On the last Sunday in January, Pope Francis will step across the threshold of the Basilica of Santa Sofia in Rome. For decades this exotic-looking building served as the mother church of Ukrainian Greek Catholics while they were being ruthlessly suppressed in their homeland.
The visit is a delicate one for Francis, who has had a turbulent relationship with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church since his election in 2013. While many Ukrainian Catholics would like Rome to defend them more energetically, the Holy See is anxious not to be drawn into the present conflict, sensing that its relations with both Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church are at stake.
Hence the diplomatic crises that arise whenever this issue is discussed. In January 2015, Francis provoked uproar in the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches when he described the war in Ukraine as “fratricidal”. Ukrainian Catholics do not see the conflict as a clash of brothers but rather as a David and Goliath struggle between Kiev and Moscow. They were further offended in 2016, when Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill held their historic meeting and issued a joint statement that appeared to play down Ukrainian concerns.
These misunderstandings are surprising given Francis’s longstanding ties to the Ukrainian Catholic community. In his youth the Pope met a Salesian missionary called Fr Stefan Czmil, who introduced him to the soaring Greek Catholic liturgy. The young Jorge Mario Bergoglio would rise early to serve the priest’s Masses. “It was Fr Czmil who taught me how to participate in the Ukrainian Rite of the Mass,” he recalled last year, “opening me to a different liturgy.” Fr Czmil later became a bishop and is buried in the crypt of the Basilica of Santa Sofia.
Francis became friends with another influential figure in Buenos Aires: the future Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who served as apostolic administrator of the local Ukrainian Church.
The Pope has had to repeatedly assure Ukrainian Catholics that he has not forgotten them. In 2016 he asked churches in Europe to hold a special collection for Ukraine. In his annual speech to diplomats earlier this month, he spoke mournfully of a war that has claimed 10,000 lives so far and called for a “shared commitment to rebuilding bridges”.
His trip to the Ukrainian church in Rome is a way of expressing his solidarity with Greek Catholics, while avoiding the region’s venomous politics.
Francis is not the first pope to seek to bolster the morale of Ukrainian Catholics through symbolism. Pope Paul VI personally blessed the Basilica of Santa Sofia in 1969, underlining his concern for a Church under Soviet oppression.
To the suffering, these papal gestures may not seem like much. But they are still valuable. Far too many Catholics across the world don’t even realise that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church exists. Francis’s visit to the basilica will help to dispel ignorance and offer encouragement to a neglected Catholic community facing yet more war and misery in 2018.
Nothing like a Dame
The Dutch politician Lilianne Ploumen has been made a Dame in the pontifical Order of St Gregory the Great. Hitherto little-known outside the Netherlands, she is a campaigner for so-called “reproductive rights” and has raised huge amounts of money for NGOs which provide, facilitate or campaign for abortion.
The honour has provoked dismay, confusion and considerable anger among Catholics. The Holy See Press Office has defended the award, insisting that it was simply “diplomatic practice” to give her the honour after she took part in the Dutch King and Queen’s state visit to the Vatican. It said the award was “not in the slightest” an endorsement of Ploumen’s stance on abortion.
Everyone knows that the Catholic Church is opposed to abortion under any circumstances and that it views it as a grave evil. That this teaching is well known and well understood (unlike so many other Catholic teachings) is because of decades of hard work by Catholics, ordained and lay, who have made their opposition to abortion clear, often at great personal cost. The message has certainly not been popular, but love for the unborn and a concern for justice have inspired many to speak out. The award to Ploumen undermines their good work, and muddies the clarity of the Church’s message.
Even if, as the Vatican says, this award was given as a standard procedure, it should be reconsidered. Otherwise, what are the faithful to think? That abortion is not the grave evil that the Catechism and Canon Law describes it as? That somehow or other someone who campaigns for abortion can be seen as a good Catholic?
The Order of Saint Gregory is reserved for those who show “personal service to the Holy See and to the Roman Catholic Church, through their unusual labours, their support of the Holy See, and their excellent examples set forth in their communities and their countries”. Ploumen has spent much of her career doing the opposite. She does not deserve this pontifical award.
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