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In the West, there is a false opinion that the Russian Orthodox Church, which for centuries built its identity in opposition to the Western Church, comprises more than half of all Orthodox people in the world; therefore, there is an illusion of the possibility of “opening a window to the Orthodox world” in order to make friends with Russia. However, they do not take into account the fact that in Russia itself practicing Orthodox Christians make up only 2-3% of the population, and the celebration of the Muslim holiday of Kurban Bayram in Moscow gathers incomparably more people than Easter in Orthodox churches.
Certain circles of the Vatican illusory perceive relations with Russia as a “triumph of Christianity in Europe.” Until now, some of them dream of converting Russia to Christianity. Meanwhile, at certain stages, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) accepted financial aid from the Roman Catholic Church with one hand, while with the other it issued anti-Catholic literature, incited hatred of Catholics in the country, and gave blessings for the “holy war against the God-fighting West.” The only thing that interests the Russian church and state authorities in relations with the Apostolic Capital is the recognition of the entire former post-Soviet space as the exclusive territory of the ROC. Dialogue on issues of a theological nature or Christian unity in general is among the priorities of the ROC in the final positions: they can take part in relevant events purely for the sake of conversation, which do not oblige anyone to anything. This tactic, in the guise of “Ostpolitik”, has remained unchanged since the 1960s. However, at the moment, these measures can cause “betrayal” among Ukrainian Catholics of both rites, which gives Moscow the opportunity to play on the psyche of society – just as, since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014, it managed to play on the “peacemaking” of Pope Francis, under whose pontificate the Russian the state and church authorities began to be more actively involved in the Vatican direction, re-understanding the events of the times of “perestroika” and the USSR. Unfortunately, the Russian disinformation campaign proclaiming Putin as the “savior of civilization from Western decline” misled a significant number of Roman Catholic Church (RCC) believers.
It is still sometimes believed that the methods and results of the “Ostpolitik” of the Vatican in the 1960s and 70s made it possible to find a model of existence for Catholics behind the Soviet “Iron Curtain”, and later contributed to the decline of communism and democratic transformations in Central and Eastern Europe, and today gives to continue the ecumenical dialogue. According to opponents of “Ostpolitik”, it is used by forces for which relations with the Vatican are only one of the tools to achieve their own goals on the geopolitical chessboard. In particular, in the same 1960s and 1970s, representatives of the Apostolic Capital may not have been informed that dialogue partners from socialist countries were front persons or agents of special services.
Unfortunately, during almost eight years of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the Vatican often used Russian narratives. In particular, the Ukrainian public reacted painfully to the statements of Pope Francis in his sermon on February 4, 2015 about the “fratricidal conflict” in our country. However, such a reaction was not observed when the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew called the Russian-Ukrainian war at the end of April 2022, already in the conditions of a full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation, as “fratricidal”. However, at the end of autumn 2014, both hierarchs in a joint appeal emphasized the need to observe the provisions of international law regarding Ukraine.
On February 12, 2016, a “historic” meeting between Pope Francis and Moscow Patriarch Kirill took place in Havana, the capital of Cuba, during which a joint declaration was adopted. “It is with joy that we have met like brothers in the Christian faith… to discuss the mutual relations between the Churches, the crucial problems of our faithful, and the outlook for the progress of human civilization… By meeting far from the longstanding disputes of the “Old World”, we experience with a particular sense of urgency the need for the shared labor of Catholics and Orthodox, who are called, with gentleness and respect, to give an explanation to the world of the hope in us… We are not competitors but brothers, and this concept must guide all our mutual actions as well as those directed to the outside world,” the text stated. Ukraine was also mentioned in the declaration – however, resistance to Russian aggression in the occupied eastern regions was called “the hostility that has already caused many victims, inflicted innumerable wounds on peaceful inhabitants and thrown society into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis.” The Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow called on “all the parts involved in the conflict to prudence, to social solidarity and to action aimed at constructing peace.” In general, the vagueness of some wordings of the declaration gave the ROC the opportunity to twist its content in accordance with its aspirations, still following Soviet traditions.
The meeting of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill with Pope Francis could be dictated by the desire of Putin, who, unlike the Vatican, has never considered religion separate from politics, to get out of international isolation and show an alternative center of influence in Ecumenical Orthodoxy on the eve of the Pan-Orthodox Council. However, the Vatican could not fail to realize that Patriarch Kirill and other ROC hierarchs are only agents of the Russian state establishment, and not “people of the Church” in the Catholic sense.
There is an opinion that the position and behavior of Pope Francis is currently influenced by the Vatican government, which has a powerful pro-Russian lobby. However, currently, in the conditions of a full-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine, the spectrum of perception of Russian aggression and assessment of events in the Vatican shows positive dynamics.
On March 12, 2022, commenting on the full-scale military invasion of the Russian Federation into Ukraine, the Secretary of State of the Holy See, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, confirmed that the position of the Holy See regarding these events had been repeatedly announced by Pope Francis: “a strong ‘no’ to war; war is madness, it must be stopped.” “We have before our eyes the terrible images coming from Ukraine… We would have to possess a heart of stone in order to remain impassive and allow this havoc to continue, as rivers of blood and tears continue to flow,” Cardinal Parolin added. He also recalled the details of his phone conversation with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov: “I repeated the Pope’s appeal for an immediate ceasefire. I asked for an end to the fighting and for a negotiated solution to the conflict. I insisted on respect for the civilian population and on humanitarian corridors. I also reiterated, as the Pope had done last Sunday at the Angelus, the Holy See’s total availability for any kind of mediation that could favor peace in Ukraine.” Among other things, the Cardinal noted that the social doctrine of the RCC has always recognized the legitimacy of armed resistance to external aggression, and added that calling the Russian invasion of Ukraine a military operation “is to fail to recognize the reality of the facts,” since “We are facing a war, which unfortunately claims many civilian victims.” “There can be no justification for war, hatred and violence.” he concluded.
After his visit to Ukraine in March 2022, the Holy See’s Secretary of State Relations, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, said during a colloquium on migration at the Pontifical Gregorian University that the RCC should make every effort to establish peace and “resist the temptation to compromise on the issue territorial integrity of Ukraine”. In his speech, he urged not to forget the drama of Ukraine and the suffering of its inhabitants due to Russia’s attacks.
On April 10, 2022, the Archbishop of Vienna and the Primate of Austria, the Ordinary for the faithful of the Byzantine rite in Austria, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, said that if the world had reacted more clearly in 2014 to the Russian occupation of Crimea, then Putin would not have felt the desire “to resort to actions against a sovereign state in a much more brutal way.” He admitted that he did not know a possible scenario for the end of the conflict, but called for an immediate ceasefire. The Cardinal agreed with the statements of Pope Francis that the invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine is a “striking injustice.” “Ukraine has the right to defend itself against Putin the aggressor, and for this it needs a supply of weapons from the West. From the point of view of the teachings of the Church, this is a clear case of self-defense,” he explained. In addition, the Cardinal criticized the position of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who morally justifies the war of aggression. Cardinal Schönborn recalled that he personally knows both Kirill and the former head of the Department of External Church Relations of the ROC Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk, but attempts to renew contact with them “were not successful.”
In early May 2022, Pope Francis, in an interview for the Italian magazine “Corriere della Sera”, which often relays Putin’s narratives, recalled how at the beginning of the full-scale military invasion of the Russian Federation into Ukraine, he went to the Russian Embassy to the Holy See, asking to clarify the situation and calling for an end to hostilities. In March, the pontiff asked Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, to send a message to Putin about the Pope’s readiness to come to Moscow. Pope Francis also mentioned the details of his 40-minute conversation with Moscow Patriarch Kirill via video link: “During the first 20 minutes he had a card in hand and read me all the justifications for the war. I listened and told him: ‘I don’t understand anything about this. Brother, we are not clerics of state, we cannot use the language of politics, but that of Jesus. We are shepherds of the same holy people of God. For this we must seek ways of peace, to put an end to the firing of weapons. The Patriarch cannot transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.’”. The planned June 14 meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in Jerusalem, which would have been their second face-to-face meeting, did not take place. “It is unthinkable that a free state would start a war against another free state. For peace there is not enough will. War is terrible and we must shout it out. I am a pessimist, but we must make every possible gesture to stop the war,” the pontiff concluded.
During the second half of June, Pope Francis made several statements concerning Ukraine. For instance, at the end of the general audience on June 15, before the traditional address to individual groups of pilgrims, he impromptuly said: “Please let us not forget the war-torn people of Ukraine nor get used to living as if the war were something distant. Let our remembrance, affection, prayers, and help always go out to this people who are suffering so much and who are carrying out a true martyrdom.” On June 18, during the audience of the bishops of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, the pontiff also mentioned the Russian armed aggression in Ukraine. The next day, on June 19, Pope Francis during his speech to the pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican called on each of them to answer in their hearts the question “What am I doing today for the Ukrainian people who are suffering?” The next week, on June 26, after noticing Ukrainian flags among the crowd on St. Peter’s Square, the pontiff said: “There, in Ukraine, the bombings do not stop, which cause death, destruction and suffering of the population. Please don’t forget this war-weary nation. Let’s not forget them in our hearts and in our prayers.” On June 29, Pope Francis condemned the bombing of Kremenchuk by the Russian Armed Forces, which led to the death of people as a result of a rocket attack on a shopping center, and said: “Every day I carry in my heart the dear and tortured Ukraine, which continues to be scourged by barbaric attacks like the one that struck to the shopping center in Kremenchuk. I pray that this raging war will end as soon as possible, and I appeal again to persevere without tiring in prayers for peace.”
On June 30, 2022, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity of the RCC, Cardinal Kurt Koch, who in 2016 prepared a joint declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill on behalf of the RCC, in an interview with the German publication “Die Tagespost” criticized the latter in unusually sharp words: “It is a heresy, a false doctrine, that the Patriarch dares to legitimize the cruel and absurd war in Ukraine for pseudo-religious reasons. Patriarch Kirill’s justification of war should strike every ecumenical heart.” Cardinal Koch also called Putin’s reduction of a brutal war to a “special operation” a “verbal abuse” and condemned such a position as completely unacceptable. “From a Christian point of view, it is impossible to justify offensive war, but under certain conditions it can be done in defense against an unjust aggressor,” he added. Two months before that, Cardinal Koch, referring to the opinion of Pope Francis, called the religious justification of aggression demonstrated by Patriarch Kirill “blasphemy”.
On July 2, 2022, the assistant bishop of the Kharkiv-Zaporizhia Diocese of the RCC Jan Sobilo reported that not a single priest of the RCC remained in the territories of Ukraine occupied by the armed forces of the Russian Federation since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, as well as in the territories controlled by the “LPR” and “DPR” groups, as their lives were in mortal danger. “After 2014, our priests served even in Donetsk and Luhansk, but the situation constantly worsened. And now there were no more options: I did not allow them to stay, even those who asked for it. After all, everyone asked. Russian soldiers regard Catholic priests as spies of the Vatican, as NKVDists did at one time, so their fate would be clear. I also did not allow our nuns to stay. Rape, torture are the consequences of the present war, and I insist that the sisters do not hurry to return until the war is over. In our churches in Berdyansk and Melitopol, the remaining Greek Catholic brothers are currently serving temporarily. In Mariupol, service is impossible, even the monastery was occupied – although now it has been returned. There are even priests who are ready to go there, risking their lives, if there is someone to serve,” the bishop said.
On July 3, 2022, Pope Francis, after reciting the “Angel of the Lord” prayer before the pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, called for prayer for peace in Ukraine and around the world, and also called on the heads of states and international organizations to respond to the trend of worsening conflicts and opposition. “The Ukrainian crisis should have become, but if it is desired, it can still become a challenge for wise statesmen capable of building a better world for new generations through dialogue,” he said.
Later, in an interview with Reuters, Pope Francis, who previously indirectly accused Russia of waging a “cruel and senseless war of aggression”, noted that there had been contacts between Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov regarding the possible pontiff’s trips to Moscow – although since the collapse of the USSR, many reasons have been invented there to prevent Catholic spiritual leaders from entering the country.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine reacted to the readiness of Pope Francis to visit Kyiv. “The Ukrainian side has repeatedly invited the Pope to visit Ukraine. We believe that this visit will strengthen the role of the pontiff in restoring peace on Ukrainian soil, as well as support the spirit of Ukrainians who are being subjected to untold suffering due to Russia’s aggression,” said the spokesman of the department Oleg Nikolenko. “This is indicative that Moscow is currently ignoring the readiness of the Holy Father to visit Russia in every possible way. This is yet another piece of evidence that the Russian regime seeks war, not peace,” he added. Subsequently, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, noted during the nationwide telethon that the visit of Pope Francis to Ukraine will be an extremely important event. Since the pontiff maintains the authority of a peacemaker in international politics and during the visit he will be able to better understand the causes of the war, Ukraine is ready to receive him any day. Meanwhile, Putin’s press secretary Dmytro Peskov reported again that there are no substantive contacts regarding the meeting of his leader with Pope Francis.
On July 10, Pope Francis said the following after the Sunday prayer with the pilgrims: “I renew my closeness with the Ukrainian people, who suffer daily from brutal shelling, for which ordinary people pay. I pray for all families, especially for the injured, wounded and sick, I pray for the elderly and children. May the Lord show the way to put an end to this crazy war.”
At the same time, the Metropolitan of the Philadelphia Archdiocese of the UGCC, Borys Gudziak, expressed his conviction that Pope Francis understands the sinfulness of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and that his rhetoric about it becomes clearer every time in condemning atrocities. “From another part of the globe, it is difficult to see in detail and understand the problems of Eastern Europe and Russia. The Pope is not a naive pacifist. I think he is guided by gospel truths and grows in understanding,” the bishop said.
On July 14, 2022, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary of the Holy See for Relations with States and International Organizations, expressed his belief that the Vatican’s diplomacy must admit its defeat, as it “did not work” and failed to prevent a full-scale war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine. He recalled that at the beginning of his duties in 2015, he heard the desire of Pope Francis to have not such a reactive diplomacy, but a preventive one, which would anticipate certain things. “Ukraine tells us that we must try to anticipate conflicts, that diplomacy must have the ability to see the gravity of what is happening in the world. It must reaffirm the fundamental principles of international law,” said the archbishop, emphasizing the impossibility of keeping “silent in the face of violence” and “forgetting about the Ukrainian crisis.” At the same time, Pope Francis expressed similar thoughts during a conversation with members of the General Chapters of three religious congregations: “One of the past days, I saw in the newspaper that the news about the war [in Ukraine] was on the ninth page! It’s not an issue people care about, and that’s unfortunate.”