Of all the meetings that Zelensky “the European” had last weekend in Rome, Berlin and Paris, the only one that could bring the end of the conflict closer (or at least a suspension of hostilities) was the eagerly awaited one with Pope Francis . However, the Ukrainian president reiterated to the Pontiff that the only viable peace plan is the Ukrainian one and was rather discouraging, almost unfriendly, towards the hypothesis of mediation by the Holy See.
Perhaps emboldened by the chorus of leaders who publicly declare that they want to be “at Ukraine’s side as long as necessary” – which, on closer inspection, means nothing – and who ask for “a fair peace” – and who would say otherwise ? -, Zelensky, after the conversation in the Vatican, is clear: “With all due respect to His Holiness, we do not need mediators … The peace plan must be ours (reconquer the occupied territories, ed.) … I do not intend to speak to Putin , petty dictator who kills his own citizens…».
The only “allowed” role for Vatican diplomacy is to commit itself to returning “kidnapped children” to their families: a significant humanitarian objective, but which does not affect the fate of the conflict, such as an exchange of prisoners; a gesture of charity rather than an exercise in diplomacy. To the Pope, who asks for “gestures of humanity”, Zelensky gives a Madonna made with the remains of a bulletproof vest.
Instead, Francis is engaged in an attempt at dialogue between the warring parties, the only sensible prologue to a possible truce: “May Our Lady of Fatima, Mother of Jesus and ours, help us to build ways of meeting and paths of dialogue towards peace, and give us the courage to undertake them without delay. Let us pray together», wrote the Pontiff on Twitter on the morning of May 13, on the anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin in the country parish of the diocese of Leiria, in the Iria basin, in Portugal: it was 1917, Europe was bloodied by the Great War and Our Lady invited three shepherd children, Lucia do Santos and cousins Francesco and Jacinta Marto, to pray for peace.
The next step
Bergoglio certainly does and continues to urge the faithful to do so. But he also weaves a web of contacts and missions. In receiving Zelensky, the Pope placed himself in a partisan position in the eyes of Moscow, exactly as Chinese President Xi Jinping did in the eyes of Kiev when he visited Russian leader Vladimir Putin on March 20. Now, Francis absolutely must be able to get in touch with Putin, just as Xi managed to get in contact with Zelensky after a month; otherwise the peacekeeping mission has failed before it began – if there is scope to continue it.
Because Vatican diplomacy should not be underestimated a priori, as did Stalin who in Yalta, in February 1945, allegedly replied with a caustic question – “How many divisions does the Pope have?” – to those who suggested that he take the Vatican into account in outlining the post-war geo-strategic arrangements. But it shouldn’t be overestimated either, because, when it comes to avoiding a conflict or ending it, after the end of the Cold War, in the last thirty years, the Holy See has racked up more failures than successes, at least on the fronts involving Super-Powers . Even if there are those who credit it with foiling the nuclear holocaust at the time of the Cuban missile crisis between the US and the USSR in October 1962.
All of the above
An undoubted positive result of his was the mediation between Argentina and Chile in the dispute over the Beagle Channel, which at the end of the 1970s risked degenerating into a military conflict – the two countries were both under dictatorships and the Argentine junta tended to use strong even in international disputes, as the Falklands war was to demonstrate shortly thereafter.
The intervention of the Pope, John Paul II, and the action of his emissary, Cardinal Antonio Samorè, to whom today an Andean pass between the two countries is named, avoided recourse to arms and were able to start a negotiation destined to last for six years and which, perhaps, would not have had a favorable outcome without the fall of the junta in Argentina and the restoration of democracy.
The success was also favored by the Catholic dimension of the two countries. The Beagle Channel is the strait, 240 kilometers long and five kilometers wide at its narrowest point, which “cuts” the islands of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern end of South America, marking the border between Argentina and Chile for a stretch. More sometimes on the verge of failing, the mediation ended in 1984 with the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Chile and Argentina, which regulates, among other things, navigation rights, sovereignty over the islands of the archipelago, the delimitation of the Strait of Magellan and the maritime boundaries south of Cape Horn.
On two subsequent occasions, between 1990 and 1991 and then in 2003, John Paul II again tried to prevent recourse to arms, without success. In the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s refusal to withdraw from Kuwait minimized the margins of success, in the face of the UN authorization for the use of force – even Soviet diplomacy failed, in its last act. There, moreover, the Pope had to move in the Middle Eastern context, where being the head of the Church is not in itself a plus.
More frustrating for the Vatican, in 2003, was the failure of the attempt to convince US President George W. Bush, a Christian, moreover a “born again in Christ”, not to invade Iraq, to overthrow Saddam’s regime, under the pretext – a lie – of weapons of mass destruction (which weren’t there). In early March, I was personally a witness and chronicler of the discomfort and disappointment of the papal envoy, Cardinal Pio Laghi, sent by the Pope to Washington to meet Bush and, if possible, dissuade him from the invasion. The prelate left Washington saying that peace is a gift from God, but war remained Bush’s decision.
Between Ukraine and Russia, Pope Francis’ desire to be useful and to promote peace is evident: there is no Angelus, there is no general audience in which the pontiff does not invite prayers for the resolution of the conflict and does not express his his closeness to the Ukrainian people. But the Vatican’s margins for maneuver appear reduced, even if, in recent weeks, the escalation of threats and risks and the heaviness of the conflict on the contenders has created glimmers of openness to negotiations, after which from the end of March 2022 and for almost one year all the tables were closed.
The handicap, for the Vatican, is that the Catholic Church does not have good relations with the Russian Orthodox one; and Pope Francis has no problems with Patriarch Kirill, whom he calls “Putin’s altar boy”, even though there have since been attempts at rapprochement. And it is also viewed with distrust by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Catholic hierarchy, because anyone who speaks of peace or mediation is immediately categorized by Ukrainians as pro-Russian.
An action for peace by the Holy See appears uncertain in the results at this moment. When Francis – perhaps untimely – spoke about it, on the plane that was taking him back to Rome from Hungary, Moscow and Kiev in unison made a show of falling from the clouds. It’s easier to imagine that the Pope goes to Kiev and Moscow to celebrate a peace, or at least a truce, rather than to conclude a deal. Said and written, of course, in the hope that Francis and his diplomatic and “charitable” emissaries, Cardinal Pietro Parolin and the almsgiver Cardinal Konrad Kraiewsky, who has already dodged bullets in Ukraine, will deny this prediction.