WASHINGTON — A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ delegation, led by its president, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, visited Ukraine in late June to explore the local Church’s strength under duress — and the needs of people caught in the crosshairs of continuing conflict.

Archbishop Kurtz discussed with the Register his first visit to Ukraine, where he was accompanied by Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, who chairs the USCCB’s committee on Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe, and several key conference staff.

“There is great complexity within Ukraine. It is very difficult to understand all the implications of the political situation,” explained Archbishop Kurtz, who shepherds Louisville, Ky.

The archbishop said the U.S. bishops’ delegation had fraternal and humanitarian goals: “It was a trip of solidarity. We spent time with people who are in pain. We visited vulnerable families in a refugee camp and wounded people in a military hospital.”

“We saw what it meant to have 1.2 million people displaced due to the war and turmoil. More than 2% of the people in Ukraine have had to move from their homes, and the Church has been very present to those displaced,” said the archbishop.

According to Stephen Colecchi, director of the USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace, who also was on the trip, the two archbishops intervened on behalf of an amputee denied a visa by the U.S. Embassy.

Archbishop Kurtz confirmed, “The good office of the U. S. ambassador was able to cut through the red tape in order to get this man to Chicago” for care at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

 

‘Progress and Growth’

The delegation spent time with both the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), which represents about 5.4 million Catholics, as well as the smaller Latin-rite Catholic Church.

Archbishop Kurtz was particularly impressed with the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv, located in western Ukraine, where most Catholics live. At UCU, the delegation saw construction of a new church in the center of campus, exemplifying “great progress and growth” spearheaded by the UGCC.

The archbishop commented, “It’s a privilege to be partners” with the UGCC, which was illegal during the communist period and forced to function underground until the late 1980s, but has surged in rebuilding community, confidence and moral relevance.

From Ukraine, Archbishops Kurtz and Cupich traveled to the Vatican, where Archbishop Cupich received his pallium from Pope Francis, and Archbishop Kurtz discussed the Holy Father’s September trip to the United States.

 

Vatican Balancing Act

It is difficult for the Vatican to sidestep complex political aspects of the Ukraine crisis, because it has diplomatic relations with all parties to the conflict. Over the last few months, the Holy See has openly pressed for peace while condemning war.

Pope Francis met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 10, urging a “great and sincere effort” to help re-establish a “climate of dialogue” to achieve peace.

While in Bolivia in July, Pope Francis seemed to be referring to the Ukrainian conflict when he remarked, “Do we realize that something is wrong where so many senseless wars are being fought and acts of fratricidal violence are taking place on our very doorstep?”

The Pope used the identical phrase, “fratricidal violence,” specifically referring to Ukraine, in February, during a general audience, causing consternation among the UGCC leadership.

UGCC Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk countered at the time, “Ukraine is under the direct aggression and invasion of a neighboring country; we’re a victim of that, and we expect the whole Christian world to take our side.”

Instead, the Holy See has maintained a quiet discussion with the Russian Orthodox Church, exploring ways to contain the crisis that engages the Russian Orthodox directly because the largest Christian community in Ukraine is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate.

Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Department of External Church Relations (effectively foreign minister of the Russian Orthodox Church), told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in late June that a meeting between Pope Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill is “getting closer every day.”

Vatican sources say Pope Francis is the engine behind this historical initiative that, the Holy Father believes, could speed reconciliation between Russia and Ukraine. It also furthers the Holy See’s long-term strategy of reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches — ending a 1,000-year-old schism.

 

Political Progress

A recent Vatican Radio report on the state of play in Ukraine emphasized “efforts to end the conflict with separatists,” interpreting as a positive development a ruling by the nation’s highest court granting a green light for constitutional reform that allows political decentralization.

The reform should pave the way for limited self-rule in the Eastern Donbas region, which borders Russia.

Granting the separatists more autonomy is stipulated by the Minsk 2 agreement, a cease-fire deal supported by the Holy See that was reached by the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France after 17 hours of negotiation last February.

Before the matter went up to the high court, the Ukrainian Rada (parliament) had to approve a constitutional reform package, including the decentralization proposal.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland personally appeared in Kiev to lobby for the package very publicly, which some observers consider as evidence that the U.S. is pressuring Kiev to honor the Minsk 2 accord and, as well, that the U.S. is beginning to more actively seek a settlement with Russia.

 

Military Escalation?

Yet, even as hopeful interpretations of political developments emerged, the military picture appears increasingly bellicose: U.S. and NATO exercises, termed “Rapid Trident” and involving 1,800 troops and 18 countries, were under way on Ukrainian soil near Lviv July 20-31.

In response, the Russian government accused the West of provoking potentially “explosive” consequences, according to Germany’s Deutsche Welle.

The New York Times broke a disturbing story in early July documenting Islamic soldiers, mainly from Chechnya, fighting alongside Ukrainians at the border.

Because the Ukrainian military has proved to be weak, unprepared and possibly even unwilling to fight pro-Russian separatists, the vacuum is being filled with a motley crew of mercenaries — a situation that makes the conflict increasingly chaotic, thus uncontrollable.

Meanwhile, drone footage collected by Ukrainians in June provided visual proof that Russian troops have rapidly increased their presence and equipment on Ukraine’s eastern border.

Two destabilizing factors worry most Ukraine watchers, including Vatican diplomats covering the region — factors that threaten to undermine the government of President Petro Poroshenko, already weakened by an economy teetering on bankruptcy.

The first is the increasingly aggressive attitude of Right Sector, a nationalist political party that played an edgy role in the Maidan protest movement.

The second is the ongoing role of oligarchs, with complicated — and often corrupt — relationships with both the Ukraine and Russian governments.

 

Right Sector Violence

Right Sector led the way in Maidan’s violent clashes with Ukrainian police and security forces — a daring strategy credited with toppling the elected government of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

Since war broke out in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, Right Sector members and sympathizers have served in independent fighting battalions, challenging pro-Russian separatists.

But Right Sector recently has turned on Ukrainian authorities, and its members don’t hesitate to use violence, yet they profess to be Christians. The group’s leader, Dmitry Yarosh, announced to a rally, “We are an organized revolutionary force that is opening the new phase of the Ukrainian revolution.”

For the first time, in July, fighting broke out between police and members of Public Sector in western Ukraine, in Zakarpattia Oblast, bordering Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. At least three people died.

Thousands of Right Sector supporters rallied in Kiev on July 21 — in the same square where the 2013-2014 “Revolution of Dignity” was conducted — calling to impeach Poroshenko and dissolve the rada. Right Sector opposes Minsk 2, supporting martial law and a blockade in the Donbas over any form of autonomy.

 

Oligarchs

One of Right Sector’s legitimate complaints about Poroshenko’s regime is ongoing corruption. Yet some of the same oligarchs colluding with the government sustain Right Sector activities.

For example, until five months ago, one of Ukraine’s most notorious oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoisky, served as a governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region. He also controls many industries and much of the banking system in Ukraine.

Kolomoisky financed pro-Kiev fighting forces, outfitting his private army with equipment and vehicles superior to the regular army. Poroshenko only removed the magnate from his job when the governor turned his army against Kiev.

Besides symbolic gestures like dismissing Kolomoisky as governor, the Ukrainian president has hardly reigned them in — a factor that paralyzes the range of reforms demanded on Maidan Square in early 2014 and threatens the stability of the current government.

“This is a war of oligarchs, and any future peace will depend on the conversion of those oligarchs in Russia and Ukraine, who’ve kept the conflict going with their lies,” Auxiliary Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporizhia, in eastern Ukraine, told Catholic News Service in July.

Oligarchic influence is spread so thoroughly across Ukraine that even the Ukrainian Catholic University is indebted: Dmitry Firtash, a magnate in oil, chemicals and media, who is wanted by the U.S. Department of Justice, gave $8.5 million to help finance construction at UCU with “no strings attached,” according to UGCC Bishop Borys Gudziak, who serves as UCU president.

In contrast, the USCCB’s current donations to Catholic programs in Ukraine total approximately $1 million (with 70% to 75% going to UGCC), according to Declan Murphy, USCCB’s director for Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

 

Same-Sex Unions 

In the package of proposed constitutional reforms before the Ukrainian parliament was a proposal for same-sex unions.

The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations sent a letter to the president stating, “These provisions threaten to plunge the Ukrainian state into the abyss of immorality and sin, to destroy the family as the basic social institution and popularize relationships between persons of the same sex, which are unnatural for human beings.”

Joint actions such as this one invariably help preserve fraternal relations and unity among the Churches.

But pressure on Church leaders, who promised in early 2014 a “Revolution of Dignity” that has failed to materialize, is also yielding frustration.

In May and July, Archbishop Shevchuk criticized the Vatican again, as well as Ukraine’s allies, for not providing enough support to the country.

The archbishop told France’s Catholic paper, La Croix, “We understand Rome is trying to safeguard its ties with Moscow, but we also know Christ has always been on the side of those who suffer. In this conflict, it’s Ukraine which is suffering — and the Holy See, whose diplomacy is service of the Gospel, should be at our side.”

In June, Archbishop Shevchuk told the Polish Catholic Information Service KAI that the United States and United Kingdom are abandoning Ukraine by not upholding an international security agreement signed in 1994, when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons.

He also criticized the Pope’s characterization of the conflict.

The Vatican “has to stop talking about ‘fratricidal war’ and say frankly that Ukraine is the victim of outright aggression by Russia,” although, Archbishop Shevchuk added, in his meeting with President Putin, the Holy Father gave Ukrainians “strong support.”

Yet despite the trials Ukraine is undergoing, Archbishop Kurtz remains hopeful: “The life of the Church is actually surprisingly positive. There was great hope and enthusiasm with everyone we met.”

Victor Gaetan is an award-winning international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.