KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has sent a letter inviting Pope Francis to visit Ukraine, though the Vatican diplomatic service has not yet responded, Ukraine's Embassy to the Holy See told CNA on Wednesday.

The embassy forwarded the letter to the Vatican Secretariat of State Feb. 18, two days before the ad limina meeting of Ukrainian bishops with Pope Francis.

Bishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Eparchy of St. Vladimir the Great of Paris told Radio Liberty Feb. 25 he was aware of the letter and that the Pope had a “positive reaction” to it.

On the other hand, diplomatic sources warned CNA Feb. 25 there would still be a long way to go before a papal trip to Ukraine could effectively take place.

According to the source, neither security nor relations with the Russian Orthodox Church would slow down the organization of the trip, but that the trip itself should be carefully managed, which would take time.

“When John Paul II visited Ukraine in 2001, he spent five days in the country, and it was considered a rush. Pope Francis’ visit would last at least three days, between Kiev, Lviv and perhaps another city,” the source maintained.

Should the Pope give a positive response to the invitation, one possibility is that a papal trip to Ukraine could be an adjunct to his 2016 visit to Poland for World Youth Day.

 

Major Archbishop Shevchuk

A papal visit to Ukraine would represent a hope for the country, according to Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Major Archbishop Shevchuk said in a press conference Feb. 23 he had invited the Pope to visit Ukraine, saying such a visit would “bring peace to that part of Eastern Europe soaked with the blood of so many martyrs for the unity of the Church.”

During the press conference, Major Archbishop Shevchuk also pointed out that Ukraine is “victim of a foreign aggression” and that “the Ukrainian people feel hurt when the Holy See uses expressions that seemingly come from the Russian propaganda.”

Major Archbishop Shevchuk referred to Pope Francis’ “off the cuff” words at the Feb. 4 general audience, during which he referred to the conflict in Ukraine as “fratricidal violence.”

Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, later explained that Pope Francis “has always wished to address all the interested parties, trusting in the sincere efforts of each one to implement agreements reached by common consent and invoking the principle of international law, to which the Holy See has referred several times since the beginning of the crisis.”

In the official speech delivered to Ukrainian bishops Feb. 20, Pope Francis no longer mentioned “fratricidal violence,” though on the other hand there was no mention either of a “foreign aggression” or Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Major Archbishop Shevchuk commented that the Pope “had spoken of the respect of the international law and asked for respect of the integrity of Ukrainian territory” and made it understood that this was enough to him.

On the other hand, he also urged a “humanitarian action in the country to help refugees.”

Major Archbishop Shevchuk stressed that “U.N. official data estimates 1 million displaced persons, but non-official data estimates that the amount of people escaping from Crimea and Donbas may be double that, including 140,000 children.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church leader said religious freedom is lacking in Russian-administered Crimea and areas of Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists. “Muslim Tartars of Crimea had to escape because they were persecuted; Jewish people in Donetsk had to leave the Donbas or were obliged to register themselves as Jewish and to pay a tax; and in Crimea, five parishes were requested to renew by March 1 an authorization to stay in the territory, with the risk that the request may be rejected,” he said.

Major Archbishop Shevchuk said the Pope told the Ukrainian bishops: “The Holy See supports you, also on the international stage, to articulate your rights, your concerns and the evangelical values that motivate you.” And he reportedly added: “I am at your side; I am at your service.”