24 March 2023, The Tablet

Ukrainian archbishop defends Vatican neutrality

“This diplomacy must be above conflict, in order to be the last point of resolution to those conflicts as a supreme mediator.”

Ukrainian archbishop defends Vatican neutrality

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk said that Francis “is very empathic with Ukraine”.
Orest Lyzhechka/Alamy

The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has defended the Vatican’s diplomatic stance on the war in his country, saying that Pope Francis “has been acting on behalf of suffering Ukraine”.

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk said that the “neutrality of the Holy See is not accepted in Ukraine” but that it was essential to its role “as supreme arbiter between nations and Churches”.

In an interview with the Croatian Catholic newspaper Glas Koncila, published on 20 March, he said that the Vatican had a distinct position in international relations.

“This diplomacy must, almost always, be above conflict,” he said, “in order to be able to be the last point of resolution to those conflicts as a supreme mediator, as a supreme servant for peace in the world.”

This meant that the Pope “should be equally distanced from both sides yet also equally close to both, in order to understand, mediate and serve”.

Archbishop Shevchuk’s remarks follow sharp criticism of papal diplomacy by Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, who last week said that he does not count Francis among his country’s allies.

The archbishop conceded that the Pope’s stance was difficult for his Church, the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with Rome, which accounts for roughly nine per cent of Ukraine’s population.

“Everyone is expecting that the Holy Father will condemn the aggressor. 

“But as Catholics, we constantly have to explain to our Orthodox brethren and other Christians and ordinary citizens of Ukraine: let the Holy Father perform his duty as supreme arbiter, because we can also benefit from his position as mediator.”

He cited the prisoner exchanges between combatants negotiated by Vatican diplomats.

Although Shevchuk has been broadly supportive of Pope Francis personally, he has expressed frustration with the Vatican’s attitude towards arms shipments, remarking after a visit to Rome in January that “if anybody knows how to stop Russian armoured vehicles without weapons, we will be grateful to hear”.

He repeated the point in his interview, saying that the sight of a mass grave in Bucha had led him “to rethink everything that I knew about the social teaching of the Church”.

“We have to protect human life and possess the right to protect it,” he said, adding: “Is it possible to stop Russian aggression right now without weapons? So far, it is impossible.”

He maintained, however, that Francis “is very empathic with Ukraine” and called his letter to the nation in November “an outstanding gesture”.

“We were able, during this first dramatic year of war, to withstand the humanitarian crisis because of the constant voice of the Holy Father,” said Shevchuk, praising the Pope’s role in promoting aid deliveries and his repeated appeals on its behalf.

He said that for Ukraine to be abandoned by the world “would be the most terrible situation for us because isolation amid suffering is hell”.

“That would be the biggest disaster, not only for human beings as such but also for the Christian Church and the credibility of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in today’s world … That is the biggest fear for Ukraine, but as a Catholic I have good news in response to that fear: you will not be abandoned.”

Shevchuk said that Francis asks the world at every general audience “not to forget the silenced people of Ukraine”.

The Pope concluded his audience on 22 March by asking churches and communities to renew the act of consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation.

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