A woman with a child evacuates from a residential building damaged by Russian shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 16, 2022. CNS photo/State Emergency Service of Ukraine handout via Reuters

Ukrainian sociologist Mychailo Wynnyckyj criticizes Pope Francis’ outreach to Russia

  • April 20, 2022

I was baptized a Ukrainian Catholic. My wife and I were married in a Ukrainian Catholic Church in Kyiv, and our children were all baptized in this faith as well. Our church has a Patriarch (i.e., a separate hierarchy from Roman Catholics), but we recognize the spiritual supremacy of the Pope. In Ukraine, the Ukrainian Catholic Church follows the Julian calendar which means Easter will be celebrated next week.

Although the Ukrainian Catholic Church is autonomous, we are in communion with the Pope. That communion has been shaken to its core. On Roman Catholic Good Friday, at the insistence of Pope Francis, during the annual Way of the Cross procession held in the Roman Colosseum, at station 13, the Cross was held jointly by two women: one Russian and one Ukrainian. The liturgic gesture was meant to symbolize reconciliation and hope for peace.

Peace and reconciliation are both noble aspirations. They are the result of mutual forgiveness. However, when one side is clearly the aggressor and the other the victim, to require forgiveness equally of both is to cultivate injustice. To insist on forgiveness equally (i.e., reconciliation) without prior penance on the part of the aggressor for having done wrong, serves to justify sin. Such an act can only demean the dignity of the victim.

Pope Francis was wrong to insist on a public display of reconciliation between Ukraine and Russia without a prior display of penance by the latter. The Ukrainian Catholic Patriarch Sviatoslav told him as much, stating publicly that the joint liturgic gesture was “inappropriate and ambiguous, and does not take into account the context of Russian military aggression against Ukraine.”

Pope Francis was also wrong to state that the world has reacted differently to displacement of 4.7 million Ukrainians than to other refugees because of skin colour. Rather than raising the profile of non-European refugees, the Pope’s statement to Italian television RAI was interpreted by Ukrainians throughout the world as a denigration of the suffering and hardship experienced as a result of Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine.

Finally, Pope Francis was wrong to dispatch Cardinal Konrad Krayevsky of Poland, together with the Papal Nuncio in Kyiv (the Pope’s official representative in Ukraine), to meet with the Abbot of Kyiv’s Monastery of the Caves – a staunch pro-Moscow Orthodox cleric who is widely seen as an agent of the Kremlin. Their meeting occurred at the Monastery on Friday April 15 – the same day as the Pope’s interview with RAI and concurrent with the Way of the Cross procession in Rome.

As a Catholic I am appalled by the political and moral insult perpetrated against Ukrainians by the nominal spiritual head of my Church. I was prepared to accept the Pope’s liturgical gestures and allusion to racism with respect to refugees as unfortunate mistakes or misunderstandings. After all, Francis is human.

However, the fact of an official meeting on the same day with high ranking representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine indicates that these statements were not off-the-cuff remarks. The Pope has chosen sides. He has chosen to attempt reconciliation with the aggressor at the expense of the victim. That is wrong.

Since the launch of Russia’s full-fledged invasion, 16 Orthodox bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) have ceased to mention Patriarch Kiril during liturgies. Given the obvious split that is underway within this branch of the nominally Russian-led Orthodox Church in Ukraine, for representatives of the Catholic Church to hold an official meeting with one of Kiril’s closest allies in Kyiv is nothing less than provocative.

In the official statement published by the Monastery of the Caves after the meeting, the nunciature is said to have “condemned any and all attempts to limit the activities of any church under any circumstances” – an obvious allusion to calls emanating from multiple sources within the Ukrainian political elite to restrain the pro-Russian activities of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine. By holding such a public meeting, and by agreeing to such a public statement in its aftermath, the Vatican is clearly signaling it is choosing Moscow over Kyiv (and Constantinople) in the current conflict.

I pray for the Pope to see the light of reason. As a Catholic I believe we are all called to atone and to repent. Francis – the man - has erred. I pray that he may recognize his poor judgment rectify it. The consequences of not doing so are immense: the issue involves not only lives, but souls. Ukrainians deserve better. Their (our) children are victims of Russia's evil, and until that is recognized by the Russians themselves, no reconciliation or ecclesiastical intermediation can be righteously considered. First atonement, then forgiveness. Anything less amounts to condoning injustice and sanctioning evil. God help us!

(Mychailo Wynnyckyj is an associate professor of the department of sociology and Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and director of the doctoral school at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He was a vice-president at a Toronto computer firm from 1992-1999.)

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