VATICAN CITY (RNS) — The night after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Pope Francis lay awake in bed at the Vatican thinking about what he could do to prevent “one more death in Ukraine. Not one more,” he told the Argentine daily La Nacion in an interview published Thursday (April 21).
The next day he jumped on a papal white utility vehicle to meet with the Russian ambassador to the Holy See to voice his concerns about the war in a last-ditch attempt to preserve the last remnant of peace in Ukraine.
The war, of course, continues today, and the pontiff’s hope for a meeting between the pope and Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has been shelved. For all his peacemaking efforts, the media’s primary takeaway about Francis regarding the war is that he refuses to call out President Vladimir Putin directly as the aggressor.
In his interview with La Nacion, the pope said: “I am willing to do everything” to prevent further bloodshed, explaining why he believed mentioning Putin was inappropriate. “A pope never names a head of state, much less a country, which is superior to its head of state,” Francis said.
Recent history, at least, bears him out: Popes have avoided pointing a finger at political leaders or nations. The Vatican’s long experience in jostling the ever-bubbling rivalries among European nations dictates that remaining above the fray is essential to brokering peace.
Nonetheless, his take on the war has been dismissed as idealistic and even pro-communist by his detractors.
While Francis may sound idealistic publicly, his public voice is not the only one Russia is hearing. “Pope Francis’ moral judgment of the war is absolutely severe,” said Massimo Borghesi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Perugia and author of “The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey.”
The Vatican’s diplomatic corps “never rests” in its effort to promote peace, Francis said in his Nacion interview, adding that this work is typically happening behind the scenes.
“There are backchannels, and they are functioning,” said journalist Victor Gaetan, author of “God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon,” pointing to Vatican diplomacy in the Middle East and Africa that has positioned Francis to be a bridge for peace.
“Publicly the pope appears to be a lonely voice,” Gaetan told RNS, but some countries have been drawn in by his “mantra of diplomacy, of dialogue and encounter, where you can’t bully or insult your interlocutor into a positive outcome.”
What makes Francis’ position difficult for many politicians is that he opposes not just Putin’s war, but a lack of commitment to peace on both sides. “Pope Francis sees this escalation, where the only answer that Europe has undertaken is to send weapons and issue sanctions, but it doesn’t have a shred of negotiation for a political and peaceful solution,” Borghesi said.