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Vatican Chronicles: Pope Francis and Health, Diplomatic and Ecumenical Problems

Week of March 4-10, 2023

Jorge Enrique Mújica

(ZENIT News / Roma, 03.11.2024).- March 13 will mark the 11th anniversary of Pope Francis’ election as the 266 Successor to Saint Peter. In the course of this Pontificate there have been iconic photos and videos. One of them is that of March 6, 2024, when the Holy Father got up from his wheelchair with the intention of getting into the popemobile, but he was unable to do so.

The last two weeks have shown us a Pope in another stage of his life, which has reflected illness and effort. Impressive, on one hand, is Pope Francis’ workload at 87. On the other hand, that agenda highlights the limitation the Pontiff himself acknowledges: not only has he not pronounced his addresses himself over the past 15 days (Monsignor Filippo Ciampanelli or Pierluigi Giroli have done so in his name), but he has expressed how he is feeling and why he doesn’t read them himself at the beginning of his audiences.

In addition to his health limitations, the Holy Father has had to address two more crises this week, one diplomatic and the other ecumenical.

The diplomatic crisis has to do with an interview, which has not yet been projected but which has already unleashed a conflict. In early February of this year, Pope Francis granted an interview to Radio Televisione Svizzera, which will be projected on March 20. However, thanks to some advances in the text, an answer of the Pope has been made known, which has displeased the Ukrainian Government. Lorenzo Buccella, the interviewer, asked the Pontiff: ”There are those in Ukraine who are calling for the courage of the white flag of surrender. But others say that would legitimize the strongest. What do you think?” To which the Holy Father answered:

It’s an interpretation, but I believe the strongest is the one that sees the situation, thinks of the people and has the courage of the white flag and negotiation. And today there can be negotiation with the help of international powers. They are there. That word negotiation is a courageous word. When you see you are defeated, that the thing is not going well, have the courage to negotiate. And you feel ashamed, but if you continue this way, how many deaths will there be? Today, for instance, with the war in Ukraine, there are many who want to mediate. Turkey, for example . . . Don’t be ashamed to negotiate before it gets worse.”

The interviewer then asks the Pope: “Have you yourself offered to negotiate? And Francis replies:

“I’m here, period. I sent a letter to the Jews of Israel to reflect on this situation. To negotiate is never to surrender. It’s the courage not to lead the country to suicide. The Ukrainians, with the history they have, poor things, how much they suffered in Stalin’s time . . .”

And the journalist challenges the Pope again: “Is it the target of courage? “ To which the Pope answers: “Agreed, it’s the target of courage. But sometimes the anger that leads you to courage isn’t white . . .”

It was the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmitró Kubela, who answered the Pope publicly on March 10 on the social networks: “The strongest is the one who, in the battle between good and evil, puts himself on the side of the good, instead of trying to equate them and call it ‘negotiations.’”

Minister Kubela added: “in regard to the white flag, we know the strategy of this Vatican since the first half of the 20th century. I urge not to repeat the errors of the past and to support Ukraine and its people in the just fight for their lives (. . . ) Our flag is yellow and blue. This is the flag for which we live, die and prevail. We will never raise any other flag.

The Ukrainian Ambassador to the Holy See also took to the social networks, saying: “It’s very important to be coherent! When there is talk of World War III, which exists now, it’s necessary to learn the lesson of [World] War II. Did someone speaks seriously then of peace negotiations with Hitler and the white flag to satisfy him? So there is only one lesson: if we want to end the war, everything possible must be done to kill the Dragon!”

The Holy See Press Office has had to step up to “clarify” the Pope’s thought. Spokesman Matteo Bruni  said to the accredited press (ZENIT’s translation):

The Pope uses the term white flag, and responds taking the image proposed by the interviewer, to indicate with it the ceasing of hostilities, the truce reached with the courage of negotiation. In another instance of the interview, talking about another situation of conflict, but referring to any other situation of war, the Pope affirms clearly: ”negotiation is never surrender.”

The Pope’s desire continues being the same that he has always repeated over the last years, and which he repeated recently on the occasion of the second anniversary of the conflict: “While I renew my most profound affection for the martyred Ukrainian people and pray for all, in particular for the innumerable innocent victims, I implore that we find that smidgen of humanity that will enable the conditions for a diplomatic solution in the search for a just and lasting peace.”

Added to the diplomatic crisis is an ecumenical crisis: after the unfavourable pronouncement of the numerically largest  Orthodox community (the Russian Orthodox) in the world on the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans, which allows “pastoral blessings” to same-sex couples, another pronouncement emerges of another Orthodox community — the Egyptian Copts. A rapprochement that in May 2023 had Patriarch Tawadros (whom they call Pope) co-preside over the General Audience with Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square, both included the Copts killed in Libya in the Catalogue of Martyrs, and the Copts were even allowed to have Mass in Rome’s Cathedral. Another difference is the reach of the pronouncement. Whereas the Russian Orthodox only pointed out Fiducia Supplicans as moving away from Christian moral teaching, the Coptic Orthodox go further.

After studying Fiducia Supplicans, the Coptic Orthodox decided to take three measures:

1st To suspend the theological dialogue with the Catholic Church

2nd To re-evaluate the results obtained by the dialogue since the beginning twenty years ago

3rd To establish new norms and mechanisms so that the dialogue continues in the future

In synthesis: Fiducia Supplicans reverses 20 years of the ecumenical path with the Copts.

In all this context, a slight improvement in the Pope’s health was seen on Friday, March 8: the Holy Father went to a Roman parish to preside over a Penitential Liturgy in the context of the annual event “24 Hours for the Lord.” He read his whole homily and his voice had improved. ZENIT translated his homily, as it’s frankly beautiful. There is a part with which we would like to end this chronicle, as it applies not only to the crises mentioned above. The Pontiff said:

“A bad habit exists to make our travel companions become adversaries.  And we do it so often. We seem to exaggerate our neighbour’s defects and hide their merits. How often we are inflexible with others and indulgent with ourselves! We feel an unstoppable force to do the evil we would like to avoid.”

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