen in the Church that make them want to cry, it’s unfortunate,” said Fr. Myshovskyi, who added sardonically: “This pope can be firm and straight only with traditional Catholics, but not with Moscow…”

For his part, Pidlisnyi, the political scientist, offered a pessimistic assessment of the Church’s situation in Ukraine: “Unfortunately, this pope has squandered the achievements of John Paul II and Benedict XVI [in Ukraine].”

“John Paul II was an apostle of peace, a man who was not afraid to call a spade a spade. Although Ostpolitik also weighed on him, he broke free from it. Instead, Francis achieved that Orthodox, Protestants, and just people of goodwill who respected the authority of the pope are now turning away from the Catholic Church. And this credibility will have to be restored for a long time,” the professor said.

Fr. Petro Balog, OP, director of the Institute of St. Thomas Aquinas in Kyiv, agreed that the Vatican’s position over the war will affect the mission of the Catholic Church in Ukraine.

Balog said that until recently, the pope was the most trusted among Ukrainians of all global religious leaders. He said it is difficult to say whether the pontiff will enjoy that trust the future.

The Dominican noted that many assessments in Ukraine are now rather emotional: “Today, many countries worldwide support Ukraine, and Ukrainian society has been immersed into this wave.  Those not on our side are called enemies immediately — we are accusing those world politicians who are more cautious, instead of acting a little more wise.”

“I believe that the pope is definitely not our enemy,” Balog noted.

Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned the war in Ukraine, and called for peace. He has drawn the ire of many Ukrainians because he has not condemned Russia by name, and because his ecumenical interest in Moscow seems unimpeded by Kirill’s support for the Russkiy Mir ideology.

Fr. Balog agreed that the Vatican has emphasized its ecumenical relationship Moscow in its approach to the Russian-Ukrainian war: “There is certain inertia about this. And when the hot phase of the war began, and the Russian Orthodox Church supported it, the Vatican was still trying to be above all this, seeking to maintain its ties with Moscow. Because this dialogue has been developed for centuries, they do not want to ruin it all with one stroke of the pen — because they are already thinking about what will happen next after the war.”

“One can recall when there was the USSR, the patriarchs were under the control of the atheist government, but contacts did not stop,” the priest mentioned.

Balog said it is difficult to say whether the Vatican’s ecumenical approach is justified; that will only become apparent over time, he said.

Still, the priest said it is hard to understand the approach of Vatican diplomats who have organized summits like a 2016 Havana meeting between Francis and Kirill.

“From our point of view, we can say that these things should be done differently. It is possible that the Vatican lacks people who could convey the Ukrainian perspective well. There are Russophiles there, but there is a lack, so to speak, of ‘Ukrainophiles’ who would balance the approaches of the Holy See.”

Fr. Jurij Blazejewski, editor of the Skynia (Tabernacle) Magazine in Lviv, and a student at Santa Croce University in Rome, said he too sees a need for the presence of Ukrainian Catholics in the Vatican.

According to Blazejewski, most workers and officials in the Roman Curia are representatives of “old Europe.”

“They have the view of Russia as a superpower to be reckoned with under any circumstances. They are already born with this approach, and in their view, the world is so arranged.”

Blazejewski said that Ukrainian Church leaders should consider how better to communicate with Vatican officials, and how better to express their perspectives on both ecumenical and political issues.

“We, Ukrainians, should be present here (in Rome), be interpreters of the context, be involved in the process, and not be outside observers who only criticize because the Vatican did not understand us. But who will explain to them our perspective? In the case of the Way of the Cross, it was a communication failure, not on the side of the Vatican but the side of Ukraine. The Vatican does not understand the context and the mood of Ukrainian society. The problem is that you don’t know people you don't communicate with. And there are very few Ukrainians who could do that. This is a problem that Church leaders in Ukraine need to consider.”

But Fr. Vyacheslav Okun, SJ, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest studying at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, said he doubts that Vatican officials lack information and context about the events in Ukraine.

“I think that in this case, the problem is not in the lack of communication, because Cardinal Krajewski and Cardinal Czerny visited Ukraine, they talked to local authorities, the Catholic and Orthodox hierarchs, visited [refugees] in western Ukraine, and were at the sites of massacres in Kyiv region.”

“I think that the information that the Vatican receives through the nunciature in Kyiv also helps them to understand the situation in Ukraine better. In addition, many of our [refugees], children, and women have already arrived here in Italy. Therefore, I am sure that the information reaches the relevant people who process it, but the conclusions made and the proposed steps do not give the result we would like to hear and see.”

“Perhaps there is the phenomenon which the Italians call buonismo, or a naive desire to seem some remnants of good, even in the aggressor, after inhumane horrors,” the priest added.

“I think this is the inertial worldview of the ‘Old Continent’ after World War II. There is a narrative that we have lived in peace since then. They say we managed to achieve peace and, most importantly, return to it by any means. But there were already wars in Europe; there was a war in Yugoslavia, now between Russia and Ukraine. There is also the naive belief that the Russians are ready for a peaceful solution to this war, and are also ready to make concessions — that it is possible to have a dialogue with them and solve problems in the diplomatic field. Perhaps that is why we are witnessing such reactions.”

Okun said that in his view, Rome is trying at all costs not to lose its ecumenical dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate.

“But we have a strange type of ecumenism, in which one of the parties preaches and blesses the war. In Ukraine, Orthodox people suffer and die first of all. Most of those killed in Ukraine were Orthodox, and, most likely, many of them belonged to the Moscow Patriarchate. Thus, [the soldiers] kill their flock and fellow believers, and the patriarch justifies this as a ‘metaphysical’ struggle against evil. What kind of ecumenism is this? What about Orthodox Ukrainians?”

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