The Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church opened in Rome on Sept. 3, while Pope Francis was traveling in Mongolia, creating a curious polar reversal effect.
The Catholic leader of the West was on the edge of the East, while the main Catholic expression of the Christian East gathered in the spiritual capital of the West: perhaps this is precisely the explanation for the term "Catholic," whether Greek or Roman, Mongolian, Russian or Ukrainian (a term that in turn denotes "border").
The major archbishop of Kiev, Svjatoslav Ševčuk, recalled the many deaths from the war of the "killers of God," as he called the Russian aggressors, who by killing the innocent annihilate the very presence of God.
The tragedy of the invasion and the endless conflict between the two banks of the Dnipro River is certainly the main theme of the discussion among the 55 Ukrainian bishops, who came from various parts of the world.
This is not the first time that the Synod of the "Uniates" has gathered in Rome; indeed until 30 years ago, in the days of the USSR, the papal capital was the seat of the Greek Catholic Church itself, with St. Sophia Cathedral on the Boccea Street as a reminder of the great Kiev, oppressed by the atheistic power of the "communist religion."
Persecuted Ukrainians have created a large diaspora around the world, from Europe to America, Australia and South America. Ševčuk himself served his Church for years in Argentina, where he forged an affectionate bond with the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a relationship that remains an important point of reference even in these difficult times full of contradictions.
In fact, the Synod was also marked by a controversy, greatly amplified media and diplomatically, over the words of Pope Francis in video connection with young Russian Catholics gathered in St. Petersburg, when he urged them to be "heirs of the great mother Russia," words that had aroused regret and "disappointment" in the souls of the Ukrainian Catholic bishops themselves.
However, during the meeting on Wednesday, September 6, which lasted almost two hours, Ševčuk thanked the pope for the affection shown in so many ways and on so many occasions, and the misunderstanding was overcome also thanks to the pontiff's own interpretation of his true intentions, which were not to erase the great Russian culture by confusing it with political instrumentalization.
The pope's prayer and support for the "martyred" Ukraine is not in question, indeed it was emphasized by using the neologism of "martyrdom" as the very essence of the life of the Ukrainian people and its Church, both Orthodox and Catholic, in the Greek and Latin versions.
The vocation to martyrdom, after all, is the original characteristic of the whole Church, dating back to the first centuries of Christianity. And it is especially so for Ukraine, a land called to sacrifice from its origins, not only as a result of Putin's delusions of grandeur or the Argentine pope's alleged pro-Russian sympathies.
It has been a middle land between East and West since the 988 Baptism imposed by Prince Vladimir on Kiev to avoid total confrontation with the Byzantine Empire, and continually assailed by the many Asian, Caucasian, Nordic, and Western peoples to vie for domination of Europe and the world.
It is the land devastated by the Tatar-Mongolian invasion, evoked with equally ambiguous overtones by Pope Francis himself on his trip to Ulan-Bator.
It was precisely in the thirteenth-century desolation that the popes sought to send messengers and mediators, Franciscan friars and cardinals, to find ways of reconciliation with the Russians and Mongols that would protect the Latin world and stop the slaughter.
This search for Rome's attunement with the "Third Rome" of the earliest tsars and modern emperors, down to party secretaries and federal presidents, has been a constant in history for more than a millennium, and Ukraine itself was born in the context of this "imperial dialogue."
When the Union of Brest-Litovsk, which gave rise to the "Ruthenian" Greek Catholic Church, was proclaimed in 1596, the papacy also wanted to assume the eastern dimensions of the patriarchate, giving rise to numerous contradictions ever since.
Ukrainians have been subjected to waves of "Russification" by Moscow, but also of "Latinization" by Rome, through Warsaw, Vilnius and Budapest, to mention only a few of the Western capitals that had in part control over the territory now defended by NATO countries against the Eurasian monster.
Poland's Latin bishops have often been among the main opponents of their Greek Catholic "brethren" until recent times. For example, when Card. Wyszynski, Primate of Warsaw and teacher of Karol Wojtyla, had opposed in 1958 the canonization of Archbishop Andrej Šeptickij, Metropolitan of Lvov of the Greek Catholics, who died in 1944 when Ukraine was in the balance between Germans and Russians, in the drama of World War II so much evoked by the present war.
The saintly Pope John Paul II, who was well acquainted with these dramatic events, tried in every way to help the Church in Ukraine rise again, visiting Kiev with his last remaining strength before illness and death, almost foreshadowing what would happen less than two decades later.
No less complicated were the relations between Rome and the Greek Catholics in the Soviet years, when the Vatican Ostpolitik inaugurated at the time of John XXIII, and pursued by Paul VI and his collaborators until the end of the USSR: seemed to want to ignore the martyrdom of Ukrainians, priests, bishops and faithful killed and imprisoned in the camps.
A glaring example of this was the fate of the primate Josif Slypyj, the archbishop of Lviv who was freed in 1963 after 18 years of imprisonment in exchange for "Vatican silence" avoiding condemnation of communism during the Council. Slypyj was appointed cardinal "in pectore" in 1965 and made public only when this would not irritate the Muscovite leadership, and the leader of the Uniates devoted himself precisely to the pastoral care of the worldwide diaspora of Ukrainians.
Thus, it is not a personal issue between Bergoglio and Greek Catholics, although there has been no shortage of reasons for misunderstanding since 2016, when the pope met with Moscow Patriarch Kirill at the Havana airport and avoided condemning the Russians' warlike actions in the Donbass, which had been ongoing for two years before.
Certainly, Pope Francis' spontaneity on some occasions, such as his speech to Russian youth, reveal his deep sympathy for "Great Russia," which so unnerves Ukrainians. In commenting on his own statements, the pontiff made it clear that he certainly did not intend to defend imperialism, and his reference to the emperors Peter the Great and Catherine II were only "scholastic reminiscences," while he had in mind the culture of Dostoevsky and Borodin, the 19th-century composer mentioned during the trip to Mongolia. The pope later admitted that perhaps these quotations were not entirely appropriate, appealing to historians to make the references more effective.
Historians actually know that Peter and Catherine are two models of "Westernized" Russia, so it is not strange that they come to mind first to a lover of Russia in the West.
Today they are also among Putin's favorite models to inspire the ideology of the "Russian world," which has caused disappointment among the Ukrainian bishops, but that certainly was not the pope's intention.
If anything, it might be recalled that the Jesuits, an order to which Pope Bergoglio himself belongs, began to act openly in Russia under Peter (they were the main "propagandists" of Western culture in the new capital of St. Petersburg), and were "saved" by Catherine in the late 18th century, when they had been suppressed in the rest of the world. In addition to his high school studies, the pope must surely have heard of them during his Jesuit education.
Yet there is an undeniable dimension of "papal imperialism" in associating culture with the great rulers who waged war at all latitudes (Catherine invaded and Russified Crimea, which is why she is so beloved by Putin).
Nor does the explanation lie in the speech to the Russian youth, but in another phrase by Pope Francis, not picked up by the media because it is far less expendable in the controversy of the day.
On Sept. 2, during his meeting with the president and authorities of Mongolia, the pope recalled "the Mongolian empire, which in the continuation of so many centuries was able to reach out to so many distant and diverse lands...may Heaven grant us today to recreate the conditions of what was the pax mongolica, that is, the absence of conflict."
Certainly, the pope did not want to exhort us to feel like heirs of Genghis Khan or Khan Batu, the invader of Russia, and was probably alluding to the ancient pax augustea of the Romans, at the time of Christ's birth.
A legacy of peace assumed by Christians after the Roman Empire, precisely in the figure of the pope of Rome, and in the Catholic communion of the peoples of the whole world.