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As ambassadors left the city, the pope’s envoy remained in Kiev

The first barrage of diplomats left Kyiv in mid-February, long before grenades began slamming into and around the historic city. The next wave of embassies packed up and left the capital of Ukraine a few weeks later, when the war began in earnest, moving their operations west and away from the fighting.

Throughout, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission remained.

In recent weeks, with Russian troops on wide retreat from the region, dozens of embassies have reopened in the city or announced plans to return. The United States said this week that it would reopen its embassy.

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

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

For weeks, Archbishop Kulbokas and his staff of five worked, ate, bathed, and slept – down from the embassy’s normal staff of 11 – in a few rooms on the ground floor of the nunciatur, a yellow-walled five-story building in the wooded Shevchenkivskyi district of Kiev. 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 night, he and his staff heard the now familiar buzz of incoming missiles and the ensuing explosions about a mile away. It was at least the third time explosions had come within earshot of the embassy.

Faced with the overwhelming need for help, the archbishop said he has not had time to think too much about the risk of staying. He spent the first weeks of the war helping evacuate children and staff from orphanages near the front lines in the east. In the second half of March, he unsuccessfully sought emergency aid for the besieged city of Mariupol.

Russian soldiers denied the church access to the city and rejected his requests for humanitarian aid along with an Orthodox bishop, he said. Almost half of the population of Ukraine is Eastern Orthodox; Roman Catholics make up a small portion of the believers in the country.

Archbishop Kulbokas, a Lithuanian, was first sent to Kiev last autumn after working on relations between Ukraine and Russia in the Vatican’s Foreign Ministry Secretariat. He also served in the Holy See’s Embassy in Russia, where he translated into meetings between Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

In mid-April, he left Kiev to accompany Cardinal Konrad Krajewski on visits to nearby suburbs, including Bucha and Borodianka, where mass graves were excavated in the wake of the withdrawal of Russian troops. Now he gets tears in his eyes when he sees the written names of the cities, the archbishop said.

“In any 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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