VATICAN CITY (RNS) — High-ranking Vatican officials criticized Patriarch Kirill of Moscow this week for his failure to push for peace in Ukraine, nearly ensuring that among the casualties of Russia’s invasion may be Pope Francis’ yearslong campaign to strengthen the Catholic Church’s bonds with Russian Orthodox Christians.
Only a month ago, the Vatican still eagerly anticipated a possible meeting between Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis this summer, building on a historic 2016 meeting in Havana, where they signed a 30-point joint declaration calling their churches “to prudence, social solidarity and to action aimed at the construction of peace.”
That document cast Europe’s two dominant Christian churches as peacemakers in the region and specifically in Ukraine. The pope promised to promote harmony between the Orthodox communities in Ukraine, which had already begun to fracture over Russian political meddling.
Expectations have increased ever since that the pope might crown ecumenical efforts begun by his predecessors by becoming the first pontiff to visit Moscow, or that the two leaders would meet in the southern Italian town of Bari, which increasingly under Francis has become a hub of Catholic ecumenical efforts. In 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the town a statue of St. Nicholas, beloved by Catholics and Orthodox, as a sign of reconciliation.
Before becoming patriarch, Kirill visited Rome as chair of the Russian church’s department for external church relations and was a familiar face to many at the Vatican. As patriarch, he joined Francis in his push for further cooperation, focusing on charitable work and the promotion of religious freedom rather than attempting to reconcile complex theological issues.
But with Russia’s entry into Ukraine Feb. 24, the possibility of a meeting between Francis and Kirill began to fade. Francis abruptly canceled his appearance at a meeting with Mediterranean bishops and politicians to promote peace, citing knee pains, but days later he left the Vatican to meet with the Russian ambassador to the Holy See.
The pope did not openly condemn Russia as the conflict began, possibly attempting to retain a diplomatic disinterest in hopes of serving as an intermediary. But at a prayer service on Sunday (March 6), he pushed back against Russian claims that the invasion of Ukraine was a minimal “special military operation.”
In a sermon the same day, Kirill sided heavily with Putin, providing a spiritual platform for the aggression in Ukraine and condemning Western influence, particularly what he alleged was an LGBTQ agenda.
“We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” Kirill said, accusing Western powers of promoting values contrary to Christian teaching.
Francis’ No. 2 at the Vatican, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, spoke candidly about the repercussion of Kirill’s remarks. “Kirill’s words do not favor or promote an agreement. Instead, they risk heightening spirits toward an escalation and not solve the crisis peacefully,” Parolin, who heads the Vatican Secretariat of State, said at an event in Rome on Wednesday.
Asked about the possibility of a meeting between Francis and Kirill, the cardinal said that “the situation is complicated by the tensions that exist between the churches, so at the moment there hasn’t been the opportunity” to plan a meeting.
Parolin spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this week but said he “was given no reassurance” by Moscow concerning the protection of civilians in Ukraine and seemed to express doubts about the possibility of a peaceful solution to the conflict.