Ukraine War Anniversary Marks a Very Strange Year in the History of Papal Diplomacy

COMMENTARY: The first year of the war concludes with the Holy Father remaining absent from Ukraine, while President Joe Biden and a parade of other international political leaders were present.

Pope Francis greets children from Ukraine during his weekly general audience at the Paul VI Hall on February 22, 2023 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Pope Francis greets children from Ukraine during his weekly general audience at the Paul VI Hall on February 22, 2023 in Vatican City, Vatican. (photo: Vatican Pool / Getty)

During Monday’s surprise and inspiring visit to Kyiv, President Joe Biden was honored by a plaque on Ukraine’s “Walk of the Brave,” recognizing foreign leaders who have come to Kyiv during the war.

In the year since Russia’s full-scale invasion began on Feb. 24, 2022, Pope Francis has spoken frequently about his desire to visit Kyiv. But he has not gone.

Biden did not speak about visiting, but he went. It was a complicated clandestine operation that included a 10-hour overnight train trip from the Polish border. No U.S. president has ever visited an active war zone without the protective presence of U.S. troops in the theater.

Biden’s bravery and solidarity were praised by Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who told Italian journalists that “the Russian army has literally sentenced us to death,” but that the visits of Biden and many other leaders “gives us hope that this sentence will not be carried out.”

So there is no plaque on the Walk of the Brave for Pope Francis. This is a pity, because the Holy Father is quite brave in his foreign travels. He went to an active war zone in November 2015 in the Central African Republic, including a stop in a part of the city of Bangui controlled by jihadist forces. He went to Iraq in March 2021, during the pandemic, to meet the spiritual head of Shia Islam in a security situation that remained unsettled. In the Philippines in January 2015, the threat was meteorological not martial, but the Holy Father insisted on completing as much of his visit as possible in the face of an impending typhoon.

Yet the first year of the war concludes with the Pope absent from Ukraine, while a parade of presidents and prime ministers were present. Indeed, the day after Biden’s visit to Kyiv, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was also in Ukraine, visiting Bucha, where Russian forces massacred some 500 people.

So why no Pope Francis in Ukraine, when comforting the afflicted is an aspect of his pastoral ministry that touches the hearts of so many?

The answer is clear, but the reason for it is not. And that mystery has been at the heart of what has been a very strange year in the history of papal diplomacy.

It began at the beginning. Immediately upon the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion – furthering the aggression in Crimea which began in 2014 – Pope Francis took the extraordinary step of personally visiting the Russian embassy to the Holy See. Ambassadors exist precisely to be summoned in such cases; Pope Francis chose instead to go as a supplicant, to beg for peace. The Holy Father’s sincere desire to stop the horrors of war was manifest.

That was certainly the inspiration for the worldwide consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on March 25th, 2022.

Yet that initial visit to the Russian embassy also signalled something strange. Pope Francis was determined – even fixated – on meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, convinced that he could somehow persuade them to abandon the war. Hence his reluctance to explicitly condemn Russian aggression in the first half of 2022, and his repeated insistence that, while he desired to visit Kjiv, he would only do so if he could visit Moscow.

Why Pope Francis was so convinced that he could go to Moscow — and made that a prerequisite for visiting Kyiv — is a great mystery. In 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church — under the liberalizing political regime of Mikhail Gorbachev — would not permit Pope St. John Paul II to visit for the millennium of Russian Christianity. There was never a chance that they would change their minds under Putin in the middle of hot war. Nevertheless, for purposes of tormenting Ukraine, Russia dangled the possibility of a meeting with Kirill for months, until he backed out of an interreligious meeting in Kazakhstan where he could have met Pope Francis.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Catholics were publicly grateful for the rhetorical solidarity of the Holy See; in private, they were deeply apprehensive about the continued courting of Kirill, even while Kirill backed Putin’s war. By summer, their patience wore thin; exasperation with Pope Francis came to the fore.

In July, Kyiv’s Latin Catholic bishop openly said that should Pope Francis go to Moscow first, as was his express desire, it would be a “catastrophe.”

In August, the most shocking development in recent papal diplomacy erupted. Enraged by the papal habit of finding reasons to mitigate Russian culpability, the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See ferociously denounced the Holy Father, saying that he was incapable of drawing a moral distinction between the “rapist and the one raped.”

Such an attack on the Holy Father’s moral authority — from a generally friendly country — could not go unanswered. Veteran diplomats waited to see how Rome would respond.

The response came quickly. The Holy See capitulated, abandoning overnight the previous six months of papal positioning. Eagerly seeking to regain lost credibility, papal diplomats denounced Russian aggression in no uncertain terms, including the role of Patriarch Kirill, calling his support for the war “sacrilegious.”

The dramatic reversal permitted the Holy Father to speak more freely about the Russian war against Ukraine in the latter months of 2022, but could not undo the damage of the first six months of equivocation. The always remote possibility of the Vatican acting as a mediator was now fantasy; Pope Francis was not trusted by the Ukrainian government, to say nothing of the historic cool relations with Moscow.

As for visiting, Pope Francis would not be permitted to visit Moscow, and there was no enthusiasm for him to visit Kyiv. Expressions of papal solidarity were welcome, to be sure, but Pope Francis was not considered a stalwart friend. And the time had passed for such a visit to make a significant impact. When the British prime minister had already visited three times, the impact of any papal visit was greatly attenuated.

Now that Biden has walked the Holy Father’s talk, papal diplomacy is even more on the sidelines. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Washington in December and London and Paris earlier this month. One does not expect that Rome is a priority — unless he comes to reciprocate the visit of Italy’s prime minister.