ROME – Shortly after returning from Ukraine, where he undertook a special peace mission on behalf of Pope Francis, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi stressed the importance of dialogue and said his visit was not an attempt at mediation.

Speaking to journalists on the margins of a June 7 book presentation the day after returning from Kyiv, Zuppi said the Vatican’s objective for the visit was “not a mediation,” but rather “expressing interest, closeness, listening so that the conflict can find paths to peace.”

“The rest are expectations or speculations that some have,” he said.

Zuppi’s effort to distance the Vatican from a “mediator” role may have been an attempt to defuse Ukrainian sensitivities. During a May visit to Rome that included a meeting with Pope Francis, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pointedly ruled out a mediation role for the Vatican in comments to Italian television.

“We do not need mediators, we need a just peace,” Zelensky said at the time.

Zuppi, Archbishop of Bologna and President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, made a two-day visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv from June 5-6, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other top state and religious officials.

A Vatican statement after Zuppi’s return described his visit as “brief but intense,” saying he would inform Pope Francis of the results of his meetings, as well as his “direct experience of the atrocious suffering of the Ukrainian people due to the ongoing war.”

These conversations, the Vatican said, “will certainly be useful for evaluating the steps to continue taking both on a humanitarian level and in the search for paths of a just and lasting peace.”

On the margins of an international event in the central Italian commune of Rondine Cittadella della Pace, where he gave a speech June 8, Zuppi in comments to journalists stressed the importance of dialogue.

“We must all dialogue, we must learn to dialogue,” he said in response to a question on whether Russia and Ukraine should engage in dialogue.

“War divides, accentuates divisions, exploits them in all conflicts. I no longer recognize my brother, this is war,” Zuppi said, insisting that “Everywhere, we have to work to do the exact opposite, to learn to be together…so that when you find your brother, you find yourself.”

He praised Rondine Cittadella della Pace for its own ability to dialogue, which he said is “the opposite of conflict.”

“Conflict is not only when it explodes, but also when we don’t understand each other, we don’t listen, we move away, or we ignore each other. Here the exact opposite is happening, there is already so much peace and we hope that it will reach everywhere from here,” he said.

Noting that both Russian and Ukrainian children live alongside one another in Rondine, Zuppi said this is an example of peace, and that “The future consists in learning to be together.”

At times “it is so tiring as to seem impossible, but (Pope) Francis smartly reminds us with intelligence that ‘every man for himself’ leads to ‘everybody against everybody,’ but then we all lose. Interest in one another is fundamental because we can only get out of it together,” he said.

Zuppi, whose last day in Ukraine coincided with the Russian bombing of the country’s important Nova Kakhovka dam and its subsequent collapse, said at Tuesday’s book presentation that “what happened to the dam” is a concern many Ukrainians have right now.

There are currently “thousands of people flooded” and there is “also attention to the ecosystem” and the impact the flooding will have on the environment, he said.

After the bombing of the dam, waters submerged entire villages, fields, and roads in the surrounding area of Kherson, with drone images showing neighborhoods in which only the roofs were visible above the waterline.

Local authorities estimated that roughly 600 square kilometers (230 square miles) were submerged, with hundreds of Ukrainians being rescued from their rooftops.

The collapse of the dam came as Ukraine was preparing a counteroffensive in its war with Russia, which began Feb. 24 last year with what Russian President Vladimir Putin said was a “special military operation” in Ukraine – an invasion that launched a full-scale war that has so far left tens of thousands dead, millions displaced, and entire cities in ruins.

Speaking to Vatican News, the Vatican’s official state-run information platform, Greek Catholic Father Ignatius Moskalyuk, rector of the Basilian Monastery of St Volodymyr the Great in Kherson, said the situation in the area right now “is critical.”

Areas hit hardest are “the coastal areas that are above the Dnipro River, because the water is constantly rising,” he said, noting that around 15 percent of territory in the city of Kherson is at risk of flooding.

“It’s dangerous there, because the water could go up to the fourth or fifth floor. People are currently being evacuated from this place,” Moskalyuk said, noting that state railways have established “evacuation trains” so they can get people out of the area quickly.

Local authorities are also trying to avoid large gatherings of people, “because there is the risk that the Russian troops could hit the civilian population. This is also a threat, so they try not to keep people in the city, but to take them to a safe place,” he said.

Moskalyuk the consequences of the dam collapse are immeasurable, beginning with the “very strong” environmental fallout.

“Nature will suffer, crops will suffer, even the animals that live in the forests will suffer. Many have already suffered greatly, for example, the Kakhovka zoo was completely flooded. And now there will also be a risk that the region could run out of water and electricity,” he said.

In terms of how people are handling the crisis, Moskalyuk recalled a comment Pope Francis once made that “one cannot get used to war.”

While this might be the ideal, “the human psyche also has the tendency to get used to explosions and all these things. Perhaps it’s not right, but this is human psychology,” he said.

“There is always a threat to life, here often we don’t know if we will live until morning or not. And it’s psychologically depressing. But at the same time, this somehow helps us to entrust ourselves more to God,” he said, saying his monastery lives every day “entrusting everything into the hands of the merciful God.”

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