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An anti-war pope confronts a world in turmoil

An anti-war pope confronts a world in turmoil

Christmas has come again, but peace remains elusive

Reporting | Global Crises

Since October 7, Pope Francis has paid special attention to the war in the Holy Land. As Israeli bombs began falling on Gaza in response to an unprecedented Hamas attack, the pontiff spoke often with parishioners at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza City, where hundreds of Palestinians had taken shelter.

The pope called the church “every day to say ‘hello’, to ask how they are doing, and to impart his blessing,” according to parish priest Fr. Gabriele. The frequent contact with Gaza’s only Catholic church is perhaps one reason for Francis’s emphatic stance against the war. It also helps explain why, when an Israeli sniper allegedly killed two Christian women who had taken shelter at the church, the pope pulled no punches in his criticism.

“Unarmed civilians are the objects of bombings and shootings,” Francis said. “And this happened even inside the Holy Family parish complex, where there are no terrorists, but families, children, people who are sick or disabled, nuns.”

“This is war. This is terrorism,” he said. “May the drawing close of Christmas reinforce the commitment to open the paths to peace.”

As the faithful gather to celebrate Christmas, the Vatican finds itself facing a world in crisis. Well before the Gaza conflict kicked off, Pope Francis had already taken to saying that we are living through a third world war, with battlefields spread around the globe. “This is something that should give us pause for thought,” he told America Magazine last year. “What is happening to humanity that we have had three world wars in a century?”

The pope is in a unique position to fight back against this trend. In Catholic tradition, Pope Francis is both shepherd to his flock, which sometimes huddles in the world's darkest corners, and a head of state, with the backing of a seasoned corps of diplomat-priests trained at the prestigious Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome. He also has a nearly unparalleled ability to garner media coverage of his views.

Put simply, the pope is a stakeholder in nearly every world conflict, and he has the tools to do something about it.

Since his 2013 election, Francis has focused on fighting climate change, building ties with other faiths, discouraging war, and, of course, protecting Christians. These laudable goals have always been in tension, but the past year’s events have strained them even further.

Ukraine is a case in point. Despite pressure from Ukrainian Catholics, the pontiff has stubbornly refused to pin all of the blame for the war on Russia and insisted that the conflict can only end through talks. “I am simply against reducing something complex to the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, without reflecting on the roots and interests, which are very complex,” he said last year.

Ukrainian bishops reacted with fury when Francis praised figures from Russia’s imperial history in an August call with young Russian Catholics. The comments “are painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people, who are currently bleeding in the struggle for their dignity and independence,” argued a letter from the leader of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic church, which is in communion with the Vatican.

But Pope Francis has remained steadfast in his neutral stance on the war, a position that gives him more room to maneuver than those who have firmly backed Russia or Ukraine. At nearly every public audience since the war began, he has mourned the “martyred” Ukrainians and called on both sides to lay down their arms, highlighting the conflict’s enormous impact on civilians.

Notably, his careful efforts to rebuild ties with the Russian Orthodox Church have also borne some fruit.

The Holy See has led an initiative to swap noncombatant prisoners via a winding backchannel, according to the Washington Post. First, Ukrainian officials pass on lists of prisoners to the papal nuncio (the Catholic equivalent of an ambassador) in Kyiv, who then forwards them to the Vatican. Then, the Holy See sends the documents along to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leader, Patriarch Kirill, personally delivers them to the Kremlin. This effort has resulted in several prisoner swaps.

The pope’s more ambitious project — facilitating talks to end the war — has been less successful. In May, Francis appointed Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi as his “peace envoy” for Ukraine. Zuppi, who helped end a civil war in Mozambique in 1992, quickly set off on trips to Ukraine and Russia before a July stopover to the United States, where he met with President Joe Biden for two hours.

Zuppi scored a notable victory for papal diplomacy in September, when he visited Beijing and secured a high-level meeting with a Chinese official — “the first-ever meeting in the Chinese capital between the Holy See and a senior Chinese official,” as Alejandro Reyes recently noted in RS. With a new cold war brewing, the Vatican has managed to maintain or even improve ties with each of the world’s great powers.

Recognizing that peace talks remain far off, Zuppi has pivoted to focus on the repatriation of Ukrainian children who have been taken from their families and resettled in Russia. As the Pillar has reported, Francis’s peace envoy has signaled that there is some momentum on this front. “Progress is slow, but something is moving,” Zuppi said last month.

Ukraine, then, demonstrates both the extent of and limits on the pope’s ability to affect events. The pontiff can focus world attention on the human costs of war and force leaders to think about peace, but he has no real mechanism to enforce his will.

This brings us back to Gaza, where more than two months of war has left more than 20,000 Palestinians dead and much of the strip in ruins. As Israel began its full-scale invasion of Gaza in October, Pope Francis reportedly told Israeli President Isaac Herzog that it is “forbidden to respond to terror with terror.”

The call apparently went so poorly that neither side opted to publicize it. (Israeli officials have studiously avoided any public criticism of the pope.) A Vatican spokesperson told the Washington Post that the call, “like others in the same days, takes place in the context of the Holy Father’s efforts aimed at containing the gravity and scope of the conflict situation in the Holy Land.”

Since the pope has limited leverage over Hamas or Israel, he has largely used his media megaphone to highlight the plight of civilians and call for an end to the war. Francis held separate audiences with the families of people who had died in Gaza and the loved ones of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, with each group hoping that the meetings would focus world attention on their plight. A ceasefire remains elusive.

Last Christmas, Pope Francis called on believers to turn their gaze to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. “We must acknowledge with sorrow that, even as the Prince of Peace is given to us, the icy winds of war continue to buffet humanity,” he lamented.

Despite the pontiff’s best efforts, those winds have now swept into the Holy Land. In Bethlehem, there will be no public celebrations of Christmas this year.

Pope Francis stands by a figurine of baby Jesus during the Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Peter's Basilica amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic at the Vatican December 24, 2020. Vincenzo Pinto/ Pool via REUTERS

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