Pope Francis to Visit Ukrainian Greek Catholic Basilica in Rome

The Pope will pray at the tomb of Bishop Stefan Czmil, one of his favorite teachers at elementary school.

Santa Sofia basilica, Rome.
Santa Sofia basilica, Rome. (photo: Andrea Gagliarducci )

Pope Francis will visit the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church’s Santa Sofia basilica in Rome at the end of January principally in order to pay tribute to one of his former teachers, Salesian Bishop Stefan Czmil, who is buried there.

Holy See press office spokesman Greg Burke said in a statement Friday that the Holy Father had accepted an invitation from His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Halyč, to visit the basilica, which will take place on Jan. 28 at 4pm

The statement also said the Pope will meet members of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Community while there.

Ukrainian sources have told the Register the visit is taking place after Francis fondly remembered Bishop Czmil at an audience with the Pontifical Ukrainian College in November.

The Pope, who received the community as it marked the 85th anniversary of the construction of the college in Rome, recalled how Bishop Czmil taught him at elementary school, and to serve the Byzantine Divine Liturgy in Buenos Aires.

Speaking off-the-cuff, he said:

"And I would not want to end without recalling a person who was good to me when I was in the last class in elementary school in 1949. Most of you were not born! It is Father Stefan Czmil, later consecrated bishop in secret here in Rome by the then Major Archbishop. He celebrated Mass there. There was no Ukrainian community nearby, and he had some who helped him. I learned to attend Mass by Ukrainian rite through him. He taught me everything. Twice a week it was up to me to help him. This did me good, because the man spoke of persecutions, sufferings, ideologies that [affected] persecuted Christians. Then he taught me to open to a different liturgy, which I always keep in my heart for its beauty. Archbishop Svjatoslav Shevchuk, when I was in Buenos Aires, had asked for testimonies to start the process of canonization of this secretly-ordained bishop. I wanted to commemorate him today because it is justice to express thanks for the good he did to me in front you all. Thank you."

After hearing his tribute, a member of the Ukrainian community suggested to the Pope that he might like to visit the tomb. 

Born in 1914, Father Czmil left Ukraine in 1932 due to the country’s religious and political difficulties. After completing his theological studies in Rome, he was ordained a priest in 1945, and was sent as a missionary to Argentina.

While there, he was put in charge of assisting refugees and Ukrainian emigrants at Ramos Mejia, a suburb of Buenos Aires. He returned to Rome to serve as director of Ukraine’s Pontifical Minor Seminary from 1961 to 1967, and from 1976 to his death in 1978. He was consecrated a bishop in secret in 1977.

According to Agenzia info Salesiana, Cardinal Lubomir Husar, the late Major Archbishop of Kiev, once said of Bishop Czmil that he was “so holy, that his holiness was not evident; it really resided in him, and emanated from him in his own fashion, irradiating those who came in contact with him.”  

The Pope will pay homage to the bishop in front of his resting place in the basilica crypt, and also at the neighboring tomb of Cardinal Josyf Slipyi. The Church was built in 1963, thanks to the then Archeparch Slipyi, who went to Rome after he had spent 18 years in Soviet prison camps in Siberia and Mordovia.

Both the Pope and Major Archbishop Shevchuk are expected to deliver short addresses during the short visit, which will also be of a pastoral nature and a sign of closeness to the Ukrainian Catholics living in Italy and abroad. Major Archbishop Shevchuk said the Pope’s presence will strengthen the Church’s union with Rome. He also said it will be “a sign of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, and a way to show closeness with Ukrainian migrants to Italy, who consider Saint Sophia’s Basilica their home, and a link to their native land.”

The basilica, which was modeled on the designs of medieval Ukrainian churches in Kiev, has for decades served Ukrainians living in Rome, who today number 14,000. Many fled Ukraine after the Soviet authorities convoked a false “Synod” of Lviv in 1946, and the basilica was built as a welcome point of unity and solidarity.

Blessed Paul VI consecrated it in 1969 in order to show his solidarity with persecuted Ukrainian Catholics who make up the largest of the sui iuris Catholic Churches, the eastern ritual Churches in full communion with Rome.

A “forgotten conflict” between Russia and Ukraine, precipitated after Russian incursions into the country began in 2014, has been a focal point of Holy See diplomacy, although some Ukrainian Greek Catholics are concerned that the Vatican’s push for greater relations with the Russian Orthodox Church is coming at the expense of Ukrainian Catholics whose relations with the Russian Orthodox have long been a characterized by tension and conflict. The Pope has yet to schedule a visit to Ukraine, but visited many surrounding countries instead.  

However, the Pope made a point of referring to the situation in Ukraine during Jan. 8 speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, stressing the urgency of “a shared commitment to rebuilding bridges” as the country continues to bear “great suffering.”