VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis made an appeal for peace in Ukraine during his general audience Wednesday (Feb. 23), urging world leaders to examine their conscience and act to prevent a looming war.
Francis said he felt “a great pain in his heart for the worsening situation in Ukraine,” lamenting that despite numerous diplomatic efforts, “once again, everyone’s peace is threatened by partisan interests.”
“I want to appeal to those with political responsibilities to make a serious examination of conscience before God — who is the God of peace and not war, who is the father of all and not just some and wants us to be brothers, not enemies,” Francis said. “I pray for all parties involved to abstain from any action that provokes more suffering to peoples, destabilizing the cohabitation of nations and discrediting international law.”
The pope ended his weekly audience at the Vatican by calling for a day of fasting and prayer on Ash Wednesday (March 2) as an answer to the “diabolical stubbornness, the diabolical senselessness” of violence. “May the Queen of Peace preserve the world from the folly of war,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine as independent regions on Tuesday, and during a news conference that same day he promised to assist the separatists if any attack were to come from Ukraine or NATO. Even though U.S. President Joe Biden said he is open to meeting with Putin — on the condition that Putin takes no further aggression toward Ukraine — Kyiv is prepared to launch a state of emergency in case of a Russian invasion.
Pope Francis has made numerous appeals for peace in recent weeks as the threat of war once again looms over Europe. Efforts made by French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron to negotiate a peace with the Kremlin have so far failed, and ballistic tests by Russia have led British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to state that the Old Continent faces a conflict comparable to that of 1945.
According to Sergio Romano, a historian and former Italian ambassador to NATO and Russia, the tug of war between Russia and the United States can only be mediated by the Vatican. “Only the pope could call for an act of sincere and good faith,” he told the Italian news outlet il Fatto Quotidiano on Wednesday.
Pope Francis has been fostering ecumenical dialogue with the estranged Orthodox Church in Russia, the dominant religious institution in the country and notoriously tied to the Kremlin. The pope and Russian Patriarch Kirill had their historic first meeting in Havana in February 2016 and a second meeting is expected to take place sometime in May.
A group of Orthodox churches in Ukraine declared independence from the Russian Orthodox Church in December 2018 under the protection of the patriarch of Constantinople. The decision angered the Orthodox Church in Moscow and has added a religious dimension to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
“We strongly condemn the actions being taken by the Russian government in Ukraine and urge calm and the protection of the holy cathedrals, historic monasteries, and churches throughout Ukraine,” read a statement released Tuesday by the Orthodox Public Affairs Committee, which advocates for the global Orthodox Christian Church and for the protection of sacred places and peoples.
“Ukrainians and Russians are brothers and sisters in Christ, and no government should pit them against each other in a state of war,” the statement continued. The committee “stands with the Ukrainian People and their national sovereignty,” it read, urging Orthodox faithful to “not let war and the exigencies of politics interfere with the life of the church in Ukraine.”
The Council of Bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA issued a letter of support to the primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, decrying the actions of Russia and expressing solidarity with their “brethren in Ukraine and Ukrainians throughout the world.”
“We all have family members and friends living in the East and West, North and South of Ukraine, and thus we are profoundly concerned for the wellbeing, stability, and security of the people of Ukraine that are threatened by the reports of the planned persecution and the crimes against humanity in Donbas region of Ukraine,” read the statement.
The Greek-Catholic Church in Ukraine, which swears fealty to the pope, also released a statement lamenting the dramatic situation in the country and the 14,000 people who have already perished since the hostilities began in 2014.
“Today we consider the defense of our native land, of our memory and our hope, of our God given right to exist, as a personal responsibility and a holy duty of Ukrainian citizens,” read the statement on Wednesday by Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.
The prelate said that while “defending the homeland is our natural right and civic duty,” it’s important to remember that “the world cannot progress or find answers to the challenges of our time by relying on strength and violence.” He offered his prayers that governments may find solutions for peace in Ukraine.
“We are a people who love peace,” Shevchuk said, “and that’s why we are prepared to fight and loyally defend it.”