Amidst strategic stalemate, Ukraine war remains Vatican priority

Feb 27, 2024
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the flag of Ukraine against the blue sky.

Two years since the Russian invasion, Ukraine has faded from the headlines. But not in the Vatican and for the man who might be the next Pope.

Tied down in a strategic frontline stalemate, Ukraine has faded from the headlines, especially after the October 2023 Hamas attack and Israel’s Gaza response. In a late-December 2023 letter, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Kyiv Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, told Pope Francis that ‘in an increasingly tragic international situation, the war in Ukraine risks becoming a forgotten one.’ Out of a total of 43.3 million, 75% of the Ukrainian population is Orthodox Christian and 10% Eastern rite Catholic.

Shevchuk’s letter reflected the fact that some Ukrainians felt Francis seemed reluctant to criticise Russia, especially early in the invasion. However, in March 2022 just after the Russian invasion began, Francis spoke out calling the onslaught ‘a senseless massacre’ and ‘an abhorrent war’ lacking justification. By mid-2023 he was calling for an immediate cease-fire and – perhaps unrealistically – demanding an end to the Western arming of Ukraine, placing him at odds with Washington, London and the Europeans.

He was criticised by many, including Vatican expert and journalist Marco Politi, who claimed that his approach utterly marginalised the Vatican’s influence. Actually, Francis was reflecting his understanding of the 21st century strategic shift from US/European dominance to the developing world where the majority of Catholics live. For them the war in Ukraine and its threat to Europe is not a key issue and the future of Catholicism is not tied to the survival of the West.

But that didn’t mean he simply abandoned Ukraine. The pope was aware that by January 2024 the UN had documented some 10,200 civilian deaths and 19,300 injuries in Ukraine; these numbers are probably under-estimates and exclude enormous troop losses. Some 6.3 million Ukrainians have fled the country, many to Poland and neighbouring countries, with 3.7 million internally displaced. In his reply to Archbishop Shevchuk, Francis spoke of a ‘martyred Ukraine’ and said that the attacks on civilians were ‘vile, unacceptable and cannot be justified in any way.’

Possibly part of Francis’ hesitation was a lingering respect for the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. While there have been truly brave clerics condemning the invasion, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, a long-time ally of Putin (both were born in Saint Petersburg), strongly supports Ukraine war.

Francis has also appointed a special peace envoy, the diplomatically experienced Archbishop of Bologna and President of the Italian Bishops Conference, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi. The 68-year-old Zuppi is a member of the Sant’Egidio Community, founded in 1965 by Andrea Riccardi which works in more than twenty countries in Europe, Central America, Africa and Asia, in inter-religious dialogue, peace activities and supporting the poor.

One of their successes was in Mozambique in 1992 negotiating a peace that ended a 15-year- long civil war. Zuppi was a key negotiator in the process and he was made an honorary citizen of Mozambique.

Zuppi’s task is to ‘listen in depth to the Ukrainian authorities on possible ways to achieve peace’ and support humanitarian work. Since mid-2023 he has focused on repatriation of Ukrainian children and civilians held by Russia. There have been exchanges of prisoners of war, but the Russians play hard ball when it comes to non-combatants, no doubt holding them as bargaining chips. Zuppi visited Kyiv, Moscow, Beijing and Washington – where he spoke to President Biden – in early to mid-July 2023.

Next week he will be in Paris to meet his first Western European leader, President Macron of France who asked to meet him ‘to search for ways that can lead to a just peace in Ukraine’ and support humanitarian initiatives.

It’s interesting that Francis has chosen Zuppi as his envoy on Ukraine. As a priest and bishop, Zuppi has had enormous ministerial experience in the diocese of Rome, of which the pope is bishop. Through the Sant’Egidio community, he also has experience of the developing world and is a strong supporter of the Pope Francis agenda.

He comes with a broad historical perspective. The Gospel, he says, ‘should not be reduced to morals’ and has little sympathy with prophecies of the end of Christianity. ‘Some people,’ Zuppi says, ‘first of all want to make everything clear. Mercy is the opposite’ because it breaks down all barriers and overcomes all limits.

Zuppi is 68 and, in my view is a front-runner to succeed Pope Francis. The views he has expressed and his membership of Sant’Egidio Community with its connections in the developing world will make him very appealing to cardinals from the non-Western world, especially if it was felt that the time had come to elect an Italian pope again. These non-Western cardinals are now the majority in the College of papal electors.

In my view Zuppi is the numero uno front-runner for next pope, and his work for peace in Ukraine may be a good preparation for a stint as Bishop of Rome.

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