Major archbishop: ‘Ukraine is expecting the Holy Father to visit’

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church./ Aid to the Church in Need.

The people of Ukraine are expecting a papal visit, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church said in an interview.

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk told the charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that Pope Francis could visit the Eastern European country despite the obstacles posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Just as [the Pope] recently visited Iraq, just as he will be going to visit different countries in the world in spite of the difficulties presented by COVID, so Ukraine is expecting the Holy Father to visit,” he said.

John Paul II was the first pope of the modern era to visit the country, which borders Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Belarus, and Russia.

In his arrival speech in Kyiv (Kiev) on June 23, 2001, he noted that two early popes were deported to present-day Ukraine.

He said: “History has recorded the names of two Roman Pontiffs who, in the distant past, came this far: St. Clement I at the end of the first century and St. Martin I in the mid-seventh. They were deported to the Crimea, where they died as martyrs.”

During the five-day visit, the Polish pope sought to reach out to Orthodox Christians, who represent roughly two-thirds of the population.

Pope Francis’ March 5-8 visit to Iraq was his first foreign trip since the pandemic broke out. On the flight back to Rome, he confirmed that he would visit Budapest, Hungary, on Sept. 12 for the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress. He suggested that he might combine the trip with a visit to the Slovakian capital, Bratislava.

The 84-year-old pope told reporters that he had felt more tired during the Iraqi trip than on previous ones and did not know if his travel schedule would slow down in the future.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancelation of possible papal trips to Indonesia, East Timor, and Papua New Guinea in 2020, Francis kept up a busy travel schedule, making 32 international trips to 51 different countries in seven years.

Pope Francis has repeatedly appealed for peace in Ukraine, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have clashed in the east of the country since February 2014.

In his Regina Coeli address on April 18, he expressed alarm at a troop build-up on the border between the two countries.

“I follow with great concern the events in some areas of eastern Ukraine, where violations of the ceasefire have multiplied in recent months, and I observe with great concern the increase in military activities,” he said.

“I strongly hope an increase in tensions will be avoided, and, on the contrary, that gestures be made that are capable of promoting mutual trust and fostering reconciliation and peace, which are so much needed and so much desired.”

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said last week that the Vatican would be the “ideal place” for peace talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the ACN interview, Shevchuk said he was grateful for Pope Francis’ prayers for Ukraine. He noted that the Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal had invited the pope to the visit country during a March 25 audience at the Vatican.

The 50-year-old major archbishop said that the meeting was well received in Ukraine.

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“It was also a good sign that the relationship between the state of Ukraine and the Holy See would offer a means not only of preventing any form of escalation in the conflict in Ukraine, but also of learning how to foster dialogue and reconciliation,” he said.

Shevchuk has led the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church -- the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome -- since 2011.

He told ACN, which provides the Church with critical financial support, that the pandemic had imposed severe restrictions on pastoral outreach.

The country, which has a population of 44 million people, has recorded more than two million COVID-19 infections and 46,601 related deaths as of May 3, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

“Many of us have started to broadcast our divine services online to give our parishioners the opportunity to participate in Holy Mass and Sunday Mass online,” Shevchuk said.

He added that the situation reminded him of the Soviet era.

“At that time, the only way to receive some kind of spiritual support was to listen to Vatican Radio. It is almost exactly the same situation all over again,” he explained.

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He continued: “We can pray, we can preach online, we can even meditate on Holy Scripture online. But we cannot administer the sacraments online. And that is a major source of suffering at the moment.”

Ukrainian Greek Catholics, who follow the Julian calendar, marked Easter Sunday on May 2.

In his Easter greeting, Shevchuk said: “I greet all Christians who celebrate this great holiday today, and especially the sons and daughters of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine and in the settlements.”

“Wherever the Ukrainian heart beats, let the Easter singing be joyfully heard today. I wish you all a happy Easter.”

“I wish you a delicious Easter egg, merry hayivky [Easter songs], heavenly peace and joy that come to us today through the locked doors of quarantines and lockdowns. They come to revive hope in our human hearts. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”