The Vatican has been exploring for weeks how to help find a negotiated solution to the war in Ukraine. At first he did so quietly, with vain diplomatic efforts. Also sending various cardinal representatives to the area — the pope’s beggar, the Pole Konrad Krajewski, and the Czech Michael Czerny — and using soft, conciliatory language that aroused some criticism. But last Sunday, during the Angelus prayer, the Pope lost patience and openly denounced the armed aggression. On the afternoon of this Wednesday, the most significant step came, thanks to the telematic meeting between Francisco and the Orthodox Patriarch Kiril. A first gesture that, among other things, shows how the Vatican insists on maintaining the bridges with the Orthodox Church, rebuilt in the historic meeting in Havana in 2016.
The Vatican’s stance had been somewhat soft and tended, often, to euphemisms to refer to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Holy See and Francis himself had avoided using the words “Russia” or referring directly to Vladimir Putin as the cause of the conflict, even though he described the war as a “massacre” and “unacceptable armed aggression.” The other party, however, had been much more belligerent and came to justify the invasion on religious and moral grounds, something that made Rome extremely uncomfortable. On Wednesday, the positions became closer and an important dialogue channel was opened between the two churches, which maintain a complicated relationship. Especially since Kirill sharpened his tendency to become the spiritual arm of Vladimir Putin’s expansionist and warlike policy.
The Vatican version — broadly consistent with that of the Russian patriarchate — is that the conversation focused on “the role of Christians and their pastors, to do whatever it takes for peace to prevail.” “The Pope thanked the patriarch for the meeting, motivated by the desire to indicate, as pastors of his people, a path to peace, to cease fire,” the Vatican statement read. The Pope, according to the same document, has said that “the Church does not have to use the language of politics, but that of Jesus.” Both leaders have underlined “the exceptional importance of the ongoing negotiation process.” As the Pope said, “who pays the bill for the war is the people, it is the Russian soldiers and it is the people who are being bombed”. The conversation was joined by the Metropolitan Hilarion, president of the Department of External Ecclesiastical Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Russian rationale for the war
The meeting was marked by Kiril’s words from a few days ago. The Russian patriarch had justified this war for moral, political and even metaphysical reasons. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church went so far as to say that on the battlefield they were fighting against “the lobby gay”. And he also assured in a letter that “Russophobia is spreading in the Western world at an unprecedented rate”, and that the conflict had not started “now, but that its origins lie in the relations between Russia and the West”. Therefore, it is interesting what the Pope has responded. “There was a time when there was talk of holy war or just war. You can’t talk like that today […]. Wars are always unfair”, Bergoglio pointed out, somehow correcting the Russian’s words.
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The Pope insisted on his arrival in 2013 to build bridges with the Russian Orthodox Church and with the Kremlin. The balancing act between the two churches has been permanent in recent years. But Kirill’s closeness to Putin — who has used religious rhetoric to underpin his political philosophy — has often made it difficult for relations to move faster. “The patriarchy has very strong pressure from the Kremlin. And the Pope knows that if he goes against everything, then he won’t even be able to talk to the patriarch. For this reason, this diplomatic language is used, focused on possibility. This year both leaders were to meet in neutral territory, perhaps in Canada. But nothing is clear anymore, ”says the priest Stefano Caprio, a missionary in Russia from 1989 to 2002 – when he was expelled – and an expert on relations between the two churches.
The Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, proposed at the beginning of the conflict the mediation of the Vatican to put an end to the invasion. He offered it to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but received no response. Relations have been bad for a long time and worsened during the era of the Soviet Union. Moscow has always rivaled the patriarchate of Constantinople, a situation that worsened with the arrival of Putin.
A certain inferiority complex (the Russian Orthodox Church has been known as “the third Rome” since the second half of the 16th century) is one of the psychological elements that pushes the Russian patriarchy into certain positions of strength. Also its total subordination to the State. But Russian Orthodoxy is born in kyiv. In the eastern half of Ukraine, from kyiv to Donetsk, the believing population is overwhelmingly Orthodox. And this population is divided between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the one dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ukrainian Church became officially independent from Moscow in 2019, after being recognized as such by the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, the ecumenical leader of all Orthodox Churches. The Russian Church broke with Constantinople, the universal home of the Orthodox.
“With the position that the Russian patriarch has taken, blessing the war, the relationship is aggravated. The policy of the patriarchy in recent years has been very hostile to the most important Church in Orthodoxy, that of Constantinople, led by Bartholomew, and with which Rome has very good relations”, says Giovanni Maria Vian, historian of the Church and former director of L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Holy See.
Kiril’s gestures, as Vian points out, have worsened the difficult balance in recent hours. Last weekend he presented the leader of the Russian National Guard, Viktor Zolotov, with an image of the Virgin Mary with the confidence of obtaining a “quick” victory over the Ukrainians. In addition, he denounced that Ukraine had carried out an “extermination” of those who remained loyal to Russia. His words caused a wave of indignation among the representatives of the Orthodox churches.
In addition, the Russian patriarch did not hesitate to underline that he is “patriarch of all Russias”, including Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. A fact that would indicate that his words are often motivated by Putin’s interests and not by his own conviction and interest. “The patriarch would not want war with Ukraine. There are many faithful of his church there. And if he loses the Ukraine, he remains in the minority in the Orthodox world, ”says Caprio, referring to Kiril’s war with Bartholomew I, the patriarch of Constantinople.
The pope and Kiril met in Havana in 2016, in the first meeting between a Russian Orthodox patriarch and a Catholic pope since the schism of 1054. The appointment, however, was used by the Russians to justify their entry into the war of Syria, Caprio remembers. That is why now, the Vatican insists, things have to be done without any pressure.
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