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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Secret ‘mission’ for peace in Ukraine may show limits of pope’s influence

Pope Francis waves to attendees as he arrives in the popemobile car for the weekly general audience at St. Peter’s square in the Vatican, on Wednesday.

By Jason Horowitz

A secret mission revealed days ago by Pope Francis to bring peace between Russia and Ukraine is so secret that Russia and Ukraine claim to know nothing about it.

The Kremlin said Tuesday that it had no idea what the pope was talking about. “Ukraine doesn’t know about it,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash, said in an interview Wednesday, adding that he had scheduled a meeting for Thursday with the pope’s foreign minister. “I will for sure ask him what it is.”

Later Wednesday evening, the pope’s second-in-command and chief diplomat, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told reporters, “to my knowledge, they were and are aware” of the peace plan, saying that the denial by the governments “surprises me.”

The apparent bewilderment of the war’s parties, and confusion around the existence of a plan contributed to the sense that the pope’s influence as a geopolitical player and peacemaker — already chastened in countries like Cuba, South Sudan and Myanmar — did not extend to Ukraine.

Some supporters of Ukraine worry that in his eagerness to play a constructive role, Francis may be reducing himself to a pawn for the likes of President Vladimir Putin of Russia or the Russian Orthodox Church, which has sought to give religious legitimacy to the invasion.

During a visit to Budapest, Hungary, last weekend, Francis met privately with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been a frequent defender of Russia, and a top Russian Orthodox Church prelate in Hungary, Metropolitan Hilarion. On the plane home, Francis was asked by journalists whether he thought the two men could accelerate the peace process or facilitate a meeting between Francis and Putin.

Francis answered with a cryptic reference to “a mission going on now, but it is not public yet” to bring peace, adding “when it is public I will talk about it.”

Asked about the comments, the office of Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the foreign minister, responded that since the “matter is under consideration,” it could not provide information for now, “but will do so in the near future.”

But what little is actually known about that effort has drawn either denial (the metropolitan on Wednesday said he had no conversation about a peace plan with Francis), bafflement or deep skepticism from informed observers.

“The pope is out of the picture,” said Lucio Carraciolo, the editor of the leading Italian foreign affairs journal Limes. In December, he organized an event at the Italian Embassy to the Holy See featuring Parolin, who called for a “European peace conference” to help end the war.

“How can a Catholic pope be a mediator in an Orthodox environment?” Carraciolo said, adding that with Francis, the church “has no relevance in this kind of war.”

Still, the Vatican has actively tried to engage with both sides, working on prisoner releases and promising the Ukrainians that it would do what it could to help return children taken by Russia. One former Vatican official on Wednesday told the Italian press about a seven-point plan for a peace process that included getting major stakeholders around a table mediated by the Vatican.

Yurash, the Ukrainian ambassador, said the Vatican has consistently expressed a desire to be involved in an eventual peace negotiation, and that to do that, its officials told him, it had to keep open “bridges” and “lines” to Russia.

But he noted that the Kremlin had repeatedly stymied Vatican overtures for a papal meeting with Putin, which Francis has repeatedly said would be a prerequisite for a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Yurash argued the Russian Orthodox Church was trying to gain “legitimacy” through its relationship with the Vatican for “obvious aims of Russian propaganda.”

“It’s not absolutely clear for my side why the Holy See is always trying to still continue this very special relation with the Russian church and the Russian state,” he said, adding that the Ukrainian people, already suffering under an invasion, “cannot understand” the pope’s positioning.

Francis has repeatedly recalled that on the first day of the war he called Zelenskyy, and then, to make what he has called a “clear gesture” of his openness to talk, visited Alexander Avdeyev, the Russian ambassador to the Holy See.

On the flight back from Budapest he called Avdeyev “a great man, a man comme il faut, a serious, cultured and balanced person.”

Avdeyev did not return a request for comment.

Francis’ openness to dialogue has also, especially in the beginning of the war, drawn criticism for assuming a neutrality that critics considered morally questionable in the face of clear Russian aggression.

The pope’s early reluctance to name Russia as the aggressor eventually led to criticism from Ukraine and warnings that he was in danger of ending up on the wrong side of history, with historians invoking Pius XII, who stayed essentially silent about Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust.

In May 2022, Francis wondered in an interview with the Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper, whether “NATO barking at Russia’s doors” may have “facilitated” anger from the Kremlin that led to the invasion.

But in the same interview, he seemed to damage his status as an honest broker when he said he had pointed out to Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church, who he spent years courting to mend a split between the Western and Eastern churches going back to 1054, “the patriarch cannot be transformed into Putin’s altar boy.”

After eventually condemning Russia as the aggressor, Francis has since compared Russia’s behavior with massacres under Josef Stalin and has consistently supported Ukrainians and called attention to their plight.

But Carraciolo said, the pope’s differing views could charitably be characterized as a “puzzle” that generated confusion and effectively disqualified the pontiff as a potential interlocutor.

Revealing an effort after meeting with players closer to the Russian side in Budapest was “not smart,” he said, also adding, “if it’s secret, you have to keep it secret.”

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has thrown himself into real conflicts in the hopes of having a real, and not just moral, impact on the world stage. But after early success in playing a role in a historic diplomatic breakthrough between Cuba and the United States in 2015, his efforts have rarely borne fruit.

Cuba, where he has sent an envoy to secure the release of political prisoners, has not freed them. In 2019, he knelt in the Vatican and kissed the feet of the warring leaders of South Sudan, imploring them to stop a yearslong civil war. But in February, he upbraided the leaders in the country’s capital, Juba, for slipping back into violence.

Flavio Lotti, who organizes a yearly peace march from Perugia to Assisi, said that the pope’s strong voice on issues of peace, disarmament and support for migrants, “makes Francis unique, but doesn’t make him stronger.”

Still, Lotti said Francis served as an important “lighthouse” for everyone who seeks to put “the conditions of real people also at the heart of geopolitical problems. It’s in the trying.”

While even some supporters of Francis worry he risks coming off as geopolitically impotent if no plan materializes or gets traction, it is clear for now that the pope had again become a center of attention. Yurash said he had received a barrage of calls from fellow ambassadors to the Vatican, including from the United States, asking what he knew.

As the ambassador showed pictures in his office of himself with Francis and Parolin and pointed out a stuffed animal, shredded in a Russian attack, that he hoped to give to the pope as a reminder of the suffering of the country’s children, his phone rang.

“The Polish ambassador,” he said, excusing himself. “Everybody is calling me.”

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