A woman sits with children as evacuees, including civilians who left the area near Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, arrive at a temporary accommodation center in Bezimenne, Ukraine, May 1, 2022. CNS photo/Alexander Ermochenko, Reuters

Vatican is playing a diplomatic ‘long game’

  • May 6, 2022

If Pope Francis hasn’t named and shamed Vladimir Putin as aggressor and instigator of the war in Ukraine, it’s because the Holy See plays a long game in diplomacy, trying to bend the arc of history ever toward peace, the Vatican’s nuncio to Canada, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič told an online academic conference on sustainable development that veered off into a discussion of diplomacy and Ukraine April 26.

“We are in front of a major tragedy,” Jurkovič told an international panel that included Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, former Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See Anne Leahy and Church historian Massimo Faggioli, who attended at the invitation of the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa and the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.

While protesting that he, as a diplomat, should not say anything about the delicate situation in Ukraine, Jurkovič pointed out, “The Pope is very willing to be useful.”

Just days after Pope Francis cancelled planned meetings with Patriarch Kirill in Jerusalem this summer, Jurkovič hinted that Pope Francis still hoped to play a mediating role in the Ukraine conflict.

“It is impossible to see any capacity for being a mediator without the acceptance of both sides,” said the former papal ambassador to Ukraine, who also served in Belarus and the Russian Federation.

Gestures by Pope Francis and the Vatican that emphasize shared suffering of all parties to the war, particularly the 13th station of the cross presented Good Friday at the Colosseum in Rome jointly by a Ukrainian and a Russian woman, have drawn criticism from Ukrainians, with the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk going so far as to call the move “incomprehensible and even insulting.”

“The Vatican and Pope Francis are trying to straddle a fence that may no longer hold their weight,” Fr. Myroslaw Tataryn, emeritus professor of history and Eastern Christianity at Waterloo, Ont.’s St. Jerome’s University, wrote in a blog post.

Pope Francis’ instinct for solidarity, listening, dialogue and closeness to the marginalized just doesn’t fit with Vatican diplomacy, Tataryn argues.

“Diplomacy and politics are about the exercise of power and ‘necessary compromises’ with the powerful,” he wrote. “Has the Church not yet learned the cost of those compromises?”

But Czerny, who was sent as the Pope’s personal envoy to refugees on the Ukrainian-Slovakian border in March, argued there is a role for the Pope.

“Vatican diplomacy is rather different from that of nation-states,” Czerny said.

“Catholicism and its diplomacy are always and everywhere on-target because the heart of the matter, the core message, is the human, the person in society, the people in development.”

Pope Francis’ instructions to Czerny before leaving for Slovakia were, “Do anything to help.”

“The Holy See is willing to do anything, anything,” said Czerny, who has just taken up duties as the prefect for the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

The idea of the Pope playing a role in bringing states together has a precedent in the Cuban Missile Crisis, where Pope John XXIII managed to get U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Union First Secretary Nikita Kruschev talking to end the blockade and remove nuclear missiles from Cuba.

“Pope John used messages as a hook really for Nikita Kruschev actually to come back to him,” said Leahy.

Pope Francis is using a similar tactic by sending Easter greetings to Patriarch Kirill, letting the Russian establishment know the Holy See’s good offices are still there and useful, Leahy said.

“The openings are there. The words chosen are there,” she said.

“The Cuban Missile Crisis is not a great analogy for the situation in Ukraine,” Arthur V. Mauro Institute for Peace & Justice professor Adam Muller told The Catholic Register in an email.

Where Pope John XXIII was the perfect mediator for both the Catholic president of the U.S. and the Catholic population of revolutionary Cuba, the Holy See can only appear to be an interested party acting on behalf of Ukraine’s influential Catholic minority while claiming neutrality.

“Mediating at the leadership level is possible, but I think unlikely since there are already a number of parties either offering to or actually mediating the conflict,” said Muller, citing Turkey. “I don’t know what the Church would bring to the table that would make them preferable as an intermediary.”

Since the loss of the papal states, the Holy See’s role in global diplomacy has changed, argued Czerny. Rather than defending territorial interests, like other countries, the Vatican has only the Gospel to defend — a Gospel of peace, he said.

Faggioli called the war in Ukraine “a major turning point” in the history of Vatican diplomacy.

Only the Vatican can practise diplomacy on behalf of the marginalized and the voiceless, including victims of war, said the Italian Church historian.

“There is a unique Catholic genius in understanding the world. This genius now is particularly important, because it’s the ear to those who don’t have a voice,” said Faggioli.

Leahy pointed to Pope Benedict XVI’s definition of peace in Ecclesia in Medio Oriente as a way of understanding Pope Francis’ diplomatic goals. “Peace means being complete and intact, restored to wholeness. It is the state of those who live in harmony with God and with themselves, with others and with nature,” Benedict wrote in 2012.

“So here we have a Russian aggression going on in Ukraine and no one has mentioned the word ‘peace’ so far,” Leahy told the conference. “That is certainly, I think, as part of the salvation of humankind, the number one objective of the Holy See’s diplomacy — with which every nation should agree.”

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