Rome Newsroom, May 3, 2023 / 06:15 am (CNA).
Pope Francis greeted the chairman for external church relations of the Russian Orthodox Church after his weekly public audience on Wednesday.
The brief encounter in St. Peter’s Square with Metropolitan Anthony comes amid heightened scrutiny of diplomatic signals involving the Holy See’s desire to broker a peaceful settlement to the ongoing fighting in Ukraine.
In his press conference Sunday on his flight back to Rome from Budapest, Pope Francis told reporters that the Holy See is involved in a secret peace mission to end the conflict. Both Ukrainian and Russian officials were quick to deny that negotiations were taking place, but a close papal aide confirmed the pope’s statement in an interview with an Italian news outlet published Wednesday.
In the livestream video of the May 3 general audience, Metropolitan Anthony, 38, could be seen approaching the pope and shaking his hand. Francis kissed the bishop’s pectoral cross. The two spoke for just under one minute and exchanged small gifts.
Pope Francis has wanted to meet with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine. A planned meeting between the two leaders in Jerusalem last summer, which would have taken place during a trip to Lebanon, was canceled.
On the second day of his trip to Budapest, Hungary, April 28-30, the pope had a private meeting with Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop Hilarion. During his in-flight press conference April 30, the pope commented on meeting Hilarion, saying he is someone “for whom I have much respect, and we have always had a good relationship.”
“Hilarion is an intelligent person with whom one can talk, and such relationships must be maintained, because if we talk about ecumenism, we can then say ‘I like this, but I don’t like that …’ We must extend our hand towards everyone, and also accept the extended hand of others,” he said, according to a Vatican transcript of the press conference. The metropolitan was also present at Francis’ Sunday Mass in Budapest.
Pope Francis also said during the in-flight press conference that he has only spoken once with Kirill since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The two spoke, he said, for 40 minutes over a Zoom video call.
He also said that Metropolitan Anthony, who replaced Hilarion as chairman for external church relations, “comes to see me.”
“He is a bishop who was a pastor in Rome and knows the situation well, and through him I am in contact with Kirill,” he added.
Anthony was a clergyman in Rome from 2011-2019.
Responding to the pope’s comments about secret talks, an official in the Ukrainian presidential office told CNN on May 1 that he was “not aware” of a peace mission. “If there are talks, they are taking place without our knowledge,” he said, according to CNN.
According to TASS news agency, a spokesman for the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, said Tuesday that Russia also “has no knowledge” of this mission.
However, economist Stefano Zamagni, until recently the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, has reportedly confirmed the veracity of Pope Francis’ comments about a peace mission.
Zamagni, thought to be a close advisor to Pope Francis, was quoted in the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano on May 3 saying, “the pope has been working continuously for peace for more than eight months. But it’s no surprise: It is obvious that both the Kremlin and Kyiv deny it because there is still no official document.”
The economist said the Vatican is carrying forward a seven-point plan for the peace process he outlined last September.
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