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Gerard O’ConnellJune 27, 2023
Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the Italian prelate chosen by Pope Francis to lead an initiative for peace in Ukraine, is pictured in a May 27, 2022, photo. (OSV News photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters)

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi will be in Moscow June 28-29 “as the envoy of Pope Francis,” the Vatican announced today, on the second stage of a mission to explore ways to lessen tensions and help bring an end to the war in Ukraine. The cardinal visited Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, June 5-6, on the first leg of the mission.

“The purpose of the initiative is to encourage gestures of humanity that can contribute to favor a solution to the current tragic situation, and find ways to reach a just peace,” the Vatican said in a communication to journalists accredited to the Holy See on June 27.

The Vatican’s communique today closely resembles the one the Vatican issued on the eve of Cardinal Zuppi’s visit to Kyiv, which said that “the main purpose of this initiative is to listen in depth to the Ukrainian authorities about possible ways to achieve a just peace and to support gestures of humanity that will help ease tensions.”

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi will be in Moscow June 28-29 “as the envoy of Pope Francis,” the Vatican announced today, on the second stage of a mission to explore ways to help bring an end to the war in Ukraine.

Cardinal Zuppi, the archbishop of Bologna and president of the Italian bishops’ conference, had a private meeting with Pope Francis yesterday, June 26, before departing today for Moscow. He briefed him on the results of his visit to Kyiv and the goals of his visit to Moscow. Francis was in the hospital when the cardinal returned from Kyiv, and America has learned that they only communicated by phone after that visit.

The 67-year-old Italian cardinal is expected to meet with Patriarch Kirill, the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow and of all Russia, during his visit. The patriarch has publicly supported the war in Ukraine that was launched by President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 24, 2022, much to the dismay of the other Christian churches. It seems Cardinal Zuppi got to know Patriarch Kirill through the cardinal’s membership in the Community of Sant’Egidio, which has developed close relationships with the Russian Orthodox Church. The possibility of their meeting was discussed with Metropolitan Antony, the chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow, who met senior Vatican officials, the pope and leaders of the Sant’Egidio community during a visit to Rome this month. The Russian prelate, who is the No. 2 official in the patriarchate, met Francis on June 17, the day after the pope came out of the hospital.

Cardinal Zuppi is expected to have a face-to-face conversation with Patriarch Kirill and to meet with a close adviser to President Putin, according to various informed sources. He might also meet the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, who met Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, last September at the U.N. General Assembly, but there is no confirmation of this at the time of writing. Nor is there yet any indication that the cardinal will meet the Russian president. In Kyiv, Cardinal Zuppi met with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Since the start of the war, President Putin has declined to have any direct communication with Pope Francis, though the two leaders had met three times before the 2022 invasion.

Cardinal Zuppi is aware of the uphill task he faces in Moscow, made even more difficult by the chaos caused by the recent short-lived mutiny of the Wagner Group, a private military force that has been fighting on behalf of Russia in Ukraine.

Cardinal Zuppi is expected to have a face-to-face conversation with Patriarch Kirill and to meet with a close adviser to President Putin, according to various informed sources.

Italy’s leading daily, Corriere della Sera, quoted the cardinal as saying, “We will do everything possible [to work for peace], in full accordance with the Holy Father. We will do so with great patience, but also with urgency, because a day more means so much more suffering.”

The war in Ukraine, now in its 16th month, has led to an estimated 354,000 Ukrainian and Russian military casualties. The BBC said this week that it has the names of 25,000 Russian soldiers who have been killed in the war, but reckons the real figure is double that. In addition, more than 1,500 Ukrainian children have been killed or injured, and a quarter of the country’s 44 million people have been forced to leave their homes, including eight million who have become refugees in other countries. During Cardinal Zuppi’s visit to Kyiv, the Russians are suspected to have blown up the Kakhovka dam on the front lines of the war in southern Ukraine’s Kherson region, causing an ecological and humanitarian disaster.

Cardinal Zuppi recently expressed appreciation for the positive remarks regarding the pope’s initiative made by Mr. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.

While some in the Vatican think this is not the right moment for the visit given the turmoil caused by the Wagner Group’s march on Moscow, informed sources say others, including the cardinal, appear to believe that the crisis in Moscow might offer a rare opportunity for talks.

The Holy See made clear before the cardinal went to Kyiv that the mission is not an attempt at mediation, something that both sides have excluded at the present juncture. Rather, it is an effort to seek to create an atmosphere within which it would be possible to lessen the tensions and engage in humanitarian initiatives that could be acceptable to both sides, including prisoner exchanges and the return of Ukrainian children taken to Russia.

Cardinal Zuppi recently expressed appreciation for the positive remarks regarding the pope’s initiative made by Mr. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.

Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state and the pope’s top adviser, explained in an interview with Corriere della Sera on May 28 that “mediation” is not the “immediate aim” of this peace mission. Rather the goal is “to try above all to create an atmosphere, to foster an environment that can help to lead to paths of peace.”

“Above all,” he said, “it means to enter into the perspective of peace because up to now there is only talk of war and of a military solution, what Pope Francis calls ‘the logic of war.’ But if this paradigm can be changed a little, then perhaps they can begin to think in a different way.”

Cardinal Parolin said, “No one has concrete solutions because there are many elements at play which are difficult to put together: respect for international law, respect for internationally recognized frontiers, the principle of law and not the force of arms…. There are many things to be put together, but this has to be done in a perspective of peace. If we can put ourselves in this perspective, I believe concrete solutions can be found.”

Cardinal Zuppi brought a letter from Pope Francis to President Zelensky during his visit in early June, and it is likely that he will also take a letter from the pope to President Putin. But whether he will be able to hand it over to Mr. Putin in person remains to be seen.

Corriere della Sera reports that Cardinal Zuppi is expected to arrive in Moscow this evening, June 27. He will be accompanied by an official of the Secretariat of State whose name the Vatican has not yet disclosed. He is expected to be welcomed at the airport by the Vatican nuncio to the Russian Federation, the Italian-born archbishop Giovanni d’Aniello, and to reside at the nunciature during his two-day visit in Moscow.

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