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ROME – As Ukraine awaits word on whether a potential visit from Pope Francis will happen, the Vatican’s foreign minister is contemplating his own visit to Kyiv in a bid to convey solidarity and support efforts toward peace.
According to sources familiar with the plans, British Archbishop Paul Gallagher intends to travel to Kyiv, and the visit was scheduled “some time ago.”
While there is no immediate timeline for the visit given the unpredictability of the situation on the ground, “the plans are still there,” and were made before the war began, the source said, saying the visit is being planned “in view of the current situation.”
Gallagher was reportedly planning his visit for before Easter but tested positive for COVID-19 and had to postpone the trip.
If he does visit Kyiv, it would be the most direct act of support the Vatican has made to Ukraine since Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24.
Pope Francis himself voiced openness to visiting Ukraine on his return flight from Malta earlier this month, telling journalists on board that a papal trip to Kyiv is “on the table,” but is not a certainty.
Though he has not specifically named Russia or Russian President Vladimir Putin as aggressors in the conflict, the pope has made several, increasingly pointed statements opposing the war, and has sent two cardinals – his almoner, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, and the interim leader of the Vatican department for Integral Human Development, Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny – to border countries with Ukraine to support refugees fleeing the war.
Krajewski has personally driven two ambulances donated by the pope to Ukraine as a concrete act of support for refugees in need of medical care.
Sending Gallagher, however, sends a strong geopolitical message about where the Vatican’s sympathies lie in the war, and signals the pope’s keen interest in the peace process.
Over the past few months, Gallagher has twice been sent to countries of keen papal interest to lay the groundwork for a papal trip.
In December 2021, just before Christmas, Gallagher made a whirlwind visit to South Sudan where he met with top civil and ecclesial leaders to discuss the country’s peace process and show support to a population battered by years of violent conflict.
Less than three months later, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would visit South Sudan in July as part of a broader tour of Africa that includes a stop in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In February, Gallagher also made a five-day visit to Lebanon, where he met with political and religious leaders, as well as migrants, and poor communities struggling as a result of the country’s economic crisis.
Rumors are now floating that Pope Francis himself will visit Lebanon in June, after which he is expected to make a brief stop in Jerusalem to meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill for what is expected to be a highly charged conversation surrounding the war in Ukraine.
If Gallagher is going to Kyiv, it is clearly a papal priority, and could be a down payment on Francis’s own visit should the opportunity and proper circumstances arise.
Top Vatican officials, including Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, have several times expressed a willingness to negotiate peace talks, and while this offer has been welcomed by the Ukrainians, Russia has yet to send any signal that they are open to a Vatican intervention.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen