“Tsar” Putin to pay a visit to Francis




The date for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Rome to meet Pope Francis has been set for the afternoon of November 25th. By that time, the new Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin will be present in the Vatican and will have started his official duties.

The Russian president was very eager that this visit to the Bishop of Rome should take place. Last week, the Kremlin’s diplomats were told to include Rome in Putin’s Italian itinerary. Putin is going to be visiting Trieste for the Italian-Russian inter-governmental summit, scheduled for next 26 November. The Holy See promptly accepted the request. Putin will also be meeting the President of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano while he is in Rome.

The determined way in which Putin sought a meeting with Pope Francis is an important sign. It is not just the prospect of publicity that motivated the Russian president’s wish to visit the Pope. The strong impression among the upper echelons of Russian power over the past weeks has been that with Francis, the relationship between Russia and the Catholic Church can venture down new untrodden paths.

With the open letter sent to Putin at the beginning of September, ahead of the G20 in St. Petersburg, the Bishop of Rome recognised Russia as a global player that cannot be left out of the search for solutions to existing conflicts and regional crises. During that period, Pope Francis’ speeches and Vatican diplomacy on the Syrian conflict – starting with the day of fasting prayer on 7 September –converged unexpectedly and objectively with Russia’s diplomatic strategy which was about to defuse the threat of an external military intervention in Syria and begin the process of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons.

The resolute clarity of the Pope’s addresses regarding the situation in Syria sparked admiration among Russia’s government and diplomatic circles. Shortly after this, just before the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, even Patriarch Kiril of Russia felt the impulse to write a letter to President Obama, urging against a military intervention – seen as imminent – by the West against Assad.

The ongoing vicissitudes of the old Christian communities of the Middle East are sure to be at the centre of Putin’s meeting with the Pope. A common concern for the region’s Churches is another point that has bound the Holy See and the Kremlin together in recent months, particularly after the Marronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai’s visit to Moscow and the participation of many bishops and Middle Eastern patriarchs in the celebrations for the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Kievan Rus.

The Russian administration has been trying to establish a new “protectorate” over the Middle East’s Christians for some time now. For his part, Francis has not given any ammunition to Western – and also Russian – circles that are trying to exploit the misfortunes and persecutions of Middle Eastern Christians to foment Islamophobic sentiment. In his messages, Francis has steered clear of the celebrational propaganda of the enigmatic “Arab Spring” revolts and of the sense of nostalgia for the old “protective” authoritarian regimes expressed by some high representative or other of the Churches in the Middle East.

There is no Holy Alliance between Russia and the Holy See on the horizon. But Russia’s eagerness to get to know Pope Francis better is motivated by some interesting prophesies. As a Jesuit, Francis is well aware of the fact that Russia – as China – are key historical players on the world stage and cannot be left out of any sincere attempt at ensuring shared leadership in today’s globalised world. In addition, the fact that Francis was chosen “from the other side of the world” seems to have shelved the mistaken idea – of the past few decades – that Catholicism is the religious corrolary of the North Atlantic Alliance. Under Francis’ leadership, the Church seems to be freeing itself of any intention of steering historical events. It is therefore free to look at geopolitical dynamics, leaving aside biased attitudes and the traps set by conflicts among civilizations.

Putin’s meeting with Francis could have significant ecclesial consequences which could take any shape or form and any length of time to manifest themselves. In his interview with Antonio Spadaro, the director of Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, Francis stressed the urgent need to resume theological dialogue with the Orthodox Church regarding the issue of primacy which led to the signing of the Ravenna document.

So far, the Patriarchate of Moscow has shown a reluctance to move quickly along the path of theological dialogue – the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople plays a pre-eminent role here – preferring the “alliance” between the Churches approach, in defence of moral values. But under Francis’ pontificate, any ancestral antipapist mistrust which may have been cultivated inside the Russian Orthodox Church, could begin to drift away. The current Successor of Peter has shown a clear willingness to “learn” from the ecclesiology of his Orthodox brothers. In his interview with Spadaro, Francis said that “from them we can learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality.”

Vatican Insider

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