Pope Francis and President Zelensky (Vatican Media)

    Pope Francis, meeting on Saturday, May 13, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Vatican. The press had differing views on the meeting. Some reported that it went well. But others, particularly in Italy, reported that, when the Pope sought support from Zelensky for a possible Vatican peace initiative in the Ukraine-Russia war, Zelensky did not respond positively. Later that evening, Zelensky said, “With all due respect for His Holiness, we have no need of mediators”… On Sunday (yesterday) at his noon Angelus, the Pope made no reference to the meeting, interpreted as a sign, Italian journalist Marco Politi wrote, that the Pope did not find the meeting “even minimally productive.” Harsh words… (link)

    Body language says a lot.” —Italian journalist Marco Politi, writing about the visit of President Zelensky to Pope Francis on Saturday, May 13, in the Vatican. The two spoke for 40 minutes

    In living memory it had never happened that a head of state, meeting the pontiff, opened a large notebook on the interview table with the points to be specified.” —Ibid.

    His [Zelensky’s] goal was to push Bergoglio into a corner, sabotage any hypothesis of Vatican mediation, force him [Pope Francis] to confront the pressing… requests of the Ukrainian leader: (1) Join the condemnation of Putin as a criminal, (2) Press for him to accept as the only outcome the so-called “Zelensky plan,” which plan is not a peace plan but a list of conditions that a Russia on its knees should be forced to accept, because the blackmail of sanctions would continue even after the retreat of the Russian army.—Ibid.

    Like Benedict XV’s peace plan in 1917, Francis’s efforts to provide an exit strategy from the war in Ukraine seem dead on arrival.” —John Allen, writing on May 14 in Crux after the Zelensky-Pope Francis meeting (link)

    Letter #93, Monday, May 15: Zelensky to Francis: “Thanks, but no thanks”

    Pope Francis met on Saturday, May 13 — the anniversary of the first Fatima apparition in 1917 — with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and left the meeting without achieving what he sought: Ukrainian approval for a Vatican role in eventual peace talks in the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war.

    Zelensky started the meeting by placing a notebook on the table which contained the points he wished the Pope to hear and agree to.

    Here below are two articles which summarize what happened on Saturday between the two leaders.

    First, a May 14 article by John Allen of Crux, then a May 15 article by Marco Politi of Il Fatto Quotidiano. —RM

    Here is a perceptive and useful May 14 piece by John Allen of Crux (link):

    Like Benedict XV, Pope Francis seemingly rebuffed in bid to end European war

    By John L. Allen Jr.

    May 14, 2023

    ROME – When Pope Francis was elected in 2013, Italians initially made much of the fact that his father’s family hailed from the northern Italian region of Piedmont. It quickly emerged, however, that on his mother’s side his roots were in the northwestern region of Liguria centered on Genoa, the seaport from which the future pope’s family set sail for Argentina in the early 20th century.

    It’s remotely possible, therefore, that Pope Francis’s maternal ancestors may have known the family of Giacomo della Chiesa, who became Pope Benedict XV, reigned from 1914 to 1922, and whose own roots were in Liguria. At a minimum, they would have been aware that a fellow Ligurian had made good.

    As it turns out, roots aren’t the only thing Popes Benedict XV and Francis have in common.

    Benedict XV led the Catholic Church during the First World War, a conflict he did everything in his power to stop. In August 1917 Benedict XV wrote the contending parties to define the war as an inutile strage, a “useless slaughter,” and to propose a seven-point peace plan including a “simultaneous and reciprocal reduction in armaments” and a mechanism for “international arbitration.”

    Famously, Benedict’s efforts initially seemed a flop.

    Both the United States and Germany rejected his initiative, with each side believing the pope was biased in favor of the other, and the war dragged on for another year and three months before an armistice was signed. So marginal did Benedict’s position seem that after the war, the Vatican was excluded from the Paris Peace Conference.

    In the end, however, some of Benedict’s original ideas were folded into U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s 14-point peace plan in January 1918. More broadly, the pontiff’s efforts to end the war, as well as his support for greater European and international integration, came to seem prophetic and gradually led to an increase in international respect for the papacy and the Vatican’s diplomatic role in global affairs.

    Right now, Pope Francis may be dreaming of a similar sort of historical vindication, since his own peace-making efforts amid another great European conflict, this time in Ukraine, also don’t seem to be going anywhere.

    This image made available by Vatican News shows Pope Francis meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a private audience at the Vatican, Saturday, May 13, 2023. Francis recently said that the Vatican has launched a behind-the-scenes initiative to try to end the war launched last year by Russia.

    During a keenly anticipated visit yesterday to Rome that included a 40-minute encounter with Pope Francis, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made it crystal clear that whatever secret peace plan the Vatican may be cooking up, he’s not interested.

    In a tweet shortly after the meeting concluded, Zelensky said he’d pressed Francis “to condemn crimes in Ukraine. Because there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor.”

    Speaking later during a special program on Italian television broadcast from Rome’s famed “Altar of the Fatherland” in the Piazza Venezia, Zelensky flatly ruled out a mediating role for the pontiff or the Vatican.

    “With all due respect for His Holiness, we don’t need a mediator between Ukraine and the aggressor that’s seized and occupied our territory,” Zelensky said.

    “No one can negotiate with Russia,” Zelensky said. “There can be no mediators.”

    “They took away citizenship from people in the occupied territories,” he said, referring to Russian forces. “They forced them to go fight on the front. They tossed out all Ukrainian instruction. They prohibited the Ukrainian language. They forbade having a Ukrainian church. They brought abuses and evil.”

    “You can’t have mediation with Putin,” Zelensky emphasized. “We know the consequences … it’s not a question of the Vatican, or America, or Latin America, or China, or any country in the world. Putin only kills, you can’t have a mediation with him.”

    The Ukrainian leader implied that if the Vatican wants to do something constructive, it should get on board with Ukraine’s own peace plan.

    “For me, it was an honor to meet His Holiness,” Zelensky said.

    “However, he knows my position and the position of Ukraine. The war is in Ukraine, and therefore the plan [for peace] has to be Ukrainian. We’ve proposed a plan, and we discussed it today. We’re very interested in involving the Vatican and Italy in our formula for peace, for restoring the peace in Ukraine.”

    Headlines in the Italian press drew the obvious conclusion: “Zelensky rejects the pope’s peace plan,” reported Il Giornale, while Il Fatto Quotidiano went with, “Zelensky freezes out the pope, wants to negotiate on his own” and Il Manifesto had, “The pope’s plan isn’t needed.”

    To be clear, it’s not as if Russia has gushed with enthusiasm over the idea of Pope Francis and the Vatican as a go-between either. Spokespersons for Putin have restricted themselves to saying they know nothing of any Vatican peace effort, leaving the broader question of whether they’d be open to such an initiative hanging.

    In other words, like Benedict XV’s peace plan in 1917, Francis’s efforts to provide an exit strategy from the war in Ukraine seem dead on arrival.

    (As a footnote, lay Italian economist Stefano Zamagni, former president of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, said earlier this month that last September he drafted a seven-point peace place for Ukraine on behalf of Pope Francis, in what may have been an unconscious homage to Benedict XV’s famous proposal a century earlier. Perhaps the lesson is that if popes want to float peace plans, they should avoid the number seven.)

    For now, Francis may be compelled to limit his efforts to trying to mitigate the humanitarian consequences of the war. Yesterday, for example, Zelensky invited the pope to assist in efforts to return Ukrainian children who’ve been deported by Russian forces.

    In much the same vein, Benedict XV failed to end the fighting during WWI but was able to blunt some of its excesses, such as ending the deportations of Belgians by German forces. Benedict also launched an office for prisoners in the Vatican which, by war’s end, had processed more than 600,000 pieces of mail, including 170,000 requests for help in locating missing persons and 40,000 appeals for repatriation of prisoners who were sick.

    It remains to be seen whether, in the long run, Francis’s broader efforts to continue his press for peace will play as well in the eyes of history as his predecessor.

    Here’s another thing that connects Francis, history’s first pope from the developing world, with his Ligurian forerunner: In 1919 Benedict XVissued the apostolic letter Maximum Illud, the first missionary document issued personally by a pope, in which he called on Catholicism to look beyond the West, pointing especially to China, just as Francis a century later has promoted closer ties with Beijing as part of a broader global realignment of the Catholic Church.

    For right now, Francis can perhaps at least take comfort that he’s hardly the first pope whose efforts to make peace have been rebuffed … and, almost certainly, he won’t be the last.

    [End, piece by John Allen for Crux]

    And here is a May 15 piece, originally in Italian, by Marco Politi of Il Fatto Quotidiano (link):

    Zelensky wanted to push the Pope into a corner but the Holy See is not stupid    

    By Marco Politi, Il Fatto Quotidiano, May 14, 2023

    In living memory it had never happened that a head of state, meeting the pontiff, opened a large notebook on the interview table with the points to be specified.

    A leader goes to the Pope to speak, but also to listen.

    To present his vision, and at the same time to welcome the other’s perspective, which has a profound ethical-political authority, an authority that, yes, is without any military divisions or economic power, but which is distinguished by centuries of memory.

    Now, with a cool head, the summit in the past, it becomes clear that the Ukrainian president had no desire to listen to Pope Francis.

    Body language says a lot.

    Upon his arrival in the building of the Aula Nervi, in front of the pontiff, Zelensky seemed at times awkward, like someone who doesn’t know exactly how to sit down, how to greet, how to start to talk.

    Zelensky knows what a Pope is and what this Argentine Pope is. But his goal was not an exchange of ideas.

    His [Zelensky’s] goal was to push Bergoglio into a corner, sabotage any hypothesis of Vatican mediation, force him [Pope Francis] to consider the pressing — and propagandistic — requests of the Ukrainian leader: (1) Join the condemnation of Putin as a criminal, (2) Press for him to accept as the only outcome the so-called “Zelensky plan,” which plan is not a peace plan but a list of conditions that a Russia on its knees should be forced to accept, because the blackmail of sanctions would continue even after the retreat of the Russian army.    

    That’s why the notebook placed on the desk with the points clearly visible.

    In part concerning humanitarian matters (aid to the population, exchanges of prisoners, repatriation of children) but above all political requests culminating in the axiom that the only peace is the one imposed by a victorious Ukraine and in the exact terms decided by the Ukrainian leadership.

    Thus, the gulf between Francis’ goal, oriented towards a ceasefire to favor a negotiated peace, and Zelensky’s approach appears evident.

    A gulf made evident even by the exchanged gifts.

    On the part of the pontiff the bronze sculpture of an olive branch, on the part of the president icons forged in hatred for the invading enemy.

    A madonna painted on a bulletproof plate with the Ukrainian colors symbolically scarred by the Moscow bombings, and another painting with the madonna holding in her arms a faceless child, all black, “erased”: to remember the children killed in the conflict.

    Gifts to underline that the enemy is barbarian and one cannot deal with him. And least of all do you want unwelcome mediators.

    Twenty-four hours before Zelensky’s arrival at the Vatican, the line of the Ukrainian leadership had been sketched by the declarations of presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak: “There is no middle ground … There is an absolute aggressor, Russia, which has come to kill and destroy … And there is Ukraine which is defending its children and territories… Any attempt to simply say ‘stop the war, come to the negotiating table’ would be to force Ukraine into defeat”.

    With a corollary explicitly addressed to Pope Francis: “Perhaps the Vatican is ready to demonstrate a much deeper understanding of these issues. Perhaps the Vatican is ready to acknowledge that Russia… has unleashed a great unprovoked war.”

    A slap in the face to the policy of the Holy See, accused of not being capable of adequate analysis and of not wanting to recognize Putin’s aggression.

    Zelensky’s collaborators reserved such slaps in the past for France, when Macron was trying to orient himself on an independent line, and for Germany when Berlin showed reluctance to the escalation of armaments.

Now it’s the Vatican’s turn.

    On Saturday evening Zelensky in a slightly more polite way reiterated: “With all due respect to His Holiness, we do not need mediators.”

    There is only one peace plan and it is the Ukrainian one.

    The only Vatican reaction: at Sunday’s Angelus, the pontiff did not mention the meeting with Zelensky. A sign that he does not consider it in the least productive in the effort to curb the escalation towards an increasingly bloody and dangerous conflict.

    From this point of view, Francis is alone in Europe. Germany and France have given up playing any role. The president of the European Commission Von der Leyen is now launching a warlike rhetoric, which leads to the paradoxical. Yesterday in Aachen, when Zelensky was awarded the Charlemagne Prize, she exclaimed: “We stand by the Ukrainian people until, together, we achieve the impossible.”

    Moreover, it has not escaped Vatican diplomacy that the Kyiv government can use these uncompromising tones only because it feels directly protected by Washington. As long as it is affirmed in the United States that peace is made only on the conditions established by Ukraine, the leadership of Kyiv can continuously play to the upside.    

    However, the Vatican insists on remaining above the contending parties. Francis has no intention of regressing to the times of Pius XII, when the Church was the protagonist of the Cold War.

    Francis prefers that today the Holy See be on the side of those states (the majority of the world’s population) who want to end the conflict and consider the idea of a unipolar hegemony on the planet to be outdated.

    It is symptomatic that in a recent interview with the bishops’ newspaper Avvenire, the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church Msgr. Shevchuk underlined that the Ukrainian government “does not understand the idea of a conference (world, with all the new protagonists on the international scene) summarized in the Helsinki-2 formula.”

    This dislike of Kyiv towards an international conference to establish the new rules of coexistence of the planet in the 21st century is singular. But the apparent strangeness can be explained if one looks at Washington, which does not want to hear about it.

    In the great geopolitical contest that opened with the Ukrainian war, Zelensky and his patrons perhaps underestimate the lucidity of an unarmed power, which, from John XXIII to John Paul II, from Paul VI to Francis, has shown that it is not exactly stupid in assessing the dynamics of the international scene.

    [End, piece by Marco Politi for Il Fatto Quotidiano (link)]

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