On the morning of 6 September, a private audience with the Holy Father Francis was held at the Vatican for the Bishops of the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC). In a frank conversation, the Hierarchs of the UGCC expressed the Ukrainian people’s pain, suffering, and a certain disappointment.
On Pope Francis’s initiative, the meeting started an hour earlier than scheduled “to have the opportunity to talk with the Ukrainian bishops for a longer time.” According to His Beatitude Sviatoslav, Father and Head of the UGCC, “this meeting was a time of mutual listening and an opportunity for frank and sincere dialogue.”
The bishops of the UGCC asked Pope Francis to begin the meeting with a joint prayer for a just peace in Ukraine and for all those “who are dying in our country at this moment at the hands of the Russian aggressor.” The Holy Father thanked for the initiative and, together with the Ukrainian bishops, prayed the “Our Father” prayer for Ukraine and its “long-suffering people.”
“In a conversation with the Holy Father, we expressed to the Pope everything that our faithful in Ukraine and throughout the world entrusted us to convey to His Holiness. Our bishops spoke in Ukrainian, English, Portuguese, and Italian,” His Beatitude Sviatoslav emphasized. The bishops said that certain statements and gestures of “the Holy See and Your Holiness are painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people, who are currently bleeding in the struggle for their dignity and independence.” Misunderstandings that have arisen between Ukraine and the Vatican since the beginning of the full-scale war, the bishops explained, are used by Russian propaganda to justify and support the murderous ideology of the “Russian World”, therefore “the faithful of our Church are sensitive to every word of Your Holiness as the universal voice of truth and justice.”
Referring to his own words and comparisons that he had addressed, in particular, to Russian youth, the Holy Father explained: “Returning from Mongolia, I stated that the real pain is when the cultural heritage of a people undergoes ‘dilution’ and is subjected to manipulations from the side of a certain state power, as a result of which it is transformed into an ideology that destroys and kills. It is a great tragedy when such an ideology intrudes into the Church and replaces the Gospel of Christ.”
The Holy Father also admitted that “the fact that you doubted whom the Pope is with was particularly painful for the Ukrainian people. I want to assure you of my solidarity with you and constant prayerful closeness. I am with the Ukrainian people.” As a special gesture and symbol of closeness to the Ukrainian people, Pope Francis brought with him an icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God), which he showed to the bishops of the UGCC. “This icon was given to me by His Beatitude Sviatoslav when he was a young bishop in Argentina. I pray for Ukraine every day in front of her.”
The bishops also thanked Pope Francis for his constant support of Ukraine at the international level, his humanitarian actions, his personal efforts to free prisoners, the peacekeeping mission of the special papal envoy Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, etc. “Ukrainian youth were sincerely moved by the humility of your words in asking to forgive the fact that it was not possible to do more to end the war in Ukraine,” said His Beatitude Sviatoslav.
Releasing Redemptorist priests
The Synodal Fathers asked the Holy Father to continue his efforts for the release of prisoners of war, in particular, they mentioned the Redemptorist priests, Fr. Ivan Levytskyi and Fr. Bohdan Haleta, who are still in Russian captivity.
At the conclusion of the audience, on behalf of the Bishops of the UGCC Synod, His Beatitude Sviatoslav presented the Pope with some of the captive Redemptorists’ personal belongings: a missionary cross, a prayer book, and a rosary. “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.” The Head of the UGCC also presented His Holiness with an icon of Jesus Christ, which had been saved from the church burned by the Russians in the village of Chervone in the Zaporizhia Region.