Vatican City, Jan 12, 2018 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- On Jan. 28, Pope Francis will visit the Basilica of Saint Sophia, the Greek Catholic Ukrainian parish in Rome. While there, he will pray in front of the tomb of Bishop Stefan Czmil, who served as a missionary to Argentina, and was a childhood mentor to the young Jorge Bergoglio.
The news of the visit was released today by the Holy See Press Office. Beyond the personal attachment the Pope has for Bishop Czmil, the visit is meant as a pastoral visit and a sign of closeness to the Ukrainian Catholics living in Italy, and in general abroad.
It will be a short visit: the Pope will meet with the Greek Catholic Ukrainian community in the Basilica, and will speak after an address delivered by the Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. After the speech, he will go down to the crypt, for a moment of prayer in front of the tomb of Bishop Czmil, as well as in front of the tomb of Cardinal Slipyi.
St. Sophia was modeled on the designs of medieval Ukrainian churches in Kiev, and is home to about 14,000 Ukrainians living in the Diocese of Rome. Its symbolic importance goes far beyond the Diocese of Rome.
The Church was built in 1963, thanks to a collection launched by the then Archeparch Josip Slipyi, who went to Rome after he had spent 18 years in Soviet prison camps in Siberia and Mordovia.
The basilica has, for decades, been considered the “home” for Greek Catholic Ukrainians sent into diaspora during Soviet rule.
In 1946, the Soviet authorities convoked a false “Synod” of Lviv, revoking the Union of Brest – the Council that put the Greek Catholic Church in union with Rome – and forced Ukrainian Catholic parishes and eparchies into the hierarchical structure of the Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian Catholic Church survived clandestinely and in exile.
After the “Synod,” the church built in Rome was a welcome point of unity and solidarity for the members of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Saint Sophia was consecrated Sep. 28, 1969 by Blessed Paul VI. The Pope wanted to concretely show his own solidarity with the persecuted Church of the Ukraine. Years earlier, in 1963, Paul VI made the decision to move the body of Saint Josaphat, the patron of the Ukrainian Church, under the Altar of Confession in St. Peter’s Basilica, to symbolize the union between Eastern and Roman rites.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the biggest of the sui iuris Catholic Churches, the eastern ritual Churches in full communion with Rome.
Pope Francis’ presence will strengthen this union with Rome. According to Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Greek Catholic Ukrainian Community, Pope Francis’ visit is “a sign of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, and a way to show closeness with Ukrainian migrants to Italy, who consider Saint Sophia’s Basilica their home, and a link to their native land.”
In fact, Pope Francis’ visit might be considered far more than that, considering the political situation in the Ukraine.
During a speech delivered Jan. 8 to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, the Pope made a clear mention of the Ukrainian conflict.
The Pope said that “a shared commitment to rebuilding bridges is also urgent in Ukraine,” as “the year just ended reaped new victims in the conflict that afflicts the country, continuing to bring great suffering to the population, particularly to families who live in areas affected by the war and have lost their loved ones, not infrequently the elderly and children.”
The “forgotten conflict” of the Ukraine has been one of the main focus of the Holy See diplomacy so far. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of State, visited the country in June 2016. His reports were decisive to launch the program “The Pope for Ukraine,” which began with an extraordinary collection Apr. 24, 2016.
The Holy See has kept a balanced position between the Ukrainian and Russian claims over the territory of Crimea, according to Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of external relations in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. For this reason, the Pope has not yet scheduled a trip to Ukraine, although Eastern Europe is clearly at the center of the Pope’s attention – the Pope will likely travel to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in Sep. 2018.
For all of these reasons, Pope Francis’ visit to the basilica of St. Sophia in Rome will also be a sign of pastoral concern toward the Ukrainian people during a time of national difficulty. It is not a political visit, nor it should be treated as one. However, the Pope will give strength to the Ukrainian population who endured diaspora, and to those who face a continuing conflict over eastern Ukraine.
The Pope knows the history of the Greek Catholic Ukrainians thanks to Bishop Czmil, the first Ukrainian Salesian sent on a mission to Argentina. Czmil was very important to Pope Francis, as the Pope himself explained Nov. 9, 2017 to the students of the College St. Josaphat, the Ukrainian seminary in Rome.
The Pope said that “it was Fr. Czmil who taught me how to participate in the Ukrainian rite of the Mass, opening me to a different liturgy.”