Vatican's "subtle" game: politics and religion

Pope Francis intends to visit Moscow and Kyiv. Photo: UOJ

The Pope has announced his desire to visit Kyiv and Moscow. Meantime, there are some contradictory statements coming from the Vatican. What game is the Vatican playing?

On July 4, 2022, the REUTERS agency published an interview with Pope Francis, in which he, among other issues, touched on the topic of his trip to Kyiv and Moscow. The subject came up in mid-March 2022, i.e. about three weeks after the start of the war. At that time, the Pope instructed Cardinal Pietro Parolin to arrange a trip to Moscow. "I asked Cardinal Parolin, after twenty days of the war, to send a message to Putin to say that I was willing to go to Moscow," the pontiff said in an interview with the “Corriere Della Sera” newspaper. As for the trip to Kyiv, he then said: "I am not going to Kyiv for now. I sent Cardinal Michael Czerny and Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who went there for the fourth time. I feel that I must not go. First I must go to Moscow. First I must meet Putin."

Why does the Pope want to visit Ukraine?

In the article "Barking NATO and Criticism of the Patriarch of the ROC: What Game the Pope Is Playing Around Ukraine" we have already analyzed that possible motives for such behaviour could be, firstly, to use Russia’s isolation by Western countries in order to still make the first-ever visit of the Pope to Moscow, and secondly, the desire to come to Kyiv as a peacemaker, i.e. so that the military and/or diplomatic successes of Ukraine would be associated with the Roman pontiff.

Accordingly, this visit to Ukraine should take place precisely when such successes will take place. And now the Pope says he may go to Kyiv after his visit to Canada in late July 2022. "And now, perhaps after I return from Canada, perhaps I will be able to go to Ukraine," he said in an interview with REUTERS. However, the pontiff believes that despite Moscow's negative attitude towards the idea of his visit, he will still manage to come: "The first thing to do is to go to Russia to try to help in some way, but I would like to visit both capitals. <...> I would like to go (to Ukraine – Ed.), and I wanted to go to Moscow first. We exchanged messages about this because I thought that if the Russian president gave me a small window to serve the cause of peace ....”

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has already expressed its readiness to receive the pontiff in Kyiv. "We believe that this visit will strengthen the pontiff's role in restoring peace in the Ukrainian land as well as support the spirit of Ukrainians who are suffering unspeakably because of Russia's aggression," Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said.

How will the visit of the Vatican head to Ukraine help "in restoring peace in the Ukrainian land"? And what is meant by this restoration of peace? For now, the Ukrainian authorities are voicing a scenario of peace restoration, according to which our country returns control over the Ukrainian territory by military methods as of February 24, 2022, and then by diplomatic methods – within the borders of 1991. But Pope Francis will not bring us such peace for sure. Anything else is at best a truce, not peace, and at worst a "betrayal". Then why would our authorities like the Pope to come to Ukraine? Especially since the attitude towards the Pope has changed for the worse inside our country after the pontiff's statements, which to some extent justify Russia's invasion of Ukraine. For example, one of the Catholic bishops in Ukraine, Vitaliy Krivitskiy, said that the Pope's visit was hardly possible because of some of the pontiff's statements. "Compared to the beginning of the conflict, part of the population did not welcome some of the Pope's words, which were considered incorrect," Krivitsky said.

As a reminder, the official Vatican statement of February 24, 2022, did not condemn Russia's military aggression in Ukraine and did not call for an end to it. And in an interview with “Corriere Della Sera”, the Pope said that the war may have been provoked by "NATO barking at Russia's door".

And now Pope Francis is going to visit Ukraine in August even though he will probably not be able to visit Moscow before that. We have already said that the pontiff will come to Ukraine when there is a situation on the battlefield that will force the parties to sit down at the negotiating table and the Pope himself can look like a peacemaker. And it is in August that the contours of such a situation may begin to emerge. On June 24, 2022, Kirill Budanov, the head of the Ukrainian State Security Service, said in an interview with ITV News, "Starting in August, certain events will happen that will demonstrate to the world that a turning point is beginning to take place.’

This view is shared by leading military experts, both Ukrainian and many Western. If this does happen in August, Russia will be seriously interested in negotiations. And this is where Pope Francis can try to do what leading European politicians have failed to do – mediate between Ukraine and Russia in possible negotiations. Hence, his contradictory statements: sometimes in support of Ukraine, sometimes about Russia's allegedly forced and understandable actions.

Thus, Pope Francis wants to acquire the image of a peacemaker. In addition, the pontiff's ability to influence specific issues, such as the export of Ukrainian grain to foreign markets, cannot be discounted. Success in this matter alone would greatly enhance Pope Francis’s standing because the lack of such exports threatens many countries with famine.

The Ukrainian authorities also benefit from the pontiff's visit to Ukraine. The visit itself, regardless of its outcome, is already creating a favourable atmosphere in foreign policy. The Vatican enjoys authority in the world, and any contact with it raises the prestige of the state. This should not be forgotten now, during the war, and in the future, when the restoration of Ukraine will heavily depend on the generosity of Western countries and private investors. However, in all these actions by Pope Francis, there is not only a political component but also a religious one.

The religious component

Let’s not forget that Pope Francis is not only an influential political figure but also the head of the Catholic Church. Recently, the main point of his efforts in the religious sphere has been his desire to unite in some form Orthodoxy and Catholicism. On 30 June 2022, in a meeting with a Phanar delegation in the Vatican, the Pope once again said that the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Vatican are "engaged in a fraternal and fruitful dialogue and are committed with conviction and irreversibility to the restoration of full communion". At the same time, he expressed the hope that the "theological dialogue" between the Vatican and the Phanar will develop. In June 2021, Metropolitan Polykarpos (Stavropoulos) of Italy and Exarch of Southern Europe of the Patriarchate of Constantinople said that the movement of Catholics and Orthodox towards full communion is nearing completion. These and many other statements by the Pope, Patriarch Bartholomew, as well as other representatives of the Vatican and the Phanar, show that the leaders of these denominations would like to implement unification in their lifetime. It has been said many times that the most convenient date for this is 2025, which is the 1700th anniversary of the First Ecumenical Council.

The Vatican and the Phanar, as well as their Ukrainian satellites UGCC and OCU, have expressed their intention to test the unification of Orthodoxy and Catholicism in Ukraine. Pope Francis' visit to Ukraine and his attempts to act as a peacemaker (again, even regardless of the outcome) may advance the unification issue. At the same time, the OCU is a conditionally junior partner in a possible unification in relation to the UGCC. And the more the Pope pays attention to Ukraine, the more unequal this partnership or union will be.

However, unification with the Phanar is far from the unification with all of Orthodoxy. Perhaps, the Vatican believes that a large part of the Greek Local Churches will be forced to follow the Patriarchate of Constantinople into a new union, but what about the others? And it is precisely these others that make up the majority of the Orthodox in the world.

That is why inducing the Russian Orthodox Church to cooperate with the Vatican is a top priority. Yes, so far it seems unrealistic, but the ROC is moving towards the goal consistently. In 2016, Pope Francis had to make significant concessions to Patriarch Kirill during their meeting in Havana. Recall that at the time, Pope Francis actually condemned the union as a method of unification, which caused a storm of indignation among Ukrainian Greek Catholics. But on the other hand, the Havana Declaration recorded the desire for unity between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church. Will new steps be taken? The ROC seems to be in no hurry to make them.

In such a situation, the Vatican uses the old tried-and-true method of carrot and stick. On the one hand, Pope Francis curtsies toward Patriarch Kirill. For example, on May 24, 2022, the Pope congratulated him on his namesake day, and on June 14, 2022, the pontiff said that he hoped to meet with the Patriarch in Kazakhstan and "talk to him as a pastor". This was to be the same meeting that was scheduled for June 14, 2022, in Jerusalem, but it was postponed to a later date. That is, the Pope is offering the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church to get rid of the status of a non-handshake person, which the latter acquired in the Western world due to his support for the "SMO".

However, on the other hand, the Vatican accused Patriarch Kirill of nothing but heresy. This was stated by Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Of course, to hear such accusations against the Orthodox Primate from heretics (and Catholics are heretics) is absurd, but the very fact of such accusations cannot help but alarm. After all, it sounds in unison with the accusation of "heresy of the Russian world," which was formulated in the spring by a number of pro-Phanariot theologians and published in the form of a Declaration on the website of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies (Greece).

Thus, Pope Francis is now communicating with Patriarch Kirill from a position of soft power: either he is cooperating fruitfully with the Vatican, or the Vatican can help spin a new wave of accusations against him.

Reshuffle in the ROC

Most recently, the head of the ROC Department for External Church Relations was replaced. Metropolitan Hilarion (Alpheyev), the former head of the DECR, was appointed head of the Budapest-Hungary Diocese. The decree for his dismissal did not contain the phrase "with gratitude for his work", which is appropriate in such cases, but the Budapest-Hungarian Diocese is essentially an exile. His successor, Metropolitan Anthony (Sevruk), who is only 37 years old, is considered to be one of those closest to Patriarch Kirill. In 2007, he began work in the Department for External Church Relations as an assistant to the head of the department, who at that time was Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, and after 2009 became the personal secretary to Patriarch Kirill.

Metropolitan Hilarion is known for his ecumenical sentiments. Many in the Russian Church hope that the course of the renewed DECR MP will become much more conservative. It will be clear whether it will really happen, among other things, from the communication between the ROC and the Vatican, in particular concerning a possible visit of the Pope to Moscow.


Amid all these political and religious perturbations, the position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church stands apart. There is no doubt that in the event of the Pope’s visit to Kyiv there will be no contact of Metropolitan Onuphry with him. His Beatitude neither supports ecumenical communion nor conducts "mutually beneficial" negotiations nor looks for benefits in the backroom diplomatic battles. His position is simple: the UOC does not play political games and does not meet the whims of the government. It carries out the ministry of the Church of Christ on earth and remains faithful to Orthodoxy.

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Do you support the call of His Beatitude to end the war and organize an exchange of prisoners?
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