This morning, Pope Francis dedicated his entire Sunday Angelus address to the war in Ukraine, imploring Russian President Vladimir Putin to cease hostilities and calling for peace. Francis explained that he was doing so because “this terrible and inconceivable wound to humanity, instead of healing, continues to shed even more blood, risking to spread further.”

America‘s Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell noted the magnitude of this address:

His appeal is significant as diplomatic sources and international observers all agree that neither president is ready at this moment to make peace. Mr. Putin wants to consolidate his territorial gains—already more than 15 percent of Ukraine—while Mr. Zelensky has regained the initiative and recaptured much territory in a significant counter-offensive with the aid of arms from the United States and European countries in NATO.

The pontiff’s words rang out expressing horror at the ongoing violence and alarm at the growing nuclear threat:

I am saddened by the rivers of blood and tears spilled in these months. I am saddened by the thousands of victims, especially children, and the destruction which has left many people and families homeless and threaten vast territories with cold and hunger. Certain actions can never be justified, never! It is disturbing that the world is learning the geography of Ukraine through names such as Bucha, Irpin, Mariupol, Izium, Zaparizhzhia and other areas, which have become places of indescribable suffering and fear. And what about the fact that humanity is once again faced with the atomic threat? It is absurd.

What is to happen next? How much blood must still flow for us to realize that war is never a solution, only destruction? In the name of God and in the name of the sense of humanity that dwells in every heart, I renew my call for an immediate ceasefire. Let there be a halt to arms, and let us seek the conditions for negotiations that will lead to solutions that are not imposed by force, but consensual, just and stable. And they will be so if they are based on respect for the sacrosanct value of human life, as well as the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country, and the rights of minorities and legitimate concerns.

I deeply deplore the grave situation that has arisen in recent days, with further actions contrary to the principles of international law. It increases the risk of nuclear escalation, giving rise to fears of uncontrollable and catastrophic consequences worldwide.

During his meeting with Jesuits in Kazakhstan, the pope spoke about the conflict. He clearly sees its impact reverberating far beyond the two countries currently engaged in hostilities, saying that “it is a mistake to think that this is a cowboy movie where there are good guys and bad guys.” He explains that this is not just about Russia and Ukraine, but that “this is a world war.”

Even still, Pope Francis made very clear that Russia was the aggressor in this war, while stressing that outside factors frequently play a role in the tragic decision to wage war:

“The victim of this conflict is Ukraine. I intend to reflect on why this war was not avoided. War is like a marriage, in a way. To understand it, one has to investigate the dynamics that developed the conflict. There are international factors that contributed to provoking the war. I have already mentioned that a head of state, in December last year, came to tell me that he was very concerned because NATO had gone barking at the gates of Russia without understanding that the Russians are imperial and fear border insecurity. He expressed fear that this would provoke a war, and this broke out two months later.

So, one cannot be simplistic in reasoning about the causes of the conflict. I see imperialisms in conflict. And, when they feel threatened and in decline, the imperialisms react, thinking that the solution is to unleash a war to make up for it, and also to sell and test weapons. Some say, for example, that the Spanish Civil War was started to prepare for World War II. I do not know if that was really the case, but it could have been. I do not doubt, however, that we are already living through World War III. We have seen three in a century: one between 1914 and 1918, one between 1939 and 1945, and now we are living through this one.

There has been a great deal of criticism over Francis’s tendency to not be specific in his criticism of Russia, making more general calls for peace and acknowledging casualties on both sides of the war. As papal biographer Austen Ivereigh wrote, “It is true that, in the early weeks of the war, Francis was careful not to join in the increasingly bellicose condemnations by the west of Putin’s invasion. His statements were measured yet devastatingly accurate.” To a large extent, this is understandable. Even when a cause is just, such as defending one’s homeland from foreign invasion, the foremost responsibility of the universal pastor of God’s people is to call all of us to peace and reconciliation — not to root for a side in a bloody conflict.

This should not be mistaken for a belief that both sides are equally responsible, however. In the case of the current war, there is no question that Russia is the aggressor and has engaged in an immoral and unjustified attack on its neighboring country. Pope Francis knows this. In recent days, he has been much more explicit in calling Russia to task for their aggression in the conflict. He also reminded the group of Jesuits about the actions he has taken to try to bring peace and to express his solidarity to the victims of the war:

I recall that the day after the start of the war I went to the Russian Embassy. It was an unusual gesture; the pope never goes to an embassy. He receives the ambassadors personally only when they present their credentials, and then at the end of their mission on a farewell visit. I told the ambassador that I would like to speak with President Putin, provided he left me a small window for dialogue.

I also received the Ukrainian ambassador and spoke twice with President Zelensky on the telephone. I sent Cardinals Czerny and Krajewski to Ukraine to affirm  the solidarity of the pope. Archbishop Gallagher, the Secretary for Relations with States, also made an official visit. The Holy See’s presence in Ukraine has the value of bringing help and support. It is a way of expressing a presence. I too had in mind to go. It seems to me that God’s will is not for me to go at this precise moment; we will see later, however.

Some Ukrainian envoys have come to me. Among them the vice-rector of the Catholic University of Ukraine, accompanied by the adviser to the president for religious questions, an evangelical. We spoke, we discussed. A military chief in charge of the exchange of prisoners also came, again with President Zelensky’s religious adviser. This time they brought me a list of more than 300 prisoners. They asked me to do something to make an exchange. I immediately called the Russian ambassador to see if something could be done, if an exchange of prisoners could be speeded up.

When a Ukrainian Catholic bishop came to visit, I gave him a package with my statements on the subject. I called the invasion of Ukraine an unacceptable, repugnant, senseless, barbaric, sacrilegious aggression… Read all the statements! The Press Room has collected them. Now, I would like to tell you that I am not interested in your defending the pope, but that the people feel caressed by you, the pope’s brothers. The pope does not get angry if he is misunderstood, because I know well the suffering behind it.

As Pope Francis said this morning, “After seven months of hostilities, let us use all diplomatic means, even those that may not have been used so far, to bring an end to this terrible tragedy. War in itself is an error and a horror!”

At the end of his address, he implored us to pray for peace and for an end to this bloody war:

“Let us trust in the mercy of God, who can change hearts, and in the maternal intercession of the Queen of Peace, as we raise our Supplication to Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompei, spiritually united with the faithful gathered at her Shrine and in so many parts of the world.”

Image: Adobe Stock. By Anton.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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