Pope makes surprise visit to Russian Embassy to the Vatican

The visit came as a surprise as it did not follow typical protocol.

The Vatican press office confirmed that Pope Francis made a visit to the Russian Embassy to the Holy See to express his concern about the fighting in Ukraine on Friday morning.

The Russian Embassy to the Holy See is a short distance outside of Vatican City situated on the road leading into St. Peter's Square, and this was seen by most as a strong personal papal initiative.

Aside from saying the visit lasted just over an hour, the Vatican provided no further information nor distributed any video or photographs. The pope was seen leaving the embassy building seated in the front seat of a small, white car.

MORE: Russia-Ukraine live updates

Ambassador Aleksandr Avdeyev, the Russian diplomat at the embassy, told Russian media that "the pope personally wanted to ask about the situation in Donbas and Ukraine" and expressed his great concern about the humanitarian situation and conditions of the population. He reportedly urged for the care of children, the sick and the people who were suffering.

The pope's surprise and unprecedented visit to the embassy took many Vatican watchers by surprise, as it is normal protocol for ambassadors to come to the Vatican to meet with the pope. However, Pope Francis has in the past dropped in to see people in Vatican offices outside the walls of the tiny state when he has urgent matters he wishes to discuss.

PHOTO: Pope Francis attends his weekly general audience at the Paul VI hall, Feb, 23, 2022 in the Vatican.

On Thursday, Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican's secretary of state, said in a video statement released after the start of Russian military operations in Ukraine that although the tragic scenarios everyone feared were becoming reality "there is still time for goodwill, there is still room for negotiation." He said he hoped those who hold the destiny of the world in their hands would have a "glimmer of conscience."

Commentators have noted that the pope and the Vatican have been careful about publicly criticizing and naming Russia, some say, so as not to antagonize the Russian Orthodox Church.

On Wednesday at the end of his general audience in the Vatican, Pope Francis called on believers and nonbelievers to pray and fast for peace in Ukraine on Ash Wednesday to combat the "diabolical insistence, the diabolical senselessness of violence," saying that "once again the peace of all is threatened by partisan interests."

MORE: Questions about the Ukraine-Russia conflict, answered

He appealed to those with political responsibilities to do a serious examination of conscience before God and urged world leaders to "refrain from any action that would cause even more suffering to the people, destabilizing the coexistence between nations and discrediting international law."

Earlier Friday, the Vatican press office announced the pope would not make his scheduled one-day trip to Florence Sunday and would have to skip the Ash Wednesday ceremony in the Vatican at the start of Lent due to a flare up of knee pain. His doctors have told him he needs a longer period of rest, but that did not seem to stop him making Friday's surprise visit.

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Pope Francis’ secret Ukraine-Russia peace mission, explained

pope will visit russia

There are “new, but of course, confidential” developments in the Holy See’s mission to stop the war between Russia and Ukraine. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, broke the news of the “new” developments when he spoke to journalists at the Lateran University in Rome May 10, but he did not elaborate further. However, he added significantly, “I believe the peace mission will move forward.”

Pope Francis first revealed that a mission aimed at stopping the war between Russia and Ukraine “is underway” on April 30. In the following days, spokespersons for both Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky said their respective sides knew nothing about such a mission. Cardinal Parolin, the pope’s right-hand man, challenged these denials on April 3 and said both sides were informed.

So, what is happening? Is there a peace mission? Why would Kyiv and Moscow deny any knowledge of it? What can we expect to happen next?

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Pope Francis has looked for ways to stop the war. To achieve that goal and serve as a mediator, he has sought to avoid taking sides. Nevertheless, he has stated clearly that Russia is the aggressor and several times a week speaks of “martyred Ukraine.” He has spoken out against the more than 430 days’ war on no less than 120 occasions, in speeches, homilies, press conferences and interviews.  

Pope Francis’ relationship with President Zelensky

Since the war started, Pope Francis has spoken twice by phone (Feb. 26 and March 22) with President Zelensky, whom he had met face to face in the Vatican on Feb. 8, 2020. Moreover, he has received the Ukrainian prime minister and many parliamentarians in private audiences since the Russian invasion and has also met the wives of Ukrainian soldiers whose husbands were prisoners of war, and many refugees, including children.

The Holy See has had a nuncio, an ambassador, in Kyiv, the Lithuanian-born Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, who has been there throughout the war and reports regularly on the situation to the pope and the Vatican.

Francis has had the Vatican engage in humanitarian initiatives during the war. He sent the Polish-born Cardinal Konrad Krajewski on several missions to Ukraine with various forms of humanitarian aid, including ambulances and thermal shirts. Francis has also been involved in the exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine. Delegates from President Zelenskyy have brought the pope lists of names on at least five occasions, and he passed them onto the Russian authorities; many hundreds of prisoners have been released on both sides.

On the eve of his visit to Budapest, April 27, the Ukrainian prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, visited Francis in the Vatican and asked him to facilitate the return of thousands of Ukrainian children forcibly taken to Russia during the war. The pope promised to do everything possible in this regard.

These humanitarian efforts have been like stars in the dark night of war.

Pope Francis’ relationship with Vladimir Putin

Ever since the war started, Pope Francis has tried to make direct contact with President Putin, but so far without success. On the second day of the war, casting aside protocol, Francis visited the Russian embassy to the Holy See and asked the ambassador to convey a message to President Putin, saying he was willing to go to Moscow to speak with him, but the Russian leader has refused to have any direct contact with the pope since he launched the invasion. Instead, he had his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, respond to Francis saying his involvement was “not necessary.”  

A follow-up phone call on the pope’s behalf on March 8, 2022, by Cardinal Parolin to Mr. Lavrov, repeating Francis’ call for a stop to the fighting, was equally unsuccessful. 

Speaking to journalists Sept. 15, 2022, after his visit to Kazakhstan, Pope Francis, responding to criticisms for not calling out Putin, emphasized the need for dialogue, even if it means engaging “with states that have started a war.”

Pope Francis: “I don’t exclude dialogue with any sort of power that is at war, even if it is with the aggressor. It may ​​‘smell,’ but one has to do it."

He said, “I don’t exclude dialogue with any sort of power that is at war, even if it is with the aggressor. It may ​​‘smell,’ but one has to do it. But we must always be one step ahead, with an outstretched hand, always! Otherwise, we close the only reasonable door to peace.”

Returning from Budapest last month, Francis sought to explain his efforts to keep dialogue open. “I believe that peace is always made by opening channels; peace can never be made by closure. I invite everyone to open relationships, channels of friendship. ... This is not easy,” he said. 

He said he had told this to various people, including Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, whom he met in Budapest and who is the only leader of the European Union’s 27 states who is an ally of President Putin. Mr. Orbán refuses to allow arms to be transported to Ukraine across the 85-mile border between the two countries, and claims that he and Francis are the only leaders working for peace.

How Francis communicates with Russia

While Francis has been able to communicate directly and indirectly with President Zelensky since the war started, the same is not true with President Putin, whom he has met face to face three times (2013, 2015, 2019). They last spoke together when Putin phoned to wish him 85th birthday greetings in Dec. 2021. Since then, Francis said, his main line of communication has been through the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Aleksandr Avdeyev. On the flight from Budapest, he said: “I have a good relationship with the ambassador who is now leaving; he has been the ambassador in the Vatican for seven years, he is a great man, a man comme il faut , a serious, cultured, and balanced person. My relationship with the Russians is mainly with this ambassador.”

The pope has communicated with the Kremlin also through Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, who met the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Sept. 22, 2022. 

Moreover, the Vatican has a nuncio in Moscow, the Italian Archbishop Giovanni d’Aniello, who has been there throughout the war and is able to report back to Rome.

Besides the formal diplomatic channels, Francis also tries to make use of non-diplomatic ones to communicate with the Russian leadership, and especially Russian Orthodox church officials, even though most of them, like Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, are subservient to Putin. Only a small number of Orthodox priests have opposed the war and are reportedly now in prison. 

Besides the formal diplomatic channels, Francis also tries to make use of non-diplomatic ones to communicate with the Russian leadership.

On March 16, 2022, Francis had a 40-minute conversation by Zoom with Kirill. An outspoken supporter of the war, the patriarch sought to defend the “special military operation” but Francis called on him to be a pastor, not “the acolyte of the state.” The pope’s remark upset Kirill, according to informed sources; they have not spoken directly to each other since. They were scheduled to have a face-to-face meeting in Jerusalem in June 2021, but Francis canceled that because of the war.

Since their Zoom conversation, Francis has communicated with Kirill through the chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, first Metropolitan Hilarion and, since June 2022, through his successor, Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk. 

Anthony visited the pope in the Vatican on August 5, 2022, and discussed Orthodox-Catholic relations in the context “of political processes taking place in the world.” Soon after, he let it be known that Kirill would not attend the Congress of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan (Sept. 13-15) where Francis was scheduled to speak and where some had expected the patriarch and pope to have a face-to-face meeting. 

On the plane from Budapest, Francis affirmed that the meeting with the patriarch “will happen” but gave no indication as to when that might be. Vatican sources, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak, told America that Francis is unlikely to meet Kirill until the war has ended.

Vatican sources, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak, told America that Francis is unlikely to meet Kirill until the war has ended.

In Budapest, Pope Francis received Metropolitan Hilarion in a 20-minute private audience. Hilarion had been Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate from 2009 to 2022 when he was demoted and reassigned to Budapest in June 2022, allegedly for his opposition to the war. Hilarion was succeeded by Antony. Francis has known Hilarion since 2013, they have met many times and on the plane he said: “Hilarion is someone I respect very much, and we have always had a good relationship. And he was kind enough to come and see me [in Budapest], then he came to the Mass, and I saw him here at the airport as well. Hilarion is an intelligent person with whom one can talk, and these relationships need to be maintained, because if we talk about ecumenism—I like this, I don't like this—we must have an outstretched hand with everyone, even receive their hand.” 

Asked if he had talked about peace with Orbán and Hilarion, Francis said, in the meeting “We talked about all these things. We talked about this because everyone is interested in the road to peace. I am willing. I am willing to do whatever needs to be done. Also, there is a mission going on now, but it is not public yet. Let's see how....When it is public I will talk about it.”

Hilarion’s position is delicate, and in response to speculation in the media, he made clear on his website portal “there was nothing [at the meeting with Francis] concerning bilateral relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. No political issues were discussed. The meeting was of a personal nature between two old friends.”

After Francis’ return to the Vatican, Metropolitan Anthony arrived in Rome (May 1-4) “with Patriarch Kirill’s blessing.” His visit, however, was for private business that was in no way related to the pope’s peace mission, Vatican sources told America . He met Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, prefect of the Dicastery for the Oriental Churches, and greeted Pope Francis for a few minutes at the end of the Wednesday public audience in St. Peter’s Square. He also visited Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Christian Unity, whom he has known for many years, but did not meet Cardinal Kurt Koch, the prefect of the dicastery, who was in Israel at that time.

Anthony’s presence in Rome and his greeting the pope sparked inevitable speculation in the media that it was linked to the peace mission, but Cardinal Parolin categorically denied this on the day of the audience saying, “It had nothing to do with this!”

Russia and Ukraine knew about Francis’ peace initiative

At the same time, Cardinal Parolin expressed surprise that spokespersons for the presidents of Ukraine and Russia claimed ignorance of the pope’s peace mission. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters May 2 that Moscow had no information about the initiative. CNN reported that an unnamed Ukrainian official close to the presidential office said: “President Zelensky has not consented to any such discussions on Ukraine’s behalf. If talks are happening, they are happening without our knowledge or our blessing.”

”I know that both parties have been informed,” Cardinal Parolin said May 3 , “to my knowledge, they were and are aware.” He added, “As far as I know, they know.”

The cardinal’s next remark, however, appeared to suggest that the pope’s first aim is to get both sides to agree to a ceasefire, before the peace process could start. ”I don't know if there are the conditions today for a ceasefire. Let's hope.... I believe that this initiative—if there will be one—by the Vatican should also go in that direction,” the cardinal said. Vatican Media reported that the cardinal went on to add that the hope is that a cessation of fighting might take place and that a peace process could follow.

On May 4, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, quoted by RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, offered a more nuanced response to his original denial: “We know that the Pope is constantly thinking about peace and how to end this conflict, but we are not aware of any detailed plan proposed by the Vatican.” 

“While Putin is not open to direct communication with the pope right now, the calculation here is that he may be more ready for this in some months’ if the war is not going his way.”

That both Russia and Ukraine would issue denials of a peace mission is to a certain degree comprehensible, as neither side wants to stop fighting at this moment. Ukraine wants to regain its lost territory before considering a peace plan and is about to launch a major military offensive to achieve that goal. Russia, for its part, wants to defend all the territory it has taken since 2014 and, if possible, make further gains. To say one is ready to discuss a ceasefire, much less a peace plan, would be equivalent to a sign of weakness on the Ukrainian part and would leave Russia in a stronger position since it holds Ukrainian territory. The Russians, too, do not want a ceasefire; they need to make further gains if they are to consolidate what they have already captured.

Sources told America that Francis wants to bring about a ceasefire as soon as possible, to stop the killing and destruction, before moving into the more problematic area of peace negotiations. One Vatican source said, “While Putin is not open to direct communication with the pope right now, the calculation here is that he may be more ready for this in some months if the war is not going his way.”

Some in Rome think Pope Francis may have in mind the all-out effort made by John Paul II in 2003 to prevent the war in Iraq. That year, the Polish pope sent the French Cardinal Roger Etchegeray to Baghdad to speak with Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader received him on February 15 and engaged in a conversation that appeared to offer a glimmer of hope for a last-minute way out of the crisis. Two weeks later, John Paul II dispatched the Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, a friend of the Bush family, to Washington, D.C., to speak with President George W. Bush. When they met in the Oval Office on March 5, the cardinal handed Mr. Bush a personal letter from the pope, but the president put it on the table without opening it and went on to inform the cardinal that he believed he was “doing God’s will” by launching the war. President Bush’s mind was closed to mediation, and the negative consequences of his decision are still with us today, as Francis saw when he visited the country March 5-8, 2021.  

The situation facing Francis is, of course, totally different from the one that faced John Paul II 20 years ago. President Putin has already launched the war and today, more than 430 days later, shows no intention of ending it. Nor does he show any sign of being open to a ceasefire proposal from Francis any more than President Bush was to John Paul II’s effort to prevent the war. 

Pope Francis believes in the power of prayer, knowing that nothing is impossible for God. He believes “it is not impossible” for him to get to Moscow, as he told La Nación on March 10. He knows it is a steep, uphill task to get both sides to agree to a ceasefire, but he feels it is his moral duty to try, and also to seek to engage other heads of state and of international organizations in this effort.

pope will visit russia

Gerard O’Connell is America ’s Vatican correspondent and author of The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Story of the Conclave That Changed History . He has been covering the Vatican since 1985.

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Vatican defends pope's praise of 'great' Russian Empire after fury in Ukraine

Pope Francis at The Vatican, on Jan. 24, 2023.

The Vatican sought to defend Pope Francis on Tuesday after he sparked fury in Ukraine by praising Russia's imperial rulers — a history President Vladimir Putin has invoked to justify his ongoing war.

The Kremlin delighted in the controversy, which stemmed from comments the pontiff made to a group of young Russian Catholics urging them to see themselves as the heirs of a "great" empire.

"Don’t forget your heritage. You are the descendants of great Russia: the great Russia of saints, rulers, the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire — educated, great culture and great humanity," he told them in St. Petersburg by live video Friday.

"Never give up on this heritage. You are descendants of the great Mother Russia, step forward with it. And thank you — thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian."

The pope gave a prepared speech to the event in his native Spanish before switching to Italian for this unscripted aside. The online transcript of the speech does not include these comments, video of which was shared widely online over the weekend.

The pope was strongly criticized by Ukrainian leaders, who said he was repeating Russian nationalist talking points that are used to justify the Kremlin's war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has compared himself to the expansionist Peter the Great and spoken of Ukraine being part of a historic, greater Russia.

"It is precisely with such imperialist propaganda, the 'spiritual ties' and the 'need' to save 'great Mother Russia' that the Kremlin justifies the killing of thousands of Ukrainians and the destruction of Ukrainian cities and villages," Oleg Nikolenko, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, said on Facebook.

The head of Ukraine's Eastern Rite Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said in a statement that the pope's words had caused "great pain and worry" and feared they could "inspire the neo-colonial ambitions of the aggressor country."

Amid growing pressure, the Vatican said Tuesday that it was “clear” from the context of the pontiff’s comments that they were not designed to praise Russian imperialism.

“The Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote what is positive in Russia’s great cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to extol imperialistic logics and governmental personalities, cited to point to certain historical periods of reference,” spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement.

The pope has repeatedly criticized Russia's actions in Ukraine, describing the invaded country as "martyred" while calling for peace throughout the war.

But Francis' latest intervention was warmly received in the Kremlin.

"It is admirable that the pontiff knows Russian history," Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in his daily press briefing Tuesday.

"It is deep and the legacy is very old, not restricted to Peter I. The entire society and schools work hard to hand over this to young people. The pontiff going along with this effort is really good and makes us glad," he said.

Putin has frequently mentioned Russia's long imperial past in speeches and essays, often in an attempt to justify his contemporary foreign policy goals.

Portrait Of Emperor Peter I The Great (1672-1725)

In June last year, Putin compared himself to the 18th-century tsar, Peter the Great, who expanded his nation's borders by seizing Swedish land and several Baltic states, establishing Russia as a major European empire.

Drawing a parallel to his war in Ukraine, Putin said Peter did not take territories from Sweden and others but "returned" them to their natural place in the wider Russian Empire.

Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great, annexed Crimea in 1783.

Days before his forces annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, Putin told an audience that "Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities," arguing that Russia and Ukraine were historically inseparable.

He returned to this theme in a lengthy article prior to his full-scale invasion in 2021, declaring that "Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe."

Ukrainians and many Western analysts have rejected this reading of history.

Olivia Durand, an expert in Russian colonial history and a visiting fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin, told NBC News it was "regrettable" that the pope was repeating the language of great Russian chauvinism, a religious ideology with strong imperialist overtones which saw Moscow as the protector of the "true" Orthodox faith after the fall of the previous centers of Christianity.

"This speech is understandably an upsetting one for people in Ukraine and beyond — it feels tone deaf and unaware of the deeper history of religious politicization ... during the successive ages of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the USSR and today’s Russian Federation," she said.

pope will visit russia

Patrick Smith is a London-based editor and reporter for NBC News Digital.

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Pope Francis ready to visit Ukraine and Russia

German Press Agency

ROME – Pope Francis says he is willing to travel to Ukraine, which is under attack from Russia, but only on the condition that he can also travel to Moscow.

“I will go to both places or to neither,” the head of the Catholic Church said in an interview with Saturday’s edition of the Argentinian newspaper La Nacion.

The war in Ukraine could only be ended through dialogue and concrete peace initiatives, he said. The pontiff, 86, was already considering a trip to the countries last summer. At that time he also said he would like to visit Kyiv and Moscow.

The Vatican has long sought to play a mediating role in the conflict – in this context, he spoke to La Nacion of the “desire to serve peace.” In the interview, Francis reported how he had asked Russian leaders whether he could travel to Moscow on the second day after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, he said, had declined with thanks at the time.

The pontiff reiterated his dismay at the war: “The war hurts me, that’s what I want to say. The war hurts me.”

In his public appearances and audiences, he regularly speaks of the suffering of Ukrainians. For diplomatic reasons, he does not mention Russia by name.

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Secret ‘Mission’ for Peace in Ukraine May Show Limits of Pope’s Influence

Since Francis made cryptic reference to a Vatican peace effort, the suggestion has elicited denial or bewilderment by war’s protagonists.

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By Jason Horowitz

ROME — A secret mission revealed days ago by Pope Francis to bring peace between Russia and Ukraine is so secret that Russia and Ukraine claim to know nothing about it.

The Kremlin said on Tuesday that it had no idea what the pope was talking about. “Ukraine doesn’t know about it,” Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash , said in an interview Wednesday, adding that he had scheduled a meeting for Thursday with the pope’s foreign minister. “I will for sure ask him what it is.”

Later Wednesday evening, the pope’s second-in-command and chief diplomat, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told reporters, “to my knowledge, they were and are aware” of the peace plan, saying that the denial by the governments “surprises me.”

The apparent bewilderment of the war’s parties, and confusion around the existence of a plan contributed to the sense that the pope’s influence as a geopolitical player and peacemaker — already chastened in countries like Cuba, South Sudan and Myanmar — did not extend to Ukraine.

Some supporters of Ukraine worry that in his eagerness to play a constructive role, Francis may be reducing himself to a pawn for the likes of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia or the Russian Orthodox Church, which has sought to give religious legitimacy to the invasion .

During a visit to Budapest last weekend, Francis met privately with Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who has been a frequent defender of Russia, and a top Russian Orthodox Church prelate in Hungary, Metropolitan Hilarion. On the plane home, Francis was asked by journalists whether he thought the two men could accelerate the peace process or facilitate a meeting between Francis and Mr. Putin.

Francis answered with a cryptic reference to “a mission going on now, but it is not public yet” to bring peace, adding “when it is public I will talk about it.”

Asked about the comments, the office of Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the foreign minister, responded that since the “matter is under consideration,” it could not provide information for now, “but will do so in the near future.”

But what little is actually known about that effort has drawn either denial (the metropolitan on Wednesday said he had no conversation about a peace plan with Francis), bafflement or deep skepticism from informed observers.

“The pope is out of the picture,” said Lucio Carraciolo, the editor of the leading Italian foreign affairs journal Limes. In December, he organized an event at the Italian Embassy to the Holy See featuring Cardinal Parolin, who called for a “ European peace conference ” to help end the war.

“How can a Catholic pope be a mediator in an Orthodox environment?” Mr. Carraciolo said, adding that with Francis, the church “has no relevance in this kind of war.”

Still, the Vatican has actively tried to engage with both sides, working on prisoner releases and promising the Ukrainians that it would do what it could to help return children taken by Russia . One former Vatican official on Wednesday told the Italian press about a seven-point plan for a peace process that included getting major stakeholders around a table mediated by the Vatican.

Mr. Yurash, the Ukrainian ambassador, said the Vatican has consistently expressed a desire to be involved in an eventual peace negotiation, and that to do that, its officials told him, it had to keep open “bridges” and “lines” to Russia.

But he noted that the Kremlin had repeatedly stymied Vatican overtures for a papal meeting with Mr. Putin, which Francis has repeatedly said would be a prerequisite for a meeting with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Mr. Yurash argued the Russian Orthodox Church was trying to gain “legitimacy” through its relationship with the Vatican for “obvious aims of Russian propaganda.”

“It’s not absolutely clear for my side why the Holy See is always trying to still continue this very special relation with the Russian church and the Russian state,” he said, adding that the Ukrainian people, already suffering under an invasion, “cannot understand” the pope’s positioning.

Francis has repeatedly recalled that on the first day of the war he called Mr. Zelensky, and then, to make what he has called a “clear gesture” of his openness to talk, visited Aleksandr Avdeyev, the Russian ambassador to the Holy See.

On the flight back from Budapest he called Mr. Avdeyev “a great man, a man comme il faut, a serious, cultured and balanced person.”

Mr. Avdeyev did not return a request for comment.

Francis’ openness to dialogue has also, especially in the beginning of the war, drawn criticism for assuming a neutrality that critics considered morally questionable in the face of clear Russian aggression.

The pope’s early reluctance to name Russia as the aggressor eventually led to criticism from Ukraine and warnings that he was in danger of ending up on the wrong side of history, with historians invoking Pius XII, who stayed essentially silent about Hitler’s Holocaust.

In May 2022, Francis wondered in an interview with the Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper, whether “NATO barking at Russia’s doors” may have “facilitated” anger from the Kremlin that led to the invasion.

But in the same interview, he seemed to damage his status as an honest broker when he said he had pointed out to Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church, who he spent years courting to mend a split between the Western and Eastern churches going back to 1054, “the patriarch cannot be transformed into Putin’s altar boy.”

After eventually condemning Russia as the aggressor, Francis has since compared Russia’s behavior to massacres under Stalin and has consistently supported Ukrainians and called attention to their plight.

But Mr. Carraciolo said, the pope’s differing views could charitably be characterized as a “puzzle” that generated confusion and effectively disqualified the pontiff as a potential interlocutor.

Revealing an effort after meeting with players closer to the Russian side in Budapest was “not smart,” he said, also adding, “if it’s secret, you have to keep it secret.”

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has thrown himself into real conflicts in the hopes of having a real, and not just moral, impact on the world stage. But after early success in playing a role in a historic diplomatic breakthrough between Cuba and the United States in 2015, his efforts have rarely borne fruit.

Cuba, where he has sent an envoy to secure the release of political prisoners, has not freed them. In 2019, he knelt in the Vatican and kissed the feet of the warring leaders of South Sudan, imploring them to stop a yearslong civil war. But in February, he upbraided the leaders in the country’s capital, Juba, for slipping back into violence.

Flavio Lotti, who organizes a yearly peace march from Perugia to Assisi, said that the pope’s strong voice on issues of peace, disarmament and support for migrants, “makes Francis unique, but doesn’t make him stronger.”

Still, Mr. Lotti said Francis served as an important “lighthouse” for everyone who seeks to put “the conditions of real people also at the heart of geopolitical problems. It’s in the trying.”

While even some supporters of Francis worry he risks coming off as geopolitically impotent if no plan materializes or gets traction, it is clear for now that the pope had again become a center of attention. Mr. Yurash said he had received a barrage of calls from fellow ambassadors to the Vatican, including from the United States, asking what he knew.

As the ambassador showed pictures in his office of himself with Francis and Cardinal Parolin and pointed out a stuffed animal, shredded in a Russian attack, that he hoped to give to the pope as a reminder of the suffering of the country’s children, his phone rang.

“The Polish ambassador,” he said, excusing himself. “Everybody is calling me.”

Jason Horowitz is the Rome bureau chief, covering Italy, the Vatican, Greece and other parts of Southern Europe. He previously covered the 2016 presidential campaign, the Obama administration and Congress, with an emphasis on political profiles and features. More about Jason Horowitz

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Pope Francis again draws criticism with remarks on Russia as Ukraine war rages

By Anna Matranga

August 29, 2023 / 7:58 AM EDT / CBS News

Rome — Pope Francis has again waded into controversy with remarks about Russia amid President Vladimir Putin's ongoing war in Ukraine . The pontiff drew condemnation with remarks delivered to a gathering of Russian Catholic youth on August 25, whom he urged to be proud of their heritage.

During a video conference with approximately 400 youth in St. Petersburg, Francis urged the youngsters not to "forget your heritage."

"You are heirs of the great Russia — the great Russia of saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine II, the great, enlightened Russian Empire of so much culture, of so much humanity," he said. "Never give up this heritage."

Francis made the remarks spontaneously at the end of an hourlong video address in which he urged the young Russians to work toward peace.

Vatican Pool Images 2023

"I wish you, young Russians, the vocation to be artisans of peace in the midst of so many conflicts, in the midst of so much polarization on all sides, which plague our world. I invite you to be sowers, to sow seeds of reconciliation, little seeds that in this winter of war will not sprout in the frozen ground for the time being, but will blossom in a future spring," he said. 

The pope's praise of Russia's imperialist history quickly drew criticism from Ukraine and elsewhere. 

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said in a statement that Francis' words exalting Peter the Great and Catherine II (better known as Catherine the Great) had caused "great pain and apprehension."  

Saying the pope's remarks had referred to "the worst example of extreme Russian imperialism and nationalism," Shevchuk added: "We fear that these words will be understood by some as an encouragement of this nationalism and imperialism which is the real cause of the war in Ukraine."

Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's Foreign Ministry, said in a social media post that it was "very unfortunate that Russian grand-state ideas, which, in fact, are the cause of Russia's chronic aggression, knowingly or unknowingly, come from the pope's mouth, whose mission, in our understanding, is precisely to open the eyes of Russian youth to the disastrous course of the current Russian leadership."

Putin often alludes to Russia's imperial history to justify his invasion of Ukraine, and last year he compared himself to Peter the Great, who expanded the Russian empire by annexing several countries.

On Tuesday, the Vatican issued a statement clarifying the pope's comments, saying it was "clear from the context in which he pronounced them, the pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote what is positive in the great Russian cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logics and government personalities, cited to indicate some historical periods of reference."

Meanwhile, at the Kremlin, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday called Francis' words "very gratifying." 

"The pontiff knows Russian history and this is very good," he said. "It has deep roots, and our heritage is not limited to Peter (the Great) or Catherine, it is much more ancient."

At virtually all of his public appearances since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 2022, Francis has consistently condemned Moscow's actions as morally unjust, barbaric, repugnant and sacrilegious. But he  also suggested  last year that NATO expansion could have provoked Russia's invasion, echoing another justification put forth from early on by the Kremlin.   

In an effort to help mediate an end to the conflict, the pope appointed Cardinal Matteo Zuppi as his personal peace envoy this year. Zuppi has already travelled on the pope's behalf to Kyiv, Moscow and Washington.

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Pope: peace between Russia and Ukraine is possible, don’t forget the poor

By Lisa Zengarini

Peace between Russia and Ukraine “is still possible” and the Holy See is willing do everything it can to put an end to the armed conflict. Pope Francis reiterated this hope in a wide-ranging interview granted to Domenico Agasso of the Italian newspaper 'La Stampa' in which he also  speaks about his upcoming visit to Asti, in the Piedmont Region, and reflects on his nearly ten-year pontificate.

The absurdity of war

In the interview published on Friday, Pope Francis insists on the absurdity of war, noting that humanity has not learned the lessons of the previous two World Wars. “Knowing that behind all these tragedies there are hunger for power and arms trafficking raises anger and sadness”, he said.

“Three world wars in one century! And we won’t learn!”

The Holy See's efforts for a lasting peace

Asked about the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts to bring about a ceasefire and peace negotiations, Pope Francis said the Holy See constantly follows the situation and “is willing to do everything possible to mediate and put an end to the conflict", while it continues to offer humanitarian relief to suffering Ukrainians and support to prisoners of war.

The Pope said he has not given up hope on a lasting peace and reconciliation between Moscow and Kyiv. However, he stressed  “everyone must commit themselves to demilitarize their hearts, starting from their own, and then to defuse and disarm violence”.

“We must all be pacifists, wanting peace, not just a truce that maybe only serves to rearm, but a true peace, which is the fruit of dialogue. Peace is not achieved with weapons, because they don't defeat hatred and the thirst for domination, which will re-emerge, perhaps in other ways.”

The dangers of nationalism

Referring to the global phenomenon of resurging nationalism and populism, Pope Francis also warned again on the dangers of all "-isms", because, he said “they hypocritically sow social and political wickedness". 

The visit to Asti

In the interview, the Holy Father  also spoke about his upcoming visit to the city of Asti, in Northern Italy, where his parents came from. During the visit, which will take place from 19-20 November, he will meet up privately with his relatives for the occasion of his cousin’s 90th birthday, and will celebrate Mass for the diocesan community.

The Pope said he is still very close to his family of origin and has strong affective ties with Piedmont, thanks to his grandmother Rosa, who also taught him poems of local poet Nino Costa in the Piedmontese dialect, which he still cherishes.

Family roots

In this regard he once again emphasized the importance of family roots, saying they are fundamental both from a cultural and a familiar point of view. As he has repeated on many occasions, the Pope insisted that young people should always talk to their grandparents as much as possible

“It is essential to keep the relationship with our roots alive, for our cultural and social growth, and also for the development of our personality”

Pope Francis also repeated that young people should continue to dream, even in the face of a gloomy and uncertain future like today .

Addressing the "scandal" of hunger

Asked about his favourite Piedmontese dish, Pope Francis also highlighted the urgent need to  address the “scandal” of hunger, affecting millions of people and children across the world: “This – he said - must be a priority for everyone: for those lucky enough to have food in their daily lives must not waste it by teaching it to children as well; and the international community that is called to work to truly eliminate hunger which is a disgrace as well as a crime".

I have always been happy in the places where the Lord has sent me

Pope Francis was further asked about his thoughts on his pontificate as he approaches  the tenth anniversary of his election in 2023. “Thanks to my vocation, I have always been happy in the places where the Lord has placed and sent me”, he answered. “But not because ‘I won something’, I won nothing... this is a service, and the Church asked me for it”.

The Holy Father further highlighted  the importance for him of the Ignatian practice of daily examination of conscience, which helps us understand our good and bad deeds, and of listening to people, especially the "little ones": children, the elderly and the poor.

As he approaches his 86th birthday in December, Pope Francis said that at his age he “feels tranquility, great peace, genuine joy, and religiosity.” On a personal note, he said he finds God in prayer, in celebrating the Eucharist and in all the people he meets.

Not forgetting the poor

During the interview Pope Francis was also asked about the upcoming official visit to the Vatican of the new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the first female PM of Italy. While reiterating that he doesn’t interfere in specific Italian political issues, and that the new government was voted by the people, the Pope said he asks leaders of all countries not to forget the poor.  

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The pope and 100 comedians walk into a room: Watch Pope Francis as he meets Colbert, Conan, Whoopi and more

Pope Francis hosted an audience at the Vatican on Friday celebrating the importance of humor. The pontiff welcomed more than 100 comedians, including Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien. (June 14)

Chris Rock, left, and Conan O'Brien arrive for an audience with Pope Francis in the Clementine Hall at The Vatican, Friday, June 14, 2024. Pope Francis is meeting with over 100 comedians from 15 countries aiming to establish a link between the Catholic Church and comic artists. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Chris Rock, left, and Conan O’Brien arrive for an audience with Pope Francis in the Clementine Hall at The Vatican, Friday, June 14, 2024. Pope Francis is meeting with over 100 comedians from 15 countries aiming to establish a link between the Catholic Church and comic artists. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

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CAPTION CORRECTS LOCATION Whoopi Goldberg, centre, arrives for an audience with Pope Francis in the Clementine Hall at The Vatican, Friday, June 14, 2024. Pope Francis is meeting with over 100 comedians from 15 countries aiming to establish a link between the Catholic Church and comic artists. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

CAPTION CORRECTS LOCATION Whoopi Goldberg is interviewed after an audience with Pope Francis in Clementine Hall, at The Vatican, Friday, June 14, 2024. Pope Francis is meeting with over 100 comedians from 15 countries aiming to establish a link between the Catholic Church and comic artists. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

CAPTION CORRECTS LOCATION Stephen Colbert is interviewed after an audience with Pope Francis in Clementine Hall at The Vatican, Friday, June 14, 2024. Pope Francis is meeting with over 100 comedians from 15 countries aiming to establish a link between the Catholic Church and comic artists. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

CAPTION CORRECTS LOCATION Conan O’Brien is interviewed after an audience with Pope Francis in Clementine Hall at The Vatican, Friday, June 14, 2024. Pope Francis is meeting with over 100 comedians from 15 countries aiming to establish a link between the Catholic Church and comic artists. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

CAPTION CORRECTS LOCATION Whoopi Goldberg, centre, leaves after an audience with Pope Francis in Clementine Hall, at The Vatican, Friday, June 14, 2024. Pope Francis is meeting with over 100 comedians from 15 countries aiming to establish a link between the Catholic Church and comic artists. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Before flying to Italy’s southern Puglia region to meet world leaders at the Group of Seven summit, Pope Francis hosted a very different audience at the Vatican on Friday celebrating the importance of humor.

The pontiff welcomed more than 100 comedians from 15 nations, including U.S. celebrities Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien.

“In the midst of so much gloomy news, immersed as we are in many social and even personal emergencies, you have the power to spread peace and smiles,” Francis told the comedians.

“You unite people, because laughter is contagious,” he continued, asking jokingly, “Please pray for me: for, not against!”

Francis pointed out that in the creation, “Divine wisdom practiced your art for the benefit of none other than God himself, the first spectator in history,” with God delighting in the works that he had made.

“Remember this,” he added. “When you manage to bring intelligent smiles to the lips of even a single spectator, you also make God smile.”

Francis also said it was OK to “laugh at God” in the same way “we play and joke with the people we love.”

FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks March 3, 2015, before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate are wrestling with whether to attend Netanyahu's address to Congress on July 24, 2024. Many are torn between their long-standing support for Israel and their anguish about the way Netanyahu's government has waged war in Gaza. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

After delivering his speech, Francis greeted all the comedians individually, sharing laughs and jokes with some of them.

“It was great, it was very fast and really loving, and made me happy,” Goldberg said afterward.

O’Brien noted that the pope “spoke in Italian, so I’m not quite sure what was said.”

“To be in that room and to be with all my fellow comedians, some of whom I’ve been good friends with for many years, in that environment, was quite strange,” the TV host added. “All of us were thinking, how did this happen? Why are we here, and when are they going to throw us out?”

Colbert admitted his Italian “is really bad, I would like to speak it better.” But he managed to remind the pope that he had done the audiobook for his memoir.

“It was wonderful, he’ll never forget me,” he joked.

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Readout of President   Biden’s Meeting with His Holiness Pope   Francis

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. met with His Holiness Pope Francis today on the margins of the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Apulia, Italy.  The leaders emphasized the urgent need for an immediate ceasefire and a hostage deal to get the hostages home and address the critical humanitarian crisis in Gaza. President Biden thanked Pope Francis for the Vatican’s work to address the humanitarian impacts of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, including his efforts to help return kidnapped Ukrainian children to their families. President Biden also reaffirmed his deep appreciation for the Pope’s tireless advocacy for the poor and those suffering from persecution, the effects of climate change, and conflict around the world.

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