On January 24-26, 2023, the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations delegation made an official visit to the Vatican. GELCU was represented by the president of the Synod Rev. Oleksandr Gross.

On the first day of the visit, the delegates met with Paolo Ruffini, the prefect of the Dicastery for Communication. During the meeting, they shared about the situation in Ukraine, talked about the power of words and the importance of the truth about the war, the reaction to the Pope’s statements in Ukrainian society, and further communication in the sphere of public statements.

Delegation members (from left to right): Yaakov Dov Bleich, the President of Union of Jewish Religious Organizations, Valerii Antoniuk, the Head of Ukrainian Baptist Union and Oleksandr Gross

The next appointment was the conversation with the Prefect of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue, Cardinal Miguel Ayuso. The topic of the discussion was the ideology of the “Russian World” and its similarity to the ideology and practice of the “Islamic State”. The members of the UCCRO delegation testified to the unity of the Christian Churches, Jewish and Islamic communities of Ukraine in protecting the right of Ukrainians to freedom.

Also on the first day, members of the delegation visited the Saint Sofia Cathedral of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Rome and the memorial museum premises of Cardinal Josyf Slipyj. The Head of the UGCC Sviatoslav Shevchuk talked about the history and modernity of the Cathedral of the UGCC, which has become a humanitarian aid collection center for Ukraine. Father Pavlo Semehen gave a tour in the museum premises of Major Archbishop Josyf Slipyj, who spent many years in Siberian camps for his faith and political views, and after his release moved abroad, was made a cardinal, and became the Head of UGCC, that for the most part was preserved in the diaspora.

Inside the St. Sophia Cathedral

“It was a great joy to visit the Cathedral of Saint Sofia of the Greek Catholic Church, where we could take an opportunity to look into the work of Josyf Slipyj, a prominent Ukrainian and Greek Catholic. We are deeply grateful for such hospitality!” – Oleksandr Gross shared his impressions.

In the evening of the same day, the delegates visited the Embassy of Ukraine to the Holy See. Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Ukraine were established on February 8, 1993.

Metropolitan Epiphanius, the Head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, congratulated Ambassador Andriy Yurash and his colleagues on the 30 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, which they have celebrated recently: “You are an active worker on the diplomatic front, we wish you and your colleagues all the best in your service!”

On the second day, the delegation of UCCRO met with Pope Francis.

Bishop Marcos Hovhannisyan, the Head of the Ukrainian Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church and chairman of the UCCRO delegation, addressed the Pope on behalf of the Ukrainian delegation. He emphasized the following: “It is extremely important for us to have the opportunity to share with you both the feelings of pain and suffering of our people at this time of the struggle for liberation from the Russian aggressor, as well as examples of self-sacrificing solidarity and heroism of our fellow citizens and defenders, that embody the Lord’s commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Bishop Marcos also asked the Pope to declare February 24 – the start of the full-scale war – the Day of fasting and prayer for a just peace in Ukraine.

The bishop Marcos Hovhannisyan presented the address

Addressing the delegation, Pope Francis thanked the religious community of Ukraine for its unity: “It means a lot to me. You are like children of one family: even if one is there, and the other one is somewhere else, but when the mother is sick, everyone gets together. Regardless of the religious affiliation: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Orthodox or Catholic… Ukraine is what matters… and your Unity”.

During the conversation, the heads and representatives of Churches and religious organizations of Ukraine testified on the importance of uniting the efforts of religious figures of Ukraine and the world in countering Russian aggression against Ukraine to achieve the victory of truth and establish a just peace. The delegation members noted the importance of the prayerful and moral support the Ukrainian people receive from the Holy Father and the Apostolic capital. They also thanked them for the humanitarian assistance that continues to arrive.

UCCRO delegation with the Pope Francis

Among many issues that were raised during the communication, it is worth mentioning the problems of returning Ukrainian citizens deported by the occupation authorities of the Russian Federation, in particular children, as well as the possibility of mediation and assistance in the release and return of Ukrainian prisoners of war and unlawful prisoners, ensuring their rights under international humanitarian norms.

To commemorate the meeting, representatives of the Council presented Pope Francis with a painting depicting peaceful Ukraine, painted by Ukrainian children, and a small-scale copy of the sculpture of Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Kyiv, installed in the park “Saint Volodymyr Hill” in the capital of Ukraine. Pope Francis gifted the delegations a volume of Encyclicals on Peace in Ukraine.

In the Apostolic Palace, the UCCRO delegation also met with the Secretary of State of Vatican City Cardinal Pietro Parolin and the Secretary for Relations with States Archbishop Paul Gallagher. The leading officials of the Holy See highly appreciated the achievements of UCCRO in dialogue and cooperation, which are evidence of the great potential of the religious community of Ukraine. They also condemned the aggression against Ukraine, which apart from causing suffering to the people of Ukraine, poses a threat to global security.

Meeting in the Apostolic Palace

“War is an insult to God” noted Cardinal Parolin, “I assure you that every morning when we gather in the Secretariate, we pray for Ukraine and think about how we can help Ukraine and what we can do to bring a just peace to Ukraine.”

In the evening the representatives of UCCRO took part in the celebration of the liturgy for the Solemnity of the Conversion of St Paul and to mark the end of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in the Basilica of Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls.

In his sermon, Pope Francis emphasized two important points. First, he reminded those present about the priority of social justice over the performance of rituals: “God suffers when we, who call ourselves his faithful ones, put our own ways of seeing things before His when we follow the judgments of the world rather than those of heaven when we are content with exterior rituals yet remain indifferent to those for whom He cares the most”. Pope Francis is convinced, that God is particularly angered by wars and violent acts, which are claimed to be committed in His name. Therefore, it is necessary to be particularly critical of those who support radical forms of nationalism and xenophobia under the guise of the Christian faith.

UCCRO delegation during a Pope-leading worship service

Secondly, he reminded, us that despite the Lord’s call for repentance and renouncing of evil, a human being is unable to do it on her own: “without God, without his grace, we are not healed of our sin. His grace is the source of our change. This what the life of Apostle Paul reminds us of, whom we commemorate today”.

It was the first visit of the Ukrainian interfaith association to the Vatican. The previous meeting of UCCRO with the Pope took place in Kyiv on June 24, 2001, during the visit of John Paul II to Ukraine.