Gleb Garanich / Reuters A rosary hangs for a machine gun as Ukrainian soldiers stands at their positions near the eastern Ukrainian town of Pervomaysk September 12, 2014.

The Pontiff and the Pariah

What Putin and Pope Francis Discussed in the Vatican

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Pope Francis in the Vatican. In the West, the image of the Pontiff sitting down with the Pariah might be jarring, but it is well in line with Francis’ teachings and ambitions.

It was Putin who requested the meeting in late May, and Francis was quick to agree. At the time, some papal advisors warned that Putin’s mission was cynical: to improve his image at a time when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was predicting a “full scale invasion” by Russian forces, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was speaking out against “resurgent Russia,” and the European Union was gearing up to extend sanctions. In the end, Francis decided to buck expectations (and dismayed Ukrainian Greek Catholics, who criticized the Pope for refusing to condemn Moscow as an aggressor) and sit down with the man in charge of Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Pope Francis during a private meeting at Vatican City, June 10, 2015.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Pope Francis during a private meeting at Vatican City, June 10, 2015.

There are five main reasons for Francis’ decision.

One was made clear during a Papal visit to Sarajevo in early June. “We need to communicate with each other,” he said to authorities, “to discover the gifts of each person, to promote that which unites us, and to regard our differences as an opportunity to grow in mutual respect.”

It’s a sentiment that could seem banal, except that Francis has elevated the notion of personal encounter—with God, with the poor, with those one fears or doesn’t like—into a central precept of his papacy. This missionary obligation is elaborated in Evangelii Gaudium, Francis’ papal “action plan,” which he handed to Putin during their meeting. Francis has also been consistently and vocally anti-war, preaching the peaceful resolution of conflicts. By meeting with Putin, no doubt a difficult interaction, Francis was backing all those words with deeds.

A second factor in Francis’ decision-making is skepticism of U.S. foreign policy.

As John Paul feared, the U.S. invasion was a disaster for Christians in the Middle East. Ancient communities and holy sites have been destroyed, millions

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