June 10, 2015, Wednesday — Putin and Pope Francis
President Putin came to Pope Francis this evening 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 in the communique 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. (link)
But there was no mention of this matter in the Vatican communique.
Here is the official Vatican statement on the meeting:
Statement of Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ following the meeting of Pope Francis with President of the Russian Federation, Mr. Vladimir Putin
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.
Following the meeting there was an exchange of gifts.
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.
Regarding the situation in the Ukraine, the Holy Father said that we must engage in a sincere and great effort to achieve peace and emphasized the importance of rebuilding a climate of dialogue and the need for all concerned parties to implement the agreements of Minsk.
Another topic was the essential commitment required by all parties to address the serious humanitarian situation and allow wider access to humanitarian workers in the region.
As for the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, in the lands of Syria and Iraq, the meeting confirmed what has already been shared: the urgency to pursue peace with the concrete interest of the international community, while ensuring at the same time the necessary conditions for the life of all the parts of society, including religious minorities, and particularly Christians.
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.
(Translated by Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB)
A Religious “Off-Ramp” in Ukraine?
My colleague Gianni Valente, an Italian journalist and personal friend of Pope Francis (the future Pope dined with Valente and his family at his home on the Saturday evening before the archbishop of Buenos Aires was elected Pope) wrote an interesting piece yesterday, before the Pope-Putin meeting, for the Vatican Insider website on “the areas of convergence between Putin and the Pope. Here is that article.
The most striking sentence in the piece is the following: “The Pope and Vatican diplomacy do not intend to set up a ‘cordone sanitaire‘ against Putin’s Russia as some Western circles would like to do.”
In short, the Pope and the Vatican continue to be willing to offer Putin a sort of “off-ramp” with religious overtones as a possible way to lessen the danger of a wider war in Ukraine.
A second striking sentence is this: “Pope Francis’ aim is not to obtain political support or form ‘Holy Alliances’ with the world’s powers, but to make a disinterested contribution to preventing the causes of conflict.”
In other words, Pope Francis is not “playing politics” and seeking to “broker” a geo-political “settlement” which will also help the Church’s position in the world; rather, he is trying, honestly, to help bring peace.
The areas of convergence between Putin and the Pope
The Russian President is about to visit the Pope a second time: the Catholic Church is not setting up an anti-Russian “cordon sanitaire” as Western circles are. The czar is ready to clarify Russia’s position to Francis
Vladimir Putin is ready to explain Moscow’s position regarding the Ukrainian crisis to Pope Francis. This is according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, who was quoted by Russian news agency TASS. “If the Pope shows an interest I have no doubt that the president will willingly give a detailed explanation about Russia’s position,” Peskov stated.
The visit Vladimir Putin will be paying to the Vatican tomorrow for his second meeting with Francis, was only officially added to Russian and Vatican diplomats’ confidential agendas a few weeks ago.
As in the case of the first visit, it was Putin’s decision to add a stop-over in Rome to his Italian schedule, specifically in order to meet and speak with the Bishop of Rome.
The Russian president is visiting Italy to attend Expo 2015 in Milan and the visit to Rome was not part of the original schedule. Putin’s request was immediately granted and a meeting with the Russian leader was added to the Pope’s packed schedule without any hesitation.
The fact that the Holy See lost no time in agreeing to the meeting is a clear sign: it confirms that the Pope and Vatican diplomacy do not intend to set up a “cordone sanitaire” against Putin’s Russia as some Western circles would like to do.
The initiatives the Pope and Vatican diplomacy have put into action with regard to the Syrian conflict — first and foremost with the day of prayer and fasting for Syria on 7 September 2013 — converge with Russia’s diplomatic strategy, defusing the threat of an external military intervention in Syria and set in motion the process of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Almost two years on, the clash points between Russia and many Western countries have multiplied. The Successor of Peter, however, has managed to keep a channel of communication open with the Kremlin’s leader and it is being expanded to some new areas.
Amid the spiraling hostilities and reciprocal accusations between Russia and Western countries, set in stone by the Ukrainian crisis, the Pope has managed to stay out of the disagreements between opposing sides.
Both political and Church leaders have expressed their public appreciation for the words the Pope pronounced on the Ukrainian conflict and the “third world war fought piecemeal.”
At the end of April, Patriarch Kirill himself praised the position the Holy See had taken on the Ukrainian crisis: “Pope Francis and the Holy See’s State secretary have taken a considered position on the situation in Ukraine, avoiding unilateral assessments and calling for an end to the fratricidal war.”
Even when Turkey lashed out at the Pope for his message on the Armenian genocide, Putin took the chance to publicly express his esteem for the Pope’s “insight into the game”: Talking to reporters last 16 April, he said: “I consider the Pope to have so much authority in the world that he will find a way to achieve understanding with all people on our planet, regardless of their religious affiliation.”
Yet another sign that Moscow does not consider the current Bishop of Rome to be a sort of chaplain of the West.
It is highly likely that the Ukrainian crisis will be at the center of Putin’s conversation with the Pope in the Vatican.
Another key topic they will probably discuss is the violence that is tearing apart the Middle East and bringing suffering to Christians who have been present in those lands since the days of the Apostles. As the Syrian conflict spreads, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin have shown a greater interest in the vicissitudes of the Middle Eastern Churches.
The need to protect Christians in Arab countries has become an important part of Putin’s Middle Eastern agenda. After decades of atheism under the Soviet communist regime, Putin is also taking on the neo-czarist-style role of protector of Eastern Christians (while the traditional French “protectorate” of days gone by, is disappearing, particularly with regard to the Catholic communities of the Middle East).
However, Francis has not given Western or Russian circles any pretext to exploit the misfortunes and persecution of Christians in the Middle East to fuel indiscriminate Islamophobic sentiment. Even his most recent messages pronounced in Sarajevo — where the wounds of ethnic and religious conflicts that tortured the heart of Europe at the end of last century have not yet healed — were confirmation that Pope Francis’ aim is not to obtain political support or form “Holy Alliances” with the world’s powers, but to make a disinterested contribution to preventing the causes of conflict.
At the same time, he is warding off all attempts to “conceal” power-hungry interests with ideologies based on ethnic and religious factors. These interests, starting with arms trafficking (something Francis constantly returns to in his speeches) and the fight for control over natural resources, are the causes of conflict.
Being a Jesuit, the Pope is well aware that Russia — like China — are countries that have played key roles throughout history and cannot be cut out of any sincere attempt at shared leadership in the context of globalization. Given his evangelical approach to the world’s problems, a visit to Moscow could be on the cards and in fact the Pope himself expressed his interest in a potential visit right from the very first months of his pontificate. Russian diplomat, Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s advisor, has stated that during their meeting, the Pope and the Russian leader “will discuss possible further contact” but he added that he does not know whether Putin will invite the Pope to Moscow and that this “is not only something that involves the State” but the Russian Orthodox Church as well.
Paradoxically, it is some of the high ranking figures of the Patriarchate of Moscow that are most concerned about Pope Francis’ popularity among Russians too.
The comment made by the Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev at the last Synod on the family left a terrible impression in the Vatican. He is not the Patriarch but the Patriarchate of Moscow’s “foreign affairs minister.”
On that occasion, Hilarion took advantage of the hospitality offered to him, launching a full-fledged attack on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which was totally out of place.
And it is a known fact that the Patriarchate of Moscow has so far been reluctant to proceed quickly along the ecumenical path from a theological point of view – here, the theologians of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople play a dominant role – preferring the approach of an “alliance” between Churches in defense of moral values.
The current Successor of Peter has shown a concrete willingness to “learn” about the ecclesiology of his Orthodox brothers.
But so far, in the Orthodox world, the Russian Church appears to be the one that is least ready to seize the moment and to let go of the ghosts of the past and put an end to their calculations as officials of the sacred.
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(2) On December 8, 2015, and again on November 20, 2016, we will be gathering in Rome to be present when Pope Francis opens the Holy Door to begin his Special Jubilee of Mercy, and when he closes the door to end the Jubilee Year. If you would like to join us on one or more of these pilgrimages, email now for more information…
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What is the glory of God?
“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.