Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis. Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Press / TASS / Alexei Nikolsky

The papacy is back in global politics – that is, assuming it ever left. The gesture by Pope Francis to visit the Russian Embassy in Rome on Friday was undoubtedly a notable event, for a variety of reasons.

Francis has an enduring reputation as a “pinkish pope” credited with progressive views – he once refused to grant an audience to the former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo – and his trip on Friday came within hours of reports that the first Russian tank column had appeared on the outskirts of Kiev. 

The Vatican has a centuries-old “foreign service” of diplomats and spies, “think tanks” and journalists. Nothing that a pope does is ever coincidental. There is also the ponderous Vatican bureaucracy, which makes the decisions for the pope.

But interestingly, Francis’ visit to the Russian Embassy on Friday was not listed in his customary daily program sheet of engagements.

That alone makes it an extraordinary, hands-on papal gesture that has no recent precedent. The US cable network CNN reported that the Pope spoke with the Russian ambassador for more than an hour and a half.

Francis has called for the peaceful end of the conflict and is urging Catholics to set Wednesday aside as a day of fasting and prayer dedicated to peace in Ukraine. 

By way of background, after the CIA-sponsored coup in Ukraine in 2014 and the commencement of the anti-Russian trajectory of the new regime in Kiev, a schism was engineered in Orthodox Christianity, as Ukraine separated itself by establishing its own Ukrainian Orthodox Church in December 2018, distinct and autonomous from the Russian Orthodox Church. 

Ukraine’s president at the time, Petro Poroshenko, had famously said while addressing the believers who celebrated Mass under the golden domes of St Michael’s Cathedral in Kiev to mark the formal split, that his country would “no longer drink Moscow’s poison from Moscow’s chalice.” 

By late 2018 and early 2019, when Orthodox Christians in Ukraine declared independence, or autocephaly, from the Orthodox Patriarchate in Russia, Russians in general waffled between two emotions – shock and devastation.

At any rate, the Orthodox Church in Constantinople promptly set about recognizing the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, while Russian Orthodox leaders refused. The result: two opposing Orthodox factions in the country today. 

Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine Yepifaniy Sergiy Dubenko (C) conducts the first liturgy since the creation of a new Ukrainian church independent from Russia in the Saint Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kiev on December 16, 2018. Photo: AFP / Genya Savilov

It is into the vortex of this schism in the Orthodox Church that Francis has entered. No doubt, he would have been intensely conscious of it. Actually, there is a hypothesis that the political rifts between Russia and Ukraine even extend to the religious realm – or vice versa, depending on how one views it – considering that President Vladimir Putin himself is a devout Orthodox Christian and is personally close to Moscow Patriarch Kirill.  

Catholics in Ukraine are estimated to number about 4 million to 5 million people, about 9% of the population. The main characteristic feature of Ukrainian Catholicism is the predominance of the Greek Catholics over the Catholics of the Latin rite.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church is an Eastern Rite Catholic church that recognizes the pope as its head but follows Byzantine liturgy.  Francis is known to practice ecumenism through relationships, personal encounters, and ecumenical gestures.

In fact, since the Great Schism of 1054 when the Catholic and Orthodox churches as a community parted ways, it was Francis who had the first meeting ever with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches) when he met Patriarch Kirill in February 2016 at a pre-arranged meeting in a VIP room at the international airport near Havana, Cuba. (Cuban dignitaries attending the occasion included President Raul Castro.)

After a two-hour private meeting, the Pope and the Patriarch signed a joint declaration on a range of topics that focused on the unity of the Christian Church and their unique role as “brothers in the Christian faith.” 

Analysts opine that Francis’ meeting with Patriarch Kirill had a geopolitical dimension, given President Putin’s assertion of Russia’s influence on the world stage and his “political alliance” with Kirill. This needs some explaining.

It is well known that Patriarch Kirill’s policies have brought the Russian Orthodox Church closer to the Russian state through the past two decades. In the 2012 Russian presidential election, he openly supported Putin, likening Putin’s presidency to “a miracle from God.”

Now, it is no secret that the Moscow Patriarchate has acted as an instrument of Russian international policy and has been an effective transmitter worldwide of the Kremlin’s political interests. 

In fact, Francis even drew some flak for allowing himself to be used by a Russia eager to assert itself. But then, Francis had his answer ready. When he was asked about the possibility of being the first pope to visit Russia and China, he pointed to his heart and said: “China and Russia, I have them here. Pray.” 

Putin has met with Francis three times. A trio of audiences with the pope for a world statesman is exceedingly rare, if ever. They are known to have discussed politics. 

Pope Francis swings a thurible at the start of Easter Sunday Mass behind closed doors at St. Peter’s Basilica in The Vatican. Photo: AFP

That said, no Catholic Church leader has yet entered the domain of Russian Orthodoxy. And it remains a coveted destination for a papal trip. Francis enjoys a great reputation in Russia, and some suspect Kirill might even be jealous of the Argentine Pope’s popularity.

Putin’s second meeting with Francis at the Vatican, lasting 50 minutes (quite lengthy as far as papal audiences go), took place in June 2015 within months of Crimea’s return to Russia.

The Vatican said at that time that Francis demanded, “sincere and comprehensive efforts for peace” in Ukraine and the pair had agreed that a “climate of dialogue” had to be restored, and that “all parties” had to adhere to the Minsk Agreements.

It stands to reason that at the meeting on Friday, Francis conveyed to the Kremlin some message in regard to the developments in Ukraine. The long duration of the meeting in the Russian Embassy flags that it was substantive.

Given Francis’ flair for geopolitics, his empathy with Russian foreign policy and his critique of the West in many ways, the in-person visit to the embassy – Francis could always have summoned the ambassador, which is the usual practice – makes it an extraordinary hands-on gesture.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.