ROME – As a personal rule of thumb, I try to remember that while I’ve often regretted being the nastier, more aggressive party to an argument, I’ve never felt that way when I was the more gracious participant.
When you exude graciousness, you may technically lose the argument on points, but you’ll win in a landslide on style.
As a geopolitical matter, Pope Francis opted for graciousness himself on Good Friday by inviting two women, one a nursing student in Rome named Albina and the other a nurse named Irina who are personal friends, one of whom happens to be Russian and the other Ukrainian, to carry the cross together during the thirteenth station of the traditional Via Crucis (“Way of the Cross”) ceremony.
The pope went ahead with the plan despite a chorus of criticism from Ukrainians, including the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who called the decision “incoherent and offensive,” as well as Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See. A consortium of Catholic media outlets in Ukraine actually refused to carry the Via Crucis ceremony in protest of the Russian/Ukrainian duo.
The Ukrainian argument seems difficult to refute: That by pairing a Russian and a Ukrainian, whatever their personal relationship, the pope risked implying a moral equivalence between Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression and Ukraine’s legitimate right to self-defense.
Further, the Ukrainians insist, talk of “reconciliation” is premature, since reconciliation first requires repentance and there’s precious little sign that Vladimir Putin is ready to repent of his use of force.
“For the Greek Catholics of Ukraine, the texts and gestures of the Thirteenth Station of this Way of the Cross are incoherent and even offensive, especially in the context of the expected second, even bloodier attack of Russian troops on our cities and villages,” Shevchuk wrote.
The Greek Catholic leader insisted that gestures of reconciliation between the two peoples will only be possible when the war is over “and those guilty of crimes against humanity are justly condemned.”
Make no mistake – Pope Francis has been increasingly ferocious in his denunciations of the Russian war in Ukraine, even if he has yet to pronounce the word “Russia,” so much so that many analysts see the current conflict as the end of Vatican multilateralism and a return to the traditional alliance between Rome and the Western powers.
Just a week ago, the pontiff asserted that “Christ is crucified anew amid the folly of war,” essentially undercutting Putin’s self-presentation as a modern Charlemagne defending Christianity, especially Orthodox Christianity, at home and around the world.
On Good Friday, the pope’s top charitable aide, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, was in Ukraine praying before a mass grave with more than 80 Ukrainian victims of Russian aggression in Borodjanka. Krajeweski referred explicitly to the “bitterness and suffering” such atrocities inevitably produce.
Pope Francis was photographed last week during his Wednesday general audience holding, even kissing, a Ukrainian flag from the city of Bucha, also a site of mass killings and alleged war crimes. He’s also dispatched Krajewski with two donated ambulances to help relieve the suffering of the people in Kyiv.
So, it’s hardly as if Francis is naïve or indifferent about the realities of the Russian invasion. By installing graciousness as a cornerstone of his geopolitical strategy, however, he appears to be trying to take the long view.
To begin with, the pope undoubtedly sees the improbable friendship between Albina and Irina as a symbol of the capacity to see past nationality and ethnicity to recognize our common humanity, and thus as something worth celebrating – and its power is precisely that it comes now, while the conflict is at its peak.
Beyond that, what Francis knows – for that matter, what everyone who thinks about it for a moment must inevitably recognize – is that Russia and Ukraine are fated to have to find a way to live together, not just by geography but by a shared culture and history.
In one of my favorite series of potboiler novels, the Reacher books by Lee Child, the protagonist’s motto is, “Get your revenge in first.” That is, if you know the other guy is going to attack, don’t wait for him to make the first move – take him out before he has the chance.
In the inverse of that philosophy, Francis appears to want to get his reconciliation in first. That is to say, if one key to recovery from this conflict, sooner or later, will have to be some form of reconciliation between Russians and Ukrainians, then it’s best to offer models of what that might look like right now.
Of course, it’s entirely understandable why many Ukrainians aren’t in the mood for proleptic gestures of reconciliation. When you’re spending most of your time trying to protect yourself and your loved ones from being slaughtered, graciousness can be a tough sell.
Yet at some point, a capacity for graciousness may well make the difference between peace and permanent war. Perhaps Pope Francis is hoping that his Good Friday gamble will pay off when that moment comes.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr