ROME – Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See has hinted that a possible papal trip to his country could happen before the pope’s visit to Kazakhstan in mid-September, when he is expected to meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill.
Pope Francis met with the Ukrainian Ambassador to the Holy See, Andrii Yurash, on Saturday for a private conversation at the Vatican.
In a Tweet sent after the Aug. 6 meeting, Yurash quoted the pope as telling him, “I am very close to (Ukraine) & want to express this closeness through my visit to (Ukraine).”
Yurash called these “important words” from the pope and said that “(Ukraine) for many years & especially since (the) start of (the) war has been waiting for (the) Pope & I’ll be happy to greet him before his trip to Kazakhstan.”
In a separate Tweet, Yurash said his meetings with Pope Francis are “always inspirational. Especially when there is a chance to discuss and promote subjects that (are) ‘on table’ for a long time, like Pope’s visit to Ukraine.”
“(Ukraine) wants to meet and greet His Holiness as quick as possible, even before his trip to (Kazakhstan),” Yurash said.
Pope Francis has stated his desire to visit Kyiv repeatedly and has said several times that a trip to Kyiv is “on the table,” but also that such an outing would be complicated, and the Vatican must find the right moment.
On a July 30 return flight from Canada, Francis told reporters that he would still like to go to Ukraine, but that it depends on his leg. The 85-year-old pontiff has been coping with ongoing osteoarthritis of the knee, and has said surgery is not an option due to a bad reaction to anesthesia during his colon surgery last summer.
In an interview with Reuters last month, the pope said that if he went to Ukraine, he also wanted to visit Russia, and that he wanted “to go to Moscow first.”
Observers have said a trip to Russia is unlikely, and presidential spokesmen in Russia have denied that plans are underway for a potential papal visit.
However, even if he can’t make it to Russia, it’s likely that during his Sept. 13-15 visit to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, for a high-profile interfaith congress, Francis will meet with Kirill, who is known for his vocal support of the war in Ukraine and is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Francis called off a planned meeting with Kirill in June in Jerusalem due to the diplomatic fallout such an encounter would have created, given Kirill’s defense of the war in Ukraine on both spiritual and ideological grounds. In previous remarks, Kirill said Russia is defending itself against western secularism, which he argued violates “God’s law,” as well as a growing “Russophobia” among western nations.
Pope Francis and Kirill held a first historic meeting in Havana, Cuba in 2016, marking the first time a pope and Russian Orthodox patriarch had met, and the Jerusalem meeting was to be the second time they sat down in person.
The two spoke by video call in March. If they do meet in Kazakhstan, it will mark the first time they have met in person since the war began after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
Pope Francis’s meeting with Yurash came the day after he held a private meeting Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony of Volokolamsk, president of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of Foreign Affairs, meaning he essentially serves as the patriarchate’s foreign minister.
Both meetings came just days after the Vatican announced the pope’s visit to Kazakhstan, suggesting that not only is the pope likely to meet with Kirill, but he could also be trying to make good on his intention to visit Ukraine.
Should the pope and Kirill meet, it would likely be on the second day of the pope’s visit, during the congress’s scheduled time for private meetings among the various interfaith leaders present.
If Pope Francis can’t visit Russia, a conversation with Kirill could be his next best option if he intends to visit Ukraine but doesn’t want to alienate the Russians or give the impression that he is taking sides, as the Vatican has long practiced a diplomatic strategy of neutrality.
A quick visit to Ukraine could also be a way to avoid sending the wrong message to Ukrainians who might be inclined to see the meeting as a betrayal, and who have been critical of past remarks in which Francis has said there are no clear “good guys” and “bad guys” in the conflict, suggesting that arming Ukraine is a mistake.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen