Mystery mission: Details murky on pope's push for peace in Ukraine

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When Pope Francis told reporters the Vatican had some kind of "mission" underway to promote an end to the war in Ukraine, journalists naturally were intrigued.

The mystery grew when Ukrainian and Russian officials said they did not know what the pope was talking about.

And then the Vatican secretary of state said they did.

Ukrainian "President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy has not consented to any such discussions on Ukraine's behalf," a Ukrainian official described as being "close to the presidential office" told CNN May 1. "If talks are happening, they are happening without our knowledge or our blessing."

Asked if the Russian government had been informed or involved, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov responded May 2: "No, nothing is known."

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, told reporters May 3 that he was "surprised" by those statements. "To my knowledge, they were and are aware" of what the Vatican is doing.

The cardinal did decline, however, to provide more details.

"The pope said there will be a mission that will be announced at the time it is public, and I repeat the same words he used," Cardinal Parolin said. "I will not go into details. The pope spoke in these terms, let's leave it to him to give any further information."

The whole thing started at the end of Pope Francis' visit to Budapest, Hungary, April 28-30. Ukraine and Hungary share a border, and more than 1 million Ukrainians have passed through Hungary seeking safety since Russia began the war in February 2022.

While in Budapest, the pope spent 20 minutes speaking privately with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, within the European Union, consistently has voted against sanctioning Russia and against sending weapons to Ukraine.

Orbán has claimed he and the pope are on the same page when it comes to sending weapons.

Throughout his 10-year pontificate, Pope Francis has condemned the arms trade. But, when asked specifically about Ukraine buying or receiving weapons, he said in September, "This is a political decision, which can be moral -- morally acceptable -- if it is done according to the conditions of morality, which are manifold. … But it can be immoral if it is done with the intention of provoking more war or selling weapons or discarding those weapons that are no longer needed."

In Budapest, the pope also spent 20 minutes meeting privately with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion of Budapest and Hungary, the former director of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, who was suddenly sent to Budapest shortly after the war began.

Asked if he spoke about the war with Metropolitan Hilarion, Pope Francis told reporters April 30, "Well, we weren't talking about Little Red Riding Hood."

But Metropolitan Hilarion responded in a video message the next day, "There was nothing concerning bilateral relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. No political issues were discussed. The meeting was of a personal nature between two old friends."

Pope Francis also told reporters flying back to Rome from Hungary with him that except for one Zoom conversation in March 2022, his only contact with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow -- a strong defender of the war on Ukraine -- has been through Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk, who succeeded Metropolitan Hilarion as head of external church relations for the Moscow Patriarchate.

Three days later, Metropolitan Anthony was at Pope Francis' weekly general audience and was seen speaking to him.

A statement May 3 on the Moscow Patriarchate's website said Metropolitan Anthony attended the audience "by personal invitation of Pope Francis of Rome."

"After the event, Metropolitan Anthony had a talk with the head of the Roman Catholic Church," the statement continued. "During the talk, Pope Francis and Metropolitan Anthony dealt with a number of topical issues concerning interchurch relations."

While the pope's "mission" is still shrouded in secrecy, Cardinal Parolin told reporters the pope's goal always has been "to find points of agreement and put an end to this disaster that is striking Ukraine so harshly but also has consequences for Russia that are not indifferent."

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