Pope Francis has visited the Russian embassy to personally “express his concern about the war” in Ukraine, in an extraordinary, hands-on papal gesture that has no recent precedent.
Popes usually receive ambassadors and heads of state in the Vatican, and diplomatic protocol would have called for the Vatican foreign minister to summon the Russian ambassador.
For Francis, the Vatican head of state, to leave the walled city state and travel a short distance to the Russian embassy to the Holy See was a sign of his anger at Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and his willingness to appeal personally for an end to it.
Vatican officials said they knew of no such previous papal initiative.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni confirmed the visit, and the Vatican said Francis travelled to and from the embassy in a small white car.
“The Holy See press office confirms that the Pope went to the Russian embassy to the Holy See on Via della Conciliazione, clearly to express his concern about the war. He was there for just over a half-hour,” Mr Bruni said.
Francis has called for dialogue to end the conflict and has urged the faithful to set next Wednesday as a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Ukraine, but he has refrained from publicly calling out Russia by name, presumably for fear of antagonising the Russian Orthodox Church.
At the end of a general audience on Wednesday, he refrained from naming Russia when he urged political leaders to examine their conscience before God and avoid actions that harm civilians and “discredit international law”.
A day later, Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin held out hope for diplomacy.
He said: “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 prevalence of partisan interests, protects the legitimate aspirations of each and saves the world from the madness and horrors of war.”
The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest eastern rite church in communion with Rome, welcomed Francis’s intervention and said he hoped it would help dialogue prevail over force.
“The Ukrainian people whom he is courageously defending are crying to the world, ‘Stop the war’,” His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk said in a statement issued by his office in Kyiv, where he has been hunkered down in an air raid shelter.
News of Francis’s initiative came just after the Vatican announced he had cancelled a scheduled Sunday visit to Florence and will not preside over Ash Wednesday commemorations next week because of a flare-up of “acute” knee pain.
The Vatican said the 85-year-old was cancelling his participation in the events after doctors prescribed a period of rest.
The Pope has long suffered from sciatica nerve pain that makes him walk with a pronounced limp, and has suffered for several weeks for what he has said was an inflamed ligament in his right knee.
He has cited the pain in explaining his limited mobility recently and decision to remain seated during events that would otherwise see him stand.
Francis had been 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 have been his first pastoral visit within Italy since the pandemic.
He was to have presided over Ash Wednesday commemorations, including a short procession, at a church outside the Vatican in the Aventine neighbourhood of Rome.
Francis had called for the faithful to set aside Ash Wednesday, the start of the solemn Lenten season, to fast and pray for peace in Ukraine.
The Argentine Jesuit enjoys generally good health, though he had 13in of his large intestine removed in July. Francis also had a part of one lung removed when he was a young man after a respiratory infection.
Despite the knee pain, the Vatican released Francis’s itinerary for an April 2-3 visit to Malta, making clear he plans to go ahead with his agenda.