The papal ambassador, or nuncio, to the Ukraine has criticized both the Ukrainian government, which he called a “criminal oligarchy,” and “Russian aggression” as the joint cause of serious destabilization in the nation.
In a recent address to officials of the international humanitarian organization Aid to the Church in Need, the nuncio, Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, an American from Sioux Falls, SD, said that even prior to Russian incursions, the Ukraine was already sorely tried by the “depredation of homegrown and foreign profiteers,” who have torn apart its economic and social fabric, especially since independence in 1991.
Russia’s undeclared war on Ukraine has further destabilized a country that was struggling to overcome structures of servitude from its Soviet Communist past, said Gullickson, something which “other countries in Central and Eastern Europe were able to address” almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Russian aggressions have taken a particular toll on the Catholic Church in Ukraine, the archbishop said. This has included severe damage to Catholic churches due to the fighting, which he said will be costly to rebuild even after the fighting ends. Gullickson also noted that Catholic priests and the religious have been forced out of some areas like Crimea, where Russian forces are active, and it is not clear if they will be allowed to return.
According to Gullickson, this violence is not coincidental; rather, it flows from a deep-seated Russian hostility toward the Catholic church. “Any number of statements emanating from the Kremlin of late leave little doubt of Russian Orthodox hostility and intolerance toward Ukrainian Greek-Catholics,” he said.
“The danger of repression of the Greek-Catholic Church exists in whatever part of Ukraine Russia might establish its predominance or continue through acts of terrorism to push forward with its aggression,” he stated.
Moreover, this clampdown on Catholics could extend even further if Russia takes a stronger hold of Ukraine. “There is no reason for excluding the possibility of another wholesale repression of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church as came about in 1946 with the complicity of the Orthodox brethren and the blessing of Moscow,” he said.
Gullickson insisted, however, that Ukrainian woes won’t all disappear with a Russian retreat. “If Russian aggression ended tomorrow, apart from rebuilding the east,” he said, “Ukraine would still have enormous challenges to meet in order to root out corruption and establish a just society.”
In 2011, shortly after being appointed as nuncio, Gullickson had been sanguine about his mission, calling Ukraine “a very interesting laboratory” where “you can find the key to the future of the church and ecumenism.” This search for Christian unity has been put to the test by the Russian presence with its close state ties to the Orthodox Church.
The silver lining to the Russian conflict, according to Gullickson, has been a strengthening of the Christian community in Ukraine. In August, he told Vatican Radio that “the hardships, the struggle, the danger of this period, has done an awful lot in terms of developing and strengthening a personal Christian awareness of people” and has drawn people “to a more consistent Christian way of living.”