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Gerard O’ConnellMay 03, 2022
Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters)

Pope Francis is deeply concerned that the war in Ukraine, now in its 69th day, shows no sign of slowing, and said he is ready to go to Moscow to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to bring it to an end. He revealed in an interview with Corriere della Sera, the leading Italian daily, that he let the Russian leader know this 20 days after the war started, but said that he has not yet received a reply from him.

He also disclosed that Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, who has good relations with Putin, told Francis during a private audience in the Vatican on April 21 that “the Russians have a plan to end the war on May 9,” the Russian anniversary of the 1945 defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has also invited Francis to come to Kyiv, but Francis feels the moment is not right.

He warned that “we must also pay attention to what could happen in Transnistria,” referring to the small breakaway republic from Moldova that borders Ukraine to the west. Attacks and explosions were reported in Transnistria last week, and some analysts have suggested Putin could use unrest in the region as a pretext to open another front in the war. Reflecting on all this, Pope Francis concluded, “I am pessimistic, but we must do everything possible to bring a stop to the war.”

In the interview, Francis recalled that “on the first day of the war I called the Ukrainian President Zelensky by phone, but I did not call Putin. I had spoken with him in December for my birthday, but this time no. I did not call him.” Instead, he said, “I wished to make a clear gesture that the whole world could see, and for this reason I went to the Russian ambassador. I asked him to explain to me [the reason for the war]. I told him, ‘Please stop [the war].’ Then, after 20 days of war, I asked Cardinal Parolin to get the message to Putin that I am ready to go to Moscow.”

“Certainly, it is necessary that the leader of the Kremlin should open a window (for this to happen), but we have not yet received an answer,” Francis said. “But we continue insisting, even though I fear that Putin cannot and does not wish to have this encounter at this moment. But how can one not stop such brutality?”

“We continue insisting, even though I fear that Putin cannot and does not wish to have this encounter at this moment. But how can one not stop such brutality?”

“Twenty-five years ago we saw the same thing with Rwanda,” he said, alluding to the genocidal war in that African country that resulted in five million deaths. A number of European leaders, including Ukrainian President Zelensky and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, allege that Putin is engaged in both a cultural and even physical genocide in Ukraine, but neither the pope nor the Vatican has said this explicitly.

Seeking to understand the rationale for this war, Francis wondered whether “it was NATO barking at the door of Russia” that “perhaps” provoked Putin, “or at least facilitated” his decision to attack Ukraine.

Asked whether it was right for Western countries to send so much weaponry to Ukraine, Francis said he “was too far away (from the war)” to respond to this question. But, he remarked, “one thing is clear they are trying out new weapons” in this conflict. Moreover, “the Russians now know that tanks are of little use and so are thinking of other things,” perhaps alluding to the supersonic missiles or nuclear weapons that the Kremlin has publicly threatened it could use.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has also invited Francis to come to Kyiv, but Francis feels the moment is not right. He recalled he had sent two Vatican cardinals—Michael Czerny and Konrad Krajewski—to Ukraine; the latter has gone four times already. “I feel that I should not go (now). I must first go to Moscow. I must first meet Putin,” he said. “I am a priest, what can I do? I do what I can. If Putin opens the door….”

Francis wondered whether “it was NATO barking at the door of Russia” that “perhaps” provoked Putin.

Pope Francis dismissed the idea that Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow could convince President Putin to open the door, referring to their virtual conversation on March 16. “For the first 20 minutes,” the Patriarch “read from a text all the justifications for the war,” Francis said. “I listened to him and then said, ‘I do not understand anything of this.’” He said that he then told Kirill, “Brother, we are not clerics of the state. We are pastors of the same holy people of God. For this reason, we must seek ways of peace, to bring a stop to the firing of guns.”

Pope Francis added, “The Patriarch cannot transform himself into a cleric of Putin. I had an encounter fixed with him in Jerusalem on June 14. It would have been our second face-to-face meeting that had nothing to do with the war. But now, he too agrees, we must stop (the encounter), [because] it could be an ambiguous signal.”

Francis has said several times that the world is witnessing a third world war “piecemeal.” In today’s interview, he noted what is happening in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and “one war after another in Africa.” In each little war, “there are international interests,” he commented. “One cannot think that one free state makes war on another free state,” he said, “and in Ukraine it is others that created the conflict.” He said the only issue on which Ukraine could be rebuked was for the way it reacted to conflict in the breakaway region of the Donbass, “but that was 10 years ago, and it’s an old argument.”

Pope Francis described the Ukrainians as “a proud people” that “paid a heavy price” during World War II, and that today are “a martyred people, with many who have died.”

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