Bishop-elect Michael Kwiatkowski attended the funeral for Pope Benedict XVI in Rome this past January. Photos courtesy Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg

A challenging start for Ukrainian leader

  • September 9, 2023

Pope Francis’ comments praising the historical Russian empire in a video conference with Russian youth were “very surprising” and “unfortunate,” says the newly appointed head of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of New Westminster.

In his forthcoming role, Bishop-elect Michael Kwiatkowski will guide Ukrainian Catholics in B.C. and the Yukon, which has welcomed over 22,000 migrants from Ukraine since Russia invaded the nation in February 2022. 

Pope Francis, who officially promoted Kwiatkowski on Aug. 24, remains in hot water due for his unscripted remarks made just one day later, sparking outrage worldwide and prompting the Pope to later clarify what he said.

“Never forget your inheritance,” said the Pope to the youth. “You are the heirs of the great Russia. The great Russia of the saints, of the kings, of the great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, that great imperial Russia, cultivated, with so much culture and humanity.”

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church said Francis’ remarks “caused great pain and apprehension” as they referred to the “worst example of extreme Russian imperialism and nationalism.”

Kwiatkowski, currently serving as a priest for the Ukrainian Catholic Parish of the Protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Winnipeg, Man., qualifies the entire incident “as very surprising.” He is empathetic about Ukrainians feeling outrage.

“I understand the response because obviously the Ukrainian nation and Ukrainian people are in a state of war right now that is devastating,” said Kwiatkowski. “Horrible things have happened. Millions of refugees have had to escape over the borders with their lives.”

During his flight back from a four-day trip to Mongolia Sept 4, the Pope told reporters it was perhaps a mistake to  cite Peter the Great and Catherine II, leaders who led conquests for more territory.

“Russian heritage is very good, it’s very beautiful; just think of the field of literature, music,” the Pope said. “Perhaps it was not the best way but speaking about the ‘great Russia’ — not geographically but culturally — what came to mind was what we were taught in school, Peter I and Catherine II.”

Pope Francis added that Russian culture “has a beauty, a great depth that should not be erased because of political problems.”

“It is true I was not thinking about imperialism when I spoke; I was speaking about culture and the transmission of culture is never imperial,” he said.

Kwiatkowski understands what the Pope intended to convey. “I can only presume that the Holy Father speaks from the heart, but he also needs people to advise him and help him prepare what to say,” said Kwiatkowski.

“What the Holy Father was trying to do was of course encourage the youth to know who you are, be proud of who you are and move forward. Unfortunately for us, some of the individuals who were quoted there are difficult to understand why. I should really wade more into the information behind this.

“I can only hope, not hope, I’m certain it was all spoken in goodwill. Unfortunate phrases were used, especially during a terrible, terrible time right now.”

Kwiatkowski, 61, is set to visit the Vatican soon to learn more details about his upcoming ordination and receive more clarity as to when he will begin leading the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of New Westminster.

He began his journey toward this honour in 1980 as a seminarian at the Pontifical Ukrainian Seminary of St. Josaphat in Rome. A product of Hamiota, Man., Kwiatkowski was ordained a priest six years later in nearby Brandon on July 15, which is the feast day of St. Volodymyr. He first served as an associate pastor at Blessed Virgin Mary Parish, his current home, from 1986-1992.

For most of the mid-to-late 1990s, and nearly all the 2000s, Kwiatkowski served abroad. While furthering his studies in Rome, he also served as a pastor in Manchester, England, and ministered to Ukrainian people living in Rome and Naples, Italy. From 1997 to 2000, he was Chancellor of the Patriarchal Curia of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Lviv, Ukraine.

After defending his doctoral dissertation (titled The Role of the Laity in Church Governance) in Rome in 2000, Kwiatkowski returned to Lviv as Vice-Rector of Lviv Theological Academy. He transitioned to being Vice-Rector of Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv from 2002 to 2006.

Upon Kwiatkowski’s return to Canada in 2006, he operated as spiritual director of Holy Spirit Seminary in Ottawa for three years.

Since 2009, he has been back home in Manitoba and in August 2021 he returned to where he began, Blessed Virgin Mary Parish.

Kwiatkowski characterizes his new appointment to bishop “as unexpected,” and he is “ready to place it all in the Lord’s hands again and say, ‘yes’ like Our Blessed Mother did at the Annunciation.”

Acclimatizing to, and learning, a new region strikes Kwiatkowski as an enriching opportunity.

“It is a different history of Ukrainian immigration and development of the Church compared to the Prairie provinces. I am interested in seeing how the Church is developing there and how it is functioning now. I understand that most of the parishes there are urban, which is unlike Manitoba and Saskatchewan.”

Kwiatkowski said he will prioritize forging relationships with the leaders and faithful comprising the New Westminster eparchy.

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