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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.
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 displaced, bishops murdered, and Catholic charities across the Middle East overwhelmed.A major rift between the Vatican and Washington dates back to the invasion of Iraq when Pope John Paul II argued vociferously against sending U.S. troops to oust Saddam Hussein. He even sent a personal envoy, Cardinal Pio Laghi, to bring his case to President George W. Bush on March 5, 2003. But the visit was for naught. “I had the impression that they had already decided,” the veteran diplomat told a group in Italy months later. Bush “spoke and behaved as if he was divinely inspired and seemed genuinely to believe that it was a war of right against wrong. I asked him, ‘Do you realize the consequences of occupying Iraq? The confusion; the fighting between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.’” Apparently, he did not.
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 displaced, bishops murdered, and Catholic charities across the Middle East overwhelmed. In the Vatican’s view, the same American proponents of invading Iraq are promoting military escalation on Ukraine’s eastern border. Thus, the Vatican’s diplomatic brain trust—namely, Francis, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States—is determined to defuse the “atmosphere of war” enveloping Ukraine.
Indeed, the Vatican particularly frowns on strategies designed to alienate opponents. Take Belarus. U.S. policy since 2004 has been largely antagonistic toward the Alexander Lukashenko regime, including the imposition of various sanctions for undemocratic practices. Meanwhile, the Vatican has steadily improved working relations with Belarus, where 15 percent of the population is Catholic. Rome has encouraged Belarus to play a positive role as host to peace talks between Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union. The Minsk II agreement governing the current ceasefire is evidence of the country’s progress, according to Parolin.
A third factor is Syria. Francis and Putin, working with and through their respective churches, already coordinated to thwart U.S. intervention in Syria. In 2013, Washington accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of killing more than 1,400 people in a chemical weapons attack and warned of military intervention. The Vatican urged the West to intensify diplomacy without resorting to armed aggression. Putin likewise maintained an aggressive public campaign against potential U.S. bombing and, days later, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced a plan to transfer Syria’s chemical weapons to international control—thus diverting the U.S. from military retaliation.
Francis and Putin met for the first time in person less than two months after the crisis. Syria was at the top of their agenda. It was ongoing collaboration in Syria and Lebanon between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches and their communication up the ladder that provoked the churches’ engagement, but the result was a sense, in the Vatican, that Putin honors his commitment to protect the Christian communities in the Middle East—an alliance the Vatican wants and needs.
Since then, besides a summit in Damascus of leaders of the five major Orthodox and Catholic Churches held last week, Russia and Vatican are collaborating on humanitarian aid to help Christians survive during the war.
The fourth factor is the Ukrainian Catholic population: The Pope is meeting with Putin to model the behavior he expects from his flock in Ukraine. It’s Bible 101: Love your enemy. From early on in the conflict, many observers expected the Pope to align himself with Western Ukraine because the Catholic Church has a high-profile presence there through the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), an energetic church that was banned and persecuted under Communism.
The UGCC roared back on the national scene starting in 1990. Today, it has about 5.4 million believers, mainly in Western Ukraine; 3,000 priests (up from 300 in 1989); 800 seminarians; and strong diaspora communities around the world.
The resurgence of the UGCC over the past quarter century is a dramatic Catholic success story. Together with other faiths, the UGCC was active throughout the Maidan protests, which led to the collapse of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime. It was reasonable, therefore, to expect the Holy See to promote the view that Russia is the aggressor against Ukraine, and must be repelled.
Instead, Francis has been concerned about blocking a war that pits Christians in Western Ukraine against Christians in the Donbas region, where most people belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, are allied with Moscow. In February, Francis referred to “this horrible fratricidal violence” in Ukraine adding, “Think: This is a war among Christians! You all share one baptism! You are fighting with Christians. Think about this scandal.” He has also warned Ukrainian Catholic bishops not to politicize the Church in the heat of crisis, according to a statement released by the Vatican.
Since Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras met in Jerusalem in 1964, the two major Christian faiths, divided since 1054, have moved toward greater unity.All this connects with the final factor in Francis’ decision-making: Catholic-Orthodox relations. Francis and Parolin are protective of an ongoing Catholic-Orthodox dialogue that has been over 50 years in the making and has gained steam in the last ten.
Since Pope Paul VI and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras met in Jerusalem in 1964, the two major Christian faiths, divided since 1054, have moved toward greater unity. Few major theological questions divide them; the main sticking point is papal primacy. Achieving ecumenical mind meld was a priority for John Paul. Pope Benedict XVI significantly advanced the cause, and Francis has strived to preserve it.
In that task, Francis has worked to collaborate with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in Istanbul, who serves as the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church. But he knows that the real player in the Orthodox world is the Russian Orthodox Church, due to its size and relationship with the Russian state. Of the 260 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, almost 40 percent live in Russia according to the 2011 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s study Global Christianity.
These days, the Vatican has a network of diplomats who have developed working relations with their counterparts in the Russian Orthodox Church. Francis’ circle of advisors includes a much-respected nuncio to Moscow, Slovenian Ivan Jurkovič, who also served as nuncio to Ukraine (2004-2011) and Belarus (2001-2004). At Francis’ side when he met Putin was Monsignor Lisvaldas Kulbokas, a towering 41-year-old Lithuanian whose last job was First Secretary in the Moscow nunciature.
Parolin, key to the Vatican’s role brokering a U.S.-Cuban normalization agreement last December, has also established his bona fides with the Russian Orthodox Church: Patriarch Kirill recently praised Francis and Parolin for “avoiding unilateral assessments” regarding the Ukraine conflict in a speech to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Diplomatic Academy.
Since the fall of Communism, successive popes have dreamed of meeting the Russian Orthodox Patriarch on Russian soil. It would be a powerful sign that Christianity had overcome a central historical rupture allowing the Church “to breath with two lungs,” in Pope John Paul’s words. Flying back from Turkey last year, Francis said, “I told Patriarch Kirill, we can meet wherever you want, you call me and I’ll come.” Any papal invitation must be endorsed by both a head of state and national religious leaders, and generally requires extensive coordination between the respective foreign ministries. While Francis and Putin were meeting this week, Sergey Lavrov and, Archbishop Gallagher were together. Further, a little noticed item on the Vatican’s agenda is a June 20 meeting between Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department for External Church Relations (effectively the church’s foreign minister) and Cardinal Parolin. Hilarion has been a harsh critic of the UGCC, accusing its leader, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, of fomenting war. Hilarion is also allied with the more conservative side of the Russian Orthodox Church, meaning, if he endorses a papal visit to Russia, it will probably happen.
MEET AND GREET
In their meeting, which lasted 50 minutes, Francis and Putin discussed the conflict in Ukraine and turmoil in the Middle East, according to a Vatican communiqué. Francis reportedly said “we” must engage in a “sincere and great effort” to achieve peace through dialog, respect the Minsk accords, and allow humanitarian assistance into Donbas. How to protect religious minorities in Syria and Iraq was the other dominant topic. The Vatican expects to remain engaged in these and other political problems: A new office for pontifical mediation is in the works.
Whatever happens, Francis has extended to Putin the respect the Russian leader craves. Francis is determined to position the Catholic Church as a neutral interlocutor, balanced with regard to the worldviews of West and East, South, and North. And in doing so, over the objections of the West, he might achieve the peace that the West so desperately needs.