VATICAN CITY (CNS) – As Russia continued its assault on Ukraine and Russian troops pressed toward the capital, Kyiv, Pope Francis left the Vatican on February 25 to pay a visit to the Russian ambassador to the Holy See.
The Pope went to the embassy, located at the end of the main road leading to the Vatican, “to express his concern for the war”, said Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office. The Pope spent about half an hour at the embassy, he said.
Although the embassy told the Catholic News Service it had no statement, Ambassador Aleksandr Avdeyev told Russian media: “The focus of the conversation was the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. Pope Francis expressed great concern for the situation of the entire population, both in the Donbas (in Eastern Ukraine) and in other areas, and called for the protection of children, the protection of the sick and suffering, the protection of people.”
According to the Pope, “this is the main Christian goal”, Avdeev told the government-owned RIA Novosti news agency.
Avdeev also categorically denied to the Rome correspondent of the Russian news agency TASS that Pope Francis had offered to mediate the conflict, an idea reported by the Argentine news agency Télam.
“Donbas” refers to Ukraine’s regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russian-backed separatists have been waging war against Ukrainian troops since 2014, killing and maiming thousands and forcing more than 1.5 million people to flee.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the independence of the two regions on February 21, setting up what many in the West saw as a pretext to invade Ukraine to defend those regions. In the early hours of February 24, the Russian assault on Ukraine began.
In a statement after the Pope’s embassy visit, the Ukrainian Catholic Church said Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych “hopes the meeting represents a further push for dialogue to prevail over force. The Ukrainian people, who are defending themselves courageously, cry to the world, ‘Stop the war!'”
As Russian troops approached Ukraine’s capital, Pope Francis phoned the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, offering his encouragement and promising, “I will do everything I can” to help.
The Pope called Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk late in the afternoon of February 25, according to the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s press office in Rome.
Archbishop Shevchuk’s office said that, during the phone call, Pope Francis asked him about the situation in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine on the second full day of the Russian attack. According to multiple news reports, Russian troops were advancing on the capital, Kyiv, where the archbishop has remained.
Pope Francis asked about the bishops and priests in the areas of heaviest fighting, the Ukrainian Catholic press office said. And he thanked the Church for its closeness to the people.
“In particular, the Pope praised the decision to remain with the people and to be at the service of the neediest”, including by opening the basement of Resurrection Cathedral in Kyiv as a bomb shelter, which already was being used by dozens of people, including families with children.
The press office had reported on February 24 that Archbishop Shevchuk himself had been forced to take shelter there. The archbishop had been scheduled to be in Florence, Italy, at a meeting of European and Mediterranean bishops, but canceled the trip when tensions with Russia worsened.
“The Holy Father assured His Beatitude Sviatoslav of his closeness, support and prayers,” the press office said. At the end of the call, the Pope gave his blessing to the Ukrainian people.
Pope Francis has asked people to pray and fast for peace in Ukraine on March 2, Ash Wednesday.
Photo: An Italian military vehicle and soldier performing regular guard duties are seen outside the building housing the Russian Embassy to the Holy See and other embassies on Via della Conciliazione, the main road leading to the Vatican, on Feb. 25, 2022. (CNS Photo)