Vatican

Pope Francis pushes for peace in Ukraine

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, March 2, 2022

An Italian military vehicle and soldier performing regular guard duties are seen outside the building housing the Russian Embassy to the Holy See and other embassies on Via della Conciliazione, the main road leading to the Vatican, Feb. 25, 2022. Pope Francis visited the Russian Embassy to the Holy See in the morning the same day to express his concern about the war in Ukraine. (CNS photo/Cindy Wooden)

Pope Francis, suffering from acute knee pain, last week canceled two public engagements, including a trip to Florence last Sunday and presiding at Mass on Ash Wednesday.

But it did not stop him from making a remarkable, albeit short, visit to the Russian embassy to the Holy See the day after hostilities broke out in Ukraine. Francis was driven to the embassy, which is located on the Via della Conciliazione, which runs into St. Peter’s Square. He spent more than half an hour at the embassy, where he expressed his concern about the Russian invasion and is also believed to have spoken directly to President Vladimir Putin on the phone.

The Holy See has diplomatic relations with 183 states, and 87 have permanent embassies located in Rome, including the European Union and the Order of Malta. However, it is unheard of for a pope to personally visit one of the embassies. The decision to make such a bold departure from diplomatic protocol sent a strong signal about Francis’ upset over the war. While the pope could have summoned the ambassador, Aleksandr Avdeyev, Francis went to see him. This showed a determination to make a direct appeal to the conscience of Russian leadership and to keep a channel of communication open.

The question being asked in Rome and elsewhere is whether the Vatican could act as a peacemaker in this conflict. The Holy See has long experience mediating: The pope played an important role in assisting with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba and in trying to break political deadlocks in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. 

On Monday, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, told the Italian press that the Vatican was ready to “facilitate dialogue” between Russia and Ukraine. This is not an offer without any context behind it. Last April, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, said the Vatican would be an ideal place to negotiate an end to the war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, which began in 2014.

The Vatican’s decision to push for dialogue, and to engage Putin directly, has led to criticism. It has been noted that Francis has refrained from directly condemning the invasion of Ukraine, or the Russian president, directly. “Those who wage war forget humanity,” Francis told the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s for the Angelus prayer last Sunday. “They rely on the diabolic and perverse logic of weapons, which is the furthest from the logic of God.”

On the other hand, diplomats point out that there is no doubt who the pope sees as the “sinner” and who is being “sinned against” even if he has not spelled it out. On the same day as his trip to the Russian embassy, the pope also called the leader of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, saying “I will do all I can” to help, and the next day he called President Zelensky, assuring him of his support.

Francis is walking a delicate path. The Holy See does not have troops to deploy, nor can it impose sanctions. All a pope can do is make an appeal to individual consciences, and to keep hoping that peace can prevail through dialogue. Along with directly engaging Putin, Francis also has developed good relations with the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2016, he managed to secure a historic meeting with Patriarch Kirill and before Christmas, another encounter was being planned. This is another channel that the Vatican can use in their diplomatic efforts, given the closeness between the patriarch and Putin, and the way that Orthodoxy is bound up with Russia’s national identity. As an aside, the support that the patriarch has given Putin, including in the recent invasion, shows the great danger of religions becoming too closely associated with nation-states.

Despite the obvious pitfalls, the pope is determined to do everything in his power to mediate for peace in this conflict. It would be easy for Francis to condemn Putin and generate some positive headlines. Similarly, he could walk away from his tentative diplomatic pact with China and receive applause. But the pope is more focused on concrete results for people suffering on the ground, and on opening up processes that can lead to long term change.

As the bombs fall on Kyiv, no Western leaders in Europe seem able to stop the Russian invasion. Yet an 85-year-old pope who possesses unparalleled moral authority on the world stage could play a crucial part in ending the deadly destruction that always comes with war.

Topics:

  • pope francis
  • ukraine

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