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Cardinal Matteo Zuppi’s visit to Moscow last month attracted more public and media attention in Ukraine than his early June visit to Kyiv. 

The mission was supposed to be aimed at securing peace in Ukraine, which saw a full-scale invasion of Russia last year, and has since fought to repel the invaders.

Papal envoy Cardinal Zuppi visits Ukraine
Cardinal Matteo Zuppi meets with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Credit: Vatican Media.

But Ukrainians have been cautious — and even skeptical — about the mission announced by the Vatican, believing that the Holy See did not understand the nature and actual causes of Russian aggression against Ukraine well enough. 

Equally worrisome was the lack of clarity about what proposals the Vatican envoy would bring to the governments of both countries. And many Ukrainians express concern that the approach of the Sant'Egidio movement has influenced the Vatican’s approach to peace.  


When he visited Ukraine in early June, Cardinal Zuppi met with the country’s top leadership in a series of high-level meetings. 

But in Moscow, the cardinal was greeted by Yuri Ushakov, a little-known aide to the Russian president for foreign policy. 

During his time in Russia, the Vatican envoy did meet Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and the Russian President's Commissioner for Children's Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. 

In March 2023, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Lvova-Belova, suspecting her involvement in the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. In Ukraine, she is seen as part of the problem, not the solution, and photos of Cardinal Zuppi and Mrs. Lvova-Belova smiling and shaking hands caused outrage in Ukrainian society.

Zuppi’s trip in Russia ended two weeks ago. But Ukrainians continue to discuss its significance for the return of Ukrainian children taken to Russia, and for the prospects for ending the war in general. 

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Some Ukrainians characterize Cardinal Zuppi's visit as a “lesser evil” to maintain contact with Moscow and hope it can contribute to the return of Ukrainian children to their homeland. 

But many Ukrainians are critical about the involvement of the Sant'Egidio community in diplomatic contacts between the Holy See and Russia. 

The Sant'Egidio movement, a Catholic association of the faithful, is the spiritual home of Cardinal Zuppi, and some Ukrainians say the group’s Italian leaders have downplayed Russian aggression in its efforts to make peace, regardless of a just outcome to the war.

Although the Ukrainian branch, along with many other Catholic charitable organizations, has been working on the humanitarian front in Ukraine since the first days of the war, there has been criticism in Ukraine of the community’s Italian leaders. 

Irena Sashko, vice-principal of the Institute of Theological Sciences of the Immaculate Virgin Mary in the Latin Catholic Diocese of Kamianets-Podilskyi, told The Pillar that she was initially disappointed that Zuppi visited Moscow, but said she hoped that it might have an effect in the context of the return of Ukrainian children. 

“I understand that he was sent, and that's why he went there — because our children are held hostage there. He should have met even the devil himself, as they say, because the children need to be brought home,” Sashko said. 

“It may be the only opportunity. I don't know if he will succeed, but he took his chance. As far as I understand, there are things he has no influence over. He had a choice either not to go there at all or to go and meet with whomever the Russian side offered to meet with. Not much of a choice.”

According to Sashko, many Catholics in Ukraine see the diplomacy of the Holy See a more process-oriented than result-oriented. 

The biggest problem, she said, is the inertia of the Vatican's policy towards Moscow, which is too dependent on previous eras and does not consider the new reality. 

In addition, Sashko believes that Moscow has managed to convince many people in the Vatican that it is fighting for Christian values: against abortion, gay marriage, etc. 

“A colleague of mine, a priest from Poland, once told me that many monsignors in the Vatican do not understand why Ukrainians are so negative about Russia. After all, in their opinion, it is a great culture and spirituality. It shows they do not understand that it is all a sham and part of propaganda.”

“I am not anti-Francis. I supported his line and his views on many points. But I was looking forward to the pope when there was an occupation of the Kyiv region, when Klychko [the mayor of Kyiv] begged him to come. The pope said that he could not come for health reasons. And after a while, he went to Kazakhstan, then somewhere else, then to Hungary. I felt deceived,” Irena Sashko explained.

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Taras Antoshevsky, director of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, is also quite critical of the steps of Vatican diplomacy. 

In his opinion, the visits of Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who saw the tragedy of Ukrainians with his own eyes, probably had a corresponding effect on the Vatican and later influenced the position of the Holy See. 

But Antoshevsky also argued that the influence of the leadership of the Sant'Egidio community has shaped Vatican diplomacy. 

“The community in Ukraine does important work of mercy and is known primarily for this and for prayers for peace. In Ukraine, people who pray for peace with Sant'Egidio in Ukraine pray for a just peace for our country. It is not Russkiy mir. [In Russian, the words for ‘world’ and ‘peace’ sound the same - ‘mir.’] It implies not just the cessation of hostilities, but the condemnation of Russian imperialism — which denies the very possibility of Ukraine's existence as a nation, Ukrainian religious culture, etc. 

“However, the ideas that the Italian leadership of the Sant'Egidio community has been putting forward from the beginning of the war, if taken into account, would have led to eliminating Ukraine from the world's map. They think that the war is a consequence of Ukrainian nationalism. Instead, they were modestly silent about Russian chauvinism and imperialism. It is in line with the rhetoric of representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, with whom the community's leadership has very intense contacts,” Antoshevsky said.

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The head of the Sant'Egidio community in Ukraine, Yuriy Lifanse, told The Pillar that criticism of the organization's leadership is unfair: “The Sant'Egidio community has been operating in Ukraine since 1991. In addition, there are thousands of migrant workers and refugees from Ukraine whom the Sant'Egidio community helps worldwide. The Sant'Egidio community has always been on the side of the Ukrainian people. And this is exactly what all the direct quotes from the leadership of the Sant'Egidio community say.”

Regarding the intensity of contacts between the leadership of the St. Egidio community and high-ranking hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate, Lifanse noted that the Sant'Egidio community has alsol maintained contacts with the leadership of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, both in Rome and Kyiv. 

“And since [the war began], Ukraine has not only received assistance from the global Sant'Egidio, worth $20 million. Despite the risks, the community's leaders have visited it many times. Among them is Andrea Riccardi, the founder of Sant'Egidio,” Lifanse told The Pillar.

Yuriy Pidlisnyy, chair of the political science department at the Ukrainian Catholic University, however, negatively assesses the role Andrea Riccardi — founder of the Sant'Egidio community — in the context of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. 

According to Pidlisnyy, the opinions voiced in Rome on July 4 during the presentation of Riccardi's new book "The Cry of Peace" demonstrate his unwillingness or inability to understand the causes and nature of Russian aggression against Ukraine. 

“His rhetoric sounds noble, but it is false. It seems that in this battle, the two sides are obsessed with war, and he is trying to introduce a discourse of peace. In fact, Ukraine knows the price of peace all too well because, for centuries, it has known the terrible price of war. It is especially true in the 20th century when two world wars and the Stalinist Holodomor swept Ukrainian lands... Ukraine lost millions of people in the 20th century alone. Therefore, the claim that Ukrainians do not seek peace and contribute to the senseless slaughter or prolongation of the war that began in 2014 and entered the phase of full-scale invasion in 2022 does not stand up to criticism. We are defending ourselves; if we didn't, it would be a peace that reigns in a cemetery,” Pidlisnyy told The Pillar. 

According to Pidlisnyy, the thesis that nationalism is the cause of the war, voiced during the presentation, contradicts the current trajectory of Ukraine's development, as since 1991, it has been striving for its path of development, the path of reforms, the establishment of democracy, and free elections. 

“Ukraine has declared that it is part of the European civilization and seeks closer integration with other European nations. What has Russia done instead, which the leadership of Sant'Egidio, as we heard during the presentation, considers part of this civilization? Are the massacres of civilians in Bucha, Irpen, Izyum, and Mariupol a manifestation of European civilization? Perhaps Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or other representatives of the Russian intelligentsia belong to the European context, but do they determine the worldview of the deeper layers of Russian society? 

“Perhaps here we should speak frankly about what is now called Ruscism. We have all seen the propaganda article in a well-known Russian publication at the beginning of the war called ‘The advent of Russia and the new world,’ which talked about ‘the solution of the Ukrainian question.’ This is what caused the war,” Pidlisnyy told The Pillar.

“We also heard that this war is religious in nature," Pidlisnyy continued, "because Russia was baptized in Kyiv. We hear this all the time from the secular and church establishment in Russia.” 

“It is strange to me that such theses are voiced at all. And even more so in the 21st century, someone explains the war by the fact that in 988, the inhabitants of Kyiv, which was the capital of the medieval state of Rus, were baptized. Moscow did not even exist at that time. One has only to remember that Muscovy became Russia only in 1721. Today that event from the medieval past has become part of the Russian discourse to legitimize and sacralize its imperial revanchist projects. I am sorry that this is voiced in Rome in a respectable society,” Pidlisnyy summarized.

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