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Gerard O’ConnellMay 11, 2023
pope francis sits across from president volodymyr zelensky in the vaticanPope Francis meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a private audience at the Vatican in a Feb. 8, 2020, stock photo. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Italian media is reporting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky could visit Rome and meet with Pope Francis in the Vatican on Saturday, May 13, in what would be an extraordinary and highly significant development.

There has been no official confirmation from the Vatican or the Italian government, and that is understandable given the security concerns that would surround such a visit. Nevertheless, some in Rome are asking if this could be “the new” but “confidential” development that Cardinal Parolin referred to yesterday at the Lateran university in Rome.

ANSA, the Italian news agency, quotes unnamed Vatican sources as saying, “It is possible that the Ukrainian president will meet the pope on Saturday.” A senior Vatican source told America, “everything is possible.”

ANSA reported that Zelensky had visited Helsinki, Finland, the Hague in the Netherlands, and is due to visit Germany in the coming days, where—according to German media—he will meet German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, and then could come from Berlin to Rome, but noted that “this has not been confirmed by the Italian government.” Other media specify Saturday, May 13, as the day he will be in Rome meeting Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

Francis has sought to reach out to both Russian President Vladimir Putin, who started the war on Feb. 24, 2022, and Ukrainian President Zelensky, whom the Russians wanted to assassinate, in the hopes of achieving a ceasefire and stopping the war that has led to hundreds of thousands of casualties. The war has forced the displacement and/or exile of almost a quarter of the 44 million Ukrainians who lived in the country before the Russian invasion. It has also caused widespread destruction in the country and greatly disrupted the food and energy supply chains across the world.

It would be President Zelensky’s second face-to-face meeting with the pope and would come on the 444th day of the war.

While President Putin has refused to speak to the pope since the start of the war, President Zelensky has spoken with Pope Francis twice by phone (February 26 and March 22). Moreover, delegates from the Ukrainian government and parliament have visited the pope, while Vatican officials, including Archbishop Paul Gallagher—the secretary for relations with states (or foreign minister)—have visited Kyiv during the war. If President Zelensky were to make this surprise visit to the pope, less than three weeks after Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal met Francis, that would indeed be striking.

It would be President Zelensky’s second face-to-face meeting with the pope and would come on the 444th day of the war.

When they first met on Feb. 8, 2020, they talked about peace in Ukraine, and Mr. Zelensky said that Pope Francis called him “a president of peace,” according to the Kyiv Post. Later, Mr. Zelensky wrote on Twitter, “@Pontifex does everything possible to achieve peace and harmony throughout the world.”

Mr. Zelensky said he invited Pope Francis to visit Ukraine and to see the results of the conflict in the Donbas, and told the Kyiv Post, “I am sure he will be in Ukraine, not only in the capital.” He said he told the pope that “in order to fully understand what was happening in the [country’s] east, it is necessary to go there.”

He said he was “extremely grateful” to Pope Francis for appealing to Catholic churches across Europe in 2018 “to help the 900,000 Ukrainians who had suffered in the Donbas,” and they raised 15 million euros of humanitarian aid for this purpose.

President Zelensky then asked for the Holy See’s assistance to help release Ukrainians held as prisoners of war in Russia, in the annexed region of Crimea and in the occupied Donbas region.

It is difficult to see how Francis could get the Ukrainian president to be willing to agree to a ceasefire at this moment, given that the meeting, if it happens on Saturday, would come on the eve of what is expected to be a major military offensive by Ukraine.

It is no secret that Francis wants Russia and Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire to save lives and to prevent further injury, suffering and destruction before the conflict escalates further. After Francis spoke with Mr. Zelensky by phone on Feb. 26, 2022, the president thanked the pope on Twitter “for praying for peace in Ukraine and a ceasefire.” At that point, Russian tanks and troops had moved to attack Kyiv and explosions were being heard across the capital city.

But the situation has tragically deteriorated since then, with much killing and destruction, but also with extraordinary resistance from the Ukrainian army and people. It is difficult to see how Francis could get the Ukrainian president to be willing to agree to a ceasefire at this moment, given that the meeting, if it happens on Saturday, would come on the eve of what is expected to be a major military offensive by Ukraine to recover all the territory that Russia has taken from them since 2014. A ceasefire at this point would be perceived as mostly to the advantage of Russia since they have taken Ukrainian territory and would not want to withdraw from there.

It would be highly significant, however, if President Zelensky were to visit Pope Francis right now. He has invited the pope to visit Ukraine on several occasions, but Francis, seeking to retain the slender possibility of serving as a mediator, said he would like to go to Kyiv but would do so only if he could first go to Moscow, something that is not possible at present given Mr. Putin’s closed attitude.

Pope Francis appeals to people regularly to pray for “the martyred Ukraine” and has drawn attention to the suffering of the Ukrainian people in more than 120 speeches, homilies and conferences since the war began. While seeking not to take sides, in order to retain the possibility of mediation, Francis has nonetheless denounced Russia as “the aggressor” state and affirmed Ukraine’s right to defend itself. He has worked for prisoner exchange and sought to provide humanitarian aid.

Pope Francis has an uphill task in trying to bridge the gap between Russia and Ukraine, but he is a man of prayer and knows that God can change people’s hearts.

Pope Francis would certainly welcome President Zelensky’s visit. It would provide him with a valuable opportunity to talk with him, gain insight into the heart of this courageous man, and understand how he intends to lead his people to peace. If this visit were to happen, it would surely strengthen Francis in his mission to work for peace, while enabling him to see the limits of what he can achieve.

There is, of course, the crucial fact that while Francis can talk with Mr. Zelensky, he has not been able to speak directly with Mr. Putin since the Russian president started the war. The pope has met Mr. Putin three times at the Vatican in face-to-face private conversations (2013, 2015 and 2019), and they last spoke together by phone in December 2021. Since then, however, Mr. Putin has refused to talk directly with Pope Francis, and there is no evidence that he is ready to do so at this stage.

Furthermore, hatred grows by the day as the war continues, and there is now no trust between the two sides. Pope Francis has an uphill task in trying to bridge that gap, but he is a man of prayer and knows that God can change people’s hearts.

Many Catholics are sure to note and draw hope from the fact that if President Zelensky were to meet Pope Francis on May 13, that would happen on the anniversary of the first appearance of Our Lady to the three peasant children at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. At the heart of Our Lady’s message was an appeal to pray for the conversion of Russia and a call to consecrate that country to the Immaculate Heart of Our Lady as a way of bringing peace into the world.

On March 25, 2022, Pope Francis consecrated both Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and prayed for peace between the nations. He made clear, however, that the consecration “was not a magic formula but a spiritual act” at a time of great crisis, imploring her to intercede before God for peace in the world, especially between Russia and Ukraine, and for an end to the war in Ukraine.

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