Pope Francis meeting with Hilarion Alfeyev, bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church for Budapest, Hungary, meeting with Pope Francis in Budapest in late April, 2023 (link, VATICAN MEDIA / AFP)

    Letter #90, 2023 Friday, May 12: Zelensky

    The Vatican has still not confirmed a meeting tomorrow, May 13, between Pope Francis and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.

    However, a meeting has now been confirmed for tomorrow in Rome between Zelensky and Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella (see below).

    So, we know that Zelensky will indeed be in Rome tomorrow, and therefore it is possible that he will also meet with Pope Francis.        

    On April 29, almost two weeks ago now, on his return flight from Budapest to Rome at the end of a three-day visit which included a meeting with the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan of Budapest, Hilarion Aleyev, 56 — who was “demoted” from his post in the Russian Orthodox Church by Patriarch Kirill in the spring of last year, after several weeks when Hilarion in his television appearances limited himself to religious topics and did not express full-throated support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, launched on February 24, 2022 — during an in-flight press conference, Francis said he was willing to do everything necessary for peace in Ukraine, adding: “A mission is under way, but it isn’t yet public.”

    Governments in both Kyiv and Moscow then said they knew nothing about such a Vatican peace mission.

    Now, with the possible meeting tomorrow in Rome between Pope Francis and Zelensky, many are wondering if the Pope will propose to Zelensky some sort of peace proposal or process which has not yet been publicly expressed.

    “After the Pope visits Moscow”: The prophecy of Garabandal

    Observers are also commenting in various articles that, if this papal initiative does exist, and does move forward, following a meeting with Zelensky, a logical step would seem to be a meeting also with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Putin is under sanctions and cannot revel in Western Europe, so such a meeting would have to be in his country, in Russia. So Pope Francis, if he were to continue this “mission” he speaks of, would likely have to travel to Moscow.

    This has been noted by Catholics who study the prophecies connected with the (never approved) apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Garabandal, Spain, in the 1960s.

    In one of the apparitions, it is said, the Virgin told the four girls that “war will break out in Europe” after “the Pope visits Moscow.” (link)

    Perhaps this could be interpreted as resulting from a failed negotiation attempt by the Pope?

    No Catholic Pope has ever visited Moscow.

    Pray for peace

    In any and every case, let us pray for peace and an end to this terrible situation of bloody war in Ukraine, which has taken the lives of tens of thousands of men and, estimates say, has wounded hundreds of thousands, while compelling some 11 million Ukrainians to flee their country to avoid the war. So this war has turned the lives of many millions upside down. Can a proposal for peace be worked out, or must the war yet continue for months longer?

    Below are three articles on this matter… —RM

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    Here is an Agence France Presse article from today, May 12, on the possible meeting of Pope Francis and President Zelensky (link):

    Zelensky To Meet Italian President In Rome Saturday

    By AFP – Agence France Presse

    May 12, 2023

    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected in Rome on Saturday for talks with his Italian counterpart, an official told AFP Friday, with a meeting with Pope Francis also possible.

    “We confirm that this meeting will take place tomorrow,” a spokesman for Italian President Sergio Mattarella said when asked about reports of a meeting with Zelensky.

    It would be the first visit by Zelensky to EU and NATO member Italy since Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

    A Vatican source told AFP earlier that a meeting between Zelensky and Pope Francis was also “possible”, although this has not yet been confirmed.

    Zelensky is also expected to meet with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who visited Kyiv in February to show her country’s support for Ukraine, although her office has not confirmed this.

    Despite a history of warm ties with Moscow, Italy has sent weapons and money to help Kyiv and backed Western sanctions against Russia.

    Meloni hosted Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal in Rome last month, on the occasion of a conference on how Italian businesses could help rebuild the war-torn country.

    Pope Francis, who last hosted Zelensky at the Vatican in February 2020, has repeatedly called for peace in Ukraine and prays for the victims of the war almost every week during his general audience.

    During an audience at the Vatican during his visit to Rome, Shmyhal invited the 86-year-old pontiff to Ukraine and asked for his help in returning children forcibly taken to Russia.

    During a press conference returning home from Hungary a few days later, the pope confirmed he wanted to help.

    “The Holy See is disposed to do it because it’s right, it’s the right thing and we should help,” the pope said.

    Shmyhal also said they had discussed Zelensky’s plan for peace and “the different steps the Vatican could take” to help Kyiv achieve its goals.

    In his press conference, Francis said he was willing to do everything necessary for peace in Ukraine, adding: “A mission is under way, but it isn’t yet public.”

    However, both Kyiv and Moscow have said they know nothing about such a mission.

    [End, AFP report]

    Here is an April 29 Vatican News account of the meeting between Pope Francis and Metropolitan Hilarion at the end of April, 2023, just two weeks ago, in Budapest (link):

    Pope meets with Metropolitan Hilarion in Budapest

    Pope Francis holds a “cordial” meeting at the Apostolic Nunciature with the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop of Budapest and Hungary, who previously served as the head of the Department of External Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow.

    By Vatican News staff reporter

    After his morning appointments on the second day of his visit to Hungary, Pope Francis met privately on Saturday with Archbishop Hilarion, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Budapest and Hungary, in the Apostolic Nunciature where he is staying.

    The former Metropolitan of Volokolamsk, Russia, was appointed to this post in June 2022, after serving for thirteen years as head of the Department of External Relations of the Patriarchate of Moscow, and was known informally as Patriarch Kirill’s “foreign minister”.

    A cordial meeting

    The possibility of a meeting with Archbishop Hilarion had been anticipated by the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, on 21 April, during his briefing on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey to Hungary. Mr. Bruni stated, however, that an audience was not a part of the official agenda.

    As reported by the Holy See, the audience, which took place with the help of an interpreter, was cordial and lasted about 20 minutes.

    The Holy Father greeted the Metropolitan with a hug and kissed his Panagia, the enkolpion worn by Eastern Orthodox bishops.

    Pope Francis with Metropolitan Hilarion: Previous meetings

    Pope Francis and Hilarion last met on 22 December 2021 in the Vatican. On that occasion, according to the Holy See Press Office, the pair discussed some issues of common concern and their commitment “to seek concrete human and spiritual responses”.

    The first meeting between Pope Francis and the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan took place on 20 March 2013, the day after the beginning of the Pope’s Petrine ministry.

    It was followed by several other encounters, including the one on the occasion interreligious event “Brother Peoples, Future Land” organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome on 7 October 2021.

    [End, Vatican News report]

    And here is a comprehensive report by Gerald O’Connell in America magazine from May 10, two days ago (link):

    Pope Francis’ secret Ukraine-Russia peace mission, explained

    By Gerard O’Connell, America magazine

    May 10, 2023

    “While Putin is not open to direct communication with the pope right now, the calculation here is that he may be more ready for this in some months’ if the war is not going his way.”

    There are “new, but of course, confidential” developments in the Holy See’s mission to stop the war between Russia and Ukraine. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, broke the news of the “new” developments when he spoke to journalists at the Lateran University in Rome May 10, but he did not elaborate further. However, he added significantly, “I believe the peace mission will move forward.”

    Pope Francis first revealed that a mission aimed at stopping the war between Russia and Ukraine “is underway” on April 30. In the following days, spokespersons for both Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky said their respective sides knew nothing about such a mission. Cardinal Parolin, the pope’s right-hand man, challenged these denials on April 3 and said both sides were informed.

    So, what is happening? Is there a peace mission? Why would Kyiv and Moscow deny any knowledge of it? What can we expect to happen next?

    Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Pope Francis has looked for ways to stop the war. To achieve that goal and serve as a mediator, he has sought to avoid taking sides. Nevertheless, he has stated clearly that Russia is the aggressor and several times a week speaks of “martyred Ukraine.” He has spoken out against the more than 430 days’ war on no less than 120 occasions, in speeches, homilies, press conferences and interviews.

    Pope Francis’ relationship with President Zelensky

    Since the war started, Pope Francis has spoken twice by phone (Feb. 26 and March 22) with President Zelensky, whom he had met face to face in the Vatican on Feb. 8, 2020. Moreover, he has received the Ukrainian prime minister and many parliamentarians in private audiences since the Russian invasion and has also met the wives of Ukrainian soldiers whose husbands were prisoners of war, and many refugees, including children.

    The Holy See has had a nuncio, an ambassador, in Kyiv, the Lithuanian-born Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, who has been there throughout the war and reports regularly on the situation to the pope and the Vatican.

    Francis has had the Vatican engage in humanitarian initiatives during the war. He sent the Polish-born Cardinal Konrad Krajewski on several missions to Ukraine with various forms of humanitarian aid, including ambulances and thermal shirts. Francis has also been involved in the exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine. Delegates from President Zelenskyy have brought the pope lists of names on at least five occasions, and he passed them onto the Russian authorities; many hundreds of prisoners have been released on both sides.

    On the eve of his visit to Budapest, April 27, the Ukrainian prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, visited Francis in the Vatican and asked him to facilitate the return of thousands of Ukrainian children forcibly taken to Russia during the war. The pope promised to do everything possible in this regard.

    These humanitarian efforts have been like stars in the dark night of war.

    Pope Francis’ relationship with Vladimir Putin    

    Ever since the war started, Pope Francis has tried to make direct contact with President Putin, but so far without success. On the second day of the war, casting aside protocol, Francis visited the Russian embassy to the Holy See and asked the ambassador to convey a message to President Putin, saying he was willing to go to Moscow to speak with him, but the Russian leader has refused to have any direct contact with the pope since he launched the invasion. Instead, he had his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, respond to Francis saying his involvement was “not necessary.”

    A follow-up phone call on the pope’s behalf on March 8, 2022, by Cardinal Parolin to Mr. Lavrov, repeating Francis’ call for a stop to the fighting, was equally unsuccessful.

    Speaking to journalists Sept. 15, 2022, after his visit to Kazakhstan, Pope Francis, responding to criticisms for not calling out Putin, emphasized the need for dialogue, even if it means engaging “with states that have started a war.”

    He said, “I don’t exclude dialogue with any sort of power that is at war, even if it is with the aggressor. It may ​​‘smell,’ but one has to do it. But we must always be one step ahead, with an outstretched hand, always! Otherwise, we close the only reasonable door to peace.”

    Returning from Budapest last month, Francis sought to explain his efforts to keep dialogue open. “I believe that peace is always made by opening channels; peace can never be made by closure. I invite everyone to open relationships, channels of friendship. … This is not easy,” he said.

    He said he had told this to various people, including Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whom he met in Budapest and who is the only leader of the European Union’s 27 states who is an ally of President Putin. Mr. Orbán refuses to allow arms to be transported to Ukraine across the 85-mile border between the two countries, and claims that he and Francis are the only leaders working for peace.

    How Francis communicates with Russia

    While Francis has been able to communicate directly and indirectly with President Zelensky since the war started, the same is not true with President Putin, whom he has met face to face three times (2013, 2015, 2019). They last spoke together when Putin phoned to wish him 85th birthday greetings in Dec. 2021. Since then, Francis said, his main line of communication has been through the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Aleksandr Avdeyev. On the flight from Budapest, he said: “I have a good relationship with the ambassador who is now leaving; he has been the ambassador in the Vatican for seven years, he is a great man, a man comme il faut, a serious, cultured, and balanced person. My relationship with the Russians is mainly with this ambassador.”

    The pope has communicated with the Kremlin also through Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, who met the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sept. 22, 2022.

    Moreover, the Vatican has a nuncio in Moscow, the Italian Archbishop Giovanni d’Aniello, who has been there throughout the war and is able to report back to Rome.

    Besides the formal diplomatic channels, Francis also tries to make use of non-diplomatic ones to communicate with the Russian leadership, and especially Russian Orthodox church officials, even though most of them, like Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, are subservient to Putin. Only a small number of Orthodox priests have opposed the war and are reportedly now in prison.

    On March 16, 2022, Francis had a 40-minute conversation by Zoom with Kirill. An outspoken supporter of the war, the patriarch sought to defend the “special military operation” but Francis called on him to be a pastor, not “the acolyte of the state.” The pope’s remark upset Kirill, according to informed sources; they have not spoken directly to each other since. They were scheduled to have a face-to-face meeting in Jerusalem in June 2021, but Francis canceled that because of the war.

    Since their Zoom conversation, Francis has communicated with Kirill through the chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, first Metropolitan Hilarion and, since June 2022, through his successor, Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk.

    Anthony visited the pope in the Vatican on August 5, 2022, and discussed Orthodox-Catholic relations in the context “of political processes taking place in the world.” Soon after, he let it be known that Kirill would not attend the Congress of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan (Sept. 13-15) where Francis was scheduled to speak and where some had expected the patriarch and pope to have a face-to-face meeting.

    On the plane from Budapest, Francis affirmed that the meeting with the patriarch “will happen” but gave no indication as to when that might be. Vatican sources, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak, told America that Francis is unlikely to meet Kirill until the war has ended.

    In Budapest, Pope Francis received Metropolitan Hilarion in a 20-minute private audience. Hilarion had been Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate from 2009 to 2022 when he was demoted and reassigned to Budapest in June 2022, allegedly for his opposition to the war. Hilarion was succeeded by Antony. Francis has known Hilarion since 2013, they have met many times and on the plane he said: “Hilarion is someone I respect very much, and we have always had a good relationship. And he was kind enough to come and see me [in Budapest], then he came to the Mass, and I saw him here at the airport as well. Hilarion is an intelligent person with whom one can talk, and these relationships need to be maintained, because if we talk about ecumenism—I like this, I don’t like this—we must have an outstretched hand with everyone, even receive their hand.”

    Asked if he had talked about peace with Orbán and Hilarion, Francis said, in the meeting “We talked about all these things. We talked about this because everyone is interested in the road to peace. I am willing. I am willing to do whatever needs to be done. Also, there is a mission going on now, but it is not public yet. Let’s see how….When it is public I will talk about it.”

    Hilarion’s position is delicate, and in response to speculation in the media, he made clear on his website portal “there was nothing [at the meeting with Francis] concerning bilateral relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. No political issues were discussed. The meeting was of a personal nature between two old friends.”

    After Francis’ return to the Vatican, Metropolitan Anthony arrived in Rome (May 1-4) “with Patriarch Kirill’s blessing.” His visit, however, was for private business that was in no way related to the pope’s peace mission, Vatican sources told America. He met Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, prefect of the Dicastery for the Oriental Churches, and greeted Pope Francis for a few minutes at the end of the Wednesday public audience in St. Peter’s Square. He also visited Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Christian Unity, whom he has known for many years, but did not meet Cardinal Kurt Koch, the prefect of the dicastery, who was in Israel at that time.

    Anthony’s presence in Rome and his greeting the pope sparked inevitable speculation in the media that it was linked to the peace mission, but Cardinal Parolin categorically denied this on the day of the audience saying, “It had nothing to do with this!”

    Russia and Ukraine knew about Francis’ peace initiative

    At the same time, Cardinal Parolin expressed surprise that spokespersons for the presidents of Ukraine and Russia claimed ignorance of the pope’s peace mission. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters May 2 that Moscow had no information about the initiative. CNN reported that an unnamed Ukrainian official close to the presidential office said: “President Zelensky has not consented to any such discussions on Ukraine’s behalf. If talks are happening, they are happening without our knowledge or our blessing.”

    “I know that both parties have been informed,” Cardinal Parolin said May 3, “to my knowledge, they were and are aware.” He added, “As far as I know, they know.”

    The cardinal’s next remark, however, appeared to suggest that the pope’s first aim is to get both sides to agree to a ceasefire, before the peace process could start. ”I don’t know if there are the conditions today for a ceasefire. Let’s hope…. I believe that this initiative—if there will be one—by the Vatican should also go in that direction,” the cardinal said. Vatican Media reported that the cardinal went on to add that the hope is that a cessation of fighting might take place and that a peace process could follow.

    On May 4, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, quoted by RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, offered a more nuanced response to his original denial: “We know that the Pope is constantly thinking about peace and how to end this conflict, but we are not aware of any detailed plan proposed by the Vatican.”

    That both Russia and Ukraine would issue denials of a peace mission is to a certain degree comprehensible, as neither side wants to stop fighting at this moment. Ukraine wants to regain its lost territory before considering a peace plan and is about to launch a major military offensive to achieve that goal. Russia, for its part, wants to defend all the territory it has taken since 2014 and, if possible, make further gains. To say one is ready to discuss a ceasefire, much less a peace plan, would be equivalent to a sign of weakness on the Ukrainian part and would leave Russia in a stronger position since it holds Ukrainian territory. The Russians, too, do not want a ceasefire; they need to make further gains if they are to consolidate what they have already captured.

    Sources told America that Francis wants to bring about a ceasefire as soon as possible, to stop the killing and destruction, before moving into the more problematic area of peace negotiations. One Vatican source said, “While Putin is not open to direct communication with the pope right now, the calculation here is that he may be more ready for this in some months if the war is not going his way.”

    Some in Rome think Pope Francis may have in mind the all-out effort made by John Paul II in 2003 to prevent the war in Iraq. That year, the Polish pope sent the French Cardinal Roger Etchegeray to Baghdad to speak with Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader received him on February 15 and engaged in a conversation that appeared to offer a glimmer of hope for a last-minute way out of the crisis. Two weeks later, John Paul II dispatched the Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, a friend of the Bush family, to Washington, D.C., to speak with President George W. Bush. When they met in the Oval Office on March 5, the cardinal handed Mr. Bush a personal letter from the pope, but the president put it on the table without opening it and went on to inform the cardinal that he believed he was “doing God’s will” by launching the war. President Bush’s mind was closed to mediation, and the negative consequences of his decision are still with us today, as Francis saw when he visited the country March 5-8, 2021.

    The situation facing Francis is, of course, totally different from the one that faced John Paul II 20 years ago. President Putin has already launched the war and today, more than 430 days later, shows no intention of ending it. Nor does he show any sign of being open to a ceasefire proposal from Francis any more than President Bush was to John Paul II’s effort to prevent the war.

    Pope Francis believes in the power of prayer, knowing that nothing is impossible for God. He believes “it is not impossible” for him to get to Moscow, as he told La Nación on March 10. He knows it is a steep, uphill task to get both sides to agree to a ceasefire, but he feels it is his moral duty to try, and also to seek to engage other heads of state and of international organizations in this effort.

    [End, O’Connell report]    

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