As Ambassadors Left Town, the Pope’s Emissary Remained in Kyiv


The first spate of diplomats withdrew from Kyiv in mid-February, well before shells pounded in and around the historic city. The next wave of embassies packed up and left the Ukrainian capital a few weeks later, just as the war began in earnest, shifting their operations west and away from the fighting.

Throughout all of this, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission remained in place.

In recent weeks, as Russian troops have been withdrawing from the region across the board, dozens of embassies in the city have reopened or announced plans to return. The United States said this week it would reopen its embassy.

Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the Holy See’s ambassador to Ukraine, said he would stay as long as there was a city. Without the consular workload of a typical embassy or the political or economic interests of a secular state, the considerations for the nunciature, as the Vatican’s diplomatic mission is called, were different.

“Bishops and priests, they stay with the people. I stay with people because it’s part of my identity,” he said in a phone interview.

For weeks, Archbishop Kulbokas and his five-strong staff – fewer than the embassy’s normal staff of 11 – worked, ate, prayed and slept in a few rooms on the first floor of the nunciature, a five-story building with yellow walls in the tree-lined Shevchenkivskyi neighborhood of Kyiv . His days have been filled with calls to coordinate humanitarian aid, requests for help from within the country and offers of help from Catholic organizations abroad, he said.

On Thursday evening, he and his staff heard the now-familiar roar of incoming missiles and the explosions that followed about a kilometer away. It was at least the third time explosions had occurred within earshot of the embassy.

Given the overwhelming need for help, the archbishop said he hadn’t had time to think too much about the risks of staying. He spent the first weeks of the war helping to evacuate children and staff from orphanages near the front lines in the east. In the second half of March he tried unsuccessfully to relieve the besieged city of Mariupol.

Russian soldiers denied the church access to the city and refused his request to join an Orthodox bishop in providing humanitarian aid, he said. Almost half of the population in Ukraine is Eastern Orthodox; Catholics make up a small portion of the believers in the country.

Archbishop Kulbokas, a Lithuanian, was posted to Kyiv just last fall after working on Ukraine-Russia relations at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. He also served at the Embassy of the Holy See in Russia, where he translated at meetings between Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir V Putin.

In mid-April he left Kyiv to accompany Cardinal Konrad Krajewski on visits to nearby suburbs such as Bucha and Borodianka, where mass graves were being dug after the Russian troops left. When he now sees the written names of the cities, tears come to his eyes, said the archbishop.

“In every religion, human life is a priority,” he said. “If we truly believe in God, our priority would be to help one another.”

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