It was an 85-year-old pope, immobilized for some time due to a torn ligament, who received the journalist Fiorenza Sarzanini at the beginning of May 2022, to take stock of the crisis in Ukraine and the possible mediation by the Church.
Francis does not hide his repeated desire to go to Moscow to attempt a last-ditch mediation: “About 20 days into the war, I asked Cardinal Parolin [Secretary of State of the Holy See - ed.] to convey my message to Putin, that I was ready to travel to Moscow.”
“We received no answer whatsoever, but we keep pressing them on this issue. I fear, however, that Putin cannot, or does not want to agree to our meeting at the moment. But how can you try and do whatever you can to stop the atrocities? Twenty-five years ago we saw something similar happening in Rwanda,” explains the Argentine pontiff to the deputy director of Corriere della Sera.
Although the pope recognizes that the master of the Kremlin exercises a great responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict, he nevertheless does not hesitate to bring some nuances to it and to evoke the attitude of NATO in this file: “I have no way of telling whether his rage has been provoked, but I suspect it was maybe facilitated by the West’s attitude,” says Francis.
A way for him to show that he remains faithful to his position taken from the start of the conflict, consisting in denouncing the violence without directly designating the aggressor, with the hope, perhaps, of leaving open a possible way out for Vladimir Putin.
On the question of the supply of armaments to Ukraine by Western countries, the pope is handling the situation with velvet gloves. There is no question of approving “the arms trade which is a scandal against which very few are opposed,” but Peter's successor admits that he cannot “answer that question, I live too far away, I don’t know if it is the right thing to supply the Ukrainian fighters” [with weapons].
When Fiorenza Sarzanini asks him if the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church could help resolve the conflict, Francis nods his head negatively and replies: “I spoke with Kirill [the Patriarch of Moscow, ed.] for forty minutes on Zoom.”
“For the first 20 minutes, he read from a piece of paper he was holding in his hand all the reasons that justified the Russian invasion. I listened to him and then replied: I don't understand any of this. Brother, we are not state clerics, we shouldn’t speak the language of politics … we are shepherds of the same holy flock of God. For this reason, we must look for a path to peace, we must stop the fighting.”
And the Roman pontiff summed up: “a patriarch can’t lower himself to become Putin’s altar boy.” And he confirmed that the meeting scheduled for next June in Jerusalem had been called off “we agreed that it could send the wrong message.”
On a hope a speedy peace, and despite Mr. Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, telling him that “the Russians have a precise plan, and that the war will end on May 9th,” Francis remains perplexed: “I am very pessimistic, however, it is our duty to do all we can to stop the war.”
On taking leave of his guest at St. Martha’s House, the pontiff, who could not get up, addressed his interlocutor with a final warning: “I urge all journalists to keep on researching and investigating what is happening around the world, to keep on telling it as it is.”