VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis returned from his brief trip to Kazakhstan, a country nestled between Russia and China, having failed to sit down with his Russian counterpart Patriarch Kirill or the delegation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
With the pope surrounded by empty seats in Kazakhstan, critics questioned the efficacy of his diplomacy of encounter and his strategy of silence when it comes to outright condemning human rights violations in China, Russia and Nicaragua. But Vatican diplomacy insiders urge patience, arguing that even as the pope remains silent, the institution’s diplomatic corps is hard at work behind the scenes, advancing the cause for dialogue.
Soon after being elected, in 2013, Pope Francis scored a major win for Vatican diplomacy efforts. As the United States and its allies prepared for an offensive against the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, the pope beseeched all parties involved — including Russia — to stop the conflict. According to the memoirs of the then-foreign minister of Australia, Bob Carr, the tensions were diffused as Russian President Vladimir Putin urged U.N. member states to “listen to the pope.”
Three years later, Francis sat down with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in the airport of Havana for a meeting that seemed to pave the way for the pope to be the first Catholic leader to visit Moscow. Vatican observers marveled at the peacemaking prowess of the pope from the Global South. But today, as Ukraine enters its seventh month of war with Russia, Francis seems to have lost his touch.
The pandemic forced a meeting between Francis and Kirill to be rescheduled, and the two met instead in an online conference in May where the pope warned the patriarch not to become “Putin’s altar boy.” But even as Pope Francis refused to openly condemn Putin and Russia for the war in Ukraine, relations with the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church chilled.
Victor Gaetan, author of “God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon,” thinks that’s only half the story.
“The Holy See is the only Western institution that has an ongoing dialogue with the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church,” Gaetan said, speaking to Religion News Service on Tuesday (Sept. 20).
“It was actually the Western states, and especially the United States, that have failed in the path of dialogue with Russia and its state religion,” Gaetan said.
Gaetan said that Metropolitan Anthony, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign relations department, has kept a steady relationship with the Vatican and even met with Pope Francis in May to tell him that while Kirill wouldn’t be going to Kazakhstan there would be a Russian Orthodox delegation in his stead.
While “any leader could be accused of not having done enough,” Pope Francis could have probably been more outspoken at the international level, said Mario Aguilar, professor of religion and politics at St. Andrews Divinity School.
Aguilar, author of “Pope Francis: Journeys of a Peacemaker” and a political adviser for the Vatican, told RNS that the Vatican “is a finite institution” and its foreign policy is no stranger to failure. “I have seen Pope Francis say many times: ‘Let’s pray and let’s try again.’ But he’s not bothered by failure,” he said.
Francis’ struggle to gain traction on the path toward dialogue was also evident when Xi, the Chinese president, reportedly refused to meet him while they were both in Kazakhstan. “I didn’t see him,” Francis said, vaguely answering questions by journalists while on the flight returning from Kazakhstan on Thursday.