VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis’ efforts to keep dialogue open with Russia to achieve peace have frustrated the credibility of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, where approval ratings for the pontiff are at a historical low, local church representatives said on Thursday (Sept. 14).
“Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Holy Father was the most respected religious representative in Ukraine,” said Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, during a news conference on Thursday.
“Toward the end of last year his popularity plummeted to very low approval numbers. This is a great problem for the church in Ukraine,” Shevchuk added.
Forty-five representatives of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine met for a summit in Rome Sept. 3-13. Participants celebrated a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday attended by more than 3,000 people from the Ukrainian diaspora. The summit was intended to underline the communion that ties the church in Ukraine to Rome and the pope.
Attendees also met with Vatican representatives and Pope Francis. During a two-hour meeting with the pope, the Ukrainian bishops were able to voice their concerns directly to Francis.
Pope Francis and the Vatican have opted for a diplomatic approach, attempting to foster open dialogue with Ukraine and Russia, and have avoided demonizing Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. On some occasions, the pope’s words seemed to defend the Kremlin, by praising Russian history or suggesting NATO expansion justified the invasion of Ukraine.
The pope addressed these concerns during his meeting with Ukrainian religious leaders at the Vatican. “Doubting whose side the pope is on is a painful reality for the Ukrainian people,” Francis said, according to an official statement. “I wish to assure you of my solidarity toward you and of my constant closeness and prayer. I am by your side and at the side of all the Ukrainian people.”
At the news conference, Shevchuk said the pope’s words were “a consoling message.” However, Sheychuk acknowledged that it will be a tough message for the Ukrainian people to accept and a challenge for Catholic leaders to communicate, given the Vatican’s overtures toward Russia.
“We are prepared to communicate the true intentions of the Holy Father and to be the interpreters of his fatherly concern for our people,” he added.
Pope Francis appointed a peace envoy, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, to mediate negotiations between the parties involved in the conflict. Zuppi has already met with Ukrainian and Russian leaders and he has traveled to the United States for a private meeting with President Joe Biden. On Wednesday, the cardinal also traveled to Beijing to discuss peace efforts.