One year of war in Ukraine: Pope Francis’ sorrow and tireless appeals for peace

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One year ago, on 24 February 2022, as the world was emerging from the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s armed forces renewed their invasion of Ukraine with a forceful, frontal military assault.

On the previous day, at the weekly General Audience, Pope Francis had made an appeal with “great sorrow in his heart for the worsening situation.”

“I would like to appeal to those who have political responsibility, so that they may make a serious examination of conscience before God, who is the God of peace and not of war.”

However, despite his appeal, the logic of conquest prevailed over that of responsibility.

At dawn on 24 February, Russian troops rolled into Ukrainian territory. Their orders came shortly after the recognition of the separatist Donbas “republics” located on Ukrainian territory: Donetsk and Lugansk.

Throughout these 12 war-shaken months, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has repeatedly reiterated the Holy See’s desire to mediate and do everything possible to foster a path of dialogue and cooperation.

Opening hearts and doors to fleeing Ukrainians

After the outbreak of the conflict, Pope Francis’ appeals became incessant pleas: “Several times we have prayed,” the Pope said at the Angelus on 27 February, “that this road would not be taken. And we do not stop praying, on the contrary, we beg God more intensely.”

He then called for a Day of Prayer and Fasting, on 2 March, to seek peace in Ukraine.

The power of prayer has been joined since the first days of the conflict by another heartening face: that of solidarity. At the General Audience on 2 March, the Pope, greeting Polish pilgrims, recalled that the citizens of Poland were the first to support Ukraine by opening their borders, their hearts and the doors of their homes “to Ukrainians fleeing the war.”

Rivers of blood and tears

The Holy Father also called for the opening of humanitarian corridors, for “guaranteed and facilitated access of aid to the besieged areas.”

At the Angelus on 6 March, Pope Francis depicted the conflict, in its stark reality, with these words: “Rivers of blood and tears flow in Ukraine. It is not just a military operation, but a war, which sows death, destruction and misery. The victims are more and more numerous, as are the people fleeing, especially mothers and children.”

At the Angelus the Pope noted that Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Service of Charity, and Cardinal Michael Czerny, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, had traveled to the war-torn country in his name “to serve the people, to help.”

On a mission on the Pope’s behalf

The two Cardinals were sent directly by the Pope as his representatives to bring solidarity and closeness to the refugees and victims of war.

Their presence, said the Pope at that same Angelus, is that “not only of the Pope, but of all the Christian people who want to come close and say: War is madness! Stop, please! Look at this cruelty.”

Cardinal Krajewski’s missions on the frontlines

During this year of war, Cardinal Krajewski has been on several missions, bringing aid, food, rosaries and Pope Francis’ blessing so that no one feels alone.

Cardinal Krajewski in Ukraine

Cardinal Krajewski in Ukraine

He prayed before the many bodies buried in mass graves in Izyum.

To Ukraine, Cardinal Krajewski brought generators and thermal shirts and delivered two ambulances donated by the Pope.

In May, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States and International Organisations, also travelled to Ukraine.

He visited the war-torn towns of Vorzel, Irpin and Bucha, where he prayed in front of the mass grave near the Orthodox church of Saint Andrew.

In the name of God, stop the massacre

Put an end to the war, has been the unceasing request that has accompanied the Pope’s words since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine.

At the Angelus on 13 March, Pope Francis asked that, in the name of God, the massacre in this tormented country be stopped. And he lamented that the city of  Mariupol ‘has become a city martyred by the heartbreaking war.’

On 14 March, addressing an association with an ethical and social purpose, the Holy Father invited people to reflect on how mankind ignores the lessons of history: “various regional wars and in particular the current war in Ukraine show that those who govern the fates of peoples have not yet learned the lesson of the tragedies of the twentieth century.”

On 16 March, was the day of the video call between the Pope and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.

The Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, said that their conversation centred on “the war in Ukraine and the role of Christians and their pastors in doing everything to ensure that peace prevails.” Pope Francis agreed with him that “the Church must not use the language of politics, but the language of Jesus.”

“Those who pay the bill for war,” the Pope added, “are the people…”

“Wars,” he concluded, “are always unjust. Because those who pay are God’s people.”

The war is inhuman and sacrilegious

The days went by and, “unfortunately, the violent aggression against Ukraine has not stopped”. “A senseless massacre where slaughter and atrocities are repeated every day,” the Pope recalled at the Angelus on 20 March.

“So many grandparents, sick and poor people, separated from their families. Many children and fragile people are left to die under the bombs, without being able to receive help,” he said.

“All this is inhuman! Indeed, it is also sacrilegious because it goes against the sacredness of human life, especially against defenceless human life, which should be respected and protected, not eliminated, and which comes before any strategy! Let us not forget,” he said, “it is inhuman and sacrilegious cruelty!”

The conflict threatens the whole world

It is unbearable “to see what has happened and is happening in Ukraine”.

Addressing participants at a meeting promoted by the Italian Women’s Centre on 24 March, the Pope explained that the tragedy in the Eastern European country is “the fruit of the old logic of power that still dominates so-called geopolitics”.

“The history of the last seventy years demonstrates this: regional wars have never been lacking; that is why I said that we were in the third world war in bits and pieces, a bit everywhere; until this one, which has a greater dimension and threatens the entire world”.

Act of Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary

On 25 March, Pope Francis presided over the penitential celebration in St. Peter’s Basilica and at the end, recited the prayer of Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary to whom he entrusted humanity, and in particular of the peoples of Russia and Ukraine.

“Free us from war, protect our world from the menace of nuclear weapons.” “Grant that war may end and peace spread throughout the world.”

In union with the bishops and faithful of the world, the Pope consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary all that humanity is experiencing: “It is no magic formula but a spiritual act.  It is an act,” the Pope explained in his homily during the celebration of Penance, “of complete trust on the part of children who, amid the tribulation of this cruel and senseless war that threatens our world, turn to their Mother.”

The future is destroyed

Just over one month after the start of the war, which the Pope called “cruel and senseless,” one in two children had been displaced from Ukraine.  “This means destroying the future,” the Pope stressed at the 27 March Angelus.

At the General Audience on 6 April, recalling his Apostolic Journey to Malta, the Pope emphasised that “after the Second World War an attempt was made to lay the foundations of a new history of peace, but unfortunately – we do not learn – the old story of competition between the greater powers continued.”

And in the current scenario in Ukraine we see “the impotence of the Organizations of the United Nations.” The news about the war, “instead of bringing relief and hope, instead confirms new atrocities, such as the Bucha massacre,” the Pontiff recalled, referring to “increasingly horrendous cruelties” carried out even against “civilians, women and defenceless children”.

Peace for tormented Ukraine

In his Urbi et Orbi Message for Easter last year, Pope Francis’ call. was to let “the peace of Christ enter our lives, our homes, our countries”. “Let there be peace for martyred Ukraine, so harshly tried by the violence and the destruction of war.”

The Pontiff called for a commitment to cry out for peace: “Please, please: let us not grow accustomed to war.”

And he recalled the terrible suffering endured by the Ukrainian people: “I carry in my heart all the many victims, the millions of refugees and internally displaced persons, the families torn apart, the elderly left alone, the lives broken and the cities razed to the ground.

To Mary the tears of the Ukrainian people

On 8 May, many faithful gathered around the venerated image of Mary in the Shrine of Pompeii, to address the Supplication to her.

“Spiritually kneeling before the Virgin,” said the Pope after the Regina Caeli prayer, “I entrust to her the ardent desire for peace of so many peoples who in various parts of the world suffer the senseless misfortune of war. To the Blessed Virgin, I present in particular the sufferings and tears of the Ukrainian people.”

Pope Francis then again urged people to entrust themselves to prayer: “In the face of the madness of war, let us continue, please, to pray the Rosary for peace every day.”

On 13 May, meeting with the managers and staff of the national civil aviation authority, the Holy Father expressed a hope: “May the skies be always and only skies of peace, may we fly in peace to establish and consolidate relations of friendship and peace.”

Do not use grain as a weapon

In June 2022, yet another General Audience was marked by an appeal: “The blockade of wheat exports from Ukraine, on which the lives of millions of people depend, especially in the poorest countries, arouses great concern,” recalled Pope Francis.

“I make a heartfelt appeal that every effort be made to resolve this issue and to guarantee the universal human right to food. Please do not use wheat, a staple food, as a weapon of war.”

The desire to go to Ukraine

During these 12 months torn apart by conflict, Pope Francis repeatedly expressed his desire to visit Ukraine. On 4 June, he met the participants in the ‘Children’s Train’ of the ‘Courtyard of the Gentiles’.  To one of them, a Ukrainian child, he addressed these words: “I would like to go to Ukraine; it is just that I have to wait for the moment to do so, you know? Because it is not easy to make a decision that can cause more harm than good to the world. I must find the right moment to do it.” 

On 5 June, the Solemnity of Pentecost and “one hundred days after the beginning of the armed aggression against Ukraine”, the Pope at the Regina Caeli emphasised that war “is the negation of God’s dream: peoples clashing, peoples killing each other, people who, instead of coming closer, are driven from their homes.” And he renewed his appeal to the leaders of nations not to bring “humanity to ruin.”

The voice of humanity calling for peace is drowned out

A week later, on 12 June, Pope Francis’ thoughts turned again, at the Angelus, to “the people of Ukraine, afflicted by war”. “The time that passes does not temper our pain and our concern for those tormented people. Please, let us not get used to this tragic reality! Let us always have it in our hearts. Let us pray and fight for peace”.

In his message for the VI World Day of the Poor, which bears the date 13 June, the Pope emphasised that “the war in Ukraine has come to join the regional wars that in recent years have been reaping death and destruction. But here the picture is more complex due to the direct intervention of a ‘superpower’, which intends to impose its will against the principle of self-determination of peoples. Scenes of tragic memory are being repeated, and once again the mutual blackmail of a few powerful people is covering the voice of humanity calling for peace.”

What do I do for the Ukrainian people?

The Pope also asks questions that everyone can answer in their own heart. At the Angelus on 19 June, he posed these questions in particular: “What do I do today for the Ukrainian people? Do I pray? Do I give myself? Do I try to understand?”

On 13 June, meeting with participants at the Plenary Assembly of the Reunion of Aid Agencies of the Oriental Churches, the Pope emphasised that in Ukraine “we have returned to the drama of Cain and Abel”; “a violence that destroys life has been unleashed, a luciferous, diabolical violence, to which we believers are called to react with the strength of prayer, with the concrete help of charity, with every Christian means so that weapons may give way to negotiations.”

Signs of hope

At the Angelus on 3 July, Francis emphasised once again that the world needs peace: ‘Not a peace based on the balance of arms, on mutual fear. No, this will not do. This means turning history back seventy years. The Ukrainian crisis should have been, but – if one wants it – can still become, a challenge for wise statesmen, capable of building in dialogue a better world for the new generations’. A little over a month later, at the Angelus on 7 August, Pope Francis greeted with satisfaction the departure of the first ships loaded with grain from the ports of Ukraine: “this step shows that it is possible to dialogue and achieve concrete results, which benefit everyone. Therefore, this event is also a sign of hope’.

Telephone conversations with President Zelensky

12 August is the day of a new telephone conversation between the Pope and President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Ukrainian head of state himself gave the news, who in a tweet spoke of the horrors in his country and expressed gratitude to the Pontiff for his prayers. Zelensky himself, who spoke on 22 March in a hang-out with the Italian Parliament, had opened the video link by saying that he had spoken with the Pope: “He spoke very important words”. Another telephone conversation between Francis and Zelensky dates back to 26 February, two days after the Russian attack. On that occasion, the Pontiff expressed to the Ukrainian president ‘his deepest sorrow for the tragic events’ in Ukraine.

War is madness

Six months after the start of the conflict, at the general audience on 24 August, the Pope reiterated that the war is madness: ‘I think of so much cruelty, of so many innocents who are paying for the madness, the madness of all sides, because war is madness. “And those who profit from war and the arms trade are criminals who kill humanity”. During the apostolic journey to Kazakhstan, from 13 to 15 September, one question in particular resonates: “What still has to happen, how many deaths will have to wait before oppositions give way to dialogue for the good of people, peoples and humanity?”. A question to which only one horizon must follow: ‘The only way out is peace and the only way to get there is dialogue’. 

The legacy of a ruined world

The Pope’s hope is placed particularly in young people. On 24 September, during his visit to Assisi on the occasion of the ‘Economy of Francis’ event, the Pontiff pronounced these words: “You are living your youth in a time that is not easy: the environmental crisis, then the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine and the other wars that have been going on for years in various countries, are marking our lives. Our generation has bequeathed you many riches, but we have failed to guard the planet and we are not guarding peace”. “You are called to become artisans and builders of the common house, a common house that is falling into ruin”.

The appeal to the Presidents of Russia and Ukraine

At the Angelus on 2 October, the Pope does not deliver his catechesis but reads a long appeal in which he states that “the course of the war in Ukraine has become so serious, devastating and threatening, as to cause great concern”. “I am distressed by the rivers of blood and tears that have been shed in recent months”. And it is distressing, he adds, that “the world is learning the geography of Ukraine through names like Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, Izium, Zaporizhzhia and other localities, which have become places of indescribable suffering and fear”. “And what about the fact that humanity is once again faced with the atomic threat?”. Then the Pope turns first of all to the “president of the Russian Federation, begging him to stop, also out of love for his people, this spiral of violence and death”. Francis makes an equally confident appeal to the president of Ukraine to be “open to serious proposals for peace”.

The Church suffers before wars

On 24 October, the Pope meets seminarians and priests studying in Rome. A Ukrainian priest poses this question to the Pontiff: “What is the role that the Catholic Church should play with regard to the territories affected by wars?”. “The Catholic Church,” Francis replied, “is a mother, the mother of all peoples. And a mother, when her children are in conflict, suffers. The Church must suffer before wars, because wars are the destruction of children. Just as a mother suffers when her children do not get along or quarrel and do not speak to each other – the little domestic wars – the Church, Mother Church before a war like this in your country, must suffer. It must suffer, cry, pray’.

On children the burden of conflict

On 2 November, on the day of the commemoration of all the faithful departed, in the Mass, Pope Francis retraced some passages of a text from Ukraine: “This morning I received a letter from a chaplain, a Protestant, Lutheran chaplain, in a children’s home. Children orphaned by war, lonely children, abandoned. And he said: ‘This is my service: to accompany these discarded ones, because they have lost their parents, the cruel war has left them alone’. This man does what Jesus asks of him: to care for the little ones in tragedy. And when I read that letter, written with so much pain, I was moved, because I said: Lord, I can see that you continue to inspire the true values of the Kingdom’.

Great affection for the Russian and Ukrainian people

During the press conference on the plane at the end of the apostolic journey to Bahrain, on 6 November, the Pope stressed that “the cruelty is not of the Russian people, because the Russian people are a great people, but it is of the mercenaries, of the soldiers who go to war as an adventure: the mercenaries”. “I prefer to think this way, because I have a high esteem for the Russian people, for Russian humanism. Just think of Dostoevsky who still inspires us today, inspires Christians to think about Christianity. I have great affection for the Russian people. And I also have great affection for the Ukrainian people. When I was eleven years old, there was a Ukrainian priest nearby who celebrated and had no altar boys, and he taught me how to serve Mass in Ukrainian’. “All these Ukrainian chants,” the Pope added, “I know them in their language, because I learned them as a child, so I have a very great affection for the Ukrainian liturgy. I am in the midst of two peoples whom I love’.

A defeat for humanity

On 22 November, Pope Francis met with representatives of the World Jewish Congress: ‘in so many regions of the world, peace is threatened’. “Let us recognise together,” says the Pontiff, “that war, every war, is always, in any case and everywhere a defeat for all humanity! I think of the one in Ukraine, a great and sacrilegious war that threatens Jews and Christians alike, depriving them of their affections, their homes, their possessions, their very lives! Only in the serious will to draw closer to one another and in fraternal dialogue is it possible to prepare the ground for peace. As Jews and Christians, let us do all that is humanly possible to stop war and open paths to peace.

The suffering of a people, the pain of the Pope

Nine months after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Francis in a letter, dated 24 November and addressed to the Ukrainian people, expresses his sorrow for “the absurd folly of war”: “Your pain is my pain. In the cross of Jesus today I see you, you who suffer the terror unleashed by this aggression. Many tragic stories come back to my mind. First of all, those of the little ones: how many children killed, wounded or orphaned, torn from their mothers! I weep with you for every little one who, because of this war, has lost his or her life, like Kira in Odessa, like Lisa in Vinnytsia, and like hundreds of other children: in each one of them the whole of humanity is defeated. Now they are in the womb of God, they see your sorrows and pray for them to end’.

The repercussions of war

In his message of 1 December to the participants of the VIII Rome MED Dialogues Conference, the Pope recalls other dramatic effects of the “ongoing war conflict within Europe”: “In addition to the incalculable damage of every war in terms of victims, both civilian and military, there is the energy crisis, the financial crisis, the humanitarian crisis for so many innocent people forced to leave their homes and lose their most cherished possessions, and, the food crisis, which affects a growing number of people throughout the world, especially in the poorest countries. In fact, the Ukrainian conflict is having enormous repercussions in North African countries, which are 80% dependent on grain from Ukraine or Russia’.

Trapped in the conflict

In his message of 3 December on the occasion of the International Day of Disabled Persons, Francis “then recalls the suffering of all women and men with disabilities who live in war situations, or of those who find themselves carrying a disability because of the fighting. How many people – in Ukraine and in the other theatres of war – remain imprisoned in places where there is fighting and do not even have the possibility of escaping? Special attention must be given to them and their access to humanitarian aid must be facilitated in every way’.

The Pope’s cry for Ukraine

8 December, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, is the day of the Pope’s prayer to Mary Immaculate. The Pontiff, moved to tears during the traditional homage and prayer at the monument to the Virgin in Piazza di Spagna, pronounced these words: “Immaculate Virgin, I would have liked to bring you today the thanksgiving of the Ukrainian people, for the peace we have been asking the Lord for so long. Instead I still have to bring you the plea of the children, the elderly, the fathers and mothers, the young people of that tormented land, which suffers so much”.

A Christmas with Ukrainians in our hearts

A few days before Christmas Francis at the general audience on 14 December invites everyone to live this time not forgetting those who suffer because of the war: “Let us have a more humble Christmas, with more humble gifts. Let us send what we save to the Ukrainian people, who are in need, they suffer so much; they go hungry, they feel the cold and many die because there are no doctors, nurses at hand. Let us not forget: a Christmas, yes; at peace with the Lord, yes, but with the Ukrainians in our hearts”. “Let our gaze,” Francis then said on 25 December in the Urbi et Orbi message, “be filled with the faces of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, who are living this Christmas in the dark, in the cold or far from their homes, because of the destruction caused by ten months of war”. 

Do not lose hope

The year 2023 opens with the same dramatic wounds. On the first day of the new year, which St Paul VI wanted to dedicate to prayer and reflection for peace in the world, one feels “even stronger, intolerable the contrast of war, which in Ukraine and other regions sows death and destruction”. “However,” he said at the Angelus, “we do not lose hope, because we have faith in God, who in Jesus Christ has opened the way of peace for us”.

Mothers who have lost their children

On 8 January, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Angelus’ thoughts turned in particular to mothers: “Today, seeing Our Lady carrying the child in the Crib, breastfeeding him, I think of the mothers of the victims of the war, of the soldiers who fell in this war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian mothers and the Russian mothers, both have lost their children. This is the price of war. We pray for the mothers who have lost their soldier sons, both Ukrainian and Russian”.

Ukraine is a sick mother

On 25 January this year, Francis meets with the Pan-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations. There is no ‘Jewish Ukraine, Christian Ukraine, Orthodox Ukraine, Catholic Ukraine, Islamic Ukraine’. There is only one Ukraine, ‘mother’ who suffers, says the Pontiff, when she sees the brutality inflicted on her children.

A sad anniversary

On 22 February, almost a year after the invasion of Ukraine and “the beginning of this absurd and cruel war”, the Pope at the general audience dwells on this “sad anniversary”: “The toll of dead, wounded, refugees and displaced persons, destruction, economic and social damage speaks for itself. Can the Lord forgive so many crimes and so much violence? He is the God of peace. Let us remain close to the tormented Ukrainian people, who continue to suffer. And let us ask ourselves: has everything possible been done to stop the war? I appeal to those in authority over nations to make a concrete commitment to end the conflict, to achieve a cease-fire and to start peace negotiations. The one built on rubble will never be a real victory!”.

Do not resign yourself to war

Throughout these twelve months of war, Pope Francis has always asked not to forget the martyred Ukrainian people, to find ways of dialogue and peace. Gestures, tears, words, appeals, questions. Not to resign oneself to war. Not to remain indifferent.