Pope Francis’s Secret Mission to End the Ukraine War

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New details revealed exclusively to this author suggest that Pope Francis may be looking to history as a guide in his “secret” plan to help bring about an end to the Russia-Ukraine war. But comments from the Pope last week appearing to glorify 18th century Russian imperialism may undermine this effort.

More than 18 months after the start of the war, U.S. President Joe Biden looks increasingly unable to make any progress in bringing the bloody conflict to a close. He has failed even to form anything approaching a consensus among the American public on how the United States should approach the war, and has long since lost the confidence of America’s allies abroad.

Now, with the fighting having already resulted in at least 500,000 casualties, other world leaders are looking to play more of a role in reaching a ceasefire.

One of those leaders is Pope Francis, who has been unusually outspoken on geopolitical issues since being elected in 2013. In April, while returning from his Hungarian pilgrimage, Francis revealed that the Vatican was involved in a secret peace mission to resolve the conflict. “There is a mission in course now, but it is not yet public. When it is public, I will reveal it,” Francis told reporters.

There has been little news on Francis’s comments since then, but last Friday, Hungarian President Katalin Novak, who arrived directly from Kyiv to meet with Francis, said that the two parties involved were “closer to carrying out a project,” that she called a peace mission. Novak said that in Kyiv she had a long, direct talk with Ukrainian President Zelensky but stopped short of providing any details.

“I really hope that the moment when [Pope Francis] can act will come soon in which he will play a key role in the peace negotiations,” Novak added, also pointing to recent visits by Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, whom Francis tapped to head the Church’s Ukraine peace mission, to Kyiv, Moscow, and Washington.

Zuppi is also expected to visit China soon, suggesting that the Vatican may believe Beijing could serve as a mediator in ending the war. “We talked about it with [Francis] but I cannot reveal more,” Novak concluded.

Although the Vatican peace plan is not public, some recently revealed information has provided a rough idea of what it entails.

According to former diplomats and sources close to the discussions, who spoke with this author on the condition of anonymity, Pope Francis at the beginning of this year asked his aides for files on Cardinal Antonio Samore. In the late 1970s, Samore was appointed by Pope John Paul II to mediate a border dispute between Argentina – Francis’s homeland – and Chile, which was threatening to break out into open war.

The dispute, known as the Beagle Conflict, was over possession of lands and waters on the southern tip of South America. Of particular concern was the Beagle Channel – one of just three waterways between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean in the Southern Hemisphere. On December 22, 1978, Argentina began a military operation to occupy several islands in the disputed territory by force, a move that could have escalated the dispute into open war.

However, at the last minute, Samore was able to stave off a military engagement, and the two sides celebrated Christmas in peace.

However, Samore knew it would still be a long road to find a lasting resolution. He famously told the two sides that they would need a “bottle of wisdom, a barrel of prudence, and an ocean of patience” to reach a win-win result.

Shortly after the New Year, Samore orchestrated the signing of the Act of Montevideo, in which the two sides pledged to find a peaceful solution. Finally, five years later, on November 29, 1984, both countries signed an agreement whereby Chile would have sovereignty over the islands in dispute while Argentina’s offshore rights at the Atlantic mouth of the Beagle Channel were preserved.

Pope Francis – then still Father Bergoglio – witnessed the peaceful resolution during his first term as a Jesuit provincial superior in Argentina. It is very likely, then, not an accident that Samore’s file and documentation on the Vatican’s Beagle Channel miracle are now in Pope Francis’s studio at Domus Sanctae Marthae, his residence in Vatican City. A new encyclical, which will be promulgated in October, is also expected to lay out Pope Francis’s vision of Christian peace.

But the road to peace in Ukraine may still be mired with land mines. Last Friday, Francis, appearing to go off script in a televised address to Russian Catholic youth, praised “the great Russia of the saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, the great Russian empire, cultured, so much culture, so much humanity.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has notably compared himself to Peter the Great in the past. Empress Catherine also conquered large parts of Ukraine in the 18th century – including annexing Crimea.

The day after Francis’s comments, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said that the Russian tsars praised by the Pope were “the worst example of imperialism and extreme Russian nationalism.”

The Pope’s spokesman, Matteo Bruni, replied that Francis did not intend “to exalt imperialist logic.” But two diplomats familiar with the peace effort said his words would not suffice to calm Catholics in Ukraine and Central Europe shaken by his words.

Francis thus seems to have taken a step back in his quest for peace and reconciliation. But like Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Samore 45 years ago, by seeking understanding and reconciliation with a spirit of good will – as well as divine Providence – he may yet find a way to resolve a seemingly unresolvable problem.

Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.

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