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What’s the Vatican saying about Pope Francis and Ukraine?

Pope Francis presides at a prayer vigil at the Vatican on Oct. 4, 2014. © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk.

The Holy See press office released a statement on Tuesday defending Pope Francis’ remarks concerning the Ukraine war.

The 146-word communiqué, published on Aug. 30 initially in Italian and later in English, sought to clarify the purpose of the pope’s interventions in light of “public discussions.”

Who issued the statement?

The unsigned declaration was billed as a “Holy See Communiqué.” In that respect, it was similar to the Vatican’s July 21 statement on the German “synodal way,” which was also unsigned.

Pope Francis later clarified that the synodal way text was issued by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. As the Ukraine statement concerns relations between states, it is highly likely that it too was issued by the Secretariat of State, which oversees the Holy See’s diplomatic ties.

It’s unclear why the statement was not attributed to the Secretariat of State - or signed by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, or the Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who frequently comment publicly on Vatican policy on the Ukraine war.

What did the text say?

The communiqué consisted of three paragraphs. The first noted that Pope Francis has made numerous references to the war since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. It said that their overall purpose was “to invite pastors and the faithful to prayer, and all people of good will to solidarity and efforts to rebuild peace.”

The second paragraph observed that the pope’s comments had generated “public discussions” concerning their “political significance” on several occasions, including in “recent days.” This appeared to be a reference to Francis’ remarks at last week’s general audience.

Marking the war’s six-month anniversary on Aug. 24, the pope issued an appeal for peace. In seemingly spontaneous comments, he referred to the murder on Aug. 20 of Darya Dugina, the daughter of Russian nationalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. “I think of that poor girl blown up by a bomb under her car seat in Moscow,” the pope said. “The innocent pay for war, the innocent!”

His words provoked uproar. Andrii Yurash, Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See, said that the pope’s remarks were “disappointing.” He questioned whether Dugina -  a prominent supporter of Russian aggression - was an “innocent victim” of the war.

Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said that “the Ukrainian heart was broken by the pope’s words” and summoned Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the apostolic nuncio to Ukraine, to express his concerns.

The third and final paragraph of the Holy See statement underlined that the pope’s remarks “should be interpreted as a voice raised in defense of human life and the values associated with it, and not as a political stance.”

It concluded: “As for the large-scale war in Ukraine, initiated by the Russian Federation, the Holy Father Francis’ interventions are clear and unequivocal in condemning it as morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant, and sacrilegious.”

What’s the context?

While the Vatican’s statement on Tuesday could be said to be “clear and unequivocal,” the communiqué was issued because not all of the pope’s statements have been received as such.

Pope Francis has sought to keep Vatican channels open with both Ukraine and Russia since the outbreak of full-scale hostilities. His stance has been frequently criticized, especially in Ukraine, a predominantly Eastern Orthodox country with a dynamic Catholic minority.

The pope’s suggestion, in a June interview, that NATO might have provoked the conflict prompted anger in Ukraine. That same month, he met with a group of Ukrainians, who offered feedback on his interventions.

Myroslav Marynovych, one of the delegation’s members, argued that the pope’s comments last week showed that he needed new advisers.

The vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv told Ukrinform: “Were I in his place, I would remove from my circle of advisers the man who presented the information about Darya Dugina being a ‘victim of the war,’ i.e. that she became a ‘victim of Ukrainian terrorists.’”

“The fact that this adviser has taken to reading the Russian media would be the mildest reproach possible. The number of communication failures on the part of the pope should have signaled that the situation requires immediate correction.”

But Marynovych also criticized Ukrainian media, saying that journalists focused exclusively on the pope’s Dugina remarks and ignored his advocacy for Ukrainian prisoners of war.

“Obviously, I do not have evidence of any Russian agency, but I can clearly state that both the Holy Father and the Vatican curia should seriously reconsider all aspects of their ‘consideration for Moscow,’ which indicates the great and still not overcome inertia of Ostpolitik,” Marynovych said.

Ostpolitik is a Vatican diplomatic policy associated with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Cold War-era Vatican Secretary of State, who advocated engagement with communist regimes in the hope of reducing the suffering of oppressed Catholics.

Pope Francis underlined that he holds Casaroli in the highest esteem in his address to new cardinals on Saturday.

He said that the Italian cardinal, who died in 1998, was “rightly famous for his openness to promoting, through farsighted and patient dialogue, the new prospects that opened up in Europe following the Cold War – may God prevent human shortsightedness from closing anew those prospects that he opened!”

What’s next?

Pope Francis is thought to be still considering a trip to Ukraine. He has frequently indicated his willingness to visit the war-torn country, with the proviso that his presence should help to contribute to peace.

Archbishop Gallagher said last month that the pope  could visit Kyiv as early as August. Clearly, that has not come to pass. The pope is due to visit Kazakhstan on Sept. 13-15. So the window for an imminent trip to Ukraine is rapidly closing - if it has not already closed.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis’ outreach to Moscow has also suffered a recent setback. The Russian Orthodox Church announced last week that Patriarch Kirill will not meet with the pope in Kazakhstan next month. Observers have suggested that the announcement was a “tit for tat” move after the pope reportedly canceled a summit in Jerusalem with the Russian Orthodox leader scheduled for June.

Metropolitan Anthony, the new head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti that any future meeting “should be most carefully prepared, its agenda must be agreed upon, its resultant document must be thought out in advance.”

Today’s Vatican statement may therefore be a sign of frustration that the pope’s words are failing to cut through the din of war. Or, they could simply be a frustrated acknowledgement that, whatever the text says, the pope hasn’t been making himself clear.

Either way, the Vatican appears to have found itself once again in a diplomatic no man’s land six months into a war that shows no sign of ending any time soon.

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