Ukranian bishop meets with Pope Francis as country's crisis rages on

By Elise Harris

Rome, Italy, Feb 20, 2015 / 03:32 pm (CNA) - After meeting with Pope Francis during their ad limina visit to Rome, one of Ukraine's bishops said the country faces a humanitarian crisis in conflict areas and called for dialogue and prayers for peace.

“We need support…we now have this conflict, but I think we will have (a) humanitarian catastrophe, because people at that place don't have enough to eat or drink and we need help,” Venedykt Aleksiychuk, Auxiliary Bishop of Lviv, told CNA Feb. 20.

Although his diocese lies roughly 600 miles from Donetsk and Luhansk, the areas affected by fighting, the bishop called on Western countries to step in and offer support.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, who helped to negotiate the latest cease-fire agreement between Ukrainian government forces and Pro-Russian separatists, is set to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican tomorrow.

“It’s so difficult in this difficult situation to find the best solution. I think we need to speak, discuss and meet together,” Bishop Aleksiychuk said. He pointed out, however, that the willingness to do so must come from all sides.

“We need to pray and meet together and we will find this solution,” he said.

The Ukrainian bishops' ad limina, during which residential diocesan bishops and certain prelates with territorial jurisdiction meet with the Pope and report on the state of their dioceses or prelature, falls during a fragile cease-fire agreement between Ukrainian and pro-Russian troops.

On Feb. 12 officials from Ukraine, Germany, France, and Russia gathered in Minsk to negotiate an indefinite cease-fire in Ukraine, which was set to begin at midnight Feb. 15.

However, shelling in the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk has continued, with a recent bombardment forcing some 2,500 government troops to retreat from Debaltseve Wednesday, with others surrendering, BBC News reported.

In the written address handed to the bishops during their Feb. 20 audience with him this morning, Pope Francis recognized that Ukraine is in the midst of a “grave conflict,” and assured the bishops of his closeness.

He prayed that all parties involved would “apply the agreements reached by mutual accord and might be respectful toward the principle of international legality; in particular, that the recently signed truce might be observed.”

Bishop Aleksiychuk referred to a Feb. 19 prayer vigil held last night in the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major, during which Ukrainian bishops of the Latin and Eastern rites joined together to pray for peace.

“Ukraine needs this peace, because when we have peace in our lives everything goes in a good way. When we don’t have peace in our life we have problems,” he said.

In the bishop’s view, the problem is not so much one of territory as of fear. Russia, he said, “doesn’t need our territory, it’s big, it’s the biggest country, but Russia, especially the Russian government, they are afraid of this change that has happened in Ukraine.”

“They think this change is coming to Russia, (so) they are afraid of this situation and they have that aggression now…we need to pray and we need this peace for Ukraine and for Russia too.”

Exactly one year ago Ukraine's former president was ousted following months of violent protest, which resulted in the death of nearly 100 civilians in Kiev’s Maiden Square.

A new government was then appointed. In March, Ukraine's eastern peninsula of Crimea was annexed by Russia and pro-Russian separatist rebels have since taken control of eastern portions of Ukraine, around Donetsk and Luhansk, where fighting has continued to claim lives.

The death toll in Ukraine now exceeds 5,400 people, plus more than 12,900 others who have been wounded since fighting broke out in April. More than 970,000 have been internally displaced.

In the free discussion that took place between the Pope and the bishops during their morning encounter, Pope Francis was attentive to the situation and displayed a paternal concern for each one present and their particular challenges, Bishop Aleksiychuk said.

“He spoke to us, he asked about our situation in the Ukraine. He’s like a father with his children.”

It has become custom for Pope Francis in ad limina visits, rather than reading his prepared text, to hand it to the bishops to read on their own and to speak freely with them – giving each the opportunity to voice questions or concerns that are close to them and their dioceses.

Bishop Aleksiychuk recalled how he first met the Pope two years ago, but that today's brief personal encounter felt “like I met him yesterday or a few days ago. He was open and friendly to everybody. It’s very important for the Pope and for us too.”

In the written remarks handed out to the bishops, Francis assured them of the Holy See's support even within international forums to ensure that their rights, concerns and “just evangelical values” are clearly understood.

He called to mind the country's ecclesial diversity, and encouraged the bishops of the various Catholic rites to strengthen their relationship as “brothers in the episcopate.”

“Unity of the episcopate, as well as giving good witness to the People of God, renders an inestimable service to the Nation, both on the cultural and social plane and, above all, on the spiritual plane,” he said.

“Both as Greek-Catholics and as Latins you are sons of the Catholic Church, which in your land too was for a long time subject to martyrdom,” Francis added. Greek Catholics especially faced severe persecution while the Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

“The blood of your witnesses, who intercede for you from heaven, is a further motive that urges you to true communion of hearts,” the Pope said, encouraging bishops to unite in support of one another.

Pope Francis' written address closed with both a plea not to forget the poor, and a prayer entrusting the Ukrainian people to the intercession of Mary and the martyrs.