by Miceál O’Hurley
ROME — Speaking about Russia’s war on Ukraine during the ongoing Synod of Greek Catholic Bishops the Vatican’s peace envoy, His Eminence Matteo Cardinal Zuppi told the assembled Ukrainian prelates, “Victory would be peace,” adding, “… and never the humiliation of the enemy”. His comments are the latest in a still unfurling attempt to quell the anger caused by Pope Francis’ seeming praise of “Great Mother Russia, …the Great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that great enlightened empire,” when speaking to a gathering of Russian youth in St. Petersburg late last month.
The world-wide response to Cardinal Zuppi’s comments has failed to re-instill confidence in the Vatican’s ability to be a fair-and-honest broker to any peace deal that would put an end to the controversy. Russia began its illegal and at time war-crime laden invasion of Ukraine in 2014. In February 2023 the Kremlin intensified the conflict with their full-scale invasion of Ukraine in an attempt at regime change if not obliterating Ukraine from the map. Russian President Vladimir Putin has often claimed Ukraine “…is not a real country”.
Cardinal Zuppi’s voiced concern over the “humiliation” of Russia in any peace process seems grossly misplaced. Russian troops have engaged in well-documented rapine pillage in their war on Ukraine, specifically defying international law and their obligations as members of the United Nations by targeting civilians and critical civilian infrastructure including churches, hospitals, schools and electrical generation and transmission systems for destruction. From the rape of children and the elderly in Bucha to the torture chambers of Kherson and summary execution of civilians and soldiers that surrendered and were entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention, special pleading by the Holy See to consider the Kremlin’s feelings are grotesquely out-of-place.
In all, the Vatican seems tone deaf to both the context and conduct of the war. In a not uncommon theme, a senior Vatican cleric told The European Diplomat, “We have seen President Putin take a firm moral stance against homosexuality, the scourge of supposed gender-fluidity and other real social evils and to this extend we must see Russia as a positive agent for humanity in world affairs”. The sentiments of this high-ranking Vatican diplomat are not uncommon amongst Roman Catholic clergy and Vatican advisors. Other clerics voice concern that should the Vatican speak out about “Russian atrocities” it might induce the persecution of the Roman Catholic faith in Russia. Not surprisingly, the Holy See faces continuing calls for the Pope of Rome and the Holy See to take a firm moral stance against Russia’s aggression. Some pundits have even begun to compare Pope Francis with Pope Pius XII who reached a Concordat with Hitler and reigned over the Vatican while Nazi Germany unleashed wanton death and destruction across Europe.
During his remarks Cardinal Zuppi attempted to demonstrate the practical steps the Holy See has taken to demonstrate its support for the people of Ukraine citing the decision of several seaside towns in Italy last month to welcome 80-Ukrainian children and their companions for a beach holiday to escape the war. Italy has a population of 61.1m people on its landmass of 302,073 square kilometers versus Ireland’s 5.4 million people on 84,421 square kilometers. By contrast, more than 550 Ukrainians arrive in Ireland each week at this stage of the war with less than 180 arriving in Italy which boasts approximately 147,000 Ukrainians enjoying temporary protection status compared to Ireland’s 97,000. In context, Cardinal Zuppi’s claims leave the learned un-moved.
Cardinal Zuppi, who serves as Pope Francis’ personal envoy for peace in the conflict, went further, quoting the late Major Archbishop of Kyiv-Galicia, His Eminence Lubomyr Cardinal Husar, saying, “…the true final victory will be possible if we all behave like human beings in the full sense of the word. All other victories are only partial or imaginary and will never lead to true peace.” Cardinal Husar, who died in 2017, is widely held as a great Ukrainian patriot and wise bishop who enjoyed a reputation as promoting a strong ethical and moral theology. However, Cardinal Zuppi’s quoting Cardinal Husar out-of-context to make his point wholly misfired. Russians, who continue to wage a cruel and illegal war replete with ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity cannot be considered to be “behave[ing] like human beings in the full sense of the word”.
For their part, the Ukrainian bishops attending the Synod themed “Pastoral assistance to the victims of war” expressed their concern about both the Bishop of Rome’s comments and the messaging emanating from the Vatican. The Ukrainian prelates claimed to have had a “frank conversation” with Francis, the Bishop of Rome. The conversation was made possible because of the extraordinary request of Pope Francis to expand his time with his Ukrainian churchmen in order to engage in a more expansive dialogue with them. Still, their message was characterised as expressing “the Ukrainian people’s pain, suffering, and a certain disappointment”.
Following their meeting, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Bishops in communion with Rome “… expressed to the pope everything that our faithful in Ukraine and throughout the world entrusted us to convey to His Holiness”. According to those in attendance, the Ukrainian prelates cites specific statements that certain actions and comments made by the Supreme Pontiff, “… are painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people, who are currently bleeding in the struggle for their dignity and independence.” Purportedly, the Greek Catholic Bishops of Ukraine conveyed to Pope Francis, “… the faithful of our Church are sensitive to every word of Your Holiness as the universal voice of truth and justice”. One of the most stinging messages Pope Francis heard from his brother bishops from Ukraine was how “Russian propaganda” had used the Pope’s and Holy See’s actions and words to justify “the murderous ideology of the ‘Russian World’”.
One of the more curious aspects of the Vatican’s conduct regarding Russia’s illegal conduct in Ukraine is the Holy See’s virtual silence concerning Russia’s arrest without cause of two Roman Catholic priests. Redemptorist priests Father Ivan Levytskyi and Father Bohdan Haleta were detained by Russian troops in November 2022. Both priests whose ministries were centred on Berdyansk in the Zaporizhzhia oblast, were accused of planning a “terrorist attack” upon Russia and have been held in an unknown location for the past 11-months. The Ukrainian prelates presented Pope Francis with some of Levytskyi and Haleta’s personal belongings, including a missionary cross, a prayer book, and a rosary. The delegation from Ukraine urged the Holy See to be more active in the release of Ukrainian prisoners held by Russia, including the two Redemptorist priests.
The Synodical meeting was far from hostile, even if uncomfortable for the participants. The Greek Catholic delegation from Ukraine presented His Holiness Pope Francis with precious icons and made demonstrations of their fidelity and close bonds to the Holy See.
Synodical Meetings Followed Papal Visit to Mongolia
Earlier last week, returning from a Papal visit to Mongolia, His Holiness Pope Francis sought to quell the uproar caused by his comments about Russia last week that raised the ire of Ukrainians and Westerners in general. Despite days of statements released by the Holy See and various Vatican diplomats and officials trying to clarify the Pontiff’s remarks, Pope Francis took the opportunity aboard the Papal jet to try to make amends for what has widely been seen as his tacit praise for imperialism in general and Russia in particular.
The previous Friday, the Roman Pontiff addressed the 10th All-Russian Catholic Youth Assembly in St. Petersburg via video feed. During his address Pope Francis departed from his prepared remarks which he delivered in his native Spanish and impromptu switched to Italian urging Russian youth to view themselves as descendants of the Russian empire.
“Never forget your heritage. You are the descendants of great Russia: the great Russia of saints, rulers, the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire – educated, great culture and great humanity. Never give up on this heritage. You are descendants of the great Mother Russia, step forward with it. And thank you – thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian. Never give up on this heritage. You are descendants of the great Mother Russia, step forward with it. And thank you — thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian." (Pope Francis)
Pope Francis’ repetition of the nationalist theme of “Mother Russia” has been one widely embraced by Vladimir Putin and Russian propagandists as a narrative of asserting their superiority and what they see as their rightful authority over what in modernity became known as former Soviet States. The phrase is particularly painful for those countries that suffered centuries of oppression by Russian Czars only to be followed by the decades of evil of Soviet Russian domination. Speaking for Putin, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov was quick to praise the Pope of Rome for his comments during his daily press briefing:
"It is admirable that the pontiff knows Russian history. It is deep and the legacy is very old, not restricted to Peter I. The entire society and schools work hard to hand over this to young people. The pontiff going along with this effort is really good and makes us glad". (Dmitry Peskov)
The Kremlin lauding the Vatican’s praise for Russian Imperialism, a history steeped in brutality, murder, war, oppression of surfs and common people from Finland to Ukraine and Poland to Siberia has ignited a significant backlash around the world. In Africa, a continent bloodily steeped in the evil history of colonialism, the Pope’s praise for imperialism cast a chilling pall upon what at times has been a period of stability disfigured by recent violence, coups and democratic decay. Russia’s role in that decay is notorious with their notorious mercenary Wagner forces assisting in usurping legitimately elected democratic governments across West and Central Africa. Most recently, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, Sudan, Niger and Gabon have faced coups and social chaos following democratic stability. Unsurprisingly, the Roman Pope’s comments stirred historic resentment and has been cited by coup leaders as proof of the necessity of their militant ascent to control of their nations.
Most poignantly, Oleg Nikolenko, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine took to Facebook to sum up the collective shock and concern of Ukrainians and many Westerners to Pope Francis’ remarks:
"It is precisely with such imperialist propaganda, the 'spiritual ties' and the 'need' to save 'great Mother Russia' that the Kremlin justifies the killing of thousands of Ukrainians and the destruction of Ukrainian cities and villages. The pope’s mission should be “precisely to open the eyes of Russian youth to the devastating course of the current Russian leadership” and instead he is promoting “Russian great-power ideas, that are, in fact, the reason for Russia’s chronic aggression.” (Oleg Nikolenko)
Pope’s Previous Comments Invoked Ukrainian Concern
Even the Rome-aligned Eastern Rite Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine’s Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk voiced his belief that Pope Francis’ comments were hurtful to Ukraine. In a statement made following the remarks, Archbishop Shevchuk said the Pope’s words had caused “great pain and worry” and feared they could “inspire the neo-colonial ambitions of the aggressor country.”
In all, Pope Francis’ impromptu remarks to the Russian youth were made all the worse by his admission he spoke from an informed position regarding Russia:
"It was an off-the-cuff comment that came to mind because I studied it (Russian history) in school". (Pope Francis)
History records that Peter the Great was capable of incredible violence, choosing to personally behead men he thought to be traitors. His tendency towards brutality was extended to his own family having his own son imprisoned and tortured before sentencing him to death. The inhumane conditions in which Peter held his son were such that he died in his cell before the execution could take place. In another example of Peter the Great’s abject cruelty and lack of humanity he had his ex-lover’s head preserved in brine after having her executed for alleged infanticide. Likewise, Peter suspected being his wife of having a German lover and had the man tortured before preserving his head in a glass jar. His heinous appetite for cruelty still not satiated, Peter commanded that his wife keep her supposed lover’s head on her desk. Given such notorious brutality so well known to history as well as Peter’s determination to continue the subjugation of the Russian serfs in perpetual bondage it is difficult to see why Pope Francis would heap such praise Peter the Great by extolling his virtue of humanity as an example for young Russians.
Catherine the Great, whom the Roman Pontin also praised as a model to Russian youth is an equally dubious example. It was Catherine herself who launched a conquest of Ukraine (making Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Crimea particularly recent in historical context) and imposing serfdom upon the theretofore free Ukrainian peasants. Not satisfied with imperial conquest, Catherine then distributed the lands she conquered amongst her favourites thus worsening the plight of the serfs and institutionalising a life of bondage tantamount to human slavery. The best that can be said of Catherine’s reign was that Russia expanded its empire by creating a system of human servitude that saw no less than 95% of the populace of her empire see the quality fail to improve or otherwise decline under her thumb. In celebrating Catherine, Pope Francis, who claims to be a student of Russian history, could only have meant to elevate the benefits of empire, corruption and human exploitation that was associated with her, her predecessor, and Russian heirs.
Russia, which attempted to illegally annex Crimea in 2014 and has occupied it by force ever since, subjecting its indigenous Crimean Tatar community to unrelenting persecution and even summary executions, has in the past tried to its ties to Crimea date back to the 1st Century when they assert Saint Clement whom they now claim was the first Christian to bring the Gospel to Russia was banished to Crimea. Aside from the fact the Russian Orthodox Church has always held that it was Saints Cyril and Methodius who translate the Gospel into Slavonic paving the way for the Christianisation of the Russian people; history also records that Russia was not even established until 862 CE, almost 700-years after the Russian’s now claim Saint Clement undertook his mission to Russia centred on his banishment to Crimea by the Roman Empire.
In the context of Russia continually corrupting history to provide false claims of its imperial then Soviet claims upon Ukraine and Eastern Europe Pope Francis’ praise for Russian imperialism, informed by his boast that he was a student of Russian history, seems remarkably reckless and tone deaf to modern concerns.
Pope Francis’ comments have further impaired the peace initiative being led by his personal appointee, His Eminence Matteo Maria Cardinal Zuppi. Cardinal Zuppi, the Archbishop of Bologna, was appointed Pope Francis’ personal peace envoy to Ukraine and Russia last year. He previously visited Washington, D.C., Kyiv and Moscow as an envoy. However, his earlier visit to Ukraine in July 2023 left many Ukrainians and experts wary of Vatican efforts. Following his meetings in the Ukrainian capital insiders asserted the Holy See failed to understand the underlying motivations of Russia to assert its imperial dominance across Europe as the driving factor in the war and not, Ukraine’s EU or NATO aspirations as Putin has claimed.
During Cardinal Zuppi’s visit to Moscow he caused outrage in the West after being photographed with a broad smile when meeting with Maria Lvova-Belova, Putin’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights. Lvova-Belova was at the time, and continues to, be wanted for arrest on-foot of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for her part in the kidnapping and deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. Some Ukrainian children have been illegally adopted by Russian families, prohibited from speaking Ukrainian or listening to Ukrainian music and many times required to take part in summer camps that have been described as “indoctrination centres.” Now held in Russia they are being subjected to Moscow’s new school curriculum which places the blame for the war on Ukraine and requires students to engage in weapons training in what are tantamount to indoctrination classes.
The photos of Cardinal Zuppi and Mrs. Lvova-Belova smiling and shaking hands unsurprisingly caused outrage in Ukrainian society. The diplomatic realities of such photo opportunities present the difficulty for the Vatican in trying to intercede – perceptions of impartiality. Cardinal Zuppi knew he would have to meet with Putin and Lvova-Belova and photo sessions would inevitable take place, stirring hostility and suspicion. Still, he undertook the mission because he believed it necessary, despite the derision it would invoke in the West. Such is often the price of forging peace in conflict – meeting with people whom one might otherwise avoid in the hopes of achieving higher goals. The question remains, can the Holy See be a real broker for peace following the latest blunders by the Pope of Rome and Cardinal Zuppi himself which were wholly avoidable?
Vatican Missteps Have Plagued Peace Initiatives
This is not the first time the Roman Pontiff has instigated a fire-storm related to Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. During interviews last year with La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit publication and Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper, Pope Francis asserted the war in Ukraine was a consequence of NATO “barking at Russia’s gate.” During his interviews, Pope Francis also wondered aloud if it was appropriate for the West to demand the restoration of Ukraine to its internationally recognised borders, saying “I have no way of telling whether his rage has been provoked, but I suspect it was maybe facilitated by the West’s attitude.”
In April 2023, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday and said he had discussed a “peace formula” put forward by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. There has been very little discernible progress or recognisable diplomacy on the Vatican’s behalf to promote a just and durable peace since then.
Vatican observers have been deeply critical of Pope Francis’ failure to condemn Vladimir Putin, Russian targeting of civilian population centres and infrastructure or even Russia’s destruction of churches in Ukraine and other Ukrainian sites listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Unlike Pope John Paul II, now venerated as a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis has been accused of engaging in moral relativism in his quest for what he calls “peace.” As Pope, John Paul II was a vociferous opponent of totalitarianism and often called-out Russia for being an opponent of Christian values. Pope Francis has not shown the same penchant for confronting regimes led by strongmen with some ascribing it to his formative years in Argentina.
Pope Francis’ formative years occurred during the regime of Juan Peron. According to veteran Vatican reporter John Allen, Francis’ comfort with “third world-style criticism of the West” is aligned more with Putin and Patriarch Kirill’s anti-Americanism in which a cleric, scholar and world leader would normally be expected to engage. It is out-of-touch with the dignity of and rights of the human person as understood in modernity. Accordingly, Pope Francis has staked a position for himself and the Roman Catholic Church that puts them more in line with Beijing, New Delhi and Brasília, according to Allen, a reporter writing for the Catholic news site Crux.
In a March 2023 report for Crux Allen wrote:
“Francis is, of course, history’s first pontiff from the developing world, and he reigns at a time when the demographic center of gravity in Catholicism clearly has shifted. Today, more than two-thirds of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics live outside the West, a share that will be three-quarters by mid-century. In such a world, it’s only logical that the Vatican’s geopolitical homing instincts increasingly will more closely resemble those of, say, the African Union, or India, or even the OPEC states, than those of Washington and Brussels”. (John Allen)
In an age where the world struggles to uphold the rule of law and promote the rewards of peace, prosperity and human rights, the Roman Pontiff’s world view, as articulated by him and carried-out by the Holy See and the Roman Catholic clergy who bear great sympathies for Putin and Russia because of misplaced praise for its opposition to what they believe are liberal Western values and campaign against homosexuality and other social issues the Vatican significantly undermines Kyiv and its Western allies who seek a restoration of Ukraine’s internationally recognised 1991 borders.
One of the greatest contrasts between Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II can be found in their view or Ukraine’s Christian heritage and their independence as a nation that far predates that of Russia. While Pope Francis refers to “Great Mother Russia” Pope John Paul II, now canonised as a Roman Catholic Saint, spoke of Ukraine’s superior position regarding Christianity, culture and nationhood referring to it as a spiritual “fatherland” to the Ukrainan people. In a 1979 letter to Ukraine’s Greek Catholic prelate, Josef Cardinal Slipjy, John Paul II on the occasion of the one-thousandth anniversary of Christianity in Kievan Rus’, John Paul II wrote:
In the past, as today, the Apostolic See has always attributed a special importance to this same unity which shines forth amid the very differences of the Byzantine rite and ecclesial tradition, in the Slavonic liturgical language, in the ecclesiastical chant and in all the forms of devotion which are so deeply ingrained in the history of your people. For these things reveal its spirit and in some definitive way show the peculiar nature as well as the complexity of the matter itself. That is confirmed, for example, when sons and daughters of the Ukrainian people leave their own state. Even as immigrants they still retain their association with their Church which through its traditions, language and liturgy stays with them as if it were a spiritual “fatherland” in foreign lands. (Pope John Paul II)
The Vatican, Pope Francis in particular, alarmingly fail to see the significant harm their views, comments and actions have on upholding the principles that have undergirded European and world peace for the past 75-years. The refusal to abjectly condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine, condemn the rapes, murders, destruction and targeting of civilians, or otherwise call upon humanity to condemn aggression by ascribing its responsibility to Russia as an aggressor State does little to dissuade further acts of aggression. For the moment, the Vatican is grossly undermining efforts to persuade the “Global South” and others to be unequivocal in its condemnation of such evil. In so doing, the Vatican has rendered itself unsuitable to qualify as a fair or impartial arbiter of peace.
The responsibility for the disqualifying position in which the Holy See now finds itself as an honest broker for peace rests squarely upon the Roman Pontiff, Pope Francis. A miracle isn’t necessary to remedy the situation – only the Holy See’s embrace of an genuinely moral and authentically intellectually honest theology is necessary.