As Pope remains mum on Russia, some see an opening behind the scenes


FLORENCE, Italy – Although Pope Francis took the extraordinary step of visiting Russia’s Embassy to the Holy See on Friday in order to demonstrate concern for the war in Ukraine, so far the pontiff still has not directly named Russia as the aggressor, nor has he condemned the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin like many other global leaders have.

While some sympathizers with the Ukrainian cause may be frustrated with the apparent diplomatic tact, others believe it may be the price of contributing to a diplomatic resolution of the conflict.

“I would be hard pressed to read the mind of the pope,” said Archbishop Gintaras Grusas of Vilnius, Lithuania, Friday. “However, taking a step back on Vatican diplomacy in the past, one can see that during the [Soviet] occupation of Lithuania and other Baltic states, there was an attempt to do a lot of the diplomacy in the background.”

Grusas was referring to a policy known in the Cold War era as Ostpolitik, referring to Pope Paul VI’s efforts to engage the Soviet empire rather than excoriate it, in hopes such a policy would afford the Vatican the opportunity to push for reform behind the scenes.

“For good or bad, and it can be discussed, that’s how it was,” Grusas told Crux.

Pope Francis has asked for prayers for peace in Ukraine for almost two months, but without mentioning Russia directly. Even on Friday, in a message from the papal Twitter account in both Russian and Ukrainian, the hashtag mentioned only the invaded nation but not the aggressor.

“Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil,” says the message, accompanied with the hashtags #PrayTogether and #Ukraine.

Grusas said it’s hard to evaluate the logic for such discretion right now.

“But the first thing that we do need is prayer, and I think the pope is very direct about that,” he said. “What the pope and his diplomats do in the background is something we won’t be able to know about until history tells us.”

Ukrainian officials say they’d welcome a mediation effort, but they’re skeptical about its potential success.

“It is an idea already expressed by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky,” said Ukraine’s Vatican envoy Andriy Yurash, speaking with Europa Press, referring to a Vatican mediation effort. However, he also said that “at this moment no mediation can be successful,” since “the Russian side does not have the conditions to sit at the table to negotiate.”

Yurash pointed out that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, has also offered “his mediation” to the Ukrainian government, but said that Russia is making “its interests prevail” and that it is not prepared to undertake “any peace negotiations.”

“It is not true that Russia wants to sit down to negotiate with us,” the diplomat said. “Its position is closed.”

In the wake of Friday’s papal visit to the Russian embassy, a spokesman for the head of the Greek Catholic Ukrainian Church said he had spoken on the phone with the pontiff, who had promised his help.

“I will do everything that I can,” Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk reported Francis as telling him.

Earlier in the day, Shevchuk’s office had released a statement welcoming the pope’s visit to the Russian embassy, saying that he “hopes the talks will represent a further push for dialogue to prevail over force.”

“The Ukrainian people, who are bravely defending themselves, shout to the world: ‘Stop the war’,” said the archbishop.

Pope Francis meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of their private audience at the Vatican on June 10, 2015. Pope Francis went to the Russian Embassy on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022 to personally “express his concern about the war,” the Vatican said, in an extraordinary, hands-on papal gesture that has no recent precedent. Usually, popes receive ambassadors and heads of state in the Vatican, and diplomatic protocol would have called for the Vatican foreign minister to summon the ambassador. (Credit: File AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool)

Some observers believe Pope Francis could help facilitate a dialogue between Ukraine and Russia, in part because he and the Russian president enjoyed an odd-couple bond of sorts during the first years of Francis’s pontificate.

In 2013, as the United States and other Western nations prepared to deploy military force against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to try to stop the invasion, Putin reportedly told the members of the United Nations Security Council that “we might listen to the pope.”

Francis had sent him a letter, urging member nations “to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution.” By all accounts, it was Francis’s missive that stopped the invasion.

In a similar manner, Francis found in Putin an ally for the protection of persecuted minorities in the Middle East. Given that the majority of the embattled Christians who were being killed between 2014 and 2017 by the terrorist group ISIS were Orthodox, Putin insisted at the time that Russia has a special historical role as their protector.

It remains to be seen if any such common ground could be achieved in Ukraine.

Yurash said the pontiff’s visit to the embassy is at least encouraging, calling it “very important” and “highly symbolic.”

“One must understand the essence of this gesture,” he said. “The pope has skipped all the protocols because he wants there to be peace.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

Keep Crux Independent

For the cost of a cup of coffee at Starbucks, you can help keep the lights on at Crux.

Last Week in the Church with John Allen Jr.
Tuesdays on YouTube
  • Apple Podcasts
  • Spotify
  • Podcast Index
  • Amazon Music
  • Google Podcasts
  • TuneIn

Crux. Anytime. Anywhere.

Today’s top stories delivered straight into your inbox.