Pope Francis met with Metropolitan Anthony, a top member of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), on Wednesday, just days after making a mysterious comment about the Vatican’s involvement in a mission to end the war in Ukraine.
At the pope’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square, Metropolitan Anthony, who is considered as the second in command in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), was accorded a position of honor and had an extended conversation with the pope compared to other attendees.
The meeting between the two religious leaders was closely watched by observers, who are eager to see any signs of thawing relations between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches. The two churches have been at odds for centuries, but there have been some recent signs of rapprochement, including a historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in 2016.
After returning from his trip to Hungary on Sunday night, Pope Francis was approached by a journalist who inquired if the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and officials from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) could expedite the peace process in Ukraine and facilitate a meeting between the pope and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In response to the journalist’s question, Pope Francis stated that there is a current mission underway, but it has not yet been made public. He further disclosed that he had previously discussed the situation in Ukraine with Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Metropolitan Hilarion, the former head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations based in Budapest before Anthony’s appointment.
However, the pope’s comments were unexpected and seemed to catch both Kiev and Moscow off guard as they claimed to have no knowledge of any peace initiative being undertaken by the Vatican.
The meeting also comes amid renewed tensions between Ukraine and Russia, with fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine continuing to flare up sporadically. Pope Francis has been an outspoken advocate for peace in the region, and his comment on Sunday about the Vatican’s involvement in a peace mission in Ukraine raised eyebrows.
Many have speculated that the Vatican is involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations to try to broker a peace deal in Ukraine. Others have suggested that the pope’s comment was simply a gesture of goodwill towards the ROC, which has been accused by some Ukrainian officials of fomenting unrest in the country’s east.
Whatever the pope’s intentions, his meeting with Metropolitan Anthony is likely to be seen as a positive development by those who support closer ties between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches. However, it remains to be seen whether the meeting will lead to any concrete action on the Ukraine peace process or other issues.