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Gerard O’ConnellMay 13, 2023
Pope Francis welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the entrance to the formal meeting rooms at the back of the audience hall at the Vatican May 13, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“Thank you for this visit,” a smiling Pope Francis said as he warmly shook hands and welcomed Ukraine’s President Zelensky at the door when he arrived at the Vatican on the afternoon of May 13 for his first face-to-face meeting with the pope since Russia invaded and started the war against his country. “It is a great honor,” the president responded in French.

Francis, walking with the aid of a walking stick, then led him into the private audience room near the Vatican Paul VI audience hall, not far from Santa Marta, the guesthouse where Pope Francis lives. The two sat down and spoke together in private for some 40 minutes, with the assistance of a translator. Mr. Zelensky said he asked the pope "to condemn Russian crimes in Ukraine, because there can be no equality between the victim and aggressor." He asked the pope to support his 10-point plan for peace

Afterwards, the Vatican issued a statement that indicated that in their talk they spoke about “the humanitarian and political situation of the Ukraine caused by the ongoing war.” It said, “the pope assured him of his constant prayer, as witnessed by his many public appeals and invocation to the Lord for peace since February of last year [when the war started].”

The Vatican statement said, “both [leaders] agreed on the necessity to continue the humanitarian efforts in support of the [Ukrainian] population.” Pope Francis emphasized in particular “the urgent need for ‘gestures of humanity’ towards the most fragile persons, the innocent victims of the conflict.”

The latter comment was read by observers here in Rome as referring especially to the children that are the most innocent victims of the war. Earlier in the day, meeting the Italian prime minister, Mr. Zelensky had called for the return of over 19,000 children “whose names we have” who have been forcibly taken to Russia.

Mr. Zelensky, for his part, issued the following tweet after he had left the Vatican that provided a deeper insight into what was said. He said: “I met with Pope Francis. I’m grateful for his personal attention to the tragedy of millions of Ukrainians. I spoke about thousands of deported Ukrainian children. We must make every effort to return them home. In addition, I asked to condemn Russian crimes in Ukraine. Because there can be no equality between the victim and aggressor. I also talked about our Peace Formula as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace. I proposed joining its implementation.”

Pope Francis emphasized in particular “the urgent need for ‘gestures of humanity’ towards the most fragile persons, the innocent victims of the conflict.”

After their private meeting, Mr. Zelensky presented his delegation to the pope, including Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash. Then both leaders exchanged gifts.

Pope Francis gave a bronze work of art representing an olive branch, the symbol of peace, according to the Vatican statement. He also gave the president a number of publications: the pope’s own message for this year’s World Day of Peace, the Document for Human Fraternity, written with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, and the book of Statio Orbis that documented the pope’s talk and prayer in St. Peter’s Square on March 27, 2020, for the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the book An Encyclical on Peace in Ukraine, which is a collection of the pope’s talks and homilies on the war.

Mr. Zelensky gave the pope: a work of art of the Madonna (Our Lady) wearing a flak jacket, and a work of art made from anti-projectile pieces from sites of conflict, a Byzantine icon of the Madonna like the one that many soldiers wear invoking her protection in the war and a painting marked “Lost” (Perdita) on the killing of Ukrainian children during the war.

After his private meeting with Pope Francis, Mr. Zelensky and his delegation also met Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states (that is, foreign minister).

This was their second private meeting of the Ukrainian president with the pope and it came on the 444th day of the war in Ukraine. They first met on Feb. 8, 2020, when they talked about peace in the Ukraine, and Pope Francis called him “a president of peace,” according to what the president told the Kyiv Post. Later, Mr. Zelensky wrote on Twitter, “@Pontifex does everything possible to achieve peace and harmony throughout the world.”

The war has forced the displacement 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.

Since the war started, Francis has sought to reach out to both Russian President Vladimir Putin who started the war on Feb. 24, 2022, and Mr. Zelensky, whom the Russians wanted to assassinate, in the hope of trying to stop the war that has led to the death or injury of hundreds of thousands of people (both Ukrainian and Russian). But only Mr. Zelensky has responded.

His visit has been interpreted as a gesture that reflected the importance that the president of Ukraine gives to the pope and to thank him for the role he plays in the humanitarian field (for the exchange of prisoners, the provision of humanitarian aid and assistance to facilitate the return of Ukrainian children that have been taken to Russia) and for his effort to bring an end to the Russian aggression against his country and the return of a just peace.

After his visit with the pope, Mr. Zelensky was interviewed for more than one hour on Italian state television by the editors of the main Italian dailies. Asked whether he saw a role for the pope as mediator between Russia and Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky replied, “With all respect for His Holiness, we do not need mediators. We need a just peace. We invite the pope, as [we do] other leaders, to work for a just peace, but first we have to do all the rest,” he said, meaning “it’s important to end the war in Ukraine” and by winning to put a stop to Mr. Putin’s aggression.

He said he saw no sense in trying to involve Russia in a dialogue at this stage, because in Minsk in 2015, Mr. Putin did not keep his word. “One cannot make a mediation with Putin. He just knows how to kill. It is not a question of the Vatican, Latin America or China.”

Mr. Zelensky said he felt the Vatican can help in some areas, including for example, with the return of almost 20,000 Ukrainian children who were taken to Russia during the occupation. He said he asked the pope to “put pressure on Russia” to achieve this goal.

This story has been updated.

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