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What is Pope Francis' vision for Ukraine?


The war in Ukraine following the Russian invasion is heading towards the end of its second year.  Most strategists believe that it will continue for much longer. If it is to end in a Russian withdrawal Ukraine will need continuing military, economic and political support from its allies. It will also require unwavering readiness to endure hardship from the Ukrainian people. For that reason Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s  efforts in assuring that support are vital.

That is the strategic background against which Pope Francis has named October as a month of prayer for peace in Ukraine. He has asked Catholics to pray for peace and reconciliation and for the conversion of heart that peace demands.

His emphasis sits at an angle to most public conversation about the war, which sees it as something to be won or lost, not to involve reconciliation. The Pope has often been criticised for his focus on peace to the neglect of insisting on the righteousness of the Ukrainian resistance to an unjust war waged against them. Many people, including Ukrainian Bishops, have criticised him for being too even-handed and for praising different aspects of Russian history and culture. They say that he should condemn Russia and support the Ukraine in its resistance.

From a political perspective this judgment is understandable. Pope Francis, however, has followed other recent Popes in reflecting on the war from a human perspective. Seen from this angle the cost of the war has been horrific. On the Ukrainian side people, military and civilians, have been killed or maimed in the war, civilians have fled their homes and lost their livelihood. Many have fled into neighbouring nations unable to build lives and communities. The extension of the war into the world economy has exacerbated inflation and affected trade, which in turn have led to hunger and poverty in developing nations.

The longer-term human effects of the focus on war, too, are anticipated in the plight of people whose houses have been burned in fires and washed away in floods throughout the world. The war and its corollaries have diverted and weakened the whole-hearted commitment necessary to address climate change and to limit the severity of its effects. Our grandchildren will pay a heavy price for our inattention.

Pope Francis has spoken straightforwardly of modern war as a sin. His description focuses on the movements of the heart that support war and must be converted to a desire for peace. This emphasis encourages us to reflect on our instinctive responses to news about the war. Are our first thoughts for the persons who died overnight or for the gain or loss of ground by Russia and Ukraine? Do we grieve for Russians killed as we do for Ukrainians? Do we think badly of Russia as a nation as well as in its leaders? These instinctual reactions often indicate whether we think primarily of winning and losing or of persons and their lives. Without conversion at this level there can be no lasting peace.


'Pope Francis has been criticised for adopting a simple-minded pacifism to the neglect of the rich and realistic tradition about a just war.' 


Pope Francis has also been criticised for adopting a simple-minded pacifism to the neglect of the rich and realistic tradition about a just war. I believe this criticism is unjust. Like more recent Popes he considers the terms of this tradition as inadequate to deal with the reality of modern warfare. The criteria for justifying going to war (ius ad bellum) are simply unattainable in modern war. Though a war might be declared by legitimate authority (most contemporary wars are not so declared), have an arguably just cause (defence against unjust aggression counts as a just cause), and promise a reasonable chance of military victory, the immediate and future costs of modern war in destroying human life and living are always disproportionate to the gains sought.

More relevant are the ethical criteria for the conduct of war (ius in bello) that include consideration of who may and may not be targeted in war and what exercise of force is proportionate. These govern the treatment of soldiers who have surrendered and civilians, and the selection of military targets. These criteria are routinely disregarded in war. Pope Francis has both criticised the Russian invasion and the targeting of non-combatants.   

Once a war begins it becomes what St Augustine called a necessity – a situation that reflects and is sustained by human sinfulness and which needs both to be lived with and deplored. It demands that we distance ourselves from the partisan call to glorify one nation and to demonise the other. It demands also that we simultaneously enter into the suffering and loss of all those affected by it and that we work for peace.

That difficult balance of the heart lies at the heart of Pope Francis’ month of peace for Ukraine.




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Pope Francis delivers final remarks to pilgrims and members of the faithful at the end of his prayers in Apparitions Chapel at the Sanctuary of Fatima during the ceremony in which he presided on a Rosary prayer with patients and prayed for peace in Ukraine on August 05, 2023 in Fatima, Portugal. (Horacio Villalobos / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Ukraine, Peace



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Existing comments

The German theologian, Paul Tillich, published a book of sermons concerned chiefly about war called “The Shaking of the Foundations”. This was in the aftermath of two very destructive world wars. There was a biblical approach by Tillich as there is by Pope Francis. One of the sermons “You Are Accepted” has left a lasting impression on me and I suspect on many who have found it and read it. It speaks of grace and love which overcomes.

Pam | 28 September 2023  

I have fancied myself as a peaceful person but this war has lead to a change. I think there is such a thing as a just war after all.
How does one have peace when one’s country is invaded notwithstanding the ongoing ethnic cleansing and political suppression by a dictator? This is hardly an enduring peace but a postponement of it.
All dictators have delusions of grandeur and grievances over the loss of past glories.
I wish Francis the very best. We all need to pray for a miracle.

Ivan Tchernegovski | 28 September 2023  

An armistice offers the best chance of peace in Ukraine. When "Foreign Affairs" reports: "It's Zelensky who fears any concessions could affect his future electoral prospects" and "Russia may be resolved to outlast the US and Nato", the Pope's call for prayers for peace is well-timed.
Unfortunately, Francis has made confusing statements.
On Ukraine Independence Day 2022, he lamented Russian "innocents" killed in the war which prompted Ukraine's ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash, saying that Francis could not tell the difference between "rapist and the rape victim."
Then there were his comments to Russian youth about Russia's "enlightened empire" and his clarification that he meant not to praise imperial Russia but rather its cultural legacy of greats like Fyodor Dostoevsky. That left some even more cynical noting that he had previously condemned imperialism, but had never suggested, for example, that Spanish youth look proudly on their overseas empires.
Yet Francis has been consistent in calling for prayers for victims of violence, for example in Nigeria, that the world seems to have forgotten. Crux reported that a Christian is being killed there "every two hours...30 Catholic priests were kidnapped, while at least 39 priests were killed in 2022."

Ross Howard | 29 September 2023  

Pope Francis is not there as anyone's stooge. As the Ukrainian conflict continues the butcher's bill mounts. Modern warfare is terrifying. The only long-term winners are arms manufacturers. This war has been a godsend to them. Meanwhile, millions of Ukrainians are exiled; the country has been seeded with mines, which will be a threat for a very long time and people in Africa starve because of the disruption to the food supply. Peace is necessary. Now. The Pope is quite correct.

Edward Fido | 02 October 2023  

Pope Francis has expressed his concern for the situation in Ukraine and has consistently called for peace, dialogue, and a mutual commitment to finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. His vision for Ukraine includes working towards the restoration of stability, respect for human rights, and the promotion of reconciliation among the different communities. Pope Francis has also emphasized the importance of supporting humanitarian efforts to assist those who have been affected by the conflict. Additionally, he has encouraged the international community to engage in diplomacy and promote dialogue as a means to resolve the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Overall, Pope Francis emphasizes the need for peace, justice, and solidarity in addressing the challenges faced by the people of Ukraine.

Bitrus shedrach | 03 October 2023  

So far, the progress of the situation between Ukraine and Russia shows that being criminally aggressive pays off. For Ukraine, it must appear that the moral arc of the Universe, if it bends towards justice at all, takes its time in doing so. But, isn't justice delayed justice denied?

The moral of the story is that if you let the aggressor own your territory for more than a couple of weeks, you've lost in practice because any armistice that comes after a lot of talking and other to and fros is just a technical victory. What else can you call a victory sitting on your rubble?

Frankly, the West should load Taiwan to the gills with nuclear missiles. Right now, there's a phony peace there which could go south because Taiwan can only defend, not massively retaliate. Load Taiwan with missiles and there will still be a phony peace but one which is, unless the Beijing leadership are suicidal, durable.

Seems to work for North Korea. Would have worked for Ukraine if they had kept their Soviet missiles. Jaw jaw might be better than war war but jaw jaw doesn't work unless it's backed up by claw claw.

s martin | 04 October 2023  

Popes words regarding Ukraine fail miserably. Pope Francis should be telling putin and his ruzzian terrorists to get out of Ukraine so Ukraine can resume peaceful existence.

Ivan | 11 October 2023  

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