VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis again condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine, calling it a “senseless massacre” and “sacrilegious” attack on human life.
“Sadly, the violent aggression against Ukraine does not stop, a senseless massacre where each day slaughter and atrocities are repeated,” the pope said March 20 after reciting the midday Angelus prayer with visitors in St. Peter’s Square.
“There is no justification for this!” he told an estimated 30,000 people who had come to the square to pray with him.
Pope Francis once again urged international leaders to work together to put an end “to this repugnant war.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, missiles and bombs have continued to fall “on civilians, the elderly, children and pregnant mothers,” he said.
“I went to see the wounded children here in Rome. One of them is missing an arm, the other has a head wound,” he said. That happened to “innocent children.”
The pope had gone March 19 to the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital where some 50 Ukrainian children had been cared for since the war began. Initially, the Vatican said, most of the young Ukrainian patients were brought to Rome for treatment for cancer, neurological or other diseases.
More recently, it said, the hospital has been providing care for those injured in the war.
Pope Francis also drew attention to the almost 3.4 million people who have fled Ukraine, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
“And I feel great sorrow for those who don’t even have the chance to escape,” he said.
“So many grandparents, sick and poor, are separated from their families,” the pope said; “so many children and fragile people are left to die under the bombs without receiving help and without finding safety even in air-raid shelters,” some of which have been bombed.
“All this is inhuman,” he said. “Indeed, it is even sacrilegious, because it goes against the sanctity of human life, especially against defenseless human life, which must be respected and protected, not eliminated, and which comes before any strategy!”
Pope Francis also expressed his gratitude for the bishops, priests and religious who have stayed with their people, living “under the bombs.” They are “living the Gospel of charity and fraternity.”
“Thank you, dear brothers and sisters, for this witness and for the concrete support you are courageously offering to so many desperate people,” the pope said.
He specifically mentioned Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the Lithuania-born nuncio to Ukraine, “who since the beginning of the war has remained in Kyiv” and is a sign of the pope’s closeness “to the tormented Ukrainian people.”
Pope Francis urged everyone to continue to pray for peace, to pray for the people of Ukraine and to offer concrete assistance to them.
“And, please, let’s not get used to war and violence,” he said. “Let’s not tire of welcoming them (the refugees) with generosity, as we are doing.”
The assistance will need to continue for “weeks and months to come,” especially for the women and children forced to flee without their husbands and fathers and without work, which makes them targets of human traffickers, whom the pope called “vultures.”
Finally, the pope asked “every community and every believer to join me on Friday, March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, in making a solemn act of consecration of humanity, especially of Russia and Ukraine, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, so that she, the Queen of Peace, may obtain peace for the world.”
U.S. focuses aid in Europe
WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said March 17 that the U.S. is sending an additional $186 million in humanitarian aid to help the more than 3 million refugees who have fled from Ukraine to neighboring countries since Russia attacked the East European nation Feb. 24.
“This brings our total humanitarian aid since last month to $293 million,” Blinken said in a news conference in Washington, while describing the exodus as the “fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II — as well as internally displaced people still in Ukraine.”
Ukraine had a population of about 44 million before the conflict began. Those who have been able to escape have fled to neighboring Hungary, Moldova and Poland.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 6.5 million are internally displaced within Ukraine’s borders. But the situation is expected to deteriorate even more as Russia began attacking Lviv March 18, a city near Poland where many Ukrainians have sought shelter.
Of a more than $13 billion package Congress approved for Ukraine, “more than 4 billion of that will go to humanitarian assistance,” Blinken said.
Priest describes Mariupol attacks as nonstop bombings
By Jonathan Luxmoore | Catholic News Service
WARSAW, Poland — A Ukrainian priest described escaping from his bombed-out parish in Mariupol and said he still hopes some Catholics will survive the relentless Russian onslaught.
Pauline Father Pavlo Tomaszewski said the decision to leave was not easy, “but when they started shelling the whole city, we realized we’d have to go.”
“They bombed and shelled us without any break for four days — since our monastery had no cellar for hiding in, we could see tall apartments blocks exploding in front of us,” said the priest, who comes from the western city of Kamenets-Podolsky but studied in neighboring Poland.
“Although there’d been water, food and gas and electricity supplies at the beginning, these were deliberately hit to cut off what people needed for daily survival. By the end, with no sense of time, we’d lost any contact with parishioners or with the outside world.”
The priest spoke at a March 18 virtual news meeting organized by the pontifical agency Aid to the Church in Need, as Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed its forces were “tightening the noose” around Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov. Up to 90% of all buildings in the city were reported damaged.
Father Tomaszewski said he had headed Mariupol’s Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish, incorporating multiple ethnicities, including Ukrainians and Russians, since 2011. He worked with two other priests and two St. Vincent de Paul nuns.
He said Catholics had begun leaving, “insecure and frightened,” in 2014, when fighting erupted with Moscow-backed separatists in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, but said Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion had been “completely unexpected” and inflicted “unimaginable suffering.”
Since the invasion, Russian troops have attempted to capture Mariupol, a city of 446,000 between the Crimean Peninsula and Ukraine’s separatist-controlled Donbas region.
Father Tomaszewski said Russian forces had targeted civilians from the outset, bombing and shelling Mariupol’s eastern districts, but had intensified “atrocities against the innocent population” in retaliation for Ukrainian resistance.
The priest added that he had seen three women torn apart by an artillery shell when they went out in search of water.
In a March 16 TV message, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said remaining inhabitants were now without food and water, and he compared the situation to the 1941-44 German siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Russia.
Russian forces were accused of bombing a Mariupol maternity hospital March 9 and a historic theater sheltering local people March 16, as well as shelling a Mariupol swimming pool complex housing women and children and a convoy of cars evacuating civilians. Although the incidents have been documented on video, Russians have denied the claims.
Father Tomaszewski said he and another Pauline priest had feared taking icons, chalices and other valuables with them, for fear of being robbed, when they headed north by car toward Zaporizhzhia.
He added that he had witnessed people “behaving like wild animals” on the way, along with leveled residential buildings and burned-out tanks. He said he and other refugees, now in a convoy of 100 cars, had expected to be shot when they were stopped by 40 heavily armed separatists at a checkpoint and told only women and children could pass.
Father Tomaszewski said most Catholic priests and nuns had resolved to stay with their communities nationwide, but added that some had been forced to flee as Russia’s “scorched-earth policy” destroyed local infrastructure.
He said he was unaware how many Mariupol Catholics had been killed and injured, but added that the war had created a “huge gulf” between Ukrainians and Russians who previously lived together peacefully.
“No images, pictures or videos can ever reproduce what it’s like to be caught up in this war — but our Church will always be with people, showing the face of Christ,” the priest said.
>> Act of Consecration
On March 25, Pope Francis planned to consecrate all of humanity, but especially Russia and Ukraine, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He also invited all bishops and priests to join in this Act of Consecration, with Archbishop Rozanski, Bishop Rivituso and several parishes anticipated to take part.