ROME — Pope Francis visited the Russian Embassy on Friday to “personally express his concern over the war,” the Vatican said, in an extraordinary and direct papal gesture that has no recent precedent.
Usually, popes receive ambassadors and heads of state at the Vatican, and diplomatic protocol would have called for the Vatican foreign minister to summon the ambassador. For Francis, the Vatican’s head of state, the decision to leave the walled city-state and walk a short distance to the Russian embassy to the Holy See was a sign of his anger at the Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and its willingness to personally appeal for an end to it.
Vatican officials said they were unaware of any previous such papal initiative.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni confirmed the visit, and the Vatican said Francis was driving to and from the embassy in a small white car.
“The Holy See’s press office confirms that the Pope visited the Russian Embassy to the Holy See, Via della Conciliazione, to clearly express his concern about the war. He stayed there a little longer half an hour,” Bruni said.
Francis called for dialogue to end the conflict and urged the faithful to set next Wednesday a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Ukraine. But he refrained from publicly challenging Russia, presumably for fear of upsetting the Russian Orthodox Church.
Just this week, at the end of his Wednesday general audience, he refrained from naming Russia when he called on political leaders to examine their conscience before God and refrain from actions that harm civilians and “discredit international law”.
A day later, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, held out hope for diplomacy. “There is still time for goodwill, there is still room for negotiation, there is still room for the exercise of a wisdom that prevents the predominance of partisan interests, protects legitimate aspirations of everyone and save the world from the madness and horrors of war,” Parolin said in a statement.
A person who answered the phone Friday at the Russian Embassy said Ambassador Alexander Avdeev was not there; there was no immediate response to an email sent to the embassy seeking comment.
News of Francis’ initiative came just after the Vatican announced it had canceled a planned Sunday visit to Florence and would not preside over Ash Wednesday commemorations next week due to a surge. acute pain in the knee. The Vatican said the 85-year-old pope was canceling his participation in the events after his doctors prescribed him a period of rest.
The pope, who has long suffered from sciatic nerve pain that causes him to walk with a pronounced limp, has been suffering from inflammation of the right knee ligament for several weeks, he said. He cited pain when explaining his limited mobility recently and his decision to remain seated at events that would otherwise see him stand.
Francis was due to travel to Florence for a half-day visit on Sunday to address a meeting of Mediterranean bishops and mayors and to celebrate Mass. It would be his first pastoral visit to Italy since the pandemic.
He was due to preside over Ash Wednesday commemorations, including a short procession, at a church outside the Vatican in Rome’s Aventine district.
The Argentinian Jesuit generally enjoys good health, despite having had 33 centimeters (13 inches) of his large intestine removed in July. Francis also had part of a lung removed when he was young after a respiratory infection.
Despite knee pain, the Vatican has released Francis’ itinerary for an April 2-3 visit to Malta, making it clear that he plans to continue with his schedule.