An article by: Vladimir Sapozhnikov

The visit to Moscow by Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, Archbishop of Bologna and President of the Italian Episcopal Conference, is under close scrutiny of the Russian media. For analysts, the meetings with Zuppi, Pope Francis’s peaceful representative, are part of a sophisticated and complex fabric of the pontiff’s “personal diplomacy,” which, however, “may not correspond to the Vatican’s line”.

The recent visit to Moscow of Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, who was welcomed in the Russian capital as a special representative of Pope Francis, made a great impression on the Russian and international public. An informal conversation with President Vladimir Putin was in the plans, at the last moment causing the cardinal to even postpone his return to the Vatican for a day. But the Kremlin leader, for unspecified reasons, entrusted “the summing up of the cardinal’s welcome trip to Moscow” to his foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov who met with Zuppi for the second time on Friday, June 30.

“Today we agreed that Cardinal Zuppi will personally report to Pope Francis on his impressions of the talks in Moscow, and if additional proposals come from the pontiff, we will be ready to discuss them at any time. We also decided to stay in touch, and the cardinal clearly said that he would continue his peacekeeping mission, as determined by Pope Francis,” said after the talks the adviser to the President of Russia, according to whom “following the results of the cardinal’s consultations with the Pope, he will be able to coordinate our joint work in the context of sensitive humanitarian issues.” As L’Unità wrote, “the situation is also becoming more complicated on the Russian front after Prigozhin’s coup attempt and the consequences for the Kremlin, with the arrest of General Surovikin who was considered an accomplice of the head of Wagner. The diplomatic attempt by the Vatican that sent Cardinal Zuppi to negotiate with the leaders in Moscow fits into this complex scenario.”

According to unofficial information coming from the Kremlin, Putin was “outside Moscow, busy coordinating affairs in a country that was in shock from the preceding weekend’s coup attempt.” Despite Putin not being able to join the meeting, the Kremlin, while waiting for the Pope’s letter to Putin from Zuppi, allegedly asked the Holy See in very unequivocal terms “not to postpone the cardinal’s visit.”

“We have repeatedly stated that we appreciate the efforts and initiatives of the Vatican to find a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian crisis, and we welcome this desire of the Pope to help put an end to the armed conflict in Ukraine,” said the press secretary of the President of Russia Dmitry Peskov.

For the Russian media that carefully analyzed the almost four days (from the evening of June 27 to June 30) of Zuppi’s trip, the keywords of the visit were “future joint work” between Russia and the Holy See. According to a very detailed analysis by the Russian news agency Regnum, Zuppi’s visit is a brilliant example of the “pontiff’s personal diplomacy” that may “not correspond to the foreign policy of the Vatican State.”

At present, Russia is practically isolated from the Western world and maintains close ties with the countries of Eurasia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. This is quite a lot. But for the Kremlin it is very important to maintain the possibility of direct communication with the West. And the Holy See can help Moscow to open this glimpse.

There are those who claim that at this difficult moment for Russia, the Holy See acts as nearly its only companion. In an interview, don Stefano Caprio, Professor of Russian History and Culture at the Pontifical Oriental Institute of Rome (PIO), stated, “Russians cannot do without dialogue with Rome,” and the Holy See can bring an important message for Russia at this particular historical moment, which should “restore the true soul of Russia, the soul of its Orthodox religion, its culture, its universal tradition, and by experiencing this not in conflict with the world, but as a message of unity and understanding of the world.” According to Don Caprio, “the Pope remains the only friend for the Russians.” A very strong statement.

In short, the three days of Cardinal Zuppi’s stay in Moscow represent the “tip of the iceberg” of a very delicate process, most of which takes place behind the scenes. In this context, Russian analysts, who really sifted through the declarations of all parties, did not miss a single detail of the Italian assessments: from the interview of Don Caprio to the reports of the Affaritaliani portal, in one of which entitled “A trip to Moscow, later an event with anti-Kiev philosophy. Zuppi’s strategy” author Giuseppe Vatinno wrote, “A strange thing is undoubtedly happening in the Vatican: Cardinal Zuppi, President of the CEI, stole the position from Cardinal Pietro Parolina, Secretary of State of the Vatican, i.e. a person specially appointed to oversee the foreign policy of a small state.”

“Zuppi who delivered a personal letter from Pope Francis to Putin is undoubtedly a pontiff’s confidant and a valuable channel of communication,” wrote the expert on the Vatican Stanislav Stremidlovsky in the article “Consequences and Hidden Meaning of Cardinal Zuppi’s Visit to Moscow.” And, of course, there is plenty of “covert sense” and “hidden content” in this whole story.

The historic meeting of Zuppi with Patriarch Kirill to whom the cardinal “delivered the greetings of the Holy Father” took place at the Danilovsky Monastery and was described by the Russian Orthodox Church as “sincere and fruitful.” According to the Patriarch, “Churches can work together to serve the cause of peace and justice. It is important that all the forces of the world unite to prevent a major armed conflict.” The Patriarch’s statements fit into the broader and more dramatic context of the Wagner coup, when the world feared the Kremlin would lose control of Russia’s nuclear arsenals. The White House said for the first time in years that it had “good and constructive” contacts with the Kremlin on the day of the coup.

Few have noticed that Zuppi’s visit to the Russian capital was preceded by a trip to the Vatican by the head of the Foreign Department of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Anthony, who was received by the secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin and many high representatives of the Catholic Church, including Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio.

According to Russian media reports, it is no coincidence that Patriarch Kirill cited cooperation with the Community of Saint Egidio as a positive example of dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox, “The Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church have experience of interaction even in times of a truly unfavorable political climate,” Kirill said, referring to the “positive role of the Community of Sant’Egidio,” which “during the very harsh conditions of the Cold War that lasted most of the second half of the 20th century maintained lively and active ties with the Moscow Patriarchate.” In response, the communication service of the Moscow Patriarchate reported that “the guest stressed that even in the current situation, the dialogue should not stop but become even more intense.”

“Another very interesting fact,” Stremidlovsky writes, “is that it was during the days of Zuppi’s trip to Moscow that Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches and former special representative of the Pope for Belarus, went to Minsk, where he was received by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Sergei Oleinik to discuss in great detail the situation in Greater Eurasia and around the world.”

“Churches can serve the cause of peace and justice through joint efforts,” the Russian patriarch was quoted by the RBC news agency, according to which “Zuppi said that the pontiff would like to hear the patriarch’s opinion on the situation, as well as on chances of them meeting again.” The first and so far the only summit between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill took place in Havana on February 12, 2016.

For the Kremlin, a new summit between the Pope and the Patriarch would be highly desirable. As the Italian version of the Vatican News portal wrote, during a brief visit to the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi at the Tretyakov Art Gallery, Cardinal Zuppi “stopped in prayer before the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God, to whom he entrusted his mission.” Instead, the English-language version (screenshot below) of the same page published the photo of Zuppi with the caption, “Pope Francis praying before the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God in Moscow.”

“At first glance, this may seem like a simple typo made by the editor of the Vatican News portal. But maybe the English editors of the respected Vatican organ know something unbeknown to us, mere mortals?” Russian journalists asked themselves.

Vladimir Sapozhnikov