ROME – In a potential glimpse of things to come, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, tasked with leading Pope Francis’s peace mission in Ukraine, on Tuesday called war a “pandemic” and defended the pope’s handling of the Ukraine-Russia war.

In a keynote address at the beginning of the spring plenary assembly for the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), Zuppi, the conference president, began his lengthy and wide-ranging speech with an appeal for peace, specifically in Ukraine.

Quoting Pope Francis, he said it is a country with “a martyred people.”

Despite criticism that Francis has been too soft in his treatment of Russia over its invasion of Ukraine – including refusing for months after the conflict began to even say the word “Russia” or to mention its President, Vladimir Putin – Zuppi voiced gratitude for the pope’s “prophecy” on the war.

Such a position, he said, is “so rare today, when speaking of peace seems to avoid taking sides or acknowledging responsibility.”

The pope’s voice, “takes charge of the deep anxiety, sometimes unexpressed, often unheard, of the peoples who need peace,” he said, saying, “War is a pandemic. It involves us all.”

CEI’s spring general assembly is taking place May 22-25, with the theme, “Listening to what the Spirit tells the Churches: Steps Toward Discernment.”

The gathering opened with a two-hour, closed-door question and answer session with Pope Francis Monday, just two days after the Vatican announced Saturday that he had chosen Zuppi to lead a peace mission to Ukraine.

Francis initially dropped hints that a “peace mission” to end the Russia-Ukraine war was in the works on his return flight from Hungary April 31, but gave no details.

Zuppi’s appointment as leader of that mission is the first concrete information about it that has emerged. No details on timing of the mission or Zuppi’s itinerary were provided in the Vatican’s statement Saturday, although it’s believed he will request meetings with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Zelenskyy visited the Vatican May 13, where he met with Pope Francis privately for around 40 minutes. Afterwards the Ukrainian leader it was an honor to meet the pope, but appeared to dismiss the idea of Vatican mediation, telling an Italian news program, “With all due respect for His Holiness, we do not need mediators, we need a just peace.”

In his speech Tuesday, Zuppi invoked Pope Francis’s chastisement of European leaders in his speech to national authorities and the diplomatic corps in Hungary April 28, asking, “Where are creative efforts for peace?”

Francis in that speech pointed to what he said was a deterioration of international relations, and Zuppi repeated this lamentation, saying, “We seem to be witnessing the sorry sunset of that choral dream of peace, as the soloists of war now take over.”

“More and more, enthusiasm for building a peaceful and stable community of nations seems to be cooling, as zones of influence are marked out, differences accentuated, nationalism is on the rise,” he said.

At the international level, “it even seems that politics serves more to stir up emotions rather than to resolve problems, as the maturity attained after the horrors of the war gives way to regression towards a kind of adolescent belligerence,” he said, saying peace will never be achieved “as the result of the pursuit of individual strategic interests, but only from policies capable of looking to the bigger picture.”

Zuppi said the pope’s analysis is one that “questions us,” saying that for Christians, “peace is not just a wish, but it is the very reality of the Church, which germinates, like a seed, from the Eucharist and the Gospel.”

Both the Church itself and individual Christians not only believe in peace, but “we are all called to be peacemakers, even more so in the terrible storm of conflicts,” Zuppi said, noting that the church “was among the people and on the ground” during the Second World War.

He noted that in just a few days’ time, on June 3, the Church will mark the 60th anniversary of the death of St. Pope John XXIII, who lived through two world wars “and effectively updated the peaceful message of faith” with his famed 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, meaning “Peace on Earth,” which outlined the rights and obligations of people and their states, as well as his vision for proper interstate relations.

“We are the people of peace, starting with Jesus, who is our peace,” Zuppi said, noting that Italy given its location in the Mediterranean is “a hinge between North and South, but also between East and West.”

This unique position makes Italy a key location for promoting peace, “because of the deepest and most characteristic roots of our people,” Zuppi said. As Italian Christians, “we are called to a fervent and insistent prayer for peace in Ukraine” and that global fraternity would reign, he said.

“Let all our communities pray intensely for peace,” he said, saying a culture of peace is something that must increasingly be “generated and fortified.”

Zuppi lamented that there is often an attitude of “indifference” to global conflicts in which many remain “spectators of war reduced to a game.”

Actions of peace are needed to overcome this indifference, he said, saying solidarity with refugees, those from Ukraine and beyond, is a starting point, as there are many conflicts around the world raging, prompting people to flee their homes in search of safety elsewhere.

“In a world like ours we cannot do without a global vision,” he said, saying, “following the painful events of distant countries, with prayer and information, is a form of charity. After all, the culture of peace is a decisive chapter of the culture of life, which draws inspiration from faith.”

Faith must become part of culture Zuppi said, saying the world is in “an emotional and subjective time” in which deculturation is being pushed while “everything becomes fluid, even that which yesterday would have been unthinkable.”

“There is a great risk of being reduced to intimism, welfarism, or simply living outside history,” he said.

Zuppi also spoke of the Italian national synod process that is currently unfolding, the clerical sexual abuse crisis, Italy’s dropping birthrate, the need to better care for the poor and elderly, and the fight against the mafia and organized crime.

None of the pope’s remarks Monday were published, however, several Italian media outlets said the topic of peace was among the many issues the pontiff addressed during his lengthy, off-the-cuff conversation with Italian bishops.

In addition to the need for peace, he also apparently spoke about migration; the national vocation crisis and the reorganization of Italian seminaries; the role of young people and the family; the climate crisis; and the ‘poverty’ of the church.

He gave the Italian prelates a book titled, Fratellino, meaning, “little brother,” in which Basque poet Amets Arzallus Antia recounts the story of a Guinean migrant named Ibrahima Balde who traveled through Libya to reach Europe.

The poet works with an association that assists migrants in Spain, where he met Balde and was inspired to tell his story.

The book is intended to illustrate the long, painful trek that many migrants endure in their search for a better life, as Balde sets out in search of his younger brother, who left for Europe but never arrived, and himself endures various hardships, including trafficking, torture, hunger and thirst, harrowing trips across the desert and the sea, and death.

Balde now lives in a hotel managed by the Red Cross in Madrid, where he works as a mechanic.

Francis reportedly also jested about his health and his brief hospital stay earlier this year, saying that he was doing well and that “the moment for funeral honors still has not arrived!”

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