Pope Reveals He’s Working on Secret ‘Mission’ of Peace in Ukraine

BUDAPEST — Pope Francis said on Sunday that the Vatican was involved in a secret “mission” to stop the war between Russia and Ukraine and that it would do “all that is humanly possible” to return children taken from Ukraine to Russia and reunite families.

The pope’s remarks to reporters aboard the papal plane returning from a three-day trip to Budapest did not specify what the “not yet public” mission entailed. But Francis said he had privately discussed the situation with both Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and with the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church in Budapest, Metropolitan Hilarion.

“In these meetings we did not just talk about Little Red Riding Hood,” Francis said. “We spoke of all these things. Everyone is interested in the road to peace.”

Though Mr. Orban leads a country that is a member of both NATO and the European Union, his position on the war has often been at odds with the rest of Europe. He has opposed sending military aid to Ukraine and imposing international sanctions against Russia.

Early in the war, the pope was reluctant to name Russia as the aggressor, in part because he hoped that keeping the Vatican’s traditional neutrality could put him in a position to broker a cease-fire or peace. But questions about his failure to call out Russia’s invasion, and pressure from Ukraine, eventually led him to condemn Russia. He has compared Russia’s behavior to massacres under Stalin and has consistently supported Ukrainians and called attention to their plight.

But Francis, who said the Vatican had previously played a role in facilitating prisoner swaps between the sides, now seeks to be a protagonist in a peace process. As the war enters its 15th month, both the Russians and Ukrainians are preparing spring offensives and few believe a negotiated peace is imminent.

“I think that peace is always made by opening channels,” said the pope, who on Thursday met with Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal of Ukraine, with whom Francis said he had also discussed a “peace formula.” Mr. Shmyhal asked for the pope’s help with the return of Ukrainian children taken to Russia, a practice the International Criminal Court last month called a war crime.

The court issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Russia’s children’s commissioner, who has characterized the movement of the children as a humanitarian operation.

On the flight, Francis, 86, also discussed the ailment that forced him to be rushed to the hospital last month, which he called an “acute and strong” pneumonia.

“I felt a strong pain” at the end of a public audience with the faithful on March 29, he said. “I did not lose consciousness, but I had a high fever.”

“The body responded well to the treatment, thank God,” the pope added, saying he intended to keep traveling.

Francis began the last day of this trip with the same theme he stressed when it began on Friday: inclusivity. In remarks in front of Mr. Orban, the European Union leader with the most hard-right and anti-immigrant stance, the pope urged his flock to welcome foreigners and migrants and to “become open doors” that are “never shut in anyone’s face.”

Francis celebrated a large, open-air Mass against the backdrop of the spired Parliament building on the banks of the Danube River. Tens of thousands of faithful, many holding Hungarian and Vatican City flags, crammed into the surrounding streets, watching via jumbo screens and listening to Francis through booming speakers.

“How sad and painful it is to see closed doors,” the pope said. “The closed doors of our selfishness with regard to others; the closed doors of our individualism amid a society of growing isolation; the closed doors of our indifference towards the underprivileged and those who suffer; the doors we close towards those who are foreign or unlike us, towards migrants or the poor.”

But some in the crowd thought he was not talking about Hungary, or about migrants.

“It’s a more global message: He is talking about closed doors because he can’t go to Ukraine,” said Balazs Baksa, 43, a computer technician from Budapest who attended with his wife and two small children. He said Mr. Orban — with whom, Mr. Baksa said, “I fully agree” — was open to legal migrants, like his Indian and Pakistani and African colleagues and friends.

But Mr. Orban, he said, understands Hungary’s history of Ottoman invasion and that “the situation is the same now: They want to get into Europe through Hungary.” Mr. Baksa added that it was left to Mr. Orban to “save” the European Union.

Others in the crowd thought Hungary’s politicians should consider the pope’s words.

Marcell Bednarik, 48, who also prayed with his family at the Mass, said he had heard in the homily “a more generic” speech, one that urged him to be a better neighbor, but that the government should try to be more welcoming, too. While he said he agreed with Mr. Orban on issues like the centrality of the family, “if I consider myself a Christian, I can’t cherry-pick the Christian values I like,” and so he believed that the country needed to be more inclusive to migrants.

Then again, he said, “I don’t have the responsibility of running a country.”

On Saturday, Francis greeted some of the 2.5 million refugees who have poured across the Ukrainian border and into Hungary since Russia’s war in Ukraine began in February 2022, though only about 35,000 remain. In St. Elizabeth’s Church that day, he told the faithful, “Thank you, too, for having welcomed — not only with generosity, but also with enthusiasm — so many refugees from Ukraine.”

Then Francis met privately with Metropolitan Hilarion, whose church, critics say, has sought to give religious legitimacy to Mr. Putin’s invasion.

The Hungarian government has sought to cast Mr. Orban and Francis as like-minded on the war, with both having called for a cease-fire. Critics of Mr. Orban say that he is manipulating the issue to paper over substantive differences on matters like migration and cooperation within the European Union, and that the pope’s visit had given him a gift to be used in domestic politics.

Across Budapest over the weekend, Mr. Orban’s supporters expressed their delight with the visit. On Saturday, Andrea Kocsy, 49, a beautician, walked a leafy street lined with Hungarians drinking wine and coffee and said she thought the pope had signaled that he supported Mr. Orban by coming to Hungary twice in less than two years. It showed, she said, that “he has a good relationship with Orban, that he likes how he works.”

She said that on the issue of migrants, “Orban is right.”

She said it was unfair of Europe to single out Mr. Orban because “Meloni is the same,” referring to Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, as well as other leaders of Western European nations who have cracked down on migrants in recent years. “I think they are realizing that Orban was right all along,” Ms. Kocsy said.

Throughout his trip, Francis brushed up against the issues of migration and the war in Ukraine in his closest visit yet to the front line. In a possible sign of his efforts to reposition himself as a facilitator of peace, he prayed for protection and peace for the “beleaguered Ukrainian people and the Russian people.”

“Be open and inclusive,” the pope implored the faithful at the end of Mass on Sunday. “In this way, help Hungary to grow in fraternity, which is the path of peace.”

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