The themes of the meetings were the situation of Christians in Syria and the Middle East, the crisis of Christian values in Western societies, disarmament, and the international scenario — as well the conflict in Ukraine, which found the Holy See and Russia in distant positions.
But the differences did not prevent Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, from traveling to Russia in 2017. Furthermore, in November 2021, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican Secretary for the Relations with States, visited Moscow and had bilateral meetings.
In short, relations were good, although the Holy See continued to pay close attention to the situation in Ukraine. Parolin visited the country in 2016 and returned for a brief trip last year to celebrate the nation’s 30 years of independence.
In 2017, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Eastern Churches, spent six days in Ukraine, coming very close to the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. He visited Kramatorsk, a city that saw clashes between the Ukrainian armed forces and pro-Russian militants in 2014.
In July 2019, Pope Francis summoned the bishops and members of the Synod of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for an inter-dicasterial meeting at the Vatican. During his intervention, Parolin used the word “war” in no uncertain terms to describe the conflict in Ukraine. Pope Francis used the word in his intervention at that meeting. He also spoke of a “hybrid” conflict in his speech to the prelates of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Therefore, there can be no doubt that the Holy See was well aware of the situation in the region. But as Russian forces began the full-scale invasion, the pope preferred not to go directly into the question. It was a strategic choice, typical of pontifical diplomacy. The pope tries not to take precise positions because he always favors opening dialogue.
Indeed, Parolin spoke with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on March 8, conveying the pope’s profound concern about the war.
At the same time, Parolin referred to “the war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine” in an interview with four Italian newspapers on Feb. 28.
This needs to be read in conjunction with the Vatican Secretary of State’s comment on Feb. 24 that “there is still time for goodwill, there is still room for negotiation, there is still room for the exercise of wisdom that prevents the prevailing of partisan interests, protects the legitimate aspirations of each and spares the world from the madness and horrors of war.”
The reference to the “legitimate aspirations of everyone” also represented an opening to consider Russian interests in an evolving situation.
On March 2, Sandri participated in a prayer meeting for peace in Ukraine at Rome’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic cathedral, at which he lamented the “unjustified invasion.”
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On March 5, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, nuncio to the United Kingdom, attended a pro-Ukraine demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square. The nuncio, who was the pope’s ambassador to Ukraine from 2015 to 2020, said: “We are all Ukrainians.” His words, it can be said, also represented the sentiments of Pope Francis, who authorized the nuncio’s presence at the event.
In short, there has been a double track: on the one hand, the prudence of the pope, who obstinately seeks dialogue, especially from a humanitarian point of view; on the other, Vatican officials who use harsher terms about the situation in Ukraine, even while trying not to mention Russia.
The Holy See, in fact, never tries to enter into a diplomatic confrontation and never breaks diplomatic relations with a country. Nor does it withdraw ambassadors, unless they are thrown out.
What, then, led to Pope Francis’ decision to take a different tack on the Ukrainian question last Sunday?
There is one detail that should not be overlooked. On March 5, Archbishop Giovanni d’Aniello, the apostolic nuncio to Russia, visited the Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill of Moscow.
According to a communique from the Moscow patriarchate, Kirill noted that the “moderate and wise position of the Holy See” on many international issues was “consistent with the position of the Russian Orthodox Church.”