Pope’s Latest Message on Ukraine Trip Signals Shift in Approach to Russia
Departing from previous statements, the Holy Father has recently emphasized his desire to visit Kyiv, though conditions on the ground and his personal health will be determining factors.
ROME — Before Pope Francis’ last apostolic journey had even gotten underway, he was already being asked about his next one — and whether it would be to war-torn Ukraine.
Traveling to Malta from Rome at the start of April, the Holy Father responded to a question posed by a journalist about a potential trip to Kyiv by saying that “it was on the table,” while avoiding anything more committal.
But more than three months later, a visit to Ukraine and its 4 million Catholics seems to have gone from an unlikely possibility to a papal priority. Recent comments from the Vatican have emphasized the Holy Father’s desire to visit Kyiv — a shift in approach that indicates a changing assessment of the war in Ukraine and the Holy See’s role in the conflict.
No Moscow, No Dice
For months, the line advanced by the Pope has been that a trip to Kyiv must be preceded by a visit to Moscow, the first ever by a pope, in hopes of helping to bring the fighting to an end.
In May, Pope Francis told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he would not go to Kyiv at the time, saying that “first I must go to Moscow. I must meet with Putin.”
In another interview, he insisted that the reason for a visit to Ukraine would be to end the violence there, asking, “What good would it do for the pope to go to Kyiv if the war continued the next day?”
A Change in Course
Yet on both fronts, the Pope seems to have changed his mind.
The Kremlin has denied that preparations for Francis to travel to Moscow are underway, and sources in the Vatican say they are under no illusion that a papal visit to Kyiv will bring the war to a close.
“I see it difficult that a trip by the Holy Father to Kyiv would bring an end to the hostility, to the fighting,” Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin told the Register at an event at the Italian Embassy to the Holy See. “Right now, I don’t think it’s so realistic.”
Still, signs increasingly point to the Pope traveling to the war-torn nation still under attack.
In a recent interview with Univision, the Holy Father said, “If I could not go to Moscow, sooner or later, I will go to Kyiv.”
The Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, confirmed as much, saying that “the Pope will certainly go to Kyiv, but we don’t know how and when.” When asked about whether such a trip could take place in August, he told Italian TV “he would not exclude” the possibility.
Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash, told the Register his government has started working with the Vatican on the possibility of a visit.
“It’s not a political visit,” he noted. “It is a spiritual blessing of the country.”
According to Father Stefano Caprio, a professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and an expert on Russia-Vatican relations, the distinction between a political and spiritual visit is precisely what will allow the Pope to travel to Ukraine.
“At this point, traveling to Russia would be much harder to justify due to the low number of Catholics in the country. The trip would be only political,” Father Caprio told the Register, whereas in Ukraine “he would go to be with his faithful.”
Such a shift could well signal that the Holy Father has exhausted his efforts to realize a trip to Moscow and is now firmly setting his sights on Ukraine.
Father Caprio said that such a possibility is also “strongly correlated” to a planned meeting between Russian Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis to take place at an interreligious congress in Kazakhstan this September.
“There is an agreement in place to meet in a neutral country, but one strongly linked to Russia. This gives the Pope a way to publicly support Ukraine without totally pinning himself against Russia.”
Pope Francis has repeatedly worked to improve relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, in 2016 becoming the first pope to meet with a Russian patriarch. A meeting with Patriarch Kirill on the sidelines of a larger religious conference, therefore, may just be the insurance he needs to pull the trigger on a trip to Ukraine with the possibility of smoothing over any tensions it may provoke with the Russian patriarch face to face in September.
Despite his more than 70 public condemnations of the war since it began (his most recent in Sunday’s Angelus), Pope Francis may be accepting that he cannot stop Russia’s aggression, and his focus appears to be moving toward comforting the “martyrized” people of Ukraine, as he has often referred to them.
The Pope may not bring the miraculous end to the war the world is hoping for, but that does not mean a trip to Ukraine is all for naught.
In a video message, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the leader of some 3.6 million Ukrainian Greek Catholics in communion with Rome, expressed his hope for the trip to happen soon and that it may be a “solemn declaration that Christ and his disciple, the Successor of Peter, stand with the Ukrainian people and are on the side of those suffering in Ukraine because of the war.”
The contingencies that could make such a trip impossible abound, ranging from how the fighting progresses in Ukraine to the status of the Pope’s knee after an imminent trip to Canada that begins this weekend. Given the uncertainty of how mobile the Pope is after his six-day visit to Canada, Archbishop Gallagher told America magazine that he didn’t know how realistic a papal trip to Ukraine next month would be.
“I don’t know. I’m not the pope. I’m not the pope’s doctor.”
But barring any setbacks, the Vatican appears on course to make a papal trip to an active war zone a reality. The world could soon witness scenes of a pope once again preaching of hope amidst rubble, just as Francis did among the ruined Christian churches destroyed by ISIS during his visit to Iraq last March. Only this time, the Holy Father will be much closer to home — on the fringes of Europe.