On the one hand, one of the most communicative pontiffs of the modern Church. On the other, a diplomatic machine that tries to carry out its work through continuous and careful actions. Sometimes these two forces act together in the Pope Francisco, in the name of the greater objective of promoting dialogue and the search for peace. In others, despite their good intentions, short circuits result.
One of these disagreements took place around one of the most tangled themes of current geopolitics, the ukraine war. In April last year, a few weeks after the invasion of the army of Vladimir Putin to the neighboring countryo Vatican invited to the Via Crucis rite, on Good Friday, a Ukrainian woman and a Russian woman, who held together, side by side, the cross on part of the route that symbolizes Jesus’ path to his crucifixion.
The idea went ahead despite public complaints in the days leading up to the celebration, expressed both by Kiev’s ambassador to the Holy See and by the archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who considered the scene “inappropriate”. A diplomatic incident that resulted from the equidistance effort practiced at that time by Pope Francis.
“There was a sense of loss on the part of Ukraine, and the choice of pope felt like an imposed reconciliation. And a reconciliation can be a problem for someone who is suffering a war”, comments Andrea Gagliarducci, Vaticanist of the American network Catholic News Agency and the agency Italian ACI Stampa.
The episode shows how Pope Francis’ diplomacy has been characterized by fluidity in his decade at the head of the Catholic Church, completed this Monday (13). “He has a very personal approach, rather than a diplomatic one. And when something is based on a personal relationship, it changes according to the circumstances,” she says.
The pope’s diplomacy is also fluid because this way of acting by the Argentine happens simultaneously with the traditional work, with conversations and calculated visits, headed by the Vatican’s Foreign Affairs Secretariat, currently in charge of the British Paul Gallagher. “In the end, it is necessary to understand how these two things combine. There is no precise line to follow, the guideline is the pope’s instinct”, says Gagliarducci.
Over the months, Francis was leaving aside the equidistance in relation to the conflict, condemning with more and more emphasis the “absurd and cruel” war, albeit trying to offer an open door to Putin. On several occasions, he has expressed willingness to travel to Kiev and Moscow to act as a mediator, which has no prospect of happening. The problem, says Gagliarducci, is that the mediation of the Holy See cannot be imposed. “She offers herself only when requested. And, for Russia, it is not yet the moment”, says the Vatican expert.
The search for dialogue and the maintenance of bridges, whether between the Vatican and other countries, or between the nations themselves, is exercised by Francis also through his international travels. First pontiff born outside Europe after 13 centuriesthe Argentine shifted the axis of papal destinations to countries farther from Rome, with special attention to Asia and Africa.
Of the 40 trips already made, 16 were within the European continent, 11 to Asia, eight to America and five to Africa. With an average of four international matches per year –considering the interruption of 2020, due to the pandemic–, he surpasses his predecessor, Benedict 16, with three trips per year, 17 of 24 to the European continent. The rhythm is close, however, to that of John Paul II, who made 104 trips, well distributed around the globe, over the 26 years of the papacy.
Health issues weigh in comparison with Benedict 16, but the Argentine’s choices of going to more remote places, as myanmar, where nearly 90% of the population is Buddhist, reflect their idea of church. Even in Europe, he never went to big Catholics like France and Spain, preferring Bulgaria and Romania. “The pope is attentive to what happens in the peripheriesbecause it speaks of a ‘Church on the way out'”, says Matteo Cantori, professor of history of relations between State and Church at the Niccolò Cusano University in Rome.
Present in Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, in November 2013, the expression “Church on the way out” is one of the foundations of his pontificate. It means a Church with open doors to everyone, but also missionary and proactive in reaching out to people, less turned in on itself. “His diplomacy has taken many steps forward. It looks to the future and not just within certain borders. It gives voice to those who don’t have one, including non-Catholics and non-Christians,” says Cantori.
Among the most memorable moments of his travels are the mass held in Mexico, in 2016, on the border with the United Statesa symbolic point for immigration, the trip to the Greek island of Lesbosin the same year, which concentrates refugee camps, and the recent visit to the Democratic Republic of Congowhere he heard victims of violence from the local conflict that has dragged on for decades.
In 2016, it was historic the meeting, in Cuba, between the pope and Cirilothe leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In addition to the Ukrainian War, there remain at least two other points that test the pope’s diplomacy. The relationship with China, with whom the Holy See has no formal relations, while the Vatican recognizes Taiwan diplomatically.
It was under Francis’ papacy in 2018 that a contested deal with Beijing on the appointment of bishops was signed, renewed again in october. The treaty sought to ease a longstanding rift between the official church, backed by the Chinese state, and an underground flock loyal to the Vatican. It was the first time since the 1950s in the Asian country that both sides recognized the pope as supreme leader of the Catholic Church.
More urgent, however, is the crisis with Nicaragua, where religious were arrested and institutions linked to the church, such as the university and Cáritas, were banned in recent days by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega. “It’s a very strong attack on the church. There, the problem is that dialogue is impossible,” says Vatican expert Gagliarducci.
This Sunday (12), the Central American regime ordered the closure of the Vatican embassy in Managua, as well as the Nicaraguan representation in the papal city. The determination comes two days after the release of an interview in which Pope Francis claims that Ortega suffers from an “imbalance” and compares his regime to the communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union and the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler.