Artillery Row

Putin and the Pope

Can the Argentinian pontiff make a difference in Ukraine?

Like most Argentines, Pope Francis won’t take “No” for an answer. Trust me — I’m married to one. Decades in and out of Buenos Aires have taught me that folks like our Pontiff, sons of the River Plate (in his case the first son of the Americas so anointed) believe in their extraordinary power to work, cajole or charm their way to their goal.

Pope Francis has been asking Putin for a meeting

The Pope aka Father Jorge Bergoglio from Flores, intensely proud of all things Argentine, from his favourite morning medialunas (croissants, yes, shaped like a half-moon) to his football team, San Lorenzo, (named, yes, after a Saint, Lawrence, champion of the poor) has a goal. And, clearly, he believes he can make the other half say “Yes”. Especially when he senses that he’s faced that other half, one Vladimir Putin, in another guise, at another time, in a uniquely Argentine war.

Since the third week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pope Francis has been asking Putin for a meeting. Despite his age, and increasing signs of ailments at 85, Father Jorge has made the Vatican’s diplomatic corps tell the Kremlin repeatedly that he wants to travel to Moscow to see Putin, and then go on to Kiev for Ukraine’s President Zelensky.

“In the name of God, stop this war!” Pope Francis declared in a rare interview the other day with Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera. He insisted that his de facto Foreign minister, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has been messaging Putin directly. “We have received no answer whatsoever, but we keep pressing them on this issue,” Francis disclosed.

“I fear that Putin cannot, or does not want to agree to our meeting at the moment, “ he said. “But how can you not try and do whatever you can to stop the atrocities?” Ever the smart operator, the Argentine charmer, Pope Francis wondered whether Putin’s motivation for war was fuelled by “NATO barking at his door….I don’t know, but maybe that facilitated this invasion”.

But he didn’t mince words when it came to Russia’s large Orthodox Christian Church, an ally of Putin’s for years and now a champion of the invasion of Ukraine. The Pope told his erstwhile friend, Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill, to stop being “Putin’s altar boy”.

Yikes. As a lifelong Catholic, one-time altar boy and Moscow correspondent when the collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed freedom of Christian Orthodox worship across Russia, I could feel the sting in that remark. Patriarch Kirill was not amused, and said so, while reiterating his support for Putin’s brutal war.

I met Cardinal Bergoglio, as he was then, a decade ago. When I was introduced to him at a diplomatic reception as a representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, he fired away, listing conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. “So when will you at the UN bring humanity some peace?” he asked. “Tell the Secretary-General some of us look for actions, not words.” Let’s just say I made my apologies, and retreated. Not a man to be taken lightly, I judged.

The Pope has now positioned himself as a mediator over Ukraine

He has now positioned himself as a mediator over Ukraine, hence the cagey denunciation of Putin and his evil deeds, in tandem with quietly acknowledging that “the West’s attitude may have provoked him”.

It is worth considering that Father Jorge Bergoglio, Jesuit priest of another age, has history with such monsters as Putin. That personal history dogged him for years, making talking-points aplenty when he was chosen as Pope in 2013. His past became a central feature of a Hollywood movie, The Two Popes, highlighting his days as Jesuit leader during the murderous regime of Argentina’s military junta in the late 1970s.

Padre Bergoglio walked a fine line as the military imprisoned, tortured and murdered opponents in the years after seizing power in 1976. He talked to the Junta, specifically the Navy Chief Emilio Massera, whose academy was centre-point for those who became known so simply, and so tragically as “the disappeared”. To this day, some hold Pope Francis responsible for the loss of loved ones. Many others cast him as a church leader who bought time, and in due course freedom, for priests in his care. Characteristically, Father Jorge has admitted he didn’t always make the right call.

The fact remains that a face-to-face between the Pope and Putin does offer the rare prospect of Russia’s tyrant meeting a world leader who has an understanding, deeper than the rest of us, of what’s at work when a despot sees no bounds to the kind of murder and mayhem he can inflict. That’s Putin in Ukraine over the past three months. That was the military Junta in Argentina in the late 1970s.

For the moment, Putin simply isn’t answering the religious leader who gets all his calls answered. With every week, however, Pope Francis hears his homeland crying out for him to get on a plane, to Moscow and Kiev. “It really hurts, as Argentines,” one leading politician told me the other day in Buenos Aires, “that our Pope hasn’t gone there yet, to stand between both sides and say: stop this war!” That Argentine DNA is strong. So watch this space.

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