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Gerard O’ConnellMay 10, 2023
Pope Francis kisses the encolpion, an icon Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic bishops wear instead of a pectoral cross, as he greets Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk, director of external relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, at the end of the pope's general audience May 3, 2023, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

There are “new, but of course, confidential” developments in the Holy See’s mission to stop the war between Russia and Ukraine. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, broke the news of the “new” developments when he spoke to journalists at the Lateran University in Rome May 10, but he did not elaborate further. However, he added significantly, “I believe the peace mission will move forward.”

Pope Francis first revealed that a mission aimed at stopping the war between Russia and Ukraine “is underway” on April 30. In the following days, spokespersons for both Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky said their respective sides knew nothing about such a mission. Cardinal Parolin, the pope’s right-hand man, challenged these denials on April 3 and said both sides were informed.

So, what is happening? Is there a peace mission? Why would Kyiv and Moscow deny any knowledge of it? What can we expect to happen next?

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Pope Francis has looked for ways to stop the war. To achieve that goal and serve as a mediator, he has sought to avoid taking sides. Nevertheless, he has stated clearly that Russia is the aggressor and several times a week speaks of “martyred Ukraine.” He has spoken out against the more than 430 days’ war on no less than 120 occasions, in speeches, homilies, press conferences and interviews.  

Pope Francis’ relationship with President Zelensky

Since the war started, Pope Francis has spoken twice by phone (Feb. 26 and March 22) with President Zelensky, whom he had met face to face in the Vatican on Feb. 8, 2020. Moreover, he has received the Ukrainian prime minister and many parliamentarians in private audiences since the Russian invasion and has also met the wives of Ukrainian soldiers whose husbands were prisoners of war, and many refugees, including children.

The Holy See has had a nuncio, an ambassador, in Kyiv, the Lithuanian-born Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, who has been there throughout the war and reports regularly on the situation to the pope and the Vatican.

Francis has had the Vatican engage in humanitarian initiatives during the war. He sent the Polish-born Cardinal Konrad Krajewski on several missions to Ukraine with various forms of humanitarian aid, including ambulances and thermal shirts. Francis has also been involved in the exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine. Delegates from President Zelenskyy have brought the pope lists of names on at least five occasions, and he passed them onto the Russian authorities; many hundreds of prisoners have been released on both sides.

On the eve of his visit to Budapest, April 27, the Ukrainian prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, visited Francis in the Vatican and asked him to facilitate the return of thousands of Ukrainian children forcibly taken to Russia during the war. The pope promised to do everything possible in this regard.

These humanitarian efforts have been like stars in the dark night of war.

Pope Francis’ relationship with Vladimir Putin

Ever since the war started, Pope Francis has tried to make direct contact with President Putin, but so far without success. On the second day of the war, casting aside protocol, Francis visited the Russian embassy to the Holy See and asked the ambassador to convey a message to President Putin, saying he was willing to go to Moscow to speak with him, but the Russian leader has refused to have any direct contact with the pope since he launched the invasion. Instead, he had his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, respond to Francis saying his involvement was “not necessary.”  

A follow-up phone call on the pope’s behalf on March 8, 2022, by Cardinal Parolin to Mr. Lavrov, repeating Francis’ call for a stop to the fighting, was equally unsuccessful. 

Speaking to journalists Sept. 15, 2022, after his visit to Kazakhstan, Pope Francis, responding to criticisms for not calling out Putin, emphasized the need for dialogue, even if it means engaging “with states that have started a war.”

Pope Francis: “I don’t exclude dialogue with any sort of power that is at war, even if it is with the aggressor. It may ​​‘smell,’ but one has to do it."

He said, “I don’t exclude dialogue with any sort of power that is at war, even if it is with the aggressor. It may ​​‘smell,’ but one has to do it. But we must always be one step ahead, with an outstretched hand, always! Otherwise, we close the only reasonable door to peace.”

Returning from Budapest last month, Francis sought to explain his efforts to keep dialogue open. “I believe that peace is always made by opening channels; peace can never be made by closure. I invite everyone to open relationships, channels of friendship. ... This is not easy,” he said. 

He said he had told this to various people, including Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whom he met in Budapest and who is the only leader of the European Union’s 27 states who is an ally of President Putin. Mr. Orbán refuses to allow arms to be transported to Ukraine across the 85-mile border between the two countries, and claims that he and Francis are the only leaders working for peace.

How Francis communicates with Russia

While Francis has been able to communicate directly and indirectly with President Zelensky since the war started, the same is not true with President Putin, whom he has met face to face three times (2013, 2015, 2019). They last spoke together when Putin phoned to wish him 85th birthday greetings in Dec. 2021. Since then, Francis said, his main line of communication has been through the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Aleksandr Avdeyev. On the flight from Budapest, he said: “I have a good relationship with the ambassador who is now leaving; he has been the ambassador in the Vatican for seven years, he is a great man, a man comme il faut, a serious, cultured, and balanced person. My relationship with the Russians is mainly with this ambassador.”

The pope has communicated with the Kremlin also through Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, who met the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sept. 22, 2022. 

Moreover, the Vatican has a nuncio in Moscow, the Italian Archbishop Giovanni d’Aniello, who has been there throughout the war and is able to report back to Rome.

Besides the formal diplomatic channels, Francis also tries to make use of non-diplomatic ones to communicate with the Russian leadership, and especially Russian Orthodox church officials, even though most of them, like Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, are subservient to Putin. Only a small number of Orthodox priests have opposed the war and are reportedly now in prison. 

Besides the formal diplomatic channels, Francis also tries to make use of non-diplomatic ones to communicate with the Russian leadership.

On March 16, 2022, Francis had a 40-minute conversation by Zoom with Kirill. An outspoken supporter of the war, the patriarch sought to defend the “special military operation” but Francis called on him to be a pastor, not “the acolyte of the state.” The pope’s remark upset Kirill, according to informed sources; they have not spoken directly to each other since. They were scheduled to have a face-to-face meeting in Jerusalem in June 2021, but Francis canceled that because of the war.

Since their Zoom conversation, Francis has communicated with Kirill through the chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, first Metropolitan Hilarion and, since June 2022, through his successor, Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk. 

Anthony visited the pope in the Vatican on August 5, 2022, and discussed Orthodox-Catholic relations in the context “of political processes taking place in the world.” Soon after, he let it be known that Kirill would not attend the Congress of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan (Sept. 13-15) where Francis was scheduled to speak and where some had expected the patriarch and pope to have a face-to-face meeting. 

On the plane from Budapest, Francis affirmed that the meeting with the patriarch “will happen” but gave no indication as to when that might be. Vatican sources, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak, told America that Francis is unlikely to meet Kirill until the war has ended.

Vatican sources, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak, told America that Francis is unlikely to meet Kirill until the war has ended.

In Budapest, Pope Francis received Metropolitan Hilarion in a 20-minute private audience. Hilarion had been Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate from 2009 to 2022 when he was demoted and reassigned to Budapest in June 2022, allegedly for his opposition to the war. Hilarion was succeeded by Antony. Francis has known Hilarion since 2013, they have met many times and on the plane he said: “Hilarion is someone I respect very much, and we have always had a good relationship. And he was kind enough to come and see me [in Budapest], then he came to the Mass, and I saw him here at the airport as well. Hilarion is an intelligent person with whom one can talk, and these relationships need to be maintained, because if we talk about ecumenism—I like this, I don't like this—we must have an outstretched hand with everyone, even receive their hand.” 

Asked if he had talked about peace with Orbán and Hilarion, Francis said, in the meeting “We talked about all these things. We talked about this because everyone is interested in the road to peace. I am willing. I am willing to do whatever needs to be done. Also, there is a mission going on now, but it is not public yet. Let's see how....When it is public I will talk about it.”

Hilarion’s position is delicate, and in response to speculation in the media, he made clear on his website portal “there was nothing [at the meeting with Francis] concerning bilateral relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. No political issues were discussed. The meeting was of a personal nature between two old friends.”

After Francis’ return to the Vatican, Metropolitan Anthony arrived in Rome (May 1-4) “with Patriarch Kirill’s blessing.” His visit, however, was for private business that was in no way related to the pope’s peace mission, Vatican sources told America. He met Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, prefect of the Dicastery for the Oriental Churches, and greeted Pope Francis for a few minutes at the end of the Wednesday public audience in St. Peter’s Square. He also visited Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Christian Unity, whom he has known for many years, but did not meet Cardinal Kurt Koch, the prefect of the dicastery, who was in Israel at that time.

Anthony’s presence in Rome and his greeting the pope sparked inevitable speculation in the media that it was linked to the peace mission, but Cardinal Parolin categorically denied this on the day of the audience saying, “It had nothing to do with this!”

Russia and Ukraine knew about Francis’ peace initiative

At the same time, Cardinal Parolin expressed surprise that spokespersons for the presidents of Ukraine and Russia claimed ignorance of the pope’s peace mission. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters May 2 that Moscow had no information about the initiative. CNN reported that an unnamed Ukrainian official close to the presidential office said: “President Zelensky has not consented to any such discussions on Ukraine’s behalf. If talks are happening, they are happening without our knowledge or our blessing.”

”I know that both parties have been informed,” Cardinal Parolin said May 3, “to my knowledge, they were and are aware.” He added, “As far as I know, they know.”

The cardinal’s next remark, however, appeared to suggest that the pope’s first aim is to get both sides to agree to a ceasefire, before the peace process could start. ”I don't know if there are the conditions today for a ceasefire. Let's hope.... I believe that this initiative—if there will be one—by the Vatican should also go in that direction,” the cardinal said. Vatican Media reported that the cardinal went on to add that the hope is that a cessation of fighting might take place and that a peace process could follow.

On May 4, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, quoted by RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, offered a more nuanced response to his original denial: “We know that the Pope is constantly thinking about peace and how to end this conflict, but we are not aware of any detailed plan proposed by the Vatican.” 

“While Putin is not open to direct communication with the pope right now, the calculation here is that he may be more ready for this in some months’ if the war is not going his way.”

That both Russia and Ukraine would issue denials of a peace mission is to a certain degree comprehensible, as neither side wants to stop fighting at this moment. Ukraine wants to regain its lost territory before considering a peace plan and is about to launch a major military offensive to achieve that goal. Russia, for its part, wants to defend all the territory it has taken since 2014 and, if possible, make further gains. To say one is ready to discuss a ceasefire, much less a peace plan, would be equivalent to a sign of weakness on the Ukrainian part and would leave Russia in a stronger position since it holds Ukrainian territory. The Russians, too, do not want a ceasefire; they need to make further gains if they are to consolidate what they have already captured.

Sources told America that Francis wants to bring about a ceasefire as soon as possible, to stop the killing and destruction, before moving into the more problematic area of peace negotiations. One Vatican source said, “While Putin is not open to direct communication with the pope right now, the calculation here is that he may be more ready for this in some months if the war is not going his way.”

Some in Rome think Pope Francis may have in mind the all-out effort made by John Paul II in 2003 to prevent the war in Iraq. That year, the Polish pope sent the French Cardinal Roger Etchegeray to Baghdad to speak with Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader received him on February 15 and engaged in a conversation that appeared to offer a glimmer of hope for a last-minute way out of the crisis. Two weeks later, John Paul II dispatched the Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, a friend of the Bush family, to Washington, D.C., to speak with President George W. Bush. When they met in the Oval Office on March 5, the cardinal handed Mr. Bush a personal letter from the pope, but the president put it on the table without opening it and went on to inform the cardinal that he believed he was “doing God’s will” by launching the war. President Bush’s mind was closed to mediation, and the negative consequences of his decision are still with us today, as Francis saw when he visited the country March 5-8, 2021.  

The situation facing Francis is, of course, totally different from the one that faced John Paul II 20 years ago. President Putin has already launched the war and today, more than 430 days later, shows no intention of ending it. Nor does he show any sign of being open to a ceasefire proposal from Francis any more than President Bush was to John Paul II’s effort to prevent the war. 

Pope Francis believes in the power of prayer, knowing that nothing is impossible for God. He believes “it is not impossible” for him to get to Moscow, as he told La Nación on March 10. He knows it is a steep, uphill task to get both sides to agree to a ceasefire, but he feels it is his moral duty to try, and also to seek to engage other heads of state and of international organizations in this effort.

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