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ROME – Just a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square lies the Via delle Fornaci, a major Roman artery that leads from the Vatican all the way up the Janiculum hill. Much of the traffic that flows in and out of the pope’s domain travels the street, and businesses in the vicinity of the Vatican depend on it for their livelihoods.
That reality makes the closure of a section of the Via delle Fornaci, about a mile from the Vatican, ever since late October a major local headache.
That stretch is dominated by the Villa Abamelek, home of the Russian ambassadors in Italy as well as the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Roman officials have deemed a massive stone wall around the Russian estate in danger of collapse, and at least so far, the Russians have declined to carry out the required repairs.
Already one local bar has closed due to the resulting lack of traffic, and several restaurants say they’re on the brink of following suit.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the current state of affairs between the Vatican and the Kremlin than the fact that even in Rome itself, Russia effectively has shut down a line of communication and exchange.
From the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Pope Francis and his Vatican team have volunteered their services as mediators. Towards that end, Francis largely has refrained from naming Russia or President Vladimir Putin as the aggressors in the conflict, attempting to project an air of being super partes.
Honestly, most observers have considered the idea of the Vatican as a mediator a longshot from the beginning, due to a long history of mistrust and antagonism between Moscow and Rome. That’s especially true of the most nationalist and traditionalist elements in the Russian Orthodox fold, who also happen to be an important element of Putin’s political base.
However, the possibility of the Vatican as a go-between now seems all but extinct in light of Russian reaction to Francis’s recent interview with the Jesuit-sponsored journal America, in which, among other things, the pontiff commented on the Ukraine conflict.
“I have much information about the cruelty of the troops that come in,” the pope said. “Generally, the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on,” referring to two ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation.
Ever since, spokespersons for Russia, not to mention for the Chechens and Buryati, have been tripping over one another to see who can be most vocal in the condemnation of the pope’s rhetoric.
The latest to join the fray is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who accused Francis of using rhetoric that’s “not Christian.”
“He makes appeals, but his incomprehensible declarations, not at all Christian, call out two nationalities in Russia, as if to say one should expect atrocities from them in military combat,” Lavrov said.
“Look, this doesn’t help the authority of the Holy See,” he said, in what the Italian paper Il Messaggero called a “cold shower” for the pope about the idea of acting as a mediator.
Lavrov’s comments came after a spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharov, had already taken her own shot at the pope.
“This is no longer Russophobia, it’s a perversion of the truth on a level I can’t even name,” Zakharova told the Russian news agency TASS.
A Chechen commander named Ramzan Kadyrov also joined the chorus.
“The pope, the spiritual guide of millions of Catholics, should have used more peaceful rhetoric instead of spreading hatred and inter-ethnic discord among peoples,” Kadyrov said.
“Before NATO’s intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine, we didn’t have any problems with the Ukrainian people,” he said. “The same cannot be said of the pastoral actions of the pope and the instructors of NATO, who are trying to transform the largest possible number of Ukrainian soldiers into cannon fodder.”
To say the least, ouch.
Francis and his Vatican team had been trying to promote the idea of a Christmas truce in Ukraine, taking advantage of the fact that most Orthodox churches in the country have given permission this year for faithful to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, the traditional date for the Western church, rather than Jan. 7, the date of Christmas on the Eastern calendar.
Observers say that move is one part ecumenical, one part about de-Russification, and one part practical, in that presenting just one target to extremists rather than two over the holidays is probably a tactically wise move.
In light of the recent contretemps with Rome, Moscow may now be less receptive to the idea of a truce – a stance also likely to be bolstered by the fact that Ukraine just announced a crackdown on Orthodox churches in the country that still profess loyalty to the Patriarch of Moscow and Russian Orthodoxy.
For part, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow wasn’t sounding especially conciliatory in his most recent comments.
“Today, Donbas is the front line of defense of the Russian world,” he said in a session on Friday in Moscow with children from the occupied Donbas region.
“And the Russian world is not only Russia – it is everywhere where people who were brought up in the traditions of Orthodoxy and in the traditions of Russian morality live,” he said. “For us, people who live in the Russian world, the sources of support are faith and love for the Homeland.”
Pope Francis undoubtedly will keep trying to play the part of peacemaker in Ukraine, and, of course, Christmas miracles are always possible. Right now, however, it seems that’s precisely what it would take for the pope’s effort to succeed – a miracle.