ROME – When Pope Francis was elected in 2013, Italians initially made much of the fact that his father’s family hailed from the nothern Italian region of Piedmont. It quickly emerged, however, that on his mother’s side his roots were in the northwestern region of Liguria centered on Genoa, the seaport from which the future pope’s family set sail for Argentina in the early 20th century.
It’s remotely possible, therefore, that Pope Francis’s maternal ancestors may have known the family of Giacomo della Chiesa, who became Pope Benedict XV, reigned from 1914 to 1922, and whose own roots were in Liguria. At a minimum, they would have been aware that a fellow Ligurian had made good.
As it turns out, roots aren’t the only thing Popes Benedict XV and Francis have in common.
Benedict XV led the Catholic Church during the First World War, a conflict he did everything in his power to stop. In August 1917 Benedict XVI wrote the contending parties to define the war as an inutile strage, a “useless slaughter,” and to propose a seven-point peace plan including a “simultaneous and reciprocal reduction in armaments” and a mechanism for “international arbitration.”
Famously, Benedict’s efforts initially seemed a flop.
Both the United States and Germany rejected his initiative, with each side believing the pope was biased in favor of the other, and the war dragged on for another year and three months before an armistice was signed. So marginal did Benedict’s position seem that after the war, the Vatican was excluded from the Paris Peace Conference.
In the end, however, some of Benedict’s original ideas were folded into U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s 14-point peace plan in January 1918. More broadly, the pontiff’s efforts to end the war, as well as his support for greater European and international integration, came to seem prophetic and gradually led to an increase in international respect for the papacy and the Vatican’s diplomatic role in global affairs.
Right now, Pope Francis may be dreaming of a similar sort of historical vindication, since his own peace-making efforts amid another great European conflict, this time in Ukraine, also don’t seem to be going anywhere.
During a keenly anticipated visit yesterday to Rome that included a 40-minute encounter with Pope Francis, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made it crystal clear that whatever secret peace plan the Vatican may be cooking up, he’s not interested.
In a tweet shortly after the meeting concluded, Zelensky said he’d pressed Francis “to condemn crimes in Ukraine. Because there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor.”
Speaking later during a special program on Italian television broadcast from Rome’s famed “Altar of the Fatherland” in the Piazza Venezia, Zelensky flatly ruled out a mediating role for the pontiff or the Vatican.
“With all due respect for His Holiness, we don’t need a mediator between Ukraine and the aggressor that’s seized and occupied our territory,” Zelensky said.
“No one can negotiate with Russia,” Zelensky said. “There can be no mediators.”
“They took away citizenship from people in the occupied territories,” he said, referring to Russian forces. “They forced them to go fight on the front. They tossed out all Ukrainian instruction. They prohibited the Ukrainian language. They forbade having a Ukrainian church. They brought abuses and evil.”
“You can’t have mediation with Putin,” Zelensky emphasized. “We know the consequences … it’s not a question of the Vatican, or America, or Latin America, or China, or any country in the world. Putin only kills, you can’t have a mediation with him.”
The Ukrainian leader implied that if the Vatican wants to do something constructive, it should get on board with Ukraine’s own peace plan.
“For me, it was an honor to meet His Holiness,” Zelensky said.
“However, he knows my position and the position of Ukraine. The war is in Ukraine, and therefore the plan [for peace] has to be Ukrainian. We’ve proposed a plan, and we discussed it today. We’re very interested in involving the Vatican and Italy in our formula for peace, for restoring the peace in Ukraine.”
Headlines in the Italian press drew the obvious conclusion: “Zelensky rejects the pope’s peace plan,” reported Il Giornale, while Il Fatto Quotidiano went with, “Zelensky freezes out the pope, wants to negotiate on his own” and Il Manifesto had, “The pope’s plan isn’t needed.”
To be clear, it’s not as if Russia has gushed with enthusiasm over the idea of Pope Francis and the Vatican as a go-between either. Spokespersons for Putin have restricted themselves to saying they know nothing of any Vatican peace effort, leaving the broader question of whether they’d be open to such an initiative hanging.
In other words, like Benedict XV’s peace plan in 1917, Francis’s efforts to provide an exit strategy from the war in Ukraine seem dead on arrival.
(As a footnote, lay Italian economist Stefano Zamagni, former president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, said earlier this month that last September he drafted a seven-point peace place for Ukraine on behalf of Pope Francis, in what may have been an unconscious homage to Benedict XV’s famous proposal a century earlier. Perhaps the lesson is that if popes want to float peace plans, they should avoid the number seven.)
For now, Francis may be compelled to limit his efforts to trying to mitigate the humanitarian consequences of the war. Yesterday, for example, Zelensky invited the pope to assist in efforts to return Ukrainian children who’ve been deported by Russian forces.
In much the same vein, Benedict XV failed to end the fighting during WWI but was able to blunt some of its excesses, such as ending the deportations of Belgians by German forces. Benedict also launched an office for prisoners in the Vatican which, by war’s end, had processed more than 600,000 pieces of mail, including 170,000 requests for help in locating missing persons and 40,000 appeals for repatriation of prisoners who were sick.
It remains to be seen whether, in the long run, Francis’s broader efforts to continue his press for peace will play as well in the eyes of history as his predecessor.
Here’s another thing that connects Francis, history’s first pope from the developing world, with his Ligurian forerunner: In 1919 Benedict XV issued the apostolic letter Maximum Illud, the first missionary document issued personally by a pope, in which he called on Catholicism to look beyond the West, pointing especially to China, just as Francis a century later has promoted closer ties with Beijing as part of a broader global realignment of the Catholic Church.
For right now, Francis can perhaps at least take comfort that he’s hardly the first pope whose efforts to make peace have been rebuffed … and, almost certainly, he won’t be the last.