Pope Francis has increasingly spoken out against the war in Ukraine since Russian troops invaded on February 24, although he did not specifically name Russia as the aggressor, apparently in an effort to keep open dialogue between Russia and the Holy See. The pope offered the Vatican as a mediator in the conflict, which Ukraine welcomed and Russia did not. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Mayor of kyiv Vitali Klitschko have invited Pope Francis to visit Ukraine to deliver a message of peace and solidarity. Pope Francis has signaled his openness to visits and admitted in a recent airborne press conference that the possibility “is on the table.”
But such a trip raises important questions for the Vatican and the pope: How would such a move affect Vatican-Russia and Catholic-Orthodox relations? Is a papal visit even possible or advisable given the Pope’s recent knee problems? Above all, what would be the use of such a papal visit?
Former United States Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett, in an interview with Americashared his views on the possibility of a papal trip.
This interview has been edited for clarity, style and length.
Colleen Dulle: I’m trying to get an idea of the diplomatic calculation that the Holy See has to make around a possible papal trip to Ukraine. I was really surprised by the pope who continually says he wants to go. So the first thing I wanted to ask you is where are you at with respect to the possibility of a trip like this. What do you think? Do you think this is advisable?
Ken Hackett: Oh, I think it’s advisable, of course, I think it has a huge symbolic impact if he’s able to go.
The dynamic that I see in there is—other than planning the trip and where he will go, what he will see, who he will meet, how he will meet them—there is this other dynamic in this case, and that is the relationship with the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill. It’s a serious dynamic in the sense that ever since Francis became pope he has spoken of a coming together of Christian churches, especially Orthodox and Catholics, and Kirill hasn’t been very supportive of that effort. He sees Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople as leading a splinter group. [Editor’s note: Patriarch Kirill accused Patriarch Bartholomew of schism last year.] And now, from what I have read, there have been many Orthodox in Ukraine, who previously felt associated with the Patriarch of Moscow, who separated and went to this other [Ukrainian Orthodox] branch.
I do not believe in his visit, despite what the new Ukrainian ambassador [to the Holy See] said, will stop the war in any way. But it sends a very powerful message to the global Catholic community and to the global community watching what is happening in Ukraine. As you well know, Pope Francis always carries a huge public relations cachet. the three European Prime Ministers visit Ukraine was important, especially in Europe, but didn’t play much here [in the United States]. A visit from the Pope will be globally symbolic, and CNN and MSNBC and everyone else will cover it everywhere.
Ever since Francis became pope, he has spoken of a coming together of Christian churches, especially Orthodox and Catholics, and Kirill hasn’t been very supportive of that effort.
Do you think the pope could actually do that?
I think it’s going to be really hard for him; from the physical and planning dynamics of it, it’s huge. I mean, you saw his sciatica flare up when he went to Malta, and those trips are grueling. I mean, really grueling. So there is that element.
And the preparations for such a visit are stressful. It’s planned to the minute, if it’s something like the one we set up for the United States in 2015. So he goes to Kyiv, how does he get in? Where is he going in Kyiv? He probably remains at the nunciature. And when does he meet Zelensky? Does it have a public mass? There’s a security dynamic there — I mean, they’re still bombing. So all of that has to be taken into account, and it’s a huge burden on a country’s security apparatus when it happens. It was a national security event here in the United States; so the same thing will play out in kyiv.
You mentioned the comment of the new Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See, that he thinks that a papal visit could stop the war—and you said you didn’t agree with that. The ambassador also said that this would be interpreted as the pope putting his finger on the scales on Ukraine’s side and would be read very negatively by Russia. I was curious to know if you could speak to this concern, and if the Pope’s words and actions represent a change in the Holy See’s relationship with Russia.
Yes, this represents a change. The declaration made by the Pope at the Angelus, the first week or the second week after the invasion [when he declared Ash Wednesday a day of prayer and fasting for Ukraine] was kind of a small change. Many of my friends said, “Well, the pope didn’t criticize Russia.” And I said, “That’s not what they do.” It’s never done that way. But look what happened when he unfurled the Ukrainian flag from Bucha. It was a great symbolic gesture.
Now, when it comes to Russia, I don’t think Putin cares. During my stay there, I saw Putin visiting the Pope and being 45 minutes late. You don’t arrive 45 minutes late for the pope if you care. And I understand that the second time Putin went, he also kept the Pope waiting. So I don’t think he cares.
The dynamic with Patriarch Kirill – will he or his assistant say anything critical of the pope? – I don’t think it will have much effect. Maybe it will play out in Russia because Kirill still has a big role and people have great respect for him in Russia, especially in rural Russia.
I don’t think Putin cares. During my stay there, I saw Putin visiting the Pope and being 45 minutes late.
The Pope tried to maintain good relations with Patriarch Kirill, who now continues to bless the invasion of Russia. I’m curious what effect the Pope visiting Ukraine, or even speaking more critically, would have on his ecumenical efforts with Patriarch Cyril. Would a papal trip mean he renounces this relationship?
I doubt he’ll ever give them up, but he can appreciate the realities much more now than he did six years ago. [when he became the first pope in history to meet with a Russian Orthodox patriarch]. He repeatedly tried to deepen his relationship with the Patriarch of Moscow: they were repeatedly invited to attend events in the Vatican. So he did, I think, everything that could be done to try to foster a positive relationship with Patriarch Kirill – he’s not going anywhere.
I bet the people around the pope convinced him that [attempts to dialogue with Russia are] is not going anywhere with this patriarch, especially given the relationship between Kirill and Putin. They’re just intertwined: Putin uses Kirill, and Kirill probably uses Putin in some way too.
[Read next: Former Jesuit superior of Ukraine: ‘Putin is destroying the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine.’]
I wanted to ask you about the pope visit the Russian Embassy and talk to the ambassador.
The pope has done, I think, everything that can be done to try to foster positive relations with Patriarch Cyril – he just isn’t getting anywhere.
What was your reaction to this news?
Oh, I was shocked. That was around the time people started asking me, “Is the Pope not going to say anything?” I said, “Well, look what he did yesterday. He went to see the ambassador at the embassy! It’s so unprecedented. I don’t think there was a pope who visited an embassy [to the Holy See] that I have ever read.
So it was significant. Holding the Ukrainian flag was significant. There have been significant statements by the Pope that do not necessarily condemn Russia per se, but condemn war and invasion.
And there is even meaning in referring to it as a war and an invasion.
Back to the possibility of a papal visit: what are the advantages here? What positive aspects would the Holy See see in sending the Pope to Ukraine?
Oh, it’s quite simple. The action is the message, in my opinion. Go is the message. He has nothing to say, just go and be there.
What is the message it sends?
The message of peace. It’s like when he came to the United States, people from certain parts of the government wanted to know, “What can we agree on? And I remember Archbishop Paul Gallagher [the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states] telling them, “You don’t have to agree on anything. It’s here!” It’s symbolism; it’s important. And people are reading the symbols. The fact that the pope is in Ukraine or talking about Ukraine shows that there is great concern. It’s a message of peace. That’s what it is.
[Read next: Pope Francis is wise to not call out Putin directly. Here’s why.]