On the eve of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, both Ukrainian politicians and local Catholics asked the Vatican to intervene as a mediator between Kyiv and Moscow and made urgent invitations for a visit by Pope Francis to Ukraine, which, many believed, could have helped forestall the war.
But from its first statements after the invasion began on February 24 last year, the Holy See has provoked disappointment and even harsh criticism among many Ukrainians.
While Pope Francis has spoken about the war in Ukraine frequently, and expressed his solidarity with its people, many Ukrainians have said they had expected him to unequivocally condemn Russia's actions and the crimes of the Russian army in Ukraine, and have since the war began expressed frustration with the pope’s approach to the conflict in the region.
Now with a newly minted papal peace envoy on the ground in Kyiv, local Catholics predict Cardinal Matteo Zuppi may find it hard to convince Ukrainians he understands the nature of the conflict, let alone secure their buy-in for his efforts for a cease-fire.
Ongoing Ukrainian disappointment with the Holy See's gestures and Francis’ words is reflected in plummeting levels of trust in the pope among the country’s people — which fell from 45% in 2020 — when Ukrainains considered Francis the world's most trusted religious leader — to 3.1% in May 2023, according to the leading Ukrainian think tank Razumkov Centre.
Razumkov's data show that more than half of Ukrainians (59%) now have a negative opinion of Pope Francis' stance on Russian aggression against Ukraine, believing that he equates the suffering of Ukrainians to that of Russians.
About 10% of Ukrainians believe the Pope is acting in the interests of the Kremlin, and only 9% support the Pope's desire to end the war at any cost. Not surprisingly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that Ukraine does not need Vatican's mediation after he visited Rome in May.
The president's statement reflects the wider attitude of Ukrainian society.
The Ukrainian media have been skeptical about the pope's recent peace initiatives, including a June visit to Ukraine by Cardinal Zuppi, Francis’ recently deputized peace envoy, which began June 5.
And, contrary to the musings of close papal advisors like Stefano Zamagni, the Catholic bishops of Ukraine have consistently emphasized that Ukraine needs a just peace, not just an end to hostilities at any cost.
More broadly, Ukrainian Catholics have told The Pillar they have little hope in the peace initiatives of the Holy See — and many say their skepticism is because they believe the Vatican lacks of understanding of both the causes of the war and Russia's goals.
Like most Ukrainians, Mykola Symchych, a lecturer in philosophy at the UGCC Kyiv Theological Seminary of the Three Holy Hierarchs, said he does not place much hope in the Vatican's peace initiatives and doubts that they will bring any benefit to Ukraine.
The reason for that skepticism, according to Symchych, is the pope's previous statements, which he believes demonstrate that the pontiff does not understand the situation in Ukraine correctly.
In Symchych’s opinion, Francis’ position may be rooted in his Latin American background, and a general lack of understanding of European geopolitics and history.
Futher, Symchych told The Pillar he believes that a long-standing Russophilia is widespread in the Vatican, and is acting as a real influence on the pope’s framing of the conflict.
"I can't rule out that FSB agents may still surround the pope. Now it is beneficial for Putin to freeze the conflict to present the seizure of territories in Donbas and the land corridor to Crimea as a success,” the professor told The Pillar.
“At the same time, Russia's strategic goal is to take over all of Ukraine. Russia can use a lull in the war to solve systemic problems in the Russian army and build up its military capabilities,” Symchych said.
“Then the next time, in a few years, they will be able to attack Ukraine more successfully. Therefore, through various institutions, including the Vatican, Putin can promote a narrative favorable to him – an illusory peace, that is, a temporary freeze of the war."
The professor added that he has not observed much enthusiasm for Vatican interventions among even Catholic Ukrainians: "I work at a Greek Catholic seminary. Interestingly, even though it is a Catholic institution, the pope's initiative has not come up as a topic of discussion in any conversations with my colleagues. This is also a certain indicator. If there were certain expectations from this initiative, it would be discussed more. I assume that my colleagues are also skeptical of this peace plan.”
Maksym Vikhrov, a Catholic who was forced to leave his native Luhansk in 2014 after Russia launched a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, now heads the editorial office of the popular magazine “The Ukrainian Week,” in Kyiv.
Vikhrov believes that between 2014 and 2022, the Vatican’s diplomatic and ecclesial efforts toward Ukraine were perceived positively by Ukrainian society. But after the February 24, 2022 invasion, the situation changed, and the attitude toward the Holy See in Ukraine deteriorated significantly.
“When the world learned about [the atrocities carried out by Russian forces in] Mariupol and Bucha, it became clear that this is not a conflict that started because politicians quarreled with each other. We see that Russian society supports this war, tolerates its army's actions, and does nothing,” Vikhrov said.
“Against this backdrop, the Vatican's attempts to reconcile Ukrainians and Russians during last year's and this year's Stations of the Cross are inadequate. For all my deep loyalty to Pope Francis, I could not accept this. I'm not a great expert in theology, but this position seemed infantile. It is an escape from reality. I don't expect the pope to curse all Russians, but when you see evil, you must name it clearly," Vikhrov told The Pillar.
According to Vikhrov, while last year Ukrainians massively expressed their indignation at certain gestures of the Vatican, this year, the scenario of the Station of the Cross, during which the Vatican again tried to put Ukrainians and Russians side by side, attracted almost no attention:
"There is considerable disappointment. People have stopped paying attention to what the pope says. He is perceived as just another figure who has not understood the situation. And this is not due to any nationalistic feelings. No one expects him to proclaim Ukrainians ‘holy warriors,’ it's about an adequate assessment of what is happening," Vihrov said.
For priests, the situation is even more complicated, as many Catholics and Ukrainians more broadly ask them to explain how they should understand certain statements and actions of the Holy See.
According to Fr. Mykola Myshovskyi, a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Kamianets-Podilskyi and editor of the popular Catholic publication Credo, people often raise this issue.
"We cannot accuse the pope of any malice or bad intentions regarding Ukraine. But there is a saying in Ukraine that a spoonful of tar spoils a barrel of honey. So everything the Holy See is doing to support Ukraine is a barrel of honey, but it has a spoonful of tar. There are a lot of negativities towards the Vatican from the public, and our people are suffering because of it,” said Myshovskyi.
“If the situation with last year's religious procession could be explained to ourselves and people by the lack of understanding of the situation by Vatican officials, this year such explanations no longer worked. This year, everything was even worse because the brother, grandfather, and father mentioned by the Russian boy simply ‘went somewhere’... not to take over a foreign country, kill children and rape women, terrorize civilians... they just went on a trip. After such things, many people experience shock and are forced to look for an explanation for why they remain Catholics," said Myshovskyi.
Myshovskyi believes that the Vatican's current peace initiatives are a noble and evangelical mission but, like many Ukrainians, he believes that Vatican diplomats lack understanding of the situation.
“They should understand that Ukraine is very eager for peace and wants the war to end as soon as possible. But probably many people outside the borders of Ukraine continue to believe in a ‘noble Russia’ with Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, and Pushkin, but this Russia does not exist. Real Russia kills, maims, and rapes. Adults, children, the elderly.”
“The real Russia is shelling Ukraine every day. And right now, air raid warnings sound all over Ukraine. The real Russia is kidnapping our children. They have set themselves the goal of simply destroying us. And to work towards peace, we need to understand who we are dealing with,” the priest told The Pillar.
Fr. Myshovsky's skepticism is shared by Dmytro Sherengovsky, an expert on international relations and vice-rector for academic affairs and internationalization at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
“I don't think that at this stage the Vatican's peacekeeping mission will have a positive effect,” he told The Pillar.
“Why would it? We see Russia does not want to reach peace agreements on neutral terms that would suit us and them. So far, the signals coming out of Russia show they are ready to recognize only a peace that is beneficial to them. The problem is that the peace initiatives coming from the Vatican are not coordinated with Ukraine. And the result is a situation where they are trying to talk about Ukraine without Ukraine. This is the biggest problem I see in this process. However, I am fine with any attempts to talk to our enemy within specific red markers. This is a typical settlement process.”
At the same time, Sherengovsky has a more positive assessment of Cardinal Zuppi’s being sent as a special papal envoy to Ukraine. However, he thinks that Zuppi is arriving years too late, with Russian aggression against Ukraine dating back to 2014. In his opinion, this visit may contribute to the Vatican's rethinking of the situation, as has already happened following the visits of representatives from other countries to Ukraine after February 24, 2022.
“The approaches that the Vatican is now demonstrating are clear to us. This is a Christian perspective - to sit down, negotiate, and make peace,” said Sherengovsky. “But they won't work in the type of war we currently face. After all, what we are dealing with is not just a conventional war for a specific territory. Territorial disputes can be settled. The problem is that we have a complex hybrid war that started long before 2014.”
The conflicts of 2014, he said, only marked the beginning of the military phase, after a long campaign in the information, humanitarian, economic, and diplomatic spheres. And in such complex wars, the settlement of one part of the conflict does not automatically mean the settlement of all areas. “It is impossible to cover all these areas with one agreement, said Sherengovsky. “Russia needs to change its behavior, which is a long process that, for example, Nazi Germany or imperialist Japan went through after World War II.”
“The biggest thing I would expect from the Vatican is that they understand the complexity of this war, and stop looking at it as a military clash for territory which needs to be resolved.”
“Territory is one of the elements, but not all,” Sherengovsky said. “This conflict is much broader. And so, one should pay attention to its deeper causes. Regarding the Vatican's involvement, there are many narrow issues, such as releasing prisoners or ensuring the operation of grain corridors.”
While the Vatican may have no real influence on the military sphere,” Sherengovsky concluded, “ it can be quite effective in helping to resolve some of these narrower issues. This would be the best option for the Vatican.”