Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises important questions for the Vatican about its role in international relations and, more specifically, about the geopolitical vision of Francis’s pontificate. It’s easy to think of the Cold War as the closest historical precedent to the current moment, but in fact it might be more helpful to compare the situation now to the period spanning the twentieth century’s two world wars. We are witnessing as Europe did then not only the invasion of a sovereign state, but also the human tragedy that necessarily results. The slaughter of civilians, the flight of more than 3 million refugees, and Putin’s language of “denazification” evoke the genocide by starvation in the 1930s and deaths of several million Ukrainians in World War II. We’re also being reminded of the key role Ukraine has long played in the history not only of Eastern Orthodoxy, but also of Judaism and Catholicism.
All of this presents challenges for the Vatican, as the weeks following Russia’s attack have shown. Like political and business elites in the West, Rome for the past twenty years has largely ignored the increasingly open contempt Putin and the Moscow Patriarchate had for liberal democracies and the undeniable (if incomplete) freedoms they offered. In the hours before the invasion, Francis’s personal appeals for peace were timid and reluctant (contrast them to those he made at the September 2013 prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square, while the United States was threatening action in Syria). In the first few days following it, the pope and Vatican media were notably careful not to mention either Russia or Putin. Since then, however, Rome’s stance has become less neutral. First there was Francis’s unannounced visit to the Russian embassy to the Holy See. Then, at the Angelus prayer on March 6, Francis announced his intention to send two Curia cardinals to Ukraine as a sign of “the presence of the pope and all people”: Konrad Krajewski (Polish-born) and Michael Czerny (Czechoslovakian-born Canadian Jesuit) who arrived in the area between March 7 and 8 for a mission that is humanitarian, not diplomatic. The pope referred to Ukraine as a “martyred country” where “rivers of blood and tears are flowing.” He stated his willingness to do anything to help mediate for peace in Ukraine. He called the situation not just a “military operation, but a war that sows death, destruction and misery,” a direct rebuttal—if not an official condemnation—of Putin’s propagandistic description. Francis also called for a return to respect for international law.
In the Angelus of March 13, Francis talked about “unacceptable armed aggression” and repeated that “God is only the God of peace” and “those who support violence profane his name.” Still, there is uncertainty about the goal of the Holy See’s activity: Does it indicate a willingness to act as mediator, as Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin mentioned, or is it a prophetic denunciation of the atrocity of war, as the Angelus of March 13 seems to suggest? Then on March 15, Pope Francis announced he would consecrate both Russia and Ukraine (the aggressor and the victim) to Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 25, with simultaneous acts at St. Peter’s in Rome and in Fatima, Portugal. It is a response similar in tone, perhaps, to the weaponization of the icon of Mary by the Patriarch of Moscow, but conveying a very different message. While no one should expect a direct criticism of Vladimir Putin or the Russian government by name, these moves nevertheless demonstrate a crescendo in tone since late February. Still, the media are questioning the “silences” of Pope Francis about Russia in suggesting a sinister echo of the silences of Pius XII during the Holocaust. Those in charge of crafting the pope’s message through Vatican media are pushing back against these accusations.