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ROME –Cardinal Matteo Zuppi’s new mission as the pope’s designated trouble-shooter for Ukraine, confirmed by the Vatican over the weekend, not only raises the Italian prelate’s profile as a possible papal candidate, but it also puts a spotlight on his past success as a mediator.
In a statement Saturday, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni confirmed that Pope Francis has chosen Zuppi to conduct “a mission, in agreement with the Secretariat of State, that will contribute to easing tensions in the conflict in Ukraine, in the hope, never resigned by the Holy Father, that this can start paths of peace.”
The timing and method of the mission “are currently under study,” Bruni said.
Reuters quoted a Vatican diplomat as saying that Zuppi will seek meetings with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of the mission.
Currently the Archbishop of Bologna, Zuppi was given a red hat by Pope Francis in 2019 and last year was elected president of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI).
Pope Francis first dropped an ambiguous hint about a Vatican peace mission on his return flight from Hungary April 31, saying at the time that “right now a mission is underway, but it is not yet public. When it is public, I will reveal it.”
Rumors began to spread last week that Zuppi would be involved in the peace mission, along with Italian Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches.
However, Gugerotti denied any knowledge or involvement in the mission. A statement from his dicastery last week said, “By now news of a peace mission entrusted to the Dicastery for Eastern Churches, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, has reached a wide international circulation.”
“We inform that the prefect knows nothing of what has been said about him,” the statement said.
In a statement late Saturday, CEI’s Secretary General, Archbishop Giuseppe Baturi of Cagliari, said the conference had welcomed the selection of Zuppi to lead the Ukraine peace mission “as a sign of great trust.”
They invited the Church in Italy, and especially monasteries in the country, to pray for Zuppi and for the mission, “so that it bears fruit and helps to build processes of reconciliation.”
Spokesman for the CEI Vincenzo Corrado said that given the delicate nature of Zuppi’s task, he will not be giving interviews or releasing any statements “until it is deemed appropriate, in agreement with the pope and the Holy See.”
The choice of Zuppi, who shares much of Pope Francis’s agenda and is already considered by many to be a frontrunner papabile, meaning a leading contender to be elected pope in the next conclave, sends a clear message of the trust Francis has in him and in his diplomatic prowess.
Prior to his episcopal career, Zuppi, a member of the Italy-based Community of Sant’Egidio, the pope’s favorite of the new movements which is dedicated to ecumenism and social justice, has assisted in previous international peace processes.
While a young priest, Zuppi for ten years served as pastor of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, the Roman neighborhood where the headquarters of Sant’Egidio is located.
In 1992, Zuppi played a key role in negotiating the Mozambique peace accords, bringing an end to the 17-year civil war in Mozambique, which killed roughly a million people and left around four million others displaced.
Zuppi, who was later named an auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Rome by Pope Benedict XVI, was one of four individuals who led two-year-long Rome-based peace negotiations, mediated by Sant’Egidio, that resulted in the Rome General Peace Accords ending Mozambique’s civil war.
Today the Mozambique peace accords remain Sant’Egidio’s most emblematic diplomatic success, despite attempts to negotiate peaceful resolutions to various other conflicts throughout the world, including South Sudan, visited by Pope Francis earlier this year.
For his role in the Mozambique negotiations, Zuppi was made an honorary citizen of the country.
He traveled to Turkey in 1993 in an attempt to secure the release of two Italian tourists being held by Kurdish rebels.
Sant’Egidio has become one of the Catholic Church’s most active players in attempting to negotiate an end to conflict all over the world at the diplomatic level by engaging with leaders on all sides.
In 1992, the community boasted that the Mozambique deal was “the first intergovernmental agreement ever negotiated by a nongovernmental body.”
They also took part in negotiations in Algeria, Guinea Bissau and Yugoslavia, and they have been credited with playing a role in the 1996 peace treaty in Guatemala, bringing a 36-year conflict that saw some 200,000 people “disappeared” to an end.
Sant’Egidio is also active on human rights issues, especially its campaign to abolish the death penalty globally, delivering a petition to the United Nations in 2001 with 2.7 million signatures in support of abolishing capital punishment.
For years, they have also been active in peace negotiations in South Sudan, hosting national and opposition leaders annually at the Vatican to discuss the implementation of a 2018 peace agreement.
In 2019, they hosted South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar at a peace retreat at the Vatican, at the end of which Pope Francis bent down and kissed their feet begging for peace.
Francis visited The Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan earlier this year in a bid to promote peace in both countries, and Sant’Egidio is set to host another retreat for South Sudanese leaders and opposition forces in Rome this fall.
Though the community has drawn much praise for their efforts, some have said their ability to self-promote has at times been premature, running ahead of actual, concrete success on the ground.
Despite Sant’Egidio’s success in Mozambique, many of its other attempts to end conflict – in Algeria, Kosovo and Burundi – have failed, and even in Mozambique, rebel forces were not fully demobilized. The United Nations has said the country is still a major player in the global small arms trade, which Pope Francis has often condemned.
However, given their knack to bring key players together at one table, Sant’Egidio is still widely sought after for conflict mediation, and its founder, Italian layman and former government minister Andrea Riccardi, has been awarded the UNESCO Gandhi Medal, and the community has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize multiple times.
What awaits Zuppi in his mission and exactly what success he will have this time around remain to be seen, but if Zelenskyy’s recent visit to Rome is any indication, he will certainly have his work cut out for him.
Zelenskyy met with Pope Francis at the Vatican during a whirlwind visit to Italy to gin up support for Ukraine’s military defense, saying on Twitter that he was grateful for the pope’s attention to the conflict and for his concern for Ukrainian children who have been deported to Russia.
However, he stressed that there “can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor,” and insisted that Ukraine’s own peace plan, which calls for restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops, and the full cessation of hostilities, is “the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace.”
Speaking on a popular Italian new program later that night, Zelenskyy appeared to reject the notion of papal mediation, saying, “With all due respect for His Holiness, we do not need mediators, we need a just peace … Putin only kills. We don’t need a mediation with him.”
The Vatican in its statement did not say when further details of Zuppi’s mission, such as a timeline and full itinerary, will be released.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen