Putin and Pope Francis

An important Vatican meeting in June suggests Rome and Moscow are keeping open lines of communication despite differences…

Pope Francis talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Vatican June 10. Putin, who was in Milan on other business, asked for the meeting (CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, Pool)

Pope Francis talks to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting at the Vatican June 10. Putin, who was in Milan on other business, asked for the meeting (CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, Pool)

President Putin came to Pope Francis on the evening of June 10 to speak about possible pathways to peace in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Putin, who had been in Milan in northern Italy at a major international exposition on food worldwide, arrived a little after 6 p.m. — about an hour later than anticipated — and the two then spent about 50 minutes talking together privately, through interpreters.

They then exchanged gifts, with Pope Francis giving Putin a medallion depicting an “Angel of Peace” in evident hope that Putin might yet be a leader who could work for world peace.

“This is a medallion of the Angel of Peace, executed by an artist of the last century,” the Pope said to Putin, according to journalists who were present to report on the meeting. “It is the Angel who vanquishes all wars and speaks of solidarity among all peoples.”

At the end of the meeting, Putin said to the Pope through his translator: “It was a great pleasure and honor to meet you. Until our next meeting…”

There was no indication of any invitation by Putin to Pope Francis to visit Russia, but we do not know the entire content of the discussion, which was private.

The Russian president arrived from Fiumicino airport with a large delegation filling 13 vehicles which drove at great speed down the via della Conciliazione in front of the Vatican, where a small crowd of the curious stood waiting and watching for his passage.

Putin had met Francis once before, on November 25, 2013.

The Holy See and the Pope have repeatedly called for a ceasefire and peace in Ukraine, bringing to an end a war between “brother Christians.” But the Vatican has remained very “prudent” throughout this crisis, now a year and a half old, and this has led some Ukrainian Greek Catholics (who are in union with Rome) to go so far as to criticize Pope Francis for his lack of a direct condemnation of Russia’s policy toward Ukraine.

What did the two men speak of during their conversation?

The Vatican released an unusually detailed communique. From this, we know that they spoke mainly about Ukraine, where a bitter conflict in the eastern part of the country has taken an estimated 15,000 lives, including many civilians; and about the Middle East, where Christians are fleeing their homes by the tens of thousands before the advance of a radical Islamist movement called ISIS, and where Russia over the centuries has played the role of the protector of the Christians in the region.

There was emphasis placed on the need to allow humanitarian aid to reach displaced and impoverished Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine, many of them rebels against the Ukraine government. The communique said there was need for “all parties to address the serious humanitarian situation and allow wider access to humanitarian workers in the region.”

Just before the meeting, the US ambassador to the Holy See, Kenneth Hackett,  said he thought the the Vatican “could say more about concerns on territorial integrity” of Ukraine (after a plebiscite last year, Crimea, a part of Ukraine, became a part of Russia, and the western nations have demanded that Russia yield that region back to Ukraine). “Maybe this is an opportunity for the Holy Father to privately raise those concerns,” Hackett said. But there was no mention of this matter in the Vatican communique.

Here are excerpts from the official statement on the meeting:

“Late this afternoon, Wednesday June 10, 2015, the President of the Russian Federation, His Excellency Mr. Vladimir Putin, was received in audience by the Holy Father, Pope Francis.

“The private meeting in the Library of the Apostolic Palace, began around 18:15 (6:15 p.m.) and lasted close to 50 minutes.

“President Putin gave the Pope a representation in embroidery of the famous Church of Jesus the Savior, while the Pope gave the President the medallion by the artist Guido Veroi depicting the angel of peace that is an invitation to build a world of solidarity and peace founded on justice, as well as a copy of the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

“In the context of the current world situation, the conversation mainly focused on the conflict in the Ukraine and the situation in the Middle East…

“At the same time the meeting was taking place with President Vladimir Putin and the Pope, another meeting took place between Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, and His Excellency Mr. Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.  During that meeting, the same topics were addressed, with a focus on the conflict in the Ukraine and the alarming situation in the Middle East.

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