OME – When Andrii Yurash was tapped to represent Ukraine as ambassador to the Vatican, he had envisioned a two-month transition, learning Italian, enjoying a late afternoon drink, and a nightly stroll through the riveting streets of Rome.
But then Russia invaded his country on Feb. 24, and he was forced to hit the ground running: Hours after landing in Rome on March 6, he was meeting with Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Secretary for Relations with States and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who heads the office for Eastern Churches. He also held meetings with a long list of ambassadors.
Protocol was bypassed, and instead of having months to prepare for presenting his credentials to Pope Francis, Yurash had days. He welcomed this accelerated process, saying it’s a clear sign the Holy See truly understands the magnitude of the crisis.
Yet, he is homesick, probably more than most expats, he said. While two of his sons are already in Italy, where they started school on Monday, his wife Diana had to stay in Ukraine arranging the many things one has to take care of when moving abroad.
“But all my prayers, worries and thoughts are with my oldest son,” he told Crux on Monday. “Sviatoslav is in Kyiv. He is a member of parliament, the youngest one. He was elected three years ago, when he was 23. But he made the conscious decision to join the army.”
His unit was among the first to enter one of the recently liberated towns near Kyiv, and witnessed the atrocities perpetrated by the Russian army, including the execution of civilians and the sexual assault of women.
A religious studies scholar and political scientist, Yurash arrived in Rome to fulfill “not a job but a mission.”
“I’m trying to do everything possible in my circumstances, from my place, to help my country,” he said. “Before my appointment here, I had imagined that I would have a couple of months to settle in, have long lunches, study Italian, walk the Roman streets in the evening. But I am very thankful, because from my first hours here, I received incredible support from everyone.”
He has taken part in two bilateral meetings with all the ambassadors of the European Union to the Holy See and has met with Pope Francis, his top advisers, and over 15 Vatican representatives. He has spoken on the phone with the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and has attended an endless string of events raging from seminars reflecting on the war to the consecration of Russia and Ukraine in St. Peter’s Basilica.
During the 40-minute conversation with Crux, his phone wouldn’t stop pinging. He refused having a coffee because he’s limiting himself to six cups a day and by noon Rome time he had already had his fourth.
“I’m working 20 hours a day, trying to answer with a yes to any request or invitation,” he said. “I am completely devoted and doing everything I can to help my country in this terrible period in history.”
The possibility of a papal visit to Kyiv, something Francis said was “on the table” while he was in Malta this weekend, came up during the conversation.
“I know that Russia is trying to convey in every possible way, formally and informally, that a papal visit would not be acceptable for them, because it would be a clear sign of support for Ukraine,” he said. “But I’m sure that all the other nations are in support of this idea. I spoke with the newly appointed American ambassador; twice I met with all the ambassadors of the European Union, and all of them expressed their support for a papal visit. And the Holy Father said the visit ‘is on the table’, and this is an expression I had heard over two weeks ago: ‘It is on the table’.”
“This is very good, because it means they understand the reality, and I hope that very quickly he will decide that it is time to make this crucial step, that it would be an absolutely understandable sign for the Ukrainian society,” Yurash noted. “The prayer of probably the most influential religious leader of the world on our soil, in the oldest Santa Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, that has more than 1,000 years of uninterrupted existence, would be not only a prayer for peace but also a call for all countries to help Ukraine, also to rebuild the country.”
“It would be a message to end the war,” he said.
Regarding the security concerns that surround such a visit, the ambassador said that Ukraine would do absolutely everything in its power to guarantee his safety, and that he was confident that “Russia would too.”
“I’m sure, too, that Russia will realize the importance of this symbol,” he said. “I cannot imagine that they would [allow the pope to be killed]. I think that they understand that, if they were to do that, it would be their end in the civilized world. So even though Russia doesn’t want for this trip to happen, I think even they would make sure it is safe if the pope were to, in fact, make the trip.”
Yurash also said that during the past 40 days, he has observed a change of “perception” from the Vatican regarding the conflict. At the beginning, there was a sense of this being a “regular conflict,” but for over a month it has now been clear that the church understands this to be a “terrible, barbaric war,” as the pontiff has called it.
“Almost every day, the Holy Father or someone close to him speaks out about this problem,” he said, pointing out that Francis has delivered a series of clear messages, that are important not only for Ukraine but for the whole world. “This is an unjustified war with terrible suffering of Ukrainians and possible consequences for world politics.”
The pontiff’s appeals, he said, are also important for the European Union and for NATO – two organizations Ukraine wants to join, but hasn’t been able to do so. “Russia has been the ‘gate’; no one wanted to have a serious conflict with Russia. We were asked to wait, that perhaps in 20 or 30 years circumstances would be different.”
“Clearly European and NATO diplomacy have failed,” he said. “These policies of finding common ground with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin have clearly come to nothing.”
Asked about how he thinks history will judge the Holy See’s efforts to save as many lives as possible, Yurash gave a two-fold answer. On the one hand, he said, the Vatican has “deployed its spiritual weapons arsenal in full,” with one major religious event for Ukraine a week, including days of fasting and prayer and Masses said both in the Vatican and in Rome’s Basilica of Santa Sophia, the spiritual center for the Ukrainian community in Rome.
“The Vatican has its own way of influencing a situation: In a spiritual way, using spiritual tools, influencing the spiritual sphere,” he said.
On the other hand, there is the ecumenical situation: “I have heard from several theologians here that the Holy See’s ecumenical efforts are under a serious pressure. They cannot find a justification of the Russian Orthodox Church’s support of the war, to explain why the head of the Russian Orthodox Church supports the invasion, insisting on the victory of Russia.”
“Because we see how this ‘victory’ can be achieved: through mass graves of civilians, by the devastating destructions of cities and towns, like Mariupol. The head of the Russian Church is obviously blessing the war and the killing of people. Is there any similarity between his position and that of Christ? No. Absolutely not.”
For traditional partners of the Russian church on the international scale, Yurash said, it is now very difficult to find an explanation and to continue ecumenical dialogue.
“How can you have ecumenical dialogue with a person who, in fact, has no relationship with Christianity?” he said. “Yes, there can be formal, packaged dialogue, but no real one.” Seeing how the Vatican, and the West in general, address the situation in upcoming months and years will be important, according to the ambassador.
Yurash also shared three concrete ways in which people can help Ukraine during this time: “First of all, prayer. I really believe in the power of prayer, and that if the entire world would pray, we can expect the unexpected, unpredictable things that cannot be conceived rationally. Through the prayer of billions, I believe, we can accomplish something historic.”
Second, Ukraine needs many kinds of material aid, and even though from the Vatican they can expect spiritual support, messages, and even humanitarian aid, the country also needs weapons to defend itself. Particularly, planes, as the biggest hurdle the army has found in defeating Russia is “the sky.”
“Imagine how many planes we could buy if one in two people in each country supporting Ukraine gave one dollar,” he said.
Finally, there is a need to pressure the leaders of each country to be more active in providing military aid, and also in completely isolating not only Russia but each individual Russian. Today, he said, polls show that many support Putin.
“Perhaps if all of them are excluded from the world, the regime will change,” he said. “We need to show them that Putin causes not only thousands of deaths in Ukraine and the isolation of our country, but a concrete problem for each citizen of Russia too.”
Cover photo: Pope Francis, center, poses for a photo with Ukraine’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Andriy Yurash, fourth from right, and a group of Ukrainian mothers and children refugees, at the end of his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 30, 2022. (Credit: Andrew Medichini/AP.)
By Inés San Martín