Six months ago, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis had entrusted Italy’s Cardinal Matteo Zuppi with a delicate mission.
The May 20 announcement was thin on details. It said that the pope had given Zuppi — a veteran peacebuilder linked to the Community of Sant’Egidio — “the task of leading a mission, in agreement with the Secretariat of State, to help ease tensions in the conflict in Ukraine.”
In the months that followed, the cardinal — a spindly but dynamic figure with an endearing smile — traveled to what the Vatican sees as the four decision-making centers of the war. He went to Kyiv and Moscow in June, Washington in July, and Beijing in September.
As he clocked up air miles, the president of the Italian bishops’ conference stressed that he was not acting as a mediator between the parties, but rather encouraging humanitarian initiatives that could help to open up pathways to peace.
The goal most frequently cited was the return of the estimated 20,000 children deported from occupied Ukrainian territories following Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague cited the forcible transfers when it issued arrest warrants in March this year for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova.
Zuppi’s globetrotting made headlines, but after he returned from a trip to China, the focus shifted elsewhere and the Russo-Ukraine war dropped down the news agenda following the outbreak of the Israel–Hamas war.
But given that the war in Ukraine continues to be fought with undimmed ferocity, commentators are asking what has become of the pope’s peace effort. Has it stalled, or perhaps even been quietly set aside?
The Italian Catholic website Il Sismografo noted Nov. 13 that Zuppi had been “asked for months for some news about the concrete results of his effort.”
“No answer has ever been given. Everything seems at a standstill. Lots of media visibility. Lots of public relations,” it said.
Franca Giansoldati, Il Messaggero’s Vatican correspondent, wrote in a Nov. 15 article about “the almost zero results of the diplomatic mission” launched by the pope and Zuppi.
So, has the “Zuppi mission” come to nothing?
‘Protect the little ones’
There is certainly no indication that Pope Francis has forgotten about the conflict. The pope has continually highlighted the war in Ukraine, mentioning “martyred Ukraine” at almost every public audience.
He recently baptized a Ukrainian baby at his Vatican residence and he discusses the crisis with a regular flow of visitors. This week, for example, he held talks on the war with Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, the speaker of Lithuania’s parliament.
Meanwhile, a close examination of Zuppi’s activities this month offers some tantalizing hints about activities taking place behind the scenes.
The cardinal began the month at his cathedral in Bologna side by side with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk.
In an address at a celebration of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Divine Liturgy, Zuppi spoke about the urgent need to “protect the little ones” in war.
“It is the task of the mission entrusted to me by Pope Francis that some fruits are beginning to bear for those who need to be reunited with their families,” he said.
While Zuppi did not specify what those fruits were, he urged Catholics in the Bologna archdiocese to think about whether they might be able to receive Ukrainian children affected by the war in their homes.
A few days later, the Spanish Catholic website Omnes published an interview with Shevchuk in which the Ukrainian leader said that he and Zuppi had “talked a lot about the Ukrainian children kidnapped by the Russians, an issue on which, unfortunately, we have not been able to achieve any results so far.”
Zuppi spoke again about Ukraine in a Nov. 13 address at the Italian bishops’ plenary assembly in Assisi.
Recalling that Pope Francis had sent him to the four capitals, the cardinal reflected: “Peace requires the cooperation of all. I saw how there are tenuous threads for peace and the exercise of humanity: tenuous but real, challenged by the absence of dialogue that can, in fact, strengthen them.”
The Il Messaggero article published two days later, which expressed skepticism about the peace mission, ended on an intriguing note. The author said that the newspaper had caught up with Zuppi at a book launch a few days before. Asked about the mission, the cardinal had replied: “Progress is slow, but something is moving.”
What, exactly, is moving? The cardinal seemed to answer that question Nov. 16, when he attended a Rome event marking the 60th anniversary of St. John XXIII’s peace encyclical Pacem in terris.
“The work of the nuncios continues to carry forward the work on the children and on the liberation of the children and hostages,” Zuppi said, according to Vatican News. “We will look for all possible spaces for peace in Ukraine too.”
Again, he did not specify which nuncios he was referring to. But the obvious inference is that he was speaking about Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, and Archbishop Giovanni d’Aniello, the apostolic nuncio to the Russian Federation. His reference to hostages probably referred to the Vatican’s well-established role in the return of hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war captured by Russian forces.
The Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin addressed the state of the peace mission in a Nov. 17 interview with Italy’s Sky TG24 television channel.
Parolin confirmed that Pope Francis was still committed to realizing his wish — frequently expressed at the start of the war but less so in recent months — to visit both Kyiv and Moscow, though he indicated that it was not currently being discussed.
“We have been working and are working, especially through this mechanism that was set up following Cardinal Zuppi's advice, especially on the humanitarian aspects, so on the release of prisoners with the exchange also of the lists that there are of prisoners, and then especially on the return of children,” Parolin said.
“The mechanism has been accepted, it works with some difficulty […] It probably needs to be given momentum again so that it can be more effective.”
The Vatican’s next steps
In light of the recent words and actions of Pope Francis, Cardinal Zuppi, and Cardinal Parolin, it seems that the mission is far from over.
It was always unlikely that the trio would have given up simply because there seems to be no prospect of an end to the war. They appear to be using the pause after Zuppi’s China trip to ponder their next steps.
Both Zuppi and Parolin seem confident that some kind of resolution is possible concerning the Ukrainian children taken to Russia. At the same time, their comments suggest it is difficult to close whatever kind of deal is being proposed out of the media spotlight.
Perhaps the question they are wrestling with is: What moves would actually secure a humanitarian breakthrough?
Does Zuppi need to pack his suitcase again and do another four-city trip? Is the time approaching when the pope himself should travel to the power centers? It’s likely to take a while to weigh up such complex considerations — giving the impression that everything is at a standstill.
Yes, the Vatican’s peace mission has not been accomplished, but it hasn’t been abandoned either.