RUSSIAN WORLD The Ruthenian mission of the Pope of Rome

High hopes, though very few illusions, are pinned on the Holy See’s attempts to make Russia and Ukraine reflect on peace, after fifteen months of senseless war and stubborn resistance. The visit of Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi to Kiev, which could soon continue with a similar trip to Moscow, was not intended to propose concrete measures to start highly unlikely negotiations, when apocalyptic clashes are taking place that have led to the devastation of the Kherson area. with the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam that so closely resembles the Universal Flood.

Zuppi is undoubtedly the most representative figure of Pope Francis’ desire to put an end to the madness of war. The only Roman cardinal, personal friend of Bergoglio -who is often included in the “papable” lists-, historical member of the Community of Sant’Egidio -the structure of “parallel diplomacy” of the Catholic Church- ex-negotiator in Mozambique and other contexts, he is also president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, and therefore represents the Catholic community of a country traditionally friendly to Russia, despite being clearly in favor of defending Ukraine from invasion.

The mission of the Archbishop of Bologna, a “border” city between northern and southern Italy, is at the same time an excellent way to protect the efforts of all the institutions of the Catholic Church in Ukraine and in Russia, the local nuncios and bishops , charitable associations and even the parishes themselves. The primary objective of the Church is always the people, even 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 who died in combat, in addition of the numerous victims of the bombings and inhuman massacres perpetrated in many cities. It is no coincidence that Zuppi has visited Bucha, the place of the most frightful horror of this war.

Pope Francis is trying to build bridges from before Putin’s invasion began (as his very title “Pontiff” indicates) at the same time as “world war 3 in pieces” – which have already come together in one great world front – is destroying all the bridges, building walls and digging trenches, and even submerging towns and cities under the deluge of war. In the ancient Russo-Ukrainian literature of medieval times, when the Tatar-Mongol invasion took place, the legend of the city of Kitezh, submerged in Lake Svetloyar on the other side of the Volga, reappeared at regular intervals to affirm the eternity of the Russian people, despite the devastations.

The legend was captured in a musical work by the great 19th century composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was part of a group of musicians trying to recover the Russian soul. The central figure is Saint Febronia, a young woman who was about to celebrate her wedding at the time of the invasion and became the spiritual image of an invisible city, of a “new town” that cannot be drowned. Perhaps Russians and Ukrainians should carefully reread the treasures of their own culture without claiming to appropriate them for propaganda, as the Moscow Patriarchate has done in recent days with the Rublev Trinity icon.

The Vatican never forgets past histories, not even those of distant countries, and its gaze is fixed on Russia and the Ukraine, which will have to rise again, after the invasion and devastation, from the lake of blood and shame in which they found themselves. have sunk for the umpteenth time in history. The peace mission looks to the future, hoping that it is not too far away, because it is already clear to everyone that neither force actually has the resources to definitively annihilate the enemy, no matter how hard the allies, armies, and arms merchants to increase their volume of fire.

The Pope of Rome has offered his support for peace in these lands since ancient times, because he considers them a decisive crossroads for all of Christendom. The sending of cardinals and ambassadors to Moscow and Kiev is a classic of relations with what in the curial language was called Ruthenia, the Latin name of ancient Rus’ and today reserved for the “middle” Slavs who live between the northern lands. and the Balkans. Two letters from Pope Innocent IV (the one who clashed with Swabian Emperor Frederick II) to Prince Aleksandr Nevsk, who was trying to save Mongol-dominated Rus’, are remembered. The Pope proposes that he join the Roman headquarters, or at least make peace with the Teutonic Knights, the heirs of the Templars whom Aleksandr had defeated, drowning them in the Estonian ice of Lake Peipus. The Pope suggested building a large “Uniate” cathedral in the free city of Pskov, where he would install the Catholic Archbishop of the Prussians to mediate with all warring peoples, including the Tatars. In 1251 two cardinals 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 incorporated into the Latin communion. Prince Aleksandr, who had settled in Vladimir from Novgorod -where Moscow also originated- preferred to cling to his Orthodox metropolitan -who for those things in history was called Kirill- and sent him to the Volga Tatars to defend the interests of the Russians, rejecting the outstretched hand of the Pope of Rome. And he replied: “Rus’ does not need you.”

Many other missions could be remembered, beginning with that of the companion of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuit Antonio Possevino, who tried in vain to convince Ivan the Terrible to reach an agreement with Rome. The most creative dates back to the mid-15th century, when Pope Paul II proposed to Grand Prince Ivan III a Byzantine bride of imperial lineage, Zoe Palaiologa, who had taken refuge in Rome after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. The pope had hoped that the marriage would put an end to disagreements between the Russians and the Western Catholic world, and he had her escorted to Moscow by the then-archbishop of Bologna, Antonio Bonombra, who led the procession with the Latin cross. But the Grand Duke’s guards immediately begged her to step aside. The princess became Ivan’s wife (and Ivan the Terrible’s grandmother), she returned to Orthodoxy and changed her name to Sophia, a name that the Russians considered her own.

Another great first-generation Jesuit, the Pole Petr Skarga, convinced the Russian Orthodox Kingdom of Poland to accept union with Rome in 1596, in response to the claims of the Moscow Patriarchate, established seven years earlier. It was, in fact, the beginning of modern Ukrainian history, later confirmed by the Cossack uprisings, and for a century in those lands the transition from Orthodoxy to Catholicism (and vice versa) was the norm of church relations, with dramatic moments and “eternal” reconciliations, though soon disproved. The “Westernist” Emperor Peter the Great, who waged war for twenty-five of his nearly thirty-year reign, considered himself Orthodox when in Moscow and Catholic when visiting subjugated Poland, and even took communion at the Latin Mass. He failed to reach Rome when he undertook his “Great Embassy” at the end of the seventeenth century, limiting himself to a nightly visit to Venice before returning to Moscow, but then, in 1703, he decided to found a new capital similar to the city on the water, Saint Petersburg, which means “city of Saint Peter”, the new Rome, the birthplace of Putin and Patriarch Kirill.

In the 19th century, the Holy See even managed to sign a Concordat with the Russian tsars, although it was never put into practice due, among other things, to the opposition of the same Catholics in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, who preferred to deal on their own. It has the court of St. Petersburg. There was a new attempt in 1917, after the February revolution, with an agreement signed with the provisional government of the democratic socialist Aleksandr Kerensky, which also failed due to the Bolshevik coup in October. Even this time, the Vatican did not give up: on the initiative of the visionary Jesuit Michel d’Herbigny, the Pro-Russia Commission was established, which was never formally abolished, to evaluate all possible avenues for dialogue and Catholic penetration in the atheist Soviet state. This initiative also had no practical results, and when Stalin decided to suppress the Greek-Catholic Church in the Ukraine, with the pseudo Synod of Lviv in 1947, an attempt was made to save what was possible in hiding and suffering in the concentration camps.

The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Cardinal of Lviv, Josif Slipyj, after spending years in prison was released thanks to long negotiations and settled in Rome, where he remained the silent head of the Church-martyr until 1983, when he died in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, built on Via Boccea to remember everything that the Soviets had suppressed or even destroyed in their country. Negotiations continued until the Second Vatican Council, where delegates from the Moscow Patriarchate unexpectedly showed up, and Pope John XXIII managed to intervene between Kennedy and Khrushchev when they were on the brink of nuclear war in Cuba. You can still find small images and even statuettes with the three “heralds of peace” from the United States, Russia and the Vatican, who inaugurated the apparently “peaceful” era of the Cold War of the 20th century.

Currently, the cathedral of via Boccea is one of the most active centers in helping the brothers of the Ukrainian homeland, welcoming refugees and collecting the aid that is sent. This is also a mission of peace, even more so, it is the most important, because not only popes and cardinals participate, but priests and laity, simple faithful and families, men and women of good will. The Catholic Church has always been engaged in this way, without waiting for the results of the summits and official negotiations. And in the smile of Card. Zuppi expresses the certainty that, with God’s help, Ukraine and Russia will rise from the waters of evil as the legendary city of Kitezh, to start a new life together.



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