Pope Francis’ words about “Mother Russia,” and Catherine and Peter the Great, addressed to a group of young Russians via videoconference on August 25, were not appreciated in Ukraine. There have been government protests, protests from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and a Vatican reply by the nunciature and then from the Holy See Press Office asking not to consider the Pope’s words as support for imperialism, as such an interpretation would be incongruous in light of the Pope’s speeches.
In all honesty, it can be said that Pope Francis has always fought and condemned acts of imperialism, warned against ideological colonization, and at the same time has never failed to pray for Ukraine, defined as martyred to raise awareness of who is the attacked and who is the aggressor.
At the same time, it can be said honestly that the Pope’s public activity sometimes does not go along with this line, or risks giving the wrong impression. And this is a crucial point in the pontificate of Pope Francis.
Pope Francis indulges in spontaneous interviews and exchanges. He speaks off-the-cuff, seemingly doesn’t study the topics, and answers based on feeling. Several times, during the press conferences on the plane, he mentioned situations and that they be taken into account.
Pope Francis’ decision to expose himself to questions without filtering was much appreciated, especially at the beginning of his pontificate. The Pope is not afraid to confront journalists or say what he thinks. The problem is that spontaneity sometimes leads to taking unnecessary risks. In the end, Pope Francis is Pope; what he says always has a global impact, and therefore, we need to be careful with words.
To extol Catherine and Peter the Great and Mother Russia was likely to provoke a negative reaction on the part of Ukraine. Amid a war which echoes Russian imperialism, Ukrainians fail to understand that the Pope speaks spontaneously, that cultural references serve to qualify the depth of a historical era and not to support what happened at that time. Anything that sounds like a justification for Russian aggression is a problem.
Pope Francis, however, is not interested in this type of argument. He believes he is acting in good faith and, therefore, does not care about potential reactions to his words or actions. In the case of the Ukrainian war, he did it several times.
For example, by going to visit the Embassy of the Russian Federation to the Holy See at the beginning of the war and not doing the same with the Ukrainian embassy. Or, imposing, in one of the stations of the Via Crucis at the Colosseum in 2022, the presence of a Russian and a Ukrainian woman to represent the possibility of reconciliation, almost forcing forgiveness. For the Via Crucis in 2023, texts —which contained testimonies for peace from young Russians and Ukrainians—were not distributed until the very last moment, precisely to avoid controversy.
The decisions of Pope Francis are pragmatic. Who would disagree that without forgiveness, it will never be possible to achieve a peace that is not just the absence of war? Who would disagree that war is a terrible experience for everyone? And who wouldn’t agree with telling young people to know and appreciate their roots, especially if they have a long, deep, and sometimes controversial history behind them?
If seen this way, the issues appear to be pure common sense. However there are diplomatic, human, and contextual sensitivities that need further reflection. Pope Francis has decided to speak spontaneously, with the certainty that someone will contextualize or give the benefit of the doubt to his words, or at least a vote trust and sympathy.
It is a strategy that, however, turns out to be divisive. There are those who defend the Pope and those who contest him, and each faction accuses the other of failing to understood. Criticisms of the Pope are mistaken for personal attacks. Praises to the Pope are, however, considered flattery. This very same debate is criticized as a waste of time.
The main issues are set aside, and everything focuses on the figure of the Pope. Personalization is a complicated process to avoid, especially when you have charismatic or centralizing leaders. In practice, however, personalization highlights all the limits of decisions when these are not based on institutional logic but personal logic.
Thus, an event with a profound pastoral meaning, such as the meeting with Russian youth, became a potential battleground for a controversy that would not have emerged had the Pope not spoken spontaneously.
This story, by the way, is not the only one of its kind. Over the years, the Pope has repeatedly spoken in an impromptu manner, with verbal excesses that have required clarifications.
At the same time, the Pope has used his weight and authority to try to develop and promote peace initiatives. For example, he called for a prayer meeting in the Vatican Gardens for peace in the Middle East in 2014. He made a prayer retreat for the leaders of South Sudan in 2019. He sent Cardinal Parolin to Lebanon in September 2021, when he also promoted a day of prayer for the country. And he sent Cardinal Krajewski to Ukraine six times and Cardinal Czerny twice. He then chose Cardinal Zuppi as his special envoy for a practical mission to explore the possibility of peace in Ukraine, but above all, to help return Ukrainian children from Russia.
So, how can the diplomatic attitude of the Pope be defined? The desire for an agreement with China at all costs, for a dialogue with Putin since the beginning of the war, for discussion and mediation in Nicaragua or Venezuela despite everything, indicate that he is a Pope of Realpolitik, i.e., of concrete, practical diplomacy.
At the same time, the deafening silence in some situations in Nicaragua, Venezuela, or Hong Kong speaks of a Pope who is prudent to the extreme and capable of remaining silent even when one should speak up.
Finally, the spontaneous declarations, without a filter, point to a Pope who does not think about consequences and sometimes has naive readings of reality.
Who is Pope Francis? Is his diplomacy fluid, without reference points, and therefore potentially ineffective? Or is his diplomacy practical and, therefore, potentially divisive?
These are the questions that Pope Francis’ latest decisions raise. By going to Mongolia, he also risked ruining good relations with China. The interreligious meeting included Tibetan Buddhists, at a time when the Dalai Lama has established that a powerful lama and spiritual authority for all of Mongolia was reincarnated as a Mongolian child, arousing the ire of Beijing, which claims the right to decide on reincarnations. It is no mystery that China observed very carefully to the trip. Things went well, the organization was perfect, but until the very end somebody has speculated of some misunderstanding caused by an eventual Pope Francis’ spontaneous gesture or words.
It is an example that explains the many things one must think about when preparing for a trip, let alone a speech or an interview, which have fast turn arounds and must never be misunderstood, at least on critical issues.