“I am ready to do everything that needs to be done,” said Pope Francis on several occasions since the fateful Russian invasion of Ukraine began 77 days ago, in response to those who criticize him because they consider that he is not acting decisively enough. and energy to contribute to the end of the war and, instead, shows a certain condescension with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Is it really so? Aren’t you doing your best? And if he really is doing his best as he says, why doesn’t he go to the Ukraine, where they long for his presence? Do you really sympathize with the Russian autocrat? His attitude of not mentioning it, is it not perhaps a demonstration of that supposed harmony? Why did he take so long to use the word “invasion”?
People close to Francisco say that his concern about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine began at the end of last year when he received a visit from a prestigious president who went to say goodbye because he was leaving office and warned him that Putin was determined to attack. Although since the beginning of his pontificate he has been talking about the existence of a “Third World War in pieces” he did not expect a conflict in Europe itself as he would admit after its outbreak. But faced with a host of signs that heralded the worst, the day before the invasion, which occurred on February 24, he called for a Day of Fasting and Prayer for peace on March 2, Ash Wednesday, in which the Christians begin the season of Lent.
The day after the attacks began, Francis went to see the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, to express his dismay, an unusual gesture because when the pontiffs want to speak with a diplomat they summon him. That same day he called the president of Ukraine, Volodomir Zelensky, to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. On March 6, he arranged to send two cardinals to Ukraine to express their solidarity with the Ukrainians and provide material assistance: the apostolic almoner, Konrad Krajewski – who would make several trips – and the prefect of the Minister for Human Development, Michael Czerny. In addition, that day he began to clamor for the opening of humanitarian corridors and access to supplies.
In early April, Francis kissed a Ukrainian flag brought to him from Bucha, the town massacred by Russian forces.
At the same time, the Vatican diplomacy had begun discreet negotiations with the governments of Russia and Ukraine to promote a negotiation. To which was added a relevant videoconference of the Pope with the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill. Because, as Francis pointed out, after all, the two nations at war are Christian. In addition, Kirill is very much in tune with Putin and, in fact, justifies the invasion, which he considers a defensive military operation. The relationship between the Vatican and Russian Orthodoxy has never been easy, but Francis achieved a historic thaw in 2016 by meeting with Kirill in Havana, in the first meeting of the heads of both churches since the Great Eastern Schism in 1054.
Over the days, the West was adding economic sanctions to Russia and ordering the shipment of weapons to Ukraine. This led Francis – fearful of a prolongation in time and a geographical extension of the war – to warn on March 25: “It’s crazy. The real answer is not weapons, more sanctions, or more political-military alliances, but a different approach, a different way of governing the now globalized world and not ‘baring teeth’ like now”. Already at the end of February he had spoken of the “diabolical logic of weapons” -favored by the arms trade, which since he began his papacy he has not tired of condemning- and asked that they “be quiet”.
But perhaps Francis’ strongest statement was in early April, during his visit to Malta. There he not only considered the Russian invasion “sacrilegious”, but also made an allusion to Putin when speaking of “some powerful person, sadly locked in the anachronistic claims of nationalist interests, who provokes and foments conflicts”. On the flight back to Rome he admitted to reporters what they all assumed: the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts to stop the war led by Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. “Not everything that is done can be published, out of prudence, out of confidentiality, but we are at the limit of our work,” he said.
The Ukrainian president invited the Pope to go to his country, that his trip would be of little use if the attacks would continue afterwards.
Francis’ words were always accompanied by gestures. On March 6, he had visited 19 Ukrainian children, victims of war and serious illnesses, admitted to the Vatican’s “Bambino Gesu” hospital. During the general audience on April 6, he produced a strong signal by kissing a Ukrainian flag brought to him from Bucha, the town massacred by Russian forces. And on April 15, on the occasion of the Way of the Cross on Good Friday, a Ukrainian and a Russian woman carried the cross at the second to last station, an event criticized in Ukraine – many said that the attacks should first cease – but which ended up being very touching.
One of the most controversial issues is a possible trip of the Pope to Ukraine. The mayor of kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, invited him on March 15. And seven days later President Zelensky. In an interview with journalist Joaquín Morales Solá for the newspaper La Nación, which was published on April 22, Francisco wondered “what would be the use of going to kyiv if the war would continue the next day.” In addition, he warned that the trip could be counterproductive if it were to irritate Russia: “I cannot do anything that puts at risk higher objectives that are the end of the war, a truce or, at least, a humanitarian corridor,” he explained.
During the Via Crucis on Good Friday, a Ukrainian and a Russian nurse carried the cross at the penultimate station.
As for not mentioning Putin, Francis clarified: “A pope never appoints a head of state, much less a country.” In fact, John Paul II – who steadfastly opposed the US attack on Iraq in 1991 – never mentioned President George Bush, nor did he mention Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, in the book “Against the war: the courage to build peace”, which compiles his thoughts on the conflict and which was presented on April 29 in Rome, the pontiff says that Ukraine “was invaded”, a description rejected by Moscow and delayed by the Pope to give space to the Vatican’s dialogue efforts.
Finally, on May 3, Francis surprised himself by saying that, before going to Ukraine, his priority is to travel to Moscow. Speaking to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, he revealed that “20 days after the start of the war I asked him (Cardinal Parolin) to send Putin the message that I am willing to go see him to find a way out of the conflict.” . After pointing out that “it is necessary for the Russian leader to grant some window”, he lamented that “so far we have not had an answer and we are insisting; Putin cannot or does not want to hold a meeting at this time.” And he completed: “I am a priest, I do what I can. If Putin opened the door…”
Defending Francis’ dialoguing position, the Italian intellectual Massimo Borghesi -author of a substantial book on the thought of Jorge Bergoglio- recently asked himself if “the West wants Ukraine to reach peace or is it exploiting the country’s tortured body to weaken Ukraine? Putin. If the West wants to seek peace for Ukraine, it will have to keep an open channel with Russia and consider how far military resistance to the invader should go. In this regard, Francisco asked days ago if “peace is really being sought”, which is his great objective, his most difficult challenge.