Faith on the frontlines: How the pope’s support is manifested in Ukraine

Faith on the frontlines: How the pope’s support is manifested in Ukraine

By Justin McLellan | Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Along with the Our Father sung at the end of his weekly general audience or his Sunday Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis has added to these public events for the last year his own heartfelt prayers for the martyred people of Ukraine.

While his weekly appeals for Ukraine do not provide concrete military support to a people clamoring for ammunition and military machinery, they are essential to building credibility for Ukraine and keeping the conflict in public conversation, according to a Ukrainian Catholic bishop and former military chaplain.

More than one year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of the country, Bishop Stepan Sus of Kyiv-Halych, a former military chaplain to the Ukrainian army, said Pope Francis’ messages on the war have been a “vaccine” against Russian propaganda funneled through the Russian Orthodox Church, which he said has “become a propaganda tool in the hands of Moscow.”

Speaking at a conference in Rome Feb. 28 on modern war and peace organized by the Acton Institute, a U.S. think tank, Bishop Sus said that Russian military chaplains are crucial in justifying the war’s motivations to Russians and convincing soldiers they are fighting for a noble cause. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has been a staunch supporter of the war.

Yet Bishop Sus said that Pope Francis has acted as a counterweight to that religious influence on the war. The pope has said supplying weapons to Ukraine to help defend itself is morally legitimate and called self-defense “an expression of love for the homeland” when discussing Ukraine. 

The bishop said these messages bolster Ukraine’s defense and strengthen the credibility of their cause. “There are circumstances in our lives when it is not enough to have weapons or a strong army,” he said, “you need to feel that you are on the side of truth.”

Bishop Sus cited the decision of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the country’s largest, to declare its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate as an example of how religion reflects the moral struggle surrounding the war. The church fomented Russian nationalism before the war, but has supported the Ukrainian army since the beginning of the war.

“For 30 years this church operated quietly in Ukraine and everyone tolerated its behavior until the war broke out,” said the bishop. He noted that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church refused to provide funerary services for their congregants who died fighting Russian troops in Crimea.

Bishop Sus said that the war also accelerated the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by the Ukrainian Catholic Church as an effort to distance itself further from Russia, whose Orthodox church observes the Julian calendar. The country’s largest Catholic church will now celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 along with Latin-rite Catholics rather than on Jan. 7.

Although Pope Francis has stayed true to the long-standing Vatican policy of neutrality — he has not publicly condemned Russia or its president for the war — Bishop Sus noted that Ukrainians follow the pope’s support for them and appreciate the attention that the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics dedicates to Ukraine.

“What Ukrainians are most afraid of is not (Russian President Vladimir) Putin or the Russian army, but the indifference of Europe and the rest of the world to what is happening in Ukraine,” he said.

In one of the pope’s most compelling public gestures of support for Ukraine, he kissed a battered Ukrainian flag from the city of Bucha during his general audience April 6, 2022. The U.N. human rights agency confirmed claims from Ukraine that Russian troops executed civilians in the city during their retreat from the areas surrounding Kyiv in the early months of the invasion. The pope referred to the episode as an “atrocity” and one of the “increasingly horrendous cruelties” taking place in Ukraine carried out against “civilians, women and defenseless children.”

“When the Holy Father holds the Ukrainian flag in his hands, we understand which side of the conflict he is on,” Bishop Sus told Catholic News Service. “It is a sign of his understanding of the situation.”

He said that the pope’s fondness for Ukraine — Pope Francis has said he learned how to serve Mass as a child from a Ukrainian priest in Argentina — helps Ukrainians validate their own identity.

“For so long it was said that Ukraine was part of Russia, so it is a new challenge for Ukrainians to be Ukrainians, to value our culture and share this culture with other people,” he said. Bishop Sus explained that an image of the pope kissing a Ukrainian flag is a powerful affirmation of that identity.

While many foreign leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, have visited Kyiv in the days surrounding the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the pope does not currently have plans to travel to Ukraine. Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Vatican foreign minister, told CNS Feb. 22 that the Holy See is not currently discussing a papal trip to Ukraine.

But even from Rome, the pope’s support is more than just symbolic, said Bishop Sus.

“The Holy Father uses his every opportunity to remind people about the situation in Ukraine and we appreciate that,” he said. “Like all people who are suffering, Ukrainians want to see that people will defend us, and there are many ways to do that.”