During a meeting in Rome Wednesday morning, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic synod of bishops told Pope Francis some of his gestures and statements have been “painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people.”
According to a Sept. 6 statement, the bishops said misunderstandings between the Vatican and Ukraine since the start of the full-scale war are used as propaganda by Russia, and so “the faithful of our Church are sensitive to every word of Your Holiness as the universal voice of truth and justice.”
The meeting between the pope and 45 bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church lasted nearly two hours in a room off of the Paul VI Hall.
The encounter was part of the annual Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, taking place in Rome Sept. 3–13.
Pope Francis and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic synod of bishops shared a “frank and sincere dialogue” on Wednesday morning, according to Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
During the meeting, the pope explained his recent controversial comments to young Russian Catholics by referring to the explanation he gave to journalists on the plane returning from Mongolia.
Asked about his comments on “great Mother Russia” on the plane from Ulaanbaatar to Rome Sept. 4, the pope said he meant to praise Russia’s culture and encourage young people to take responsibility for the country’s legacy.
“Russian culture is of a great beauty and depth, and should not be canceled for political issues. There have been dark years in Russia, but its legacy has always remained intact,” he told journalists during the in-flight press conference.
Francis added that it is ideology, not culture, “that is the poison.”
“When ideology gains strength and becomes political, it usually becomes dictatorship, it becomes incapable of dialogue, of moving forward with cultures. And imperialisms do this,” he said.
According to the Vatican, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops, who had traveled to Rome from around the world, spoke Wednesday about the suffering experienced by the Ukrainian people.
“Pope Francis listened attentively to the words addressed to him, expressing with some brief speeches his feelings of closeness and participation in the tragedy being experienced by Ukrainians, with a ‘dimension of martyrdom’ that is not talked about enough, subjected to cruelty and criminality,” the Vatican statement said.
The pope “expressed his sorrow for the sense of helplessness experienced in the face of war, ‘a thing of the devil, who wants to destroy,’ with a special thought for the Ukrainian children he has met during audiences. ‘They look at you and have forgotten their smiles,’ he said, and added, ‘This is one of the fruits of war: to take the smile away from children.’”
Shevchuk said in a press release: “This meeting was a time of mutual listening and an opportunity for frank and sincere dialogue.”
“We expressed to the pope everything that our faithful in Ukraine and throughout the world entrusted us to convey to His Holiness,” he said.
The synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is taking place in Rome just one month ahead of an assembly of the Synod of Bishops of the Latin Catholic Church.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic synod is a meeting of only bishops. All but 11 of the synod’s 56 bishops were able to participate.
The Rome gathering is being held at the Ukrainian Pontifical College of St. Josaphat on the theme “Pastoral Support for Victims of War.”
At the synod’s opening Divine Liturgy in the Basilica of St. Sophia in Rome on Sept. 3, Major Archbishop Shevchuk noted that 56 bishops is a record for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
“Interestingly, while going through the materials yesterday, I noticed that almost half of them are younger than me,” he said. “It means that our synod is not getting older but younger every year. Therefore, we call our synod the Synod of Hope for our Church and the Ukrainian people.”
The prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Catholic Churches, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, also participated in the liturgy.
The synod will hold a Divine Liturgy open to all Catholics on the morning of Sept. 10 in St. Peter’s Basilica.On Sept. 5, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.
Parolin agreed to a proposal from Shevchuk to hold a meeting of the Permanent Interdicasterial Commission for the Church in Eastern Europe.
“We will meet with representatives of this Church ‘sui iuris’ and of the Latin Church, as well as some experts, to explore issues related to war and its origin, keeping in mind that war is always an evil and, even when it responds to the right of self-defense, it is our duty as Christians and pastors to limit its effects as much as possible, with words and actions,” Parolin said.
The pope’s encounter with Ukrainian bishops Wednesday opened with the praying of an Our Father together for Ukraine and its people and closed with a prayer for the intercession of the Virgin Mary before an icon of the Theotokos, or Mother of God.
“The pope confided that every day he remembers Ukrainians in his prayers before the icon of the Virgin given to him by the Major Archbishop [Shevchuk] before he left Buenos Aires,” the Vatican said.
The Ukrainian bishops also asked for prayers for the release of two Redemptorist priests, Father Ivan Levytskyi and Father Bohdan Haleta, who remain in captivity after they were captured by Russian troops in late November 2022.
Shevchuk gave Pope Francis a prayer book, rosary, and missionary cross belonging to the priests.
“These things, Your Holiness, testify to the suffering of our Church together with its people amid the horrors of the war caused by Russian aggression. As a priceless treasure, we hand them over to you with the hope that soon a just peace will come to Ukraine,” he said.