Pope calls for peace in Ukraine on ‘Easter of war,’ warns against nuclear threat

Pope Francis, in an Easter address delivered to tens of thousands of worshipers in the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square, called for “peace for war-torn Ukraine” and cautioned that the conflict could lead to nuclear war.

Under the bright sun before a crowd reveling in a return to tradition after previous years’ pandemic-related restrictions, the pope called Sunday’s holiday an “Easter of war.”

“We have seen all too much blood, all too much violence,” he said. “Our hearts, too, have been filled with fear and anguish, as so many of our brothers and sisters have had to lock themselves away to be safe from bombing.”

“Let us all commit ourselves to imploring peace, from our balconies and in our streets,” the pontiff said. “May the leaders of nations hear people’s plea for peace.”

He cited a line from a 1955 manifesto by physicist Albert Einstein and philosopher Bertrand Russell, in which scientists and thinkers warn of the risks posed by nuclear weapons, writing, “Shall we put an end to the human race, or shall mankind renounce war?”

The Easter message capped a weekend of religious events for Catholics. Orthodox Christians in Ukraine and elsewhere celebrate Easter on April 24.

Three Ukrainian lawmakers and the mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, who reportedly was abducted by Russian forces and released in a prisoner swap, attended the pope’s Easter vigil service on Saturday, where he addressed them directly. “In this darkness that you are living, Mr. Mayor, parliamentarians, the thick darkness of war, of cruelty, we are all praying, praying with you and for you this night,” Francis said.

The pope’s Good Friday sermon at the Colosseum in Rome called for a cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine, attracting criticism from Ukrainian faith leaders, who were upset that Ukrainians and Russians carried a cross together during the service.

While the pope has often talked in support of Ukraine since the start of the war, he has avoided naming Russia as the aggressor, or calling what is happening in Ukraine an invasion. His Easter Sunday address was no exception. He said Ukraine was “dragged” into a “cruel and senseless war” but did not say by whom. He mentioned Ukraine and Ukrainians by name, but not Russia.

The pope’s most recent remarks come amid concerns about the fate of Mariupol, the key port city in southern Ukraine where fighting continues. Russian officials warned Sunday that pro-Ukraine forces holding out there would be “eliminated” if they did not surrender by a Russian-imposed deadline – but as that moment passed, there were no signs that such a surrender would occur.

The devastated city has been under attack for more than a month and appeared to be on the verge of capture in recent days, but Ukrainian officials insist it has yet to fall under full Russian control.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said in a television interview on Sunday that Mariupol “still has not fallen” and that pro-Ukrainian forces there would fight until the end, even as a “huge humanitarian catastrophe” worsens in the besieged city. Ukraine’s foreign minister described a situation in the city that is “dire militarily and heartbreaking.”

The pope’s message highlighted the consequences of war for Ukraine and its people, especially “the millions of refugees and internally displaced people, the divided families, the elderly left to themselves, the lives broken and the cities razed.”

“I see the faces of the orphaned children fleeing from the war,” Francis said. “As we look at them, we cannot help but hear their cry of pain, along with that of all those other children who suffer throughout our world: those dying of hunger or lack of medical care, those who are victims of abuse and violence, and those denied the right to be born.”

He praised European nations for opening their doors to Ukrainian refugees, but suggested that same welcome should be extended to other vulnerable people fleeing conflicts elsewhere. He raised his hopes for a peaceful resolution to other conflicts around the world.

After apologizing in early April for the “deplorable conduct” of some Catholics in Canada’s residential school system, which separated at least 150,000 Indigenous children from their families to assimilate them, the pope said Sunday that he hoped for the success of the “journey of reconciliation that the Catholic Church in Canada is making with the Indigenous peoples.”

“May the Spirit of the risen Christ heal the wounds of the past and dispose hearts to seek truth and fraternity,” Francis said.

The pope ended his address with a call for peace: “Peace is possible; peace is a duty; peace is everyone’s primary responsibility!”