According to reports, Pope Francis has accepted an invitation to travel to Ukraine. The news was released by a Ukrainian senior official involved in the exchange of prisoners in the war-torn Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and is coursing around the web in Cyrillic.
In a television interview, Yuri Tandit, of the Interministerial Center for the liberation of prisoners at the Ukraine Security Council, said that the day before yesterday an invitation letter from President Poroshenko was delivered to the Pope who responded affirmatively, “so I want to congratulate all Ukrainians, because Pope Francis, who prays for peace, will be with us,” he said.
On Monday, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, gave a news conference in which he spoke of the Pope’s meeting with the Ukrainian bishops on Saturday. He said that he, too, had presented Pope Francis with an invitation to go to the ex-Soviet country, and said that 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.”
Prior to his appointment in Ukraine, Shevchuk had served in Buenos Aires, where he became friends with Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. In Monday’s press conference, Shevchuk admitted that he thought the proposal of a papal visit might be “perhaps too much” at this time. Apparently the Pope didn’t think so.
On February 21, Pope Francis had a 40-minute private meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Though they had several items on the docket, the topic that dominated their conversation was the situation in Ukraine. Merkel’s visit coincided with the presence of the Ukrainian bishops in Rome, with whom Francis had met the day before, and they had been able to brief the Pope in greater detail on the situation they have been facing.
“I have listened attentively to your problems,” the Pope told the Ukrainian bishops Friday, “and they are not few.” Significantly, he also told them: “The Holy See has your back, also on the international stage, to articulate your rights, your concerns and the evangelical values that motivate you.”
Ukraine has apparently been on the forefront of Pope Francis’ thoughts for some time, but the recent visit of the Ukrainian bishops seems to have galvanized his resolve to travel to the battle-scarred country.
According to reports released by the Italian newspaper Il Giornale, the Pope had enlisted the assistance of Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, calling him to an emergency meeting in the Vatican to discuss a diplomatic strategy to intervene in the delicate question of Ukraine.
At the time, Pope Francis was planning on sending a delegation to go on a peace mission in Ukraine and was trying to decide whom he should send. In the end, he chose to go himself.
So far there has been no confirmation from the Vatican and no specific dates have been scheduled for the trip.
Nonetheless, the Ukrainian media are enthusiastically spreading the news, hopeful that a papal visit might tip the balance in their present struggle.
In an interview last fall, Archbishop Shevchuk said: “Our people understand very clearly that no one will come to defend us, that no one else will underwrite our existence, and that no one from the outside is going to reconstruct our country.”
This is undoubtedly true, but a visit from the Pope might be a decisive factor in Ukraine’s immediate future.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome