Papal Engagement With Russia: 5 Historic Moments Where Popes Intervened

NEWS ANALYSIS: From Pope Benedict XV to Pope Francis, the supreme pontiffs have repeatedly sought to build bridges with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Pope Francis and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, embrace during their historic meeting in Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 12, 2016.
Pope Francis and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, embrace during their historic meeting in Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 12, 2016. (photo: Gregorio Borgia / Pool / AFP via Getty Images)

The Catholic Church and Russia were crucially linked at a pivotal moment in the 20th century: On the Blessed Virgin Mary’s third visit to three peasant children near Fatima, Portugal, on July 13, 1917, she evoked the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart. 

The children certainly had no idea, but Russia was, in those very months, suffering a violent takeover by atheist forces. Ever since, the Church has had a particularly heartfelt relationship with a nation that has suffered — and caused suffering.

A brief review of five historic moments when Rome reached out to Moscow helps frame how disappointing the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine is to the Holy See — but not necessarily shocking. 


Benedict XV and the Future Pius XII 

Despite the Bolsheviks’ persecution of both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, Pope Benedict XV raised 5 million lire for food assistance to Russia during the Great Famine (1921-22) — even though Bolshevik policies exacerbated suffering.   

At the same time, Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany in the 1920s, was assigned to negotiate with Soviet leaders because the Holy See had no envoy in Moscow. Vatican diplomats assume that even the worst world leaders might experience a change of heart and see their errors, like all sinners. 

Archbishop Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, met personally with the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs who succeeded Leon Trotsky. Trying to find some room for religious freedom, Archbishop Pacelli continued secret negotiations with the Bolsheviks for several years until Pope Pius XI concluded the situation was hopeless in 1927.  


John XXIII and the Cuban Missile Crisis

President John F. Kennedy reached out to the Holy See at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis through his friend Norman Cousins, editor of the popular Saturday Review magazine. Pope John XXIII quickly penned an appeal for peace to “heads of state,” delivered via Vatican Radio (after first being shared with the Russian embassy in Rome), which is credited with allowing Chairman Nikita Khrushchev a face-saving reason to back away from nuclear catastrophe.   

Khrushchev conveyed his personal thanks to the Pope verbally through Cousins, who visited Moscow and then Rome in December 1962. Cousins told the Soviet leader that the Vatican hoped he could help facilitate the release of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archbishop Josyf Slipyj, jailed for 18 years. Less than two months later, Archbishop Slipyj was freed.  

Although Pope John was dying of cancer, the experience inspired him to draft Pacem in Terris, one of the century’s most important encyclicals. Using Cousins as a messenger again, the Pope even sent an advance copy of the encyclical translated into Russian to Khrushchev. 

Pope John XXIII is­sued Pacem in Terris just two months before he died. It was received eagerly beyond the Church and published in its entirety in secular newspapers around the world, including the Soviet newspapers Izvestia and Pravda

Pope John passed on to his successor, Pope Paul VI, his conviction that the Vatican should engage with communist countries, including Russia. 


Pope John Paul II and Our Lady of Kazan

Even before the Soviet Union fell, Pope John Paul II was eager to strengthen relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. He encouraged Catholic participation in the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Christian Russia in 1988: Nine cardinals (including Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, who was received by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, to whom he handed a letter from John Paul II), 16 Catholic bishops, many clerics and officials from the Roman Curia traveled to Moscow and other cities for 13 days to celebrate with the Orthodox world.

Pope John Paul II was never able to achieve his dream of a personal meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, who took office in 1990. Despite years of negotiations and a variety of trial balloons on location op­tions and meeting configurations floated by the Vatican, a meeting between them was not to be.

For years, John Paul kept on a wall in his private study the Mother of God of Kazan icon, a wonder-working masterpiece stolen by the Bolsheviks from a Russian basilica and sold in the West to a British noble. The aristocrat in turn sold it to the Catholic Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima, which put the icon in a small chapel in Portugal, where it remained during the 1970s and 1980s. 

After the Soviet Union dissolved, Pope John Paul II asked the nuncio in Lisbon to request that the icon be brought to Rome; the spiritual treasure was delivered to him in 1993, and he kept it close, waiting for the moment when he could carry it to Mother Russia by hand.

In 2004, John Paul II decided to entrust the Mother of God to German Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity at the time. The cardinal and a small delegation carried her back to Moscow in August.

In the Kremlin’s Assumption Cathedral, Cardinal Kasper kissed the icon as a sign of veneration and handed it to Patriarch Alexy II, who venerated it, too. Then the men kissed each other three times on alternating cheeks, a sign of respect. Cardinal Kasper handed a letter to Alexy in which the Pope wrote, “Divine Providence made it possible for the people and the church in Russia to recover their freedom and for the wall separating Eastern Europe from Western Europe to fall. … Despite the divisions which sadly still persist between Christians, this sacred icon appears as a symbol of unity.” 


Benedict XVI and Diplomatic Relations

In 2009, a Russian Orthodox leader much respected by Catholic leaders, Metropolitan Kirill, succeeded Alexy as patriarch. Kirill and Pope Benedict XVI share an analysis of some of the risks threatening the West. They believe that Western culture depends on its Christian foundation for the precepts of virtue, which guarantees freedom. 

For these men who lived through totalitarianism, rampant secularism and moral collapse signal a dan­gerous instability that can invite new forms of tyranny. They are also wary of radical Islam and its threat to small Christian populations around the world. 

As cooperation began to flourish under Benedict and Kirill — the Vatican sponsored a “Day of Russian Culture and Spirituality,” and the Orthodox reciprocated by organizing a concert dedicated to the Pontiff — political relations between the Russian Federation and the Holy See gained ground. 

In 2010, for the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia and the Vatican exchanged ambassadors based on full diplomatic recognition. Not only did warmth between the Churches facilitate this agreement, but a cordial meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Pope Benedict paved the way.

The two men met at the Vatican in March 2007, conversing in the Pontiff’s native language. Putin speaks German fluently; he learned it at home and lived in Dresden for several years while working for the KGB, the Soviet Union’s secret police.

Benedict’s fundamental assumptions — that Europe includes Russia and that Christianity is whole only when Catholics and Orthodox collaborate — are shared by Pope Francis and animate his diplomacy.


Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill

At the height of the most recent previous Russian-U.S. standoff, Pope Francis met with Putin in June 2015 at Moscow’s request. Considering the intrac­tability of the conflict in Ukraine, Francis considers dialogue to be a moral requirement. He also supports multilateral engagement to solve international problems.

During their 50 minutes together, Francis told Putin it would take “a sin­cere and great effort” to bring peace to the Ukraine-Russia border and urged him to comply with the Minsk agreements. The Pope also asked for support facilitating humanitarian aid.

Significantly, Putin told the Pontiff he would do what he could to advance collaboration between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church — a pledge that bore fruit very soon.

Eight months later, on Feb. 12, 2016, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill sat together in an airport lounge outside Havana, the first-ever face-to-face meeting of Catholic and Russian Orthodox Church leaders. The event, an­nounced via a joint press release just a week before, was a well-kept secret.

The two signed a 30-point joint declaration, which highlighted a major point of common purpose: the plight of Middle East Christians, together struggling to survive religious extremism. The two leaders appealed to the international community to stop the killing, condemning violence committed in the name of God as against the very nature of God. Their litany of con­cerns included “secularist ideology,” consumerism, the crisis of the family, reproductive technology and euthanasia.

Three points were devoted to the conflict in Ukraine. The holy men deplored ongoing hostility and “invite[d] our Churches to work toward social harmony.”

The declaration disturbed leaders of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) for glossing over Russia’s ongoing military pressure against Ukraine. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk criticized the declaration’s “half-truth nature,” which gave the impression that the Holy See was “indirectly supporting Russian aggression.”

Ukrainian Catholics were wary that the Russians were using Francis to gain legitimacy without taking responsibility for the crisis on the Ukrainian-Russian border — concerns that were well placed, in retrospect.