ROME – Assuming Pope Francis and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky do indeed meet today in the Vatican, as officials on both sides have been suggesting, a good deal would appear to be riding on the outcome for both men.
It would be the second face-to-face encounter between the two men, after a first meeting on Feb. 8, 2020, though the first since the war began.
As if the geopolitical drama weren’t enough, spiritually minded observers will also be struck by the fact that today’s expected meeting falls on May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima – the Catholic devotion from which, among other things, have stemmed repeated calls for the “conversion of Russia.”
Motivated by the prophecies of Fatima, Pope Francis asked the bishops of the world to join him on March 25, 2022, in consecrating both Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Although Zelensky’s travel plans are never confirmed in advance for security reasons, it’s widely expected that the Ukrainian leader will be in Germany on this trip to meet Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as well as to receive the Charlemagne Prize for service to European unity – an honor that Pope Francis himself won in 2016.
While in Rome, Zelensky is expected to meet Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgi Meloni, with both encounters widely expected to go well. Meloni, who leads Italy’s conservative government, has been a major backer of Ukraine in its resistance to Russia’s invasion and traveled to Kiev in February to demonstrate her support.
Under Meloni, Italy has sold weapons to Ukraine and supported Western-backed sanctions against Russia, despite a long history of warm ties with Moscow.
Pope Francis, on the other hand, is seen by Kiev as a less reliable ally.
From the beginning of the Russian invasion in February 2022, Francis has expressed compassion for Ukrainian victims of the war and condemned the violence. He’s affirmed a right to self-defense and called it an act of love to one’s homeland, and has even been photographed kissing a Ukrainian flag from the site of a civilian massacre in Bucha.
Yet Francis has also refused to explicitly condemn either Russia or Vladimir Putin, even referring to Putin as a “man of culture” with whom he once discussed literature. He’s suggested that the Russian invasion may have been prompted in part by “NATO barking at Russia’s door,” and has criticized the Western flow of arms into Ukraine for exacerbating the conflict.
In March, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba bluntly implied that his country does not necessarily consider Pope Francis among its friends.
“We deeply regret that the pope has not found an opportunity to visit Ukraine since the beginning of the war,” Kuleba told the BBC. “War is a time when you have to make a choice. And every choice has been recorded.”
Francis has said from the beginning of the conflict that he would travel to Kiev only if he could also visit Moscow, in an effort not to be seen as taking sides.
Even Francis’s own flock in Ukraine sometimes strains to give the pope’s rhetoric and actions a positive spin. Recently the head of the Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, conceded that the “neutrality of the Holy See is not accepted in Ukraine.”
For Zelensky, therefore, who wants to frame the ongoing conflict as a moral cause, securing the blessing of the most visible spiritual and moral leader on the planet is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Among other things, Zelensky is expected to renew his invitation for Pope Francis to visit Kiev, appealing to the pontiff to drop his condition that such an outing must be packaged with a stop in Moscow.
If anything, Pope Francis may have even more on the line.
From the beginning, the Vatican under his leadership has aspired to help mediate a negotiated end to the war. Famously, Francis recently announced that a secret peace initiative was underway, producing quick disavowals from both Kiev and Moscow.
More recently, however, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s top diplomat, has said those statements reflected a simple misunderstanding, and that there have been contacts with both sides to inform them of the Vatican’s intent.
If Pope Francis could secure a clear public statement from Zelensky that he would be willing to accept the Vatican’s services as a go-between, it could represent a major breakthrough for the pope’s efforts and put pressure on Moscow to do the same.
Given the occasionally strained relationship between the Vatican and Kiev over the last 14 months, such an outcome may seem a longshot. The fact that the encounter is set for the feast of Fatima, however, is a reminder that a pope has resources at his disposal that go well beyond the logic of Realpolitik.