The Ruthenian mission of the Pope of Rome
by Stefano Caprio

Francis seeks to build bridges jwhile the 'piecemeal third world war' destroys them, raising walls and digging trenches or even drowning towns and cities under the flood of war. The initiative entrusted to Card. Zuppi is also an excellent 'cover' for the many humanitarian efforts of all the institutions of the Catholic Church in Ukraine and Russia. And between Rome, Moscow and Kiev, a new chapter in a long history opens.

Many hopes, though few illusions, are pinned on the Holy See's attempts to get Russia and Ukraine to talk peace, after more than fifteen months of senseless war and strenuous resistance.

Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi's visit to Kiev, which may soon continue with a similar trip to Moscow, was not intended to propose concrete measures to start highly improbable negotiations, while apocalyptic clashes are underway that have led to the devastation of the Kherson area, with the explosion of the Nova Khakovka dam, as close as possible to the Universal Flood.

Zuppi is certainly the most representative figure of Pope Francis' desire to put a stop to the madness of war. The only Roman cardinal, a personal friend of Bergoglio's, so much so that he often appears on lists of the 'papabili', a historical member of the Community of St. Egidio, the Catholic Church's 'parallel diplomacy' structure, a former negotiator in Mozambique and other contexts, he is also the president of the Italian Bishops' Conference, thus representing the community of a country traditionally friendly to Russia, even though he is clearly in favour of defending Ukraine from invasion.

The mission of the archbishop of Bologna, a city 'on the border' between the north and south of Italy itself, is also an excellent 'cover' for the many efforts of all the institutions of the Catholic Church in Ukraine and Russia, the nuncios and local bishops, charitable associations and the parishes themselves.

The Church's primary focus is always on people, before political, military and economic strategies: it is the care of refugees, abandoned and deported children, prisoners (among the hostages of the Russians there are also Catholic priests) and families, often devastated by the loss of their homes and men killed in combat, in addition to the many victims of the bombings and inhuman massacres perpetuated in many cities. It was no coincidence that Zuppi visited Buča, the site of the most harrowing horror of this war.

Pope Francis has been trying to build bridges since before the start of the Putin invasion (as his very title of pontiff states) just as the 'third world war in pieces', now welded into one great world front, is destroying all bridges, erecting walls and digging trenches, even drowning towns and cities under the deluge of war.

In the Russian-Ukrainian literature of ancient times, under the Tatar-Mongolian invasion of the medieval centuries, the legend of the city of Kitež, sunk in Lake Svetlojar across the Volga, stood out, resurfacing at regular intervals to affirm the eternity of the Russian people, despite the devastation.

The legend was taken up in a musical work by the great 19th century composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a member of the group of musicians who sought to rediscover the Russian soul. He extolled the figure of the saint Fevronia, a girl who was about to celebrate her marriage at the time of the invasion, then became the spiritual image of an invisible city, of an unsinkable 'new people'.

It seems that Russians and Ukrainians need to better re-read the treasures of their own culture, without trying to appropriate them only for propaganda, as the Moscow Patriarchate has done in recent days with Rublev's icon of the Trinity.

The Vatican never forgets past histories, not even those of distant countries, and looks to Russia and Ukraine that will have to rise again after the invasion and devastation, from the lake of blood and shame in which they have sunk for the umpteenth time in history.

The peace mission is about the future, hopefully not too far in the future, not least because it is clear to all that neither of the two forces on the field really has the resources to permanently annihilate the enemy, no matter how hard the allies, armies and arms merchants try to increase their volume of fire.

The pope of Rome has supported peace in these lands since ancient times, considering it a crucial junction for all of universal Christianity. The sending of cardinals and ambassadors to Moscow and Kiev is a classic of relations with what in curial language was called Ruthenia, the Latin name for ancient Rus', which today is reserved for the Slavs 'in between' the northern and Balkan lands.

One recalls two letters from Pope Innocent IV (the one from the clash with the Swabian Emperor Frederick II) to Prince Alexander Nevsky, the one who was trying to save Rus' under Mongol domination, in which the pontiff proposed reuniting with the Roman See, or at least making peace with the Teutonic Knights, the heirs of the Templars that Alexander had defeated by drowning them in the Estonian ice of Lake Peipus.

The pope suggested building a large 'united' cathedral in the free city of Pskov, where the Catholic archbishop of the Prussians would be installed to mediate with all the warring peoples, including the Tatars. In 1251, two cardinals even appeared before the prince with a papal bull, after a successful mission to the lands of Galicia (present-day Ukraine) and Lithuania, which had been drawn to the Latin communion.

Prince Aleksandr, who had settled in Vladimir from Novgorod, from which Moscow had also originated, preferred to hold on to his Orthodox Metropolitan, who by the vicissitudes of history was called Kirill, sending him to the Tatars on the Volga to defend the interests of the Russians, refusing the outstretched hand of the Pope of Rome. He replied: 'Rus' does not need you'.

Many other missions can be recalled, starting with that of St Ignatius of Loyola's companion, the Jesuit Antonio Possevino, who tried in vain to convince Ivan the Terrible to come to an agreement with Rome. The most creative dates back to the mid-fifteenth century, when Pope Paul II proposed to Grand Prince Ivan III a Byzantine fiancée of imperial lineage, Zoe Paleologa, who had taken refuge in Rome after the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Turks. The pope's hope was that the marriage would put an end to the dissension between the Russians and the Western Catholic world, and he had her accompanied to Moscow by the then archbishop of Bologna, Antonio Bonombra, who led the procession with the Latin cross, but was immediately begged to step aside by the grand duke's guards. The princess became the wife of Ivan (and grandmother of Ivan the Terrible), returning to Orthodoxy and changing her name to one that the Russians considered proper, that of Sophia.

Another great of the first generation Jesuits, the Pole Petr Skarga, convinced the Orthodox Russians of the Kingdom of Poland to accept the Union with Rome in 1596, as a response to the claims of the Moscow Patriarchate, established seven years earlier. It was in fact the beginning of Ukraine's modern history, later confirmed by the Cossack uprisings, and for a century in those lands the transition from Orthodoxy to Catholicism (and back) was the norm of ecclesiastical relations, with dramatic moments and "eternal" reconciliations, even if soon disproved. The 'Westernist' Emperor Peter the Great, who conducted war campaigns for twenty-five of his nearly thirty-year reign, considered himself Orthodox when in Moscow and Catholic when visiting subjugated Poland, even taking communion at the Latin Mass. He failed to travel to Rome in his 'Grand Embassy' at the end of the 17th century, limiting himself to an overnight visit to Venice before returning to Moscow, but then planned to found a new capital in 1703 similar to the lagoon city, St Petersburg meaning 'city of St Peter', the new Rome, the birthplace of Putin and Patriarch Kirill.

In the 19th century, the Holy See even succeeded in concluding a Concordat with the Tsars of Russia, but it was never activated, partly due to the opposition of the Catholics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus themselves, who preferred to go it alone with the St Petersburg court.

A new attempt was made in 1917, after the February revolution, with an agreement drawn up together with the provisional government of the democratic socialist Aleksandr Kerensky, which was also sunk by the Bolshevik coup in October.

Not even this time did the Vatican give in: on the initiative of the visionary Jesuit Michel d'Herbigny, the Pro-Russia Commission was set up, formally never suppressed, to evaluate all possible avenues for dialogue and Catholic penetration into the atheistic Soviet state. 

Even this initiative remained without practical results, and when Stalin decided to suppress the Greek-Catholic Church in Ukraine with the 1947 Pseudo-Synod of Lviv, attempts were made to salvage what could be saved in hiding and in the suffering of hard labor camps.

The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Cardinal of Lviv Josif Slipyj, after years of detention, was freed through lengthy negotiations and settled in Rome, where he remained as the silent leader of the Church-martyr until 1983, when he died in the cathedral of St Sophia, built on the Via Boccea to commemorate what the Soviets had suppressed or even destroyed in his homeland.

Negotiations continued up to the Second Vatican Council, where representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate surprisingly showed up, and Pope John XXIII even managed to come between Kennedy and Khruščev, who had come close to nuclear war in Cuba. The figurines, and even sculptural groups with the three 'heralds of peace' of America, Russia and the Vatican, who opened the apparently 'peaceful' phase of the 20th century Cold War, still exist today.

Today, the cathedral on Via Boccea is one of the most active centres in assisting the brothers in the Ukrainian homeland, welcoming refugees and collecting relief supplies to be sent. This too is a mission of peace, indeed above all this one, in which not only popes and cardinals participate, but priests and lay people, ordinary faithful and families, men and women of good will.

The Catholic Church has always been committed to this, without waiting for summit meetings and official negotiations. And in the smile of Card. Zuppi expresses the certainty that, with God's help, Ukraine and Russia will re-emerge from the waters of evil like the legendary city of Kitež, to begin a new life together.