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The Vatican’s Ukraine peace mission is not over

One of the biggest Catholic stories of 2023 was the Vatican’s effort to help bring about the end of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Vatican peace envoy Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, pictured in 2015. Francesco Pierantoni via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).

In the most high-profile initiative, Pope Francis’ envoy Cardinal Matteo Zuppi visited what the Vatican sees as the war’s four main decision-making centers: Kyiv (in June), Moscow (also in June), Washington (July), and Beijing (September).

As the war continues to be waged with undimmed ferocity, many have concluded that the Vatican’s peace mission failed.

Yet the Holy See has recently engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity related to the war. So, is the mission advancing after all?

Let’s consider the events of the past two weeks and see what conclusions we can draw.


A papal phone call

The new surge in activity seemed to begin with a Dec. 28 phone call between Pope Francis and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

The conversation was announced by Zelenskyy in his customary evening address to Ukrainians. 

“I have just spoken with His Holiness Pope Francis to express gratitude for his Christmas greetings to Ukraine and Ukrainians, for his wishes of peace — just peace for all of us,” he said.

Zelenskyy was likely referring to the pope’s “Urbi et Orbi” address on Christmas Day, in which he issued a fairly generic call for peace in Ukraine. 

Dec. 25 was particularly significant for Ukrainians in 2023 because it marked the first time they officially celebrated Christmas on that day, rather than the Jan. 7 date identified with the Russian Orthodox Church.

In his evening address, Zelenskyy also said that he and the pope had “discussed our joint work on the peace formula — more than 80 states are already involved at the level of their representatives.” 

“There will be more. I am grateful to the Vatican for supporting our work,” he commented.

By “peace formula,” Zelenskyy meant his 10-point peace plan. Ukraine has been seeking to rally world leaders behind the formula, which the president unveiled at a G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2022. 

In October 2023, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said that the Holy See supported the plan, “especially for resolving humanitarian issues, such as food security and preservation of the natural environment.”

The plan’s fourth point, which addresses the “release of all prisoners and deportees,” is of particular interest to the Vatican.

It says: “Today, thousands of Ukrainian people, both military and civilians, are in Russian captivity. Many have been forcefully deported, including at least 20,000 children. Many are subjected to brutal torture and abuse right now.”

“Ukraine proposes the release of prisoners — ‘all for all,’ and the release of all children and adults who were illegally deported to Russia.”

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Pope Francis has confirmed publicly his involvement in exchanges of prisoners of war, indicating that he passes lists drawn up by Ukrainian authorities to Russian officials via the Russian embassy to the Holy See.

Since his appointment as peace envoy in May 2023, Cardinal Zuppi has underlined that he is not seeking to act as a mediator between the warring parties, but rather encouraging humanitarian initiatives that could help to open up pathways to peace. 

His primary goal seems to be the return of the children deported by Russia from occupied Ukrainian territories after the full-scale invasion. Though small groups of Ukrainian children have been reunited with their families in recent months, there does not appear to have been any major breakthrough on this issue. 

A new emphasis

In his Jan. 8 “state of the world” address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis naturally spoke about the Russo-Ukrainian war. 

“Sadly, after nearly two years of large-scale war waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine, the greatly desired peace has not yet managed to take root in minds and hearts, despite the great numbers of victims and the massive destruction,” he said. 

“One cannot allow the persistence of a conflict that continues to metastasize, to the detriment of millions of persons; it is necessary to put an end to the present tragedy through negotiations, in respect for international law.”

Commentators noted that his remarks struck a different tone to many of his previous statements on the war, in that he emphasized Russia’s responsibility for the conflict. 

Previously, he has faced criticism for not identifying Russia as the aggressor in Ukraine, not naming Russian President Vladimir Putin as the war’s instigator, and suggesting that the war was provoked by the NATO alliance, rather than instigated by the Kremlin. 

Praise for the peace envoy

On the same day as the “state of the world” address, Cardinal Zuppi and the Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak discussed the war in a telephone call. 

According to a readout issued by the presidential office, Yermak noted that Zelenskyy had awarded Zuppi Ukraine’s Order of Merit, Second Class. (The Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin also received the honor.)

“This is a recognition of your personal role in supporting Ukraine and the mission to return Ukrainian children,” Yermak said. “I am very proud of our cooperation and appreciate everything you do for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. I hope that in the near future we will have the opportunity to hand over the award to you.”

Zelenskyy’s chief of staff also highlighted Zuppi’s participation in a meeting of Bring Kids Back UA, an international coalition seeking to pool efforts to return deported children to Ukraine. Yermak expressed hope that the Vatican would offer further support.

Finally, the two men talked about a Jan. 14 meeting in Davos, Switzerland, bringing together for the fourth time national security advisers to discuss the implementation of Ukraine’s peace formula. The Holy See took part in the third meeting in Malta in October 2023.

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Freeing prisoners

On the day of the “state of the world” address and the Yermak phone call, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church offered further insight into the Holy See’s role in the conflict. 

In a message marking the 99th week of the full-scale war, published in English Jan. 8, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk recalled that more than 200 prisoners of war recently returned home in the biggest prisoner swap since February 2022.

“We express our gratitude to Pope Francis, Vatican diplomacy, and all international institutions that helped in this endeavor,” Shevchuk said, indicating that the pope and Vatican diplomats played a notable role in securing the first major prisoner exchange since August 2023.

The Vatican itself has made no mention of its part in facilitating the exchange, let alone publicly trumpeted it, even though this could help to counter the perception that its peace mission has failed.

On Jan. 12, it emerged that Pope Francis sent a Jan. 3 letter to Shevchuk condemning Russian strikes on Ukraine’s civilian population and infrastructure, saying that attacks on the civilian population and vital infrastructure were “ignoble, unacceptable, and cannot be justified in any way.” 

Taken together with the “state of the world” address, this suggests that papal rhetoric about Russia’s actions may be hardening. 

Forward through the fog

Each of these recent events seem to be pieces of a bigger puzzle. But what that puzzle will look like when completed is unclear.

It seems that following the widely publicized difficulties in the Holy See-Ukraine relationship in 2023, the two parties have resolved to work harmoniously to achieve short-term humanitarian goals. 

Much of this work appears to be advancing far from the media spotlight. When it does get reported, it’s often in roundabout terms. 

For example, the Italian bishops’ conference newspaper Avvenire mentioned in passing Dec. 29 that the Vatican had “initiated with Moscow a complex but fruitful mechanism to identify Ukrainian children transferred to Russia, especially in the first months of the war and ensure their return through various humanitarian actors.”

The paper offered no further details. Perhaps that’s to be expected given that Ukraine and Russia are currently shrouded by the fog of war. 

As the full-scale conflict approaches its third year, it’s clear that the Vatican is working hard behind the scenes to achieve humanitarian breakthroughs for which it is unlikely ever to receive much recognition.

Those involved in the Vatican peace mission may be privately content to see some recent advances. But they know there is a very long and hard road ahead before the guns fall silent in Ukraine.

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