This is the second installment of a two-part interview with Archbishop Borys Gudziak, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia. The first part can be found here.
ROME – Ukrainian Archbishop Borys Gudziak has voiced confidence that Pope Francis will visit his beleaguered nation, but cautioned that if, as expected, the pope first meets Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Kazakhstan next month, it could send the wrong message.
Asked how Ukrainians would respond if Francis meets the Russian Orthodox leader before visiting Ukraine, Gudziak’s response was terse: “Not very well.”
Speaking to Crux, Gudziak said a papal trip to Ukraine would take time and careful planning given the situation on the ground and the physical limitations of the pope, who has difficulty walking due to osteoarthritis of the knee, meaning it might not be realistic to expect the trip to take place before Francis leaves for Kazakhstan Sept. 13.
The trip would need to be “memorable and effective,” and it must be “very well prepared and has to be very clear in its message,” Gudziak said, saying the pope would “have to go to Kyiv, to Bucha, to places which reflect the reality that is of crucial importance.”
“My advice to the pope is, be with the victim right now, as soon as possible, and be careful about being seen associating, fraternizing, with the victimizer,” he said.
Gudziak, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and one of the most authoritative voices in the Ukrainian Catholic community, also touched on what impact a papal trip to Ukraine would have in terms of ending the war, as well as the pope’s reluctance so far to name Russia as the aggressor.
The following are excerpts from Crux’s interview with Gudziak.
Crux: The Vatican, and Pope Francis in particular, have been trying to conduct a balancing act. How are Ukrainians reacting to the pope’s handling of the war?
Gudziak: Ukrainians remember that Pope Francis in 2015 launched the Hope for Ukraine humanitarian drive, and since there was a mandate to make a collection in every Catholic parish in Europe, the drive had not only a material, but a great moral significance by keeping the story alive. The pope was attuned to this war at a time when many were tuning out. Many today don’t remember that it has been going on for eight years, not six months.
The Holy Father has said he wants to come to Ukraine, and I think careful observers in Ukraine have little doubt that he has his heart in the right place. The question is one of language, and I think many Ukrainians hope for more clarity. They are not in a grey zone, they are in a black-and-white situation, and they hope that the broader world can understand that they stand before genocide. This danger needs to be named clearly in its source and in its nature.
Do you think the pope has lost some of his moral authority for Ukrainians because of his refusal to name Russia as the aggressor in the war?
The Holy See’s reluctance to speak about aggressors is not something characteristic of Francis. John Paul II, who in eastern Europe is considered a great hero of liberation, did not normally name aggressors or those that are the source of aggression. I see an evolution in the language of the Holy Father, and I expect in the coming days that there will be, especially at the time of Ukrainian independence, that there will be new statements and new gestures in support of the suffering people of Ukraine for whom Pope Francis has great love.
What do you mean in terms of these new statements and gestures?
I expect to see more formal expressions in document form, and I believe Pope Francis when he says he wants to go to Ukraine; I think he will go.
There are rumors that it could happen before his visit to Kazakhstan in mid-September. Do you think that is a realistic timeframe? Is there time to prepare before Sept. 13?
That might not be the case. It’s complicated. The Russians are launching cruise missiles in different parts of the country with regularity. Pope Francis has some quite severe physical challenges. He’s 85 years old, he’ll be 86 in December. I’ve gone into Ukraine three times in May, June, and July, and two times I walked across the border because of the long lines of refugees coming in and out.
This war is not a videogame. It’s not make-believe. When the pope comes somewhere, many people assemble. The question is, can people be put into harm’s way in one or other place, and how do you go to meet the people when you can’t assemble a lot of people? How do you travel, when you can’t fly in the country? How do you travel when you can hardly walk? So, for a person of his age and with his limitations, there are concrete questions.
Just coming in and stepping across the border today I think will not be sufficient. Jill Biden stepped across the border in a remote part, in Transcarpathia. It was a beautiful, friendly gesture, but I don’t know if I’ll remember that Jill Biden was in Ukraine. This trip needs to be memorable and effective. The trip needs to be very well prepared and has to be very clear in its message. He’d have to go to Kyiv, to Bucha, to places which reflect the reality that is of crucial importance.
There are rumors, although it’s not confirmed, that Francis will meet Patriarch Kirill while he’s in Kazakhstan. If that happens before he visits Ukraine, how do you think the typical Ukrainian will take it?
Not very well.
Do you think it will change their willingness to give the pope the benefit of the doubt?
I think the pope has great challenges in projecting what is deep in his heart. I think there’s been a lack of understanding and clarity over the past decades among leaders. Angela Merkel was profoundly mistaken, as were other European leaders, who thought, “We can establish economic interdependence which will guarantee peace and prosperity.” It failed. Romano Prodi, who was not open to the thought of Ukraine joining the European Union, and Berlusconi had a personal friendship with Putin. American presidents – Trump in many ways facilitated in the last years the image of Putin. You could say he admired Putin and contributed to a white washing of his image. President Obama ridiculed Mitch Romney during a presidential debate when Romney pointed out the geopolitical danger of Russia. He said something like, “Your economics are in the 30s, your social policies in the 50s, and your international relations are stuck in the Cold War.” It was kind of a catchy line. He won the election, but he was wrong.
There has been a deep, deep misunderstanding. People make mistakes. President Zelenskyy until February 24 said the Russians won’t attack. In 2019 after the election, he discounted the process of decommunization; he said it doesn’t really matter what our streets are called, even if they are named after Russian perpetrators of genocide, it’s important that the streets be paved. Those are all truths, that we need paved streets, that we need good business, that everybody is created in the image and likeness of God, even Vladimir Putin, but you have to look truth, evil, and sin in the eye and name it. Our Lord did that, and he was crucified for it.
Ukrainians are being crucified because they are calling evil “evil,” and naming the truth of their God-given dignity, and they are making a sacrifice to guarantee that dignity.
If you were advising the pope, would your advice be, don’t meet with Kirill before you’ve been in Ukraine?
My advice to the pope is, be with the victim right now, as soon as possible, and be careful about being seen associating, fraternizing, with the victimizer.
You said it might take longer for a papal visit to Ukraine to be organized. Do you have any sense of when it might realistically take place, if not before Kazakhstan?
I wouldn’t exclude the possibility of preparing a trip before Kazakhstan. I’m not totally convinced that the trip to Kazakhstan will occur, and I’m not entirely sure what kind of encounter will be there, whether there will be an encounter. There are some rumors that Kirill doesn’t want to meet with the pope. The pope called him an altar boy of Putin. In that statement, the pope has expressed a very rare opinion…So, I think there’s a danger for Kirill, because I think Kirill might get another earful.
Kirill is discredited. He had a low rating in Russian society in general, and 2,000 Orthodox intellectuals and theologians globally have come out, have signed a statement, declaring his idea of the Russian world to be heretical. He has an important position today, but his moral authority is negligible from the perspective of eternity. And I think the concept of eternity is at the center of the question.
I ask American audiences, audiences in other countries where I have the chance to speak to those who have been supporting Ukraine, who have been doing fundraising drives, who put out the Ukrainian flag in their front yards, who go to prayer meetings, why are you so attracted by what is going on in Ukraine? Why these gestures of solidarity? People kind of grope for answers. My explanation is that people internationally are seeing a nation explicitly expressing their belief in eternity.
People are confused and confounded, “How can you keep fighting when your cities are being destroyed? How can you insist on resisting if so many beautiful young people are being killed?” And Ukrainians’ response is, there is something after death, there is something more important than my life. I have faith in eternity, I have faith in God, I have faith in truth, and that truth is lifegiving and it is life. The son of my seminary colleague was fearless. He was hit by a mortar, and he had two tourniquets put on each leg; his skull was severely fractured. He lived for 40 minutes after being hit, but at one point he came to, and he said, “I am alive.” That is what people are saying: We live, and we will live after death forever. That perspective of eternity I think is being expressed not philosophically, not rhetorically, but by sacrifice, and that is moving the world’s hearts.
What impact do you think a papal visit to Ukraine would have on the war?
It’s very difficult to speculate, especially because so many of us have been wrong, and I’ve been wrong. I had very hopeful and strong doubts that Putin would escalate, even though international intelligence services were predicting it clearly, even though diplomats were moving out of Kyiv, I actually came into Ukraine at the beginning of February. I didn’t think that such an evil, brutal decision and act was possible, and yet it happened.
We are in a realm where strategy, tactics, and all kinds of calculations are very important, but that’s not primarily my realm. As a priest, and as a Christian, I ask for an act of God, and I enjoin people to see the principles, the truths, that are being expressed in this horrific situation. I have no doubt that God’s truth will prevail, and I think Pope Francis coming to Ukraine will advance the triumph of God’s truth. In what chronology, in what manner, I do not know.
We want the killing to stop, yesterday. There’s one person who can stop it, and that is Putin, although sometimes one wonders if he’s not wound up the mechanism of the Russian killing machine to such a degree that even he can’t stop it.
We’re dealing with extreme evil. The violation of every commandment in the decalogue. In the end that will be a losing strategy, and we see that the resistance of Ukrainians is changing history. It has brought the European Union together, the North Atlantic Alliance, which one year ago was at its weakest point, today is at its strongest point. It is changing energy policy. Russian aggression is leading to the hunger and possible famine of tens of millions of people in Africa and the Middle East; people are realizing how many people in the world Ukraine fed. It is very painful to be the crux of history.