13 May 2023, The Tablet

Francis meets Zelenskiy in effort for ceasefire

The Pope gave President Zelenskiy diplomatic gifts including a bronze sculpture representing an olive branch.

Francis meets Zelenskiy in effort for ceasefire

Pope Francis met President Zelenskiy for about 40 minutes.
Abaca Press/Alamy

The President of Ukraine has met Pope Francis in the Vatican as Francis intensifies his efforts for a ceasefire in Russia’s war against Ukraine. 

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy travelled to Rome on 13 May for a morning meeting with the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, and a working lunch with the prime minister, Giorgia Meloni.

He saw Francis in the afternoon for about 40 minutes in a room between the Paul VI Hall and the Casa Santa Marta, where the Pope lives. On his arrival in the city, Zelenskiy wrote on social media that his visit was important for the “approaching victory for Ukraine!” 

Since President Vladimir Putin began his invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the Pope has sought to use every diplomatic lever at his disposal to push for peace. He has repeatedly pledged solidarity with the “martyred” Ukraine and described Russia as the “aggressor”.

But he has also tried to keep diplomatic channels with President Putin open and has sometimes faced criticism for not being more explicit in his condemnation of Putin and Russia.

Amid tight security, which saw St Peter's Square closed to visitors, President Zelenskiy arrived for the meeting with the Pope dressed in a black sweatshirt emblazoned with the Ukrainian trident and olive green trousers.

On his arrival, the 86-year-old pontiff thanked him for his visit, which President Zelenskiy said was “a great honour”.

The Vatican afterwards said the pair discussed the “humanitarian and political situation” in Ukraine caused by the war and the need to “continue humanitarian efforts to support the population”.

As is customary on diplomatic visits, the pair exchanged gifts. Francis gave President Zelenskiy a bronze sculpture representing an olive branch, the 2019 document on human fraternity, a book on the Pope’s 27 March 2020 prayer service during the pandemic and a book on all of the Pope’s public interventions calling for an end to the war titled “An Encyclical on Peace in Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian president gave the Pope an artwork made from a bulletproof plate and a painting, “Loss”, on the killing of children during the conflict. 

Speaking to ambassadors before meeting, the Pope pointed out that the Holy See seeks to exercise a “positive neutrality” on world affairs. He stressed that this is not an “ethical neutrality” but helps “better assist in the resolution of conflicts”.

Francis’ meeting with President Zelenskiy came less than a month after he announced on the plane back from Hungary that the Holy See was engaged in a Ukraine peace mission.

During his 28-30 April trip to Hungary, Francis held talks with the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Orban, and Metropolitan Hilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church. The day before Francis visited Hungary, he met Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, where they discussed a “peace formula” put forward by President Zelenskiy. 

It’s unclear how Francis could convince either party to agree to a ceasefire, given that President Zelenskiy is preparing a major military offensive and looking for support. Meanwhile, President Putin has refused to talk to the Pope.

However, the Pope has been involved in mediating prisoner exchanges and was asked to work on repatriating Ukrainian children who were taken to Russia. 

The war in Ukraine has caused untold suffering, with hundreds and thousands of deaths, millions of Ukrainian refugees, and widespread damage to the economy by disrupting global supply chains. 

Francis has consistently tried to mediate peace in this conflict. In 2020, President Zelenskiy met the Pope and said the Vatican would be “the ideal place” for talks with Russia regarding the annexation of Crimea and the occupied Donbas region.

It is understood there was a proposal for the countries’ leaders to sign a peace agreement in Rome, although this never materialised.

The president has repeatedly invited the Pope to visit Ukraine but, given his desire to be a mediator, Francis would want to visit Moscow along with Kyiv.

In the morning before he met President Zelenskiy, Francis saw Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, the prefect of the Dicastery for Eastern Churches and a former papal envoy to Ukraine. He is considered one of the Vatican’s foremost experts in the region and is a Russian speaker. 

“The Vatican approach is to invoke a gesture or a word by the Holy Spirit that can enter the heart of the other person,” Gugerotti told The Tablet in an interview last year.

He added: “President Putin listens to the Pope, I cannot say anything beyond that.” 

On the day after Russia’s invasion started on 24 February 2022, Francis travelled to the Russian embassy to the Holy See to meet Ambassador Alexander Avdeev and call for peace.

Francis also held a video call with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, who supports the military action begun by Putin. In 2016, Francis became the first Bishop of Rome to meet with a Russian Orthodox patriarch since the Great Schism between the eastern and western churches 1,000 years ago. 

So far, the highest formal contact between Russia and the Holy See since the war began is between Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See Secretary of State, and Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, who have spoken on the telephone.

The Pope also developed a rapport with Ambassador Avdeev, who is close to Putin. But the ambassador is leaving his role after a decade in post, and two days before President Zelenskiy’s visit had a farewell audience with Francis.

President Putin met Francis in the Vatican in 2013, 2015 and 2019. Still, the Pope's influence with Russia is limited because of the historically fraught relationship between the Russian Orthodox and Roman Churches.

While Putin has not spoken to the Pope since he started his invasion, President Zelenkskiy has had two calls with Francis since the war began. 

Although a papal visit to Ukraine has yet to occur, the Pope sent his foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, to Kyiv during the war along with Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who is prefect of the Vatican office for charity.

Cardinal Krajewski has visited Ukraine several times during the war to distribute humanitarian aid. 


For more: 

Why Pope Francis puts faith in diplomacy when it comes to Russia and China

Has peace a chance? Vatican diplomacy and the war in Ukraine

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