ROME – A close papal advisor has said that despite a spate of denials, the secret Vatican peace mission to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine that Pope Francis referenced over the weekend does in fact exist and could yield results within a few weeks’ time.
Speaking to Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quoditiano, Italian economist Stefano Zamagni said, “The pope has been working continuously for peace for more than eight months. But it’s no surprise: It is obvious that both the Kremlin and Kyiv deny it because there is still no official document.”
A professor at the University of Bologna and until recently president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Zamagni was once one of the highest-ranking laymen at the Vatican and is rumored to have been a leading ghost writer of the pope’s 2015 eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.
Though he stepped down from leadership of the Pontifical Academy just over a month ago, Zamagni is still widely believed to enjoy a close relationship with Pope Francis and is apparently still involved in the Ukraine peace “mission,” described by Fatto Quoditiano as a dossier he helped to write.
Zamagni said that when it comes to the Ukraine peace process, he himself wrote a seven-point plan in September, “wanting to get ahead of the times,” and that this “mission,” as Pope Francis defined it, has been carried forward the past few months.
Pope Francis visited Kazakhstan last September for a high-profile interfaith summit, where he was expected to meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, despite having pulled the plug on a scheduled meeting between the two last summer over Kirill’s support of the war.
However, in the end, Kirill did not attend the Kazakhstan gathering, but instead sent the Moscow Patriarchate’s foreign minister, Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk, with whom the pope met briefly in between sessions.
Francis raised eyebrows Sunday when on his return flight from Budapest he told reporters that the Vatican was involved in a peacemaking mission to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine but provided few other details.
In his remarks, the pope said, “right now a mission is underway, but it is not yet public. When it is public, I will reveal it.”
He offered no details on the mission and said absolutely nothing else on the matter, leading to a frenzy of public and private speculation about what exactly he was talking about, and what this apparent mission might entail.
Both Russian and Ukrainian officials immediately denied any knowledge of a peacekeeping mission.
On Monday, CNN quoted an anonymous Ukrainian official close to the presidential office as saying the country had “no knowledge” of a Vatican peacekeeping mission. “President Zelensky has not consented to any such discussions on Ukraine’s behalf,” the source was quoted as saying, adding, “If talks are happening, they are happening without our knowledge or our blessing.”
A day later, Russian news agency TASS ran a story Tuesday quoting the press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Peskov, who when asked during a press briefing if he knew anything about the Vatican’s peacemaking plans said, “No, nothing is known.”
Similarly, Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Budapest and Hungary, with whom Pope Francis met while visiting Hungary over the weekend, published a video on his diocese’s website Monday in which he also denied any knowledge of a peacekeeping mission, and said he and the pope had not discussed anything political in their conversation.
In the video, Hilarion speaks in Russian, saying, “insinuations have appeared in the press, according to which I have met with Pope Francis to give him information in order to reach some secret agreements or for other political purposes.”
“I answer for whoever is interested: There was nothing concerning the bilateral relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. No political issues were discussed,” he said, insisting that the meeting “was of a personal nature between two old friends.”
Speaking to Fatto Quoditiano, Zamagni said that both Kyiv and the Kremlin denied any knowledge of the Vatican’s “mission” because it involves “a path that has nothing official and canonical, but which gathers the fruits of the intervention of various people,” including the Pontifical Academy itself, which at the end of last year published the concluding document of a workshop on the topic of the Ukraine war.
This document, Zamagni said, voiced hope “for the mediation of the Pope and the Vatican secretariat in seating the parties around the table.”
Zamagni said that right now, “we are on the finishing straight. If not within the next few weeks, then within the next three months we will surely see if this effort for peace on the part of the Vatican will have received the go-ahead, if it arrives to a red-light.”
“It was to be imagined that a dialogue would have been reached, even underground, given that we are at a point where nothing can be resolved with weapons. The alternative to peace would be war by exhaustion,” he said, adding, “Only Bergoglio as super partes can guarantee peace,” even if it is not “perfect peace.”
“Better an unjust peace than a just war,” Zamagni said.
He also touched on the role of both China and the United States in the conflict, saying, “to sit around a table must be Biden and Xi, and the pope has strong influence on both for different reasons, but he is not party to either.”
“The two paths of negotiation (the Chinese one and the Vatican one) proceed in parallel,” he said, saying, “it is evident, and it is a consequence of the nature of the conflict: the clash between the United States and the other part of the world with China in the lead.”
Zamagni insisted that the peace mission the pope referred to exists despite denials, and noted that within the past week, the pope has met with officials on both sides of the conflict.
The day before departing for his April 28-30 visit to Hungary, Pope Francis met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal at the Vatican. While in Budapest, he met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is widely considered one of Russia’s most sympathetic European leaders, and he also met with Hilarion.
Also noteworthy is the quiet visit paid by Metropolitan Anthony to the Vatican Monday, where Anthony met with the president of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti. He also greeted Pope Francis briefly Wednesday at the end of the pontiff’s weekly general audience.
According to a communique published on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website, Anthony traveled to Italy for “a short working visit,” and that during the meeting with Gugerotti, “a wide range of issues of mutual interest were discussed.”
Zamagni in his remarks said he believed there have been signs of openness on the part of Russian Orthodox officials to work negotiate, noting how on the Orthodox celebration of Easter, Kirill urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to pursue a “just peace.”
A Vatican official contacted by Crux for clarification on the nature of the secret peace mission declined to comment.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen