PHILADELPHIA – Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S. are hailing a surprise meeting between Pope Francis and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with a mixture of elation and wariness.
Archbishop Borys Gudziak, metropolitan of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, told OVS News the visit was "very important" for countering the historic "realpolitik" of Vatican diplomacy – an approach that has "objectified smaller countries" and required them to accept peace "on terms set by superpowers."
"The realities have changed. The new reality is that Ukrainians are the subject of their history, not pawns," said the archbishop. "And with dignity and clarity, President Zelenskyy represented his people."
Pope Francis and Zelenskyy spoke privately for some 40 minutes May 13 in Pope Francis' studio at the Vatican audience hall, discussing "the humanitarian and political situation in Ukraine caused by the ongoing war," according to a post-meeting statement issued by the Vatican press office.
Zelenskyy's visit was part of a weekend series of meetings with leaders in Italy, Germany, France and the United Kingdom.
Both Pope Francis and Zelenskyy "agreed on the need for continued humanitarian efforts to support the population," the Vatican said, noting "the Pope particularly stressed the urgent need for 'gestures of humanity' toward the most fragile people, the innocent victims of the conflict."
Zelenskyy presented the Pope with "Loss 2022-58," an iconlike print of the Virgin Mary holding a shadowed child figure in place of Jesus. The work commemorates the 243 children who died in the first 58 days of Russia's full-scale invasion Feb. 24, 2022, which continued attacks launched by Russia in 2014. Zelenskyy also gave Pope Francis a plate from a Ukrainian's soldier's bulletproof vest, with images of Mary, the Ukrainian flag and bloodstains painted on the scars left by bullets.
In return, Pope Francis gave Zelenskyy a bronze olive branch, symbolizing peace and evoking the biblical story of the flood, in which a dove brings Noah an olive branch to show the destructive waters had begun to recede (Gen. 8:8-11).
Zelenskyy, who has invited the Holy Father to Kyiv several times, sought Pope Francis' support for a 10-point peace plan Ukraine unveiled at the G20 summit in November 2022, prioritizing the complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine's internationally recognized territory; the release of all Ukrainians held captive or deported by Russia, including close to 19,400 children; food and energy security; nuclear safety amid Russian occupation of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear plant in Europe; a tribunal for the approximately 80,000 war crimes committed by Russia since February 2022; and remediation for Russia's profound environmental damage to Ukraine due to air, soil and water contamination from munitions, as well as the loss of more than six million domestic animals.
Archbishop Gudziak told OSV News that in Zelenskyy, the Pope "met a leader who represented not only the pain of suffering (Ukrainians), but the paschal promise of the Way of the Cross."
Pope Francis, who has "incessantly called on the world to pray for martyred Ukraine ... is a person who listens, hears and responds to authentic encounter," said the archbishop. "My sense is precisely that happened."
But some Ukrainian Catholics told OSV News they are concerned Pope Francis and Zelenskyy may not share the same vision for achieving peace.
"One cannot help but be joyful at some of what so far has been disclosed about President Zelenskyy's visit with Pope Francis," Eugene Luciw, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America's Philadelphia chapter and a member of Presentation of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. "And yet, one cannot help but be disappointed and concerned."
"The visit of President Zelenskyy with Pope Francis is indeed momentous," said Nicholas Rudnytzky, professor of history and dean of academic services at Manor College in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a school with deep roots in the Ukrainian-American community. "I pray the Holy Father comes to see the situation for what it is, and not for what he hopes it can be."
Luciw said the Pope's "ongoing failure to take a firm stance against Russian aggression" suggests his peace plan and mission for peace "do not align themselves with the very appropriate demands and expectations of Ukraine's government and people."
"The Pope's call for the return of the innocent kidnapped Ukrainian children could have been much, much stronger," he said, adding that Pope Francis did not "acquiesce to President Zelenskyy's very appropriate request that he condemn Russia's war crimes."
Rudnytzky said Pope Francis' hopes for ongoing ecumenical dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church – which under Patriarch Kirill has vigorously endorsed Russia's war on Ukraine – may underlie such reticence.
"I fear that Pope Francis, like many of his predecessors, still strives for bringing the Russian Orthodox Church into the Catholic world. Indeed, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, in union with Rome since the end of the 16th century (largely in rejection of Moscow's messianic expansion in those days) has always felt the pressure of being the sacrificial lamb in any such union," said Rudnytzky.
Such aspirations can lead to a "false equivalency" between Russia, which is waging a war of aggression, and Ukraine, which is fighting a defensive war against a genocide that has centuries of precedent, said Rudnytzky.
Yet "for the past year, the Moscow Patriarchate under Kirill has shown itself to be not just a puppet doing Putin's bidding, but a willing partner seeking to extend its own influence and profits at the expense of Ukrainian lives," he said. "The world's spiritual leaders must unequivocally condemn anyone who supports the barbarism unfolding before us."
Luciw added the lack of such an unequivocal condemnation from Rome could "turn a tense relationship with the pontiff into a massive rift between the Holy See and the Ukrainian people, in Ukraine and throughout the worldwide diaspora."
Both Luciw and Rudnytzky told OSV News they are drawing on their faith amid their concerns.
"I pray that the divine wisdom, truth and guidance of the Holy Spirit will prevail and preserve peace in our universal Church," said Luciw.
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.