A section of Rome’s Via delle Fornaci that runs by a large estate owned by the Russian embassies to Italy (located on the left side of that wall) has been blocked off since late October. But there has also been a “roadblock” in efforts of the Vatican to initiate talks for peace in Ukraine (Credit: Screen capture.)

    Pope Francis was silent for 30 seconds and shed tears as he prayed for Ukraine, in Rome on December 8.

    Letter #130, 2022 Thursday, December 14: Roadblock    

    Pope Francis desires peace.

    He desires it so much that he wept bitter tears on December 8 in Piazza di Spagna, as he began a prayer for those suffering in Ukraine. (link)

    He wishes the killing to stop.

    Francis’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the top Vatican diplomat, would also like the Vatican to play a role in bringing peace in Ukraine, and has said so publicly.

    Each boy hit by artillery, each burned face, each wound in the belly, is a tragedy.

    Bodies that were whole are now torn in pieces.

    By the thousands…

    Yet, there have been many roadblocks on the path toward a possible peace.

    Peace seems each day more distant, as more men on both sides die.

    In recent days, these roadblocks emerged with great force, as remarks made by the Pope about the brutality of mercenary soldiers in the ranks of the Russian army sparked outrage in Russia.

    The Vatican then issued an apology.

    The Russians acknowledged the apology.

    But there is still no sign of movement toward setting a place and time for negotiations, so the war continues, and seemingly is set to intensify very soon, with more young men dying.

    One journalist in recent days has done a good job in covering the twists and turns of the Vatican’s efforts to become a place where peace talks may be held: John Allen and Elise Ann Allen, his wife (link).

    In a series of articles, the Allens have covered the facts clearly and carefully.

    So for those wishing an “update” on the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts, the articles linked below may prove helpful.

    We pray for those who have died, we pray for the wounded, we pray for the families, the parents and siblings and children, of those who have died and been wounded.

    And we pray, during this season of Advent, for the miracle that would be peace, after so much killing. We ask in this the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, daughter of Israel, Mother of the Church.—RM

    Russia blocks roads to the Vatican, both literally and diplomatically (link)

    By John Allen Jr.

    December 4, 2022

    ROME – Just a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square lies the Via delle Fornaci, a major Roman artery that leads from the Vatican all the way up the Janiculum hill. Much of the traffic that flows in and out of the pope’s domain travels the street, and businesses in the vicinity of the Vatican depend on it for their livelihoods.

    That reality makes the closure of a section of the Via delle Fornaci, about a mile from the Vatican, ever since late October a major local headache.

    That stretch is dominated by the Villa Abamelek, home of the Russian ambassadors in Italy as well as the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Roman officials have deemed a massive stone wall around the Russian estate in danger of collapse, and at least so far, the Russians have declined to carry out the required repairs.

    Already one local bar has closed due to the resulting lack of traffic, and several restaurants say they’re on the brink of following suit.

    Perhaps nothing better illustrates the current state of affairs between the Vatican and the Kremlin than the fact that even in Rome itself, Russia effectively has shut down a line of communication and exchange.

    From the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Pope Francis and his Vatican team have volunteered their services as mediators. Towards that end, Francis largely has refrained from naming Russia or President Vladimir Putin as the aggressors in the conflict, attempting to project an air of being super partes.

    Honestly, most observers have considered the idea of the Vatican as a mediator a longshot from the beginning, due to a long history of mistrust and antagonism between Moscow and Rome. That’s especially true of the most nationalist and traditionalist elements in the Russian Orthodox fold, who also happen to be an important element of Putin’s political base.

    However, the possibility of the Vatican as a go-between now seems all but extinct in light of Russian reaction to Francis’s recent interview with the Jesuit-sponsored journal America, in which, among other things, the pontiff commented on the Ukraine conflict.

    “I have much information about the cruelty of the troops that come in,” the pope said. “Generally, the cruelest are perhaps those who are of Russia but are not of the Russian tradition, such as the Chechens, the Buryati and so on,” referring to two ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation.

    Ever since, spokespersons for Russia, not to mention for the Chechens and Buryati, have been tripping over one another to see who can be most vocal in the condemnation of the pope’s rhetoric.

    The latest to join the fray is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who accused Francis of using rhetoric that’s “not Christian.”

    “He makes appeals, but his incomprehensible declarations, not at all Christian, call out two nationalities in Russia, as if to say one should expect atrocities from them in military combat,” Lavrov said.

    “Look, this doesn’t help the authority of the Holy See,” he said, in what the Italian paper Il Messaggero called a “cold shower” for the pope about the idea of acting as a mediator.

    Lavrov’s comments came after a spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharov, had already taken her own shot at the pope.

    “This is no longer Russophobia, it’s a perversion of the truth on a level I can’t even name,” Zakharova told the Russian news agency TASS.

    A Chechen commander named Ramzan Kadyrov also joined the chorus.

    “The pope, the spiritual guide of millions of Catholics, should have used more peaceful rhetoric instead of spreading hatred and inter-ethnic discord among peoples,” Kadyrov said.

    “Before NATO’s intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine, we didn’t have any problems with the Ukrainian people,” he said. “The same cannot be said of the pastoral actions of the pope and the instructors of NATO, who are trying to transform the largest possible number of Ukrainian soldiers into cannon fodder.”

    To say the least, ouch.

    Francis and his Vatican team had been trying to promote the idea of a Christmas truce in Ukraine, taking advantage of the fact that most Orthodox churches in the country have given permission this year for faithful to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, the traditional date for the Western church, rather than Jan. 7, the date of Christmas on the Eastern calendar.

    Observers say that move is one part ecumenical, one part about de-Russification, and one part practical, in that presenting just one target to extremists rather than two over the holidays is probably a tactically wise move.

    In light of the recent contretemps with Rome, Moscow may now be less receptive to the idea of a truce – a stance also likely to be bolstered by the fact that Ukraine just announced a crackdown on Orthodox churches in the country that still profess loyalty to the Patriarch of Moscow and Russian Orthodoxy.

    For part, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow wasn’t sounding especially conciliatory in his most recent comments.

    “Today, Donbas is the front line of defense of the Russian world,” he said in a session on Friday in Moscow with children from the occupied Donbas region.

    “And the Russian world is not only Russia – it is everywhere where people who were brought up in the traditions of Orthodoxy and in the traditions of Russian morality live,” he said. “For us, people who live in the Russian world, the sources of support are faith and love for the Homeland.”

    Pope Francis undoubtedly will keep trying to play the part of peacemaker in Ukraine, and, of course, Christmas miracles are always possible. Right now, however, it seems that’s precisely what it would take for the pope’s effort to succeed – a miracle.

    [End Allen article]

    Vatican confirms papal apology, Russia praises ‘ability to admit mistakes’ (link)

    By Elise Ann Allen

    Dec 15, 2022

    ROME – Confirming remarks by a Russian government spokesperson, the Vatican said Thursday that Pope Francis has apologized for controversial recent remarks that Russian minorities are responsible for the most “cruel” acts in the ongoing war in Ukraine.

    In a statement to journalists Dec. 15, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said, “I can confirm, regarding the comments made by the Russians about the apology from the Vatican, that there have been diplomatic contacts in this regard.”

    Bruni’s statement came after Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova at a briefing in Moscow said that, “A message has been received from the Vatican through diplomatic channels, which contains an official statement on behalf of the Secretary of State of the Holy See, Pietro Parolin, in connection with the statement of the Pope.”

    This message, Zakharova said, states that the Vatican’s Secretariat of State “apologizes to the Russian side” and voices the Holy See’s “deep respect for all the peoples of Russia, their dignity, faith and culture, as well as for other countries and peoples of the world.”

    “The ability to admit one’s mistakes is becoming less and less common in modern international communication,” Zakharova said, saying the Holy See’s message “shows that behind the Vatican’s calls for dialogue is the ability to conduct this dialogue and listen to interlocutors.”

    Pope Francis caused a minor diplomatic row last month when, in an interview with Jesuit-sponsored America magazine, he defended his actions on both China and Russia against critics who argue that he has been excessively silent.

    Reflecting on the human cost of the war, the pope said that ever since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, he has received “much information about the cruelty of the troops.”

    “As a rule, the most cruel, perhaps, are those who are from Russia, but do not adhere to the Russian tradition, such as Chechens, Buryats and so on,” he said, referring to two ethnic minorities who often supply front-line troops in Russia’s conflicts.

    Chechens, from the south-west of Russia, are mostly Muslim, while Buryats are a Mongol ethnic group indigenous to eastern Siberia who traditionally follow Buddhist and shamanic beliefs.

    Francis’s comment was met with intense blowback from several Russian officials, as well as representatives of the Chechen and Buryat communities, with Zakharova recently suggesting that as a result of the remarks, the Vatican had lost its credibility as potential moderator in peace negotiations.

    During her briefing, Zakharova called the Vatican’s apology “truly respectful,” saying, “We believe that this incident has been settled and look forward to continuing constructive interaction with the Vatican.”

    [End Allen article]

   Russian antipathy to Rome cuts much deeper than the latest spat (link)

    By John L. Allen Jr.

    Dec 13, 2022

    ROME – In his 1868-69 novel The Idiot, the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky wanted to depict what he would later call a “positively good and beautiful man,” a model of true Christian love, which came in the form of the novel’s central character, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin.

    Towards the end of the story, Myshkin is in conversation with friends when talk turns to an acquaintance who converted to the Catholic Church under the influence of a Jesuit. Here’s the prince’s angry response:

    “Roman Catholicism is even worse than atheism itself, that’s my opinion! Atheism only preaches a zero, but Catholicism goes further: It preaches a distorted Christ, a Christ it has slandered and blasphemed, a counter Christ! It preaches the Antichrist, I swear to you, I assure you! … To the sword they added lies, trickery, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, villainy; they played upon the most holy, truthful, simple-hearted, ardent feelings of the people; they traded everything, everything, for money, for base earthly power.”

    Granted, the passage is just dialogue from a novel, but it sums up what a broad swath of the clergy and intelligentsia of the Russian Orthodox Church, and therefore much of the elite class of Russia itself, have thought about Catholicism for centuries.

    The passage comes to mind in light of the latest tit-for-tat between the Vatican and Moscow over the war in Ukraine, in this case over the most recent offer by Pope Francis’s top diplomat, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, for the Vatican to mediate the conflict.

    Speaking at the presentation of a new biography of a famed Italian politician named Giorgio La Pira on Monday, Parolin reiterated the Vatican’s desire to play the role of go-between.

    “We’re available, I believe the Vatican is well-suited terrain,” Parolin said. “We’ve tried to offer possibilities of encounter with everyone, and to maintain an equilibrium. We’re offering a space in which the parties can meet and start a dialogue. It’s up to them to determine the working method and content.”

    Barely had Parolin’s words been reported by Italian news agencies before the Russian government offered a sharp nyet. Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said tersely the Vatican would not be the proper place for negotiations.

    In part, that cold shoulder reflects a recent flap over comments by Pope Francis in a recent interview regarding the brutality of ethnic minorities allied with the Russians such as the Chechens and Buryats, especially since Zakharova was the first Russian official, of what turned out to be many, to condemn the pontiff’s remarks.

    “I’m afraid our Chechen and Buryat brothers, not to mention me, wouldn’t appreciate it,” Zakharova said Monday of Parolin’s offer in a Telegram comment. “From what I remember, there haven’t been any words of apology from the Vatican.”

    The truth, however, is that Russia’s distrust of the Vatican has much deeper roots, as the Dostoyevsky quote above illustrates.

    It’s an article of faith among many Russian Orthodox intellectuals that Rome is destined to be Moscow’s primary antagonist in terms of representing true Christianity – that the rivalry is genetic and eternal, and that Rome’s perfidy is inevitable.

    Many Russian Orthodox thinkers see Rome’s attempts to subvert their church unfolding in at least four clear historical stages:

  • The creation of the so-called “Uniate” churches, a pejorative term used to refer to the Eastern churches in communion with Rome, during the 15th and 16th centuries, which many Russian Orthodox to this day see as a Trojan horse designed to poach Orthodox faithful.
  • The “Eastern Question” in the 19th century, when the Vatican and Catholic powers sided with Ottoman Turkey against imperial Russian during the Crimean War, resulting in a humiliating defeat for Russia and setting the dominoes in motion that eventually led to the violent overthrow of the Czar.
  • The Bolshevik Revolution, when some leading Catholic clergy initially believed that the separation of church and state decreed by the revolutionaries would level the playing field and open up space for Catholic missionary activity.
  • The modern ecumenical movement, which some traditional and conservative Russian Orthodox thinkers regard as an effort to subject their church to Roman authority in some sort of modified version of papal primacy.

    (A 1988 lecture by Russian Orthodox Deacon Herman Ivanov-Treenadzaty delivered in Australia lays all this out in abundant detail.)

If that’s your worldview, no amount of temporary (and, as they would see it, deceptive) papal “equilibrium” is likely to convince you that in the final analysis, the Vatican can be trusted.

None of this is to suggest that Pope Francis and his Vatican team should abandon the effort. Not all Russian Orthodox believers harbor such deep prejudices – indeed, it’s likely a small minority, though one disproportionately represented in Putin’s inner circle. Attitudes can, and do, change over time.

That said, the pontiff and his advisers also shouldn’t be naïve about the depth of Russian skepticism and resistance. Perhaps they also should weigh carefully how far is too far to go in placating such sensitivities – which, in their most hardened form, may be unlikely to change much, no matter what the pope does.

    [End Allen article]

    Pope Francis and his diplomatic team have Helsinki on their minds (link)

    By John L. Allen Jr.

    Dec 11, 2022

    ROME – Despite the fact that it’s only got a handful of Catholics, and the pope hasn’t even bothered to name a bishop there since 2019, the Finnish capital of Helsinki may occupy a greater share of the Vatican’s collective intellectual energy right now than almost any other city in the world.

    That’s not for ecclesiastical reasons, but geopolitical ones. Helsinki was the setting for the 1975 “Helsinki Accords,” which represent a signature moment in Cold War diplomacy, a crescendo for the Vatican’s policy of Ostpolitik, and an inspiration for Rome’s current efforts to end the war in Ukraine.

    This coming Tuesday, the aspiration for a 21st century version of the Helsinki Accords will be in full public view in a conference “Europe and War: From the Spirit of Helsinki to Prospects for Peace,” jointly sponsored by the Italian Embassy to the Holy See, L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio, Vatican News, and the Italian journal Limes.

    The lineup features Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, who last April called for a “new Helsinki conference” as a way to address the Ukraine conflict. Other key figures from the Francis papacy also will be on hand, including editorial director Andrea Tornielli and Sant’Egidio founder Andrea Riccardi, and the event will be livestreamed by the Vatican’s media platform.

    Italian President Sergio Mattarella was also scheduled to be on hand, but late Saturday new broke that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and will likely have to withdraw from his public appointments this week.

    While in Kazakhstan in September, Pope Francis specifically appealed to the Helsinki accords as an inspiration.

    “Now is the time to stop intensifying rivalries and reinforcing opposing blocs,” he said. “We need leaders who, on the international level, can enable peoples to grow in mutual understanding and dialogue, and thus give birth to a new ‘spirit of Helsinki’, the determination to strengthen multilateralism, to build a more stable and peaceful world, with an eye to future generations.”

    To recap, the Helsinki Accords were the result of two years of negotiations between every country in Europe at the time (except Andorra and Albania) as well as the United States and Canada. The aim was to promote détente between East and West and to reduce the prospects that the Cold War might turn hot.

    The accords ratified several principles, including the inviolability of national borders, refraining from the threat or use of force, non-intervention in internal affairs and the right to self-determination. It was highly controversial among Cold War hawks in the US, who thought it signed off on the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, and more generally on the Soviet domination of Western Europe – the Wall Street Journal pleaded with then-President Gerald Ford not to attend the signing ceremony for the accords under the headline, “Jerry, Don’t Go!”

    In retrospect, however, many historians believe the Helsinki Accords were instrumental in preventing an escalation of East/West conflicts. In the long run, some historians believe they actually stimulated independence movements behind the Iron Curtain with the language about self-determination.

    There are three reasons why the Helsinki Accords loom so large in the Vatican’s diplomatic memory and imagination.

    First, they represented a breakthrough for the policy of Ostpolitik, meaning dialogue with the Socialist world, engineered by then-Archbishop Agostino Casaroli, who headed the Vatican delegation to the negotiations and was credited by several participants with having been instrumental in the final result.

    Casaroli went on to become a cardinal and Secretary of State under St. John Paul II. In his recent interview with the Jesuit-sponsored journal America, Pope Francis called Casaroli “the greatest model I find in the modern period of the church” of dialogue as a diplomatic strategy, and Helsinki is remembered as one of his most shining moments.

    Second, the Vatican has always looked to Italy as its most natural ally on the global stage and an amplifier of sorts for its diplomatic and humanitarian agenda. The Helsinki Accords are perhaps the best modern example of that idea in practice, since alongside Casaroli another primary architect of the agreement was then-Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, a close personal friend of St. Pope Paul VI.

    Moro was in a privileged position to help broker the accords, given that Italy had by far the largest Communist Party anywhere in the West and it was Moro who had first included Socialists directly in an Italian government. As a result, Moro was able to engage the Soviet states in a way that other Western leaders found difficult.

    Although few in the Vatican today would have the same hopes for the country’s current Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, they see the 81-year-old Mattarella as not only a talented statesman but also an ally, who could play an important behind-the-scenes role.

    Third, Pope Francis and his team view Helsinki fondly because it seemed a vindication for the same policies of patience and restraint that they’ve tried to use with Russia almost a half-century later.

    When it comes to Russia (and, for that matter, China too), Francis is not a “Tear down this wall!” sort of pope. (Ronald Reagan, by the way, cited the Helsinki Accords as part of the reason he chose to challenge Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries.) Diplomatically Francis is a dove, not a hawk, and Helsinki is considered perhaps the preeminent success of the dovish instinct during the Cold War period.

    Whether the Helsinki Accords can actually provide a blueprint today remains to be seen. Even the press release announcing Tuesday’s event was cautious: “The many changes since then make similar initiative difficult, but Helsinki remains a point of reference and a value, beginning with the spirit that animated the conference, and it’s no accident that today people who seek peace refer to it.”

    In that sense, it’s not just the “spirit of Vatican II” that defines the Francis papacy. It’s also the “spirit of Helsinki,” a point sure to be much in the air this week.

    [End Allen article]

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