If Pope Francis Visited Ukraine, Would He Be Welcome?

COMMENTARY: Given the recent comments from the leading bishops there, the answer is uncertain.

Pope Francis arrives in St. Peter's Square for his general weekly audience on June 22.
Pope Francis arrives in St. Peter's Square for his general weekly audience on June 22. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

The Vatican’s “foreign minister,” Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said recently that Pope Francis “wants to and he feels he should go to Ukraine.” He suggested that it might happen as early as August. 

Will he be welcome there? Senior bishops in Ukraine have raised questions about that, and none too subtly. While stating loudly — ostentatiously loudly? — that a papal visit would be momentous and desired, some very clear markers are being laid down. Before any such visit can proceed with local enthusiasm, the Holy Father will have to clarify his position. 

The Holy Father’s isolation regarding Ukraine, already evident in May, is increasing.  

In an interview exchange with the European editors of Jesuit publications, he spoke about Vladimir Putin being provoked by NATO “barking at Russia’s gate.” In that same interview, the Holy Father acknowledged that many think him “pro-Putin,” which he rejected as false. Nevertheless, it is striking for the Pope to concede that many people think him on the side of Putin. 

“I am simply against reducing complexity to the distinction between good guys and bad guys without reasoning about roots and interests, which are very complex,” Pope Francis said.  

There are many in Ukraine who do not see it as so complex. The most important Catholic bishop in Ukraine, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, minced no words about those who think in the terms outlined by Pope Francis. 

“We see and know, experiencing here in Ukraine, that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is completely unprovoked,” Archbishop Shevchuk said. “Anyone who thinks that some external cause has provoked Russia into military aggression is either themselves in the grip of Russian propaganda or is simply and deliberately deceiving the world.” 

That is blunt. So, too, was Bishop Vitaliy Krivitskiy, the Latin Rite bishop of Kyiv. While in mid-June he welcomed the concept of a papal visit, he rejected it in practice until the Holy Father’s position becomes more acceptable to Ukrainians.  

“The Pope’s intention to be in the midst of a suffering people is for us Catholics, starting with me as a bishop, a reason for great hope,” Bishop Krivitskiy said. “It should be added that, compared to the beginning of the conflict, a part of the population did not welcome the Pope’s words, which were considered incorrect.” 

Then there is the most prominent Latin Rite prelate in Ukraine, Archbishop Mieczysław Mokrzycki of Lviv, who is also  head of the Latin Rite conference of bishops for Ukraine. 

This week, he said that it would be a “disaster” if Pope Francis visited Moscow before Kyiv, as the Holy Father has said he wanted to do. 

 “Not only the Greek Catholic faithful, but also we do not agree with all the gestures of the Holy Father towards Russia; but perhaps we do not understand his intentions and policy well,” said Archbishop Mokrzycki. “Let’s hope that the Pope has good intentions and, with his way of acting, will soon bring peace to Ukraine. Our faithful say that one must first turn to the victim, to the one who suffers, and only then to the one who caused it.” 

“Let’s hope that the Pope has good intentions …”  

That phrasing suggests the significant gap between the Holy Father and his brother Ukrainian bishops. 

If there is to be a papal visit to Ukraine, Archbishop Gallagher will have to employ his diplomatic skills on persuading his brother Catholic bishops before he engages with the Ukrainian state authorities and the Orthodox Churches.  

And even Archbishop Gallagher seems lacking in confidence in what the Holy Father clearly thinks about Ukraine. In his recent interview with America, it was noted that the archbishop had clearly condemned Russian aggression and defended the territorial integrity of Ukraine during his May visit there. 

Was he speaking for the Pope at that time? Archbishop Gallagher gave a curious answer: “I was speaking in the name of the Holy See, and the Holy Father hasn’t corrected me so far on what I’ve said on his behalf.” 

So far? Does he anticipate a change, or is he unsure of what position the Holy Father will take? 

Meanwhile, on the substantive question about whether NATO’s eastward expansion was a provocation, the Holy Father’s position has been roundly rejected in all the NATO capitals, as they just agreed to expand NATO to the Russian border by admitting Finland and Sweden. Even Turkey, which was initially doubtful, has supported the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO. 

Far from the Holy Father’s position that NATO’s “barking” provoked Putin, the consensus is that NATO membership would prevent the Russian bear from moving west. Russia invaded Ukraine, not a member of NATO, but has thus far left unmolested the much smaller Baltic states, which are NATO members. Sweden and Finland have drawn the appropriate conclusions. 

It’s Russian aggression that it is to be feared. Ukraine’s bishops are urging the Holy Father to recognize as much.