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Cardinal Zuppi is a man on a mission. But what is the mission?

Doubt and perplexity have surrounded the Vatican’s Ukraine peace mission ever since Pope Francis announced it cryptically during an in-flight press conference.

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, Archbishop of Bologna and president of the Italian bishops' conference. Screenshot from 12Porte YouTube channel.

Speaking on a flight back to Rome from Hungary April 30, the pope repeated that he was “ready to do whatever needs to be done” to end the bloodshed.

“Even now, there is a mission going on, but it is not public yet, we shall see... Once it is public, I will talk about it,” he said.

By then, of course, it was public. Journalists scrambled to discover the details, while Ukrainian and Russian officials scratched their heads. The Vatican’s top diplomat Cardinal Pietro Parolin found himself in the odd position of insisting that the mission existed without being able to explain what it was.

Almost three weeks passed, during which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Pope Francis at the Vatican and said on Italian state television that only his 10-point plan was a viable basis for peace.

Italian Catholic media then appeared to make a breakthrough: Pope Francis was appointing two envoys, the Italian bishops’ conference president Cardinal Matteo Zuppi and the Vatican Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti.  

Zuppi, a veteran peacebuilder closely associated with the Community of Sant’Egidio, would be sent to Kyiv, while Gugerotti, who previously served as apostolic nuncio to Belarus and Ukraine, would be dispatched to Moscow.

Yet Gugerotti, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, quickly distanced himself from the reports.

Just as commentators were wondering if the peace mission was a mirage, the Holy See press office announced that the pope had selected a single peace envoy. And his name was Cardinal Zuppi.


Profile of a peacemaker

It’s not hard to see why Francis chose Zuppi. The 67-year-old Archbishop of Bologna has impressive peacemaking experience. 

He was one of the mediators of the General Peace Agreement for Mozambique, signed in Rome in 1992. The accord ended the Mozambican Civil War, which had raged in the southern African nation since 1977, claiming around 1 million lives. 

The deal, which achieved a high implementation score in the decade that followed, was hard-won. In a 2021 interview, Zuppi recalled that the mediators struggled at first to “understand who the interlocutors were for the different sides.” They then engaged in a delicate two-and-a-half-year negotiation process that ended with the accord.

Zuppi was also involved in talks that brought an end to Guatemala’s 36-year civil war and took part in peace negotiations in Burundi, which suffered a 12-year conflict.

Zuppi’s stance on the Ukraine conflict was likely another reason for his selection. Since the full-scale invasion in February 2022, the cardinal had criticized Russian aggression and recognized Ukraine’s right to self-defense, but also insisted on the need for dialogue in pursuit of peace. 

Nico Spuntoni wrote in the Italian Catholic outlet La Nuova Bussola that this was “a line that Kyiv, while not agreeing with, cannot dispute and that, on the other hand, is not indigestible to Moscow.” 

Perhaps Francis also felt that by opting for an envoy outside the Vatican’s diplomatic apparatus — passing over the obvious candidate, Cardinal Parolin — the mission could enjoy a certain distance from Rome. That might be useful in engaging parties who have misgivings about Holy See diplomacy and also insulate the Vatican, to a degree, in the event of failure.

A twofold mission

But what mission was Zuppi actually being entrusted with? 

The brief statement announcing his appointment said that he had “the task of leading a mission, in agreement with the Secretariat of State, to help ease tensions in the conflict in Ukraine, in the hope, never given up by the Holy Father, that this can initiate paths of peace.”

Although the formulation was vague, it was evident even then that the mission had two parts: To “ease tensions” and  “initiate paths of peace.” What that meant in practice was anybody’s guess. 

But following Zuppi’s two-day visit to Ukraine this week, we have a clearer idea. At the end of the trip — which featured a frenetic program of meetings with civil and religious leaders, as well as a journey to the massacre site of Bucha — the Vatican said that the visit would “undoubtedly be useful to assess the next steps to be taken both on a humanitarian level and in the search for paths to a just and lasting peace.”

The Vatican underlined that the mission had two aims: to “support gestures of humanity that will help ease tensions” and “achieve a just peace.” 

In other words, the mission had a concrete near-term goal and a less clearly defined long-term objective.

The near-term aim is to help secure the return of the estimated 19,500 children that the Ukrainian government believes have been taken to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since the full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. 

The deportees seemed to be the main topic of Zelenskyy’s May 13 meeting with Pope Francis. Zelenskyy likely sees the pope as the person best positioned to secure their return because Francis has successfully enabled prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and Russia. 

The pope spoke about his role in the exchanges during his September trip to Kazakhstan. He recalled receiving a Ukrainian military chief, along with Zelenskyy’s “religious adviser.” 

“This time they brought me a list of more than 300 prisoners. They asked me to do something to make an exchange. I immediately called the Russian ambassador [to the Holy See] to see if something could be done, if an exchange of prisoners could be speeded up,” he said.

Aleksandr Avdeyev, Russia’s then-ambassador to the Holy See, credited Francis in November with helping “hundreds of people to return to their families.”

But securing the children’s return is likely to be more difficult, given that the deportations prompted the International Criminal Court in The Hague to issue an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin in March this year. The Kremlin furiously rejected the warrant — which suggests that Putin may worry that the children’s release would be seen as an admission of wrongdoing and a victory for the court.

The Vatican’s long-term goal is the judiciously phrased “just and lasting peace” in Ukraine. The stress on justice acknowledges Ukrainian fears of being coerced to accept Russian possession of seized territories in return for an end to war. The reference to lasting peace is a nod to predictions that the conflict will become frozen but resume years later with renewed ferocity. 

It’s likely that the Vatican doesn’t have a pinpoint vision of what a just peace would mean for Ukraine, but believes that the warring parties could eventually arrive at it with the help of skilled mediators.

Speaking in Rome June 7, Zuppi said that he had had no chance to update Francis on his Kyiv visit before the pope’s hospitalization, though he met with Cardinal Parolin. 

Zuppi stressed that his mission was “not a mediation.” How could it be, after all, when the war was in full flow along the 600-mile front line? The cardinal said that his task was instead to offer “a manifestation of interest, closeness, and listening so that the conflict finds ways of peace.”

“Everything else is either expectations that we all have, in hoping that the war will end, or speculations,” he said.

The case for pessimism

On June 6, the day that Zuppi met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Kakhovka Dam in southern Ukraine was breached, creating possibly the country’s worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl.

As omens go, it was ominous. 

And if Zuppi was hoping to capture Ukrainians’ imagination during the visit, he would have been left disappointed. The Vatican mission is generating little enthusiasm among Ukraine’s beleaguered population. Disturbingly, around one in 10 Ukrainians believe that the pope is acting in the Kremlin’s interests, while a similar fraction supports his peace stance.

Summing up the feeling in the country, The Pillar’s Anatolii Babynskyi wrote this week that Ukrainians “have little hope in the peace initiatives of the Holy See — and many say their skepticism is because they believe the Vatican lacks understanding of both the causes of the war and Russia’s goals.”

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Matteo Matzuzzi, a Vaticanist working for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio, reported in a June 8 column that there is also discontent in the Vatican’s upper echelons.

Even in Holy See diplomatic circles, he wrote, people were asking why the Vatican had “to seek a role in a game much bigger than itself, where the parties involved (both of them) have made it clear for a year and a half that the pope’s opinion is legitimate but entirely negligible.”

These officials feared that the Holy See was heading into “a cul-de-sac” that would result in “not inconsiderable reputational damage,” he said. 

This mistrust at senior levels, Matzuzzi concluded, showed how delicate the peace mission was. 

In this reading, the mission appears doomed to failure. With little support in Kyiv and Moscow, or even in its own Vatican backyard, it will inevitably collapse, leaving Pope Francis in a similar position to Benedict XV at the end of the First World War: A poignant figure whose frustrated efforts to end the carnage amounted to little more than a historical footnote.

The case for optimism

But it’s possible to see the mission from a different perspective. From this vantage point, it’s remarkable that it is making any headway at all — and that is a reason for cautious hope.

While Zuppi is waiting for the pope to recover sufficiently from surgery to brief him about his Kyiv visit, he has a clear next step in mind: A journey to Moscow.

Russian state media said this week that Putin had “no plans for now” to meet with Zuppi. The “for now” will raise Vatican hopes that its mission is advancing despite the current bleak prospects for peace.

Moscow’s Catholic Archbishop Paolo Pezzi told Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper this week that the Kremlin’s apparent openness to a Zuppi visit was “very important” as it was “by no means a given.”

"Of course now … everything seems to be turning to the worst,” he said. “However, I have learned to look positively at even the smallest signs of despair.” 

“From both Zelenskyy and the Kremlin, I had read very negative statements around possible mediation. And in such a stagnant situation, that the pope’s envoy went to Ukraine and got the OK from the Kremlin to come to Moscow is a sign that in itself should not be underestimated. It is a counter-trend, a sign of open doors.”

If Zuppi can get a just toe in the open doors, the thinking goes, then he may be able to build relationships that could, at some point, become strong enough to move on toward the long-term goal of securing a just and lasting peace.

But even if he succeeds in these critical early stages, no one should expect any far-reaching breakthroughs any time soon. As the cardinal learned in Burundi, Guatemala, and Mozambique, the path to peace is long, onerous, and filled with setbacks. 

Most of the time, peacemakers fail. But if they refuse to give up, they have a chance of one day succeeding — and transforming the lives of millions of people for the better.

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