Pope Francis said Sunday that he has worked on a secret plan for peace between Ukraine and Russia, more than 14 months after Russia’s full-scale invasion again.
But while the prospect of a papal peace deal has received attention in recent days, Ukrainian and Russian government and Church officials say they’re not aware of a pontifical plan.
The Vatican, and the pope, have always maintained that Francis is pushing hard for peace for Ukraine. But after the pope’s comments Sunday, it is not clear whether a papal plan is still rather germinal, or if high-level players haven't themselves been let in on the secret.
And days after the pope’s comments that a secret peace “mission” was underway, he met with a senior Russian Orthodox leader in the Vatican, and a close papal advisor has suggested a breakthrough could be coming.
Returning from his three day apostolic journey to Hungary on Sunday, Pope Francis gave one of his now customary in-flight press conferences, during which he was asked about his willingness to work for the return of the thousands of Ukrainian children who have been deported to Russia by occupying forces.
“I’m available to do anything,” Francis responded. “There’s a mission that’s not public that’s underway; when it’s public I’ll talk about it.”
Those comments sparked a flurry of media interest and speculation about how, exactly, the pope might be working for the repatriation of kidnapped Ukrainian children, and if his comments signaled a forthcoming breakthrough in peace negotiations.
But in the 48 hours following the remarks, both Ukrainian and Russian government officials appeared to pour cold water on the idea.
Russian state media on Tuesday reported that a spokesman for the Kremlin denied knowledge of a Francis-led mission, telling journalists that "nothing is known" by Moscow about a papal peace initiative.
CNN then reported a similar denial out of Kyiv, quoting a source close to the Ukrainian president who said that: “If talks are happening, they are happening without our knowledge or our blessing.”
“President Zelenskyy has not consented to any such discussions on Ukraine's behalf,” the source told CNN.
But on May 3, Francis publicly received the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign envoy in Rome, again sparking questions about Francis’ possible peace plan. Metropolitan Anthony attended the Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
Last week, Francis had met with Anthony’s predecessor, Metropolitan Hilarion, during his trip to Hungary.
While Hilarion has since said that “nothing concerning the bilateral relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church” was discussed at the meeting and “no political issues” were on the table, Francis told journalists on the papal plane Sunday that “You can imagine[…] we didn’t only talk about Little Red Riding Hood, right?”
And, despite Ukrainian and Russian denials of any nascent peace talks, a close papal advisor told an Italian newspaper Wednesday that Francis has been “continuously working for peace for more than eight months.” The advisor predicted a private papal initiative could soon bear fruit.
Stefano Zamagni, former president of the pontifical academy of social sciences and a leading contributor to the pope’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, told Il Fatto Quotidiano that he had helped draft a seven-point peace plan last year, which would see the Holy See convene private, unofficial, peace negotiations.
Zamagni dismissed the recent official denials from Kyiv and Moscow, telling the newspaper Wednesday that it was “no surprise” the governments denied involvement in peace talks which were intended to be informal and unofficial.
The economist claimed the Vatican peace effort is now in the “home stretch” and could come to public fruition “if not within the next few weeks, then within the next three months,” as part of a parallel set of negotiations to those being pursued by the US and Chinese governments with presidents Zalinsky and Putin.
But, Zamagni conceded, any conclusion to the effort would not be “perfect,” and insisted that an “unjust peace” was preferable to a “just war.”
Throughout the current conflict, Francis has attracted criticism from both Ukrainian and Russian representatives over his comments on the conflict and Vatican attempts to avoid overtly siding with one or other country following the invasion.
During Holy Week last year, the Vatican invited Russian and Ukrainian women living in Italy to participate in the Good Friday Way of the Cross celebrated by Pope Francis — with both women holding aloft the cross at the 13th Station of the Cross.
That invitation sparked widespread criticism among Ukrainians and Ukrainian Catholics, who called it a “strange kind of ecumanism” and said it appeared to give moral equivalency to the invaders and the invaded in the current conflict.
At the same time, he has also incurred Moscow’s anger, after he publicly revealed he’d criticized the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in a private video conference, telling him not to be “Putin’s altar boy.”
While Francis has been repeatedly invited to visit Ukraine, both immediately before the Russian invasion began and in the year since, the pope has been clear he would only undertake such a trip if he could visit both Kyiv and Moscow as an emissary of peace.
In October last year, Francis reiterated his willingness to be a broker for a cease fire, using his weekly Angelus address to make a “confident appeal to the President of Ukraine to be open to serious proposals for peace,” while stating that his “appeal is addressed first and foremost to the President of the Russian Federation, imploring him to stop this spiral of violence and death, also for the sake of his own people.”
While striking an increasingly bullish tone on the rights and wrongs of the conflict, calling the Russian invasion “senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious,” and speaking of “the savage actions, the monstrosities” committed by Russian troops, Francis has also said that “it is a mistake to think that this is a cowboy movie where there are good guys and bad guys.”