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As head of the pastoral and migration department of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Bishop Stepan Sus spends about two weeks each month traveling to the 18 countries under his jurisdiction, visiting Ukrainians emigres living outside their home country. 

Bishop Stepan Sus. Courtesy photo.

While on the road these days, the bishop, 42, finds himself mostly in conversation about the war still raging in his country — and sometimes about Pope Francis’ remarks on the conflict.

While on a recent visit to Portugal, Sus sat down to talk with The Pillar about those subjects, and more.  

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Pope Francis recently caused controversy with his remarks about Ukraine needing the “courage of the white flag”.

The Vatican has said he was not calling for surrender, but for negotiation. Were you convinced?

We understand clearly that the Holy Father is on the side of the people who are suffering. Many times, during his sermons, and different statements at the Vatican, he stresses that he is praying and thinking, keeping in his heart, the martyred nation of Ukraine, which is suffering this stupid and unnecessary war. So, from those messages we can clearly understand that the Holy Father is on the side of Ukrainians. 

For diplomatic and political reasons, he cannot officially say who the real aggressor in this war is, but for us it was difficult to understand how we can raise the white flag, or how we can stop defending ourselves, because we are defending against something. 

How can we talk about peace with Russia while they are killing us? 

Why did the Ukrainian government stop negotiations with Russia in 2022, in Turkey? 

Because that day, when Russia started to talk to us about peace, and stopping the war, they killed many people in Bucha and in Irpin. 

They raped our women, they killed children, and we clearly understand that if the person, or country, who began the war against another country wants to talk about peace, they first need to stop the aggression, clearly showing that they are ready to talk about this, about real concrete things. 

Second, when we are talking about dialogue, it is also necessary to have real conditions. One side has to respect the other. But when we see the statements from the Russian federation, over the last year or months, they say they don't want to talk to Ukraine because we are fascists... They want to talk to the EU, to NATO, to the USA. 

That means that they want to talk about peace in Ukraine without Ukraine; they want to talk about peace in Ukraine to other countries, other nations, while they continue killing Ukrainians, and they want us to believe that they are really open to talking about peace. For us, that is not acceptable.

But Ukraine is paying a heavy price on the battlefield.

I think the number of people whom [the Russians] have killed during this war is fewer than the number they would kill if they occupied the whole country. 

We saw crimes in Mariupol, in Bucha, Irpin. 

Russia believes that given enough time the world will get tired, and stop supporting Ukraine, and that will push Ukraine to negotiate. But nobody is thinking about the consequences, what the Russians would do to us. 

If they have committed crimes against us in the occupied territories while we were defending ourselves, what would they do if we freely let them in, and accepted their idea of brotherhood and Russian peace? It is not realistic. It is not possible. 

We are all praying for peace in Ukraine. We want this peace, because we are suffering. 

But we are realistic and we understand that it is not possible while some talk about peace, but continue to kill our people. 

Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader Major Archbishop Shevchuk has spoken insistently about the need to address the effects of trauma among the population.

Is the Church prepared to do that?

As a Church, we are trying to look forward and think about the challenges we will face at the end of the war, when the soldiers can go home. 

We already see many challenges, including psychological and physical trauma, and many situations of conflict among families. 

We have started a program to heal the wounds of war, to train our priests, our religious nuns and monks, and all volunteers, to work with veterans and their families. 

Now we can see that it is not only about soldiers being accepted by their relatives when they return home, but also about preparing the soldier for this change in reality, where people are living in a different way. That can breed misunderstandings, disappointment, when you start thinking that you were out sacrificing your life, but nothing changed back at home, and that they don't understand you. 

We want to train all our people to be well prepared. It doesn't mean they have to be psychologists, but they must know how they can direct a person to the right specialists who can help them, because many of our servicemen, when they have difficulties, will first go to the Church. 

They do trust the Church, and for us, as a Church it is important to be able to help them with the problems they have. 

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Soon after Russia began its full-scale invasion in February 2022, Western Europeans began to see quite a lot of expensive cars with Ukrainian license plates, driven by young men. 

Does it bother you, and Ukrainians in general, that some are living comfortably in the west, while others are fighting on the front line?

First, we understand that there are some Ukrainians who are not involved with real Ukrainian life, and with the difficulties Ukrainians are facing in Ukraine — namely, a war. 

For them, it is like the war does not exist. 

They are Ukrainian, but most of them use Ukraine only as a territory. They were never deeply involved with national life, with our challenges, to them Ukraine is a place where they can earn money, and run their business. 

Not all, of course, some try to help Ukraine from where they are living, but with others, the way they behave, their expensive cars, all this tells us that they don't really understand, they are not thinking about Ukraine and the Ukrainians who are fighting, they are thinking about themselves, their own safety and their own needs. 

Do we need such people on the front line? 

The military says it is better not to ask them to be on the front line, because you cannot trust people who escaped from Ukraine at the very beginning of the war. They are not patriots, they do not want to be involved with Ukrainian life, they do not worry about the victory, they are just selfish and thinking of their own safety. 

Maybe there are some who have a real explanation. Maybe they have health problems, or their children do, and they needed to go somewhere to protect their children. But I think that in general Ukrainians should not be driving expensive cars in Western Europe, they should be on the front line. 

You have worked in military chaplaincy since before being ordained. How did you get involved in that?

It is important to understand that for the UGCC, chaplaincy ministry was something new. For many years, during the Communist times, the Church was underground, it was only at the end of the 80s, when the Church became legal again, that we started to renew our structures. 

At first, we were focused on the parish level, but around 2001 the Church decided to develop this service, and my bishop asked me as a seminarian to start to work with the military and try to develop this chaplaincy. 

For ordinary people, to speak about chaplaincy 20 years ago was something they didn't understand. But that changed 10 years ago, when Russia began to occupy Eastern Ukraine, because we understand that it is important for the chaplain to be at the side of the military man. 

How important are military chaplains, especially during a war?

As we say, there are no atheists on the front line. 

Soldiers face battle, war conditions, and because of this they review many existential issues. First of all, they are thinking of the purpose of their life. What am I living for, as a military man? What am I doing here? How can I be here, sacrificing my life, and at the same time deal with my family? Everything is a relation between duty and family. They are always ready to lay down their lives for others, for the nation. 

The chaplaincy exists to help our soldiers find the right answers to the questions they have in war time; maybe they are injured, wounded, amputees, and when you have that kind of disability you need to be able to count on somebody. 

Chaplains are also mediators between the military and their relatives. The chaplain is a father, a brother and a good friend for every military man and woman. 

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Do soldiers distinguish between Greek-Catholic or Orthodox priests on the front line?

First of all, they respect you as a priest. 

They don't distinguish between confessions; they just want to see that among them there is a person who is really a sign of the presence of God. 

Whenever we do something that is important, we want to feel that God is with us. Many of them firstly receive the priest as a good person, someone with answers, who understands, and who has time to hear your problems and does not judge you, but accepts you as you are, with all the negative and positive aspects of your life.

One day, hopefully, this war will end, and justice will be obtained.

Do you believe you will live to see reconciliation between Ukraine and Russia?

We hope for that, and that Russia will understand its own mistakes, which it committed by starting this unnecessary war against Ukrainians. For years, the Russians told us that we are their brothers and friends, but nowadays we understand that even if someone calls you brother, it doesn't mean they will not do bad things to you. 

We are waiting for another Russia. A Russia which will be part of Europe, and a Russia which will understand that they can do many good things in this world, starting with respect for the dignity of human life, and respecting their own people – because we understand that many people from the Russian side have died in this war – and that Russia will review its attitude towards other countries. 

Today, with their propaganda, they want to rewrite the history of the whole world. If they don't accept some country, they will say that its existence is a mistake of history, which is what they said about Ukraine, a few weeks ago they said something similar about Belgium, Poland, and the Baltic countries. 

They are trying to revise history and the danger for us is that sometimes they use Christian values to try and justify their own mistakes. Like at the beginning of the war, they said they wanted to save the world, and that is why they had to start the war, saving the world from its sins. 

This missionary or messianic spirit is dangerous, because we can see in the history of all tyrants that they started their path by declaring the need to convert the world, to save the world by killing civilians. 

During your visit to Portugal you said: “Russia needs to be converted. The period we are going through is probably necessary to bring this evil to an end.” 

Could you explain that idea?

We often think about the meaning of the message of the Virgin Mary of Fátima: Why must Russia be converted? 

I think we are struggling with evil, and we understand that this evil has a human face, because there was one person who started this war, who started spreading this poison, and we have to stop this person. Not only Ukrainians, but other European countries, and the entire world, needs to stop this evil and help Russia change. Everything must change deeply to be converted. 

When we speak about somebody who converted, we mean that this person totally changed their view, their whole context of life, and maybe that is when we really understand this message of the Virgin Mary in Fátima, because this message was not just a statement, it was a task entrusted to the people, not to be afraid to struggle with evil. 

That is what we are doing every day on the front line. 

Ukraine is currently discussing a law which would ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate.

The UGCC was also banned during the Soviet Union. Do you agree with this approach?

We are just asking the UOC to clearly say on whose side they are. 

In Ukraine we hear many declarations from the Moscow Church, that they still believe that Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are one nation, one people, one brotherhood. 

If they make such statements, they have to talk to Putin and to [Russian Orthodox] Patriarch Kyrill, to ask them to stop this war. 

But it seems to us that they do not want to do that, they are always waiting for what might happen tomorrow, not today, but people are dying today, Russian missiles and drones are killing civilian people, women, children, destroying cities and villages, and we are just asking them to make a choice, of which side of this conflict they are on. I think they will show which side they are on by their real acts and words. 

Bishop Stefan Sus. Courtesy image.

But a law to ban their activities, or to take their churches — will that not give Russians more reason to fight?

Of course, we do not accept that somebody can totally forbid the Church, because it is always dangerous when the state wants to forbid something. 

I think that the most important thing is to talk to the UOC and explain that they cannot continue to celebrate only in Russian, for example. It is strange that in the third year of the war we still have a Church which is praying to the Russian saints, such as Czar Nicholas, and holding them up as examples of courage, and saying that our soldiers should pray to them, it is a misunderstanding of reality, of history. 

And we, as the Ukrainian Catholic Church, we try to respect every other confession in Ukraine, but at the same time we are with the Ukrainian nation, and we are inviting all churches which are serving in Ukraine to be with Ukrainians.

You cannot provide pastoral care to your faithful in Ukraine and at the same time say that Russia and Ukraine are one nation. It is difficult to accept. 

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The Eastern Churches tend to be divided along ethnic and national lines.

Does this make them more likely to be used or instrumentalized by politicians, or to fall into what has been termed ethnophyletism?

I think that we have to be very attentive and not get involved with the state. 

When, as a Church, we want to be involved with the state, and with the political, we become a state-dependent Church, which is a challenge for the Church, because in European nations you have people supporting different political parties, and when you, as a Church, start to support just one side, you are cutting off from your communities other people who could be from the opposition, or who cannot accept the political situation of that time. 

For us, our independence is to be the voice of God in our nation. We try to respect the government, we are uniting people in our country, we try to be a voice not only for our faithful, but also for the state and the authorities, and we hope that other Churches will do the same. 

The current leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church is not a cardinal, though his predecessor was.

Many Ukrainian Catholics have also called for their leader to be recognized as a patriarch.

Is Rome holding back on these things because it wants to have an ecumenical relationship with the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow?

I think Rome has many answers for this. For our leader to be made a cardinal is a question of status, but he is a patriarch. And for Ukrainians, to have a patriarch, a father, the leader who is uniting all Ukrainians all over the world in one Church, is more important than to wait for a title which is additional to the status of leader of an Eastern Catholic Church. 

Of course, it would be a sign of respect from the Vatican, to award this status to the leader of our Church, but maybe they still need time. And maybe they are waiting for the result of this war, to see how everything will work out.

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