VATICAN CITY — After hundreds of public prayers for peace in Ukraine and 443 days after Russia launched an all-out war on the Eastern European country, Pope Francis welcomed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the Vatican.
The topics of the conversation May 13 included “the humanitarian and political situation in Ukraine caused by the ongoing war,” the Vatican press office said.
Pope Francis assured the president of “his constant prayers, evidenced by his many public appeals and continuous invocation to the Lord for peace since,” the statement continued.
“Both agreed on the need for continued humanitarian efforts to support the population,” the Vatican said. And “the pope particularly stressed the urgent need for ‘gestures of humanity’ toward the most fragile people, the innocent victims of the conflict.”
Zelenskyy, in a tweet after the meeting, said he was grateful for the pope’s “personal attention to the tragedy of millions of Ukrainians.”
But he also said he asked the pope “to condemn Russian crimes in Ukraine. Because there can be no equality between the victim and the aggressor.”
Earlier that morning, in a speech to new ambassadors to the Vatican, Pope Francis seemed to indirectly address criticisms, including by many Ukrainians, of his attempts not to demonize and isolate Russia.
Having no “political, commercial or military aims,” the pope said, the Vatican operates on the world stage “through the exercise of a positive neutrality. Far from being an ‘ethical neutrality,’ especially in the face of human suffering, this affords the Holy See a certain standing in the international community that allows it to better assist in the resolution of conflicts and other matters.”
Zelenskyy also tweeted that he spoke to the pope “about our ‘peace formula’ as the only effective algorithm for achieving a just peace,” and he said asked the pope to support it. Among other things, the formula insists on the withdrawal of Russian forces from all of Ukraine’s territory and proposes Russia pay reparations for the damage inflicted on Ukrainian infrastructure.
The Vatican press office said the pope and president spoke privately for 40 minutes before they were joined by Zelenskyy’s entourage for the presentation of gifts.
The president gave the pope a poster, resembling a Marian icon, but with a dark figure where the child Jesus would normally be. Titled “Loss 2022-58,” it commemorates the 243 children who died during the first 58 days of the war, said an accompanying explanation. In addition, Zelenskyy gave the pope a collage painted on the bullet-dented plate of a soldier’s bulletproof vest.
Pope Francis gave the president a bronze olive branch. The accompanying note referred to the biblical story of Noah and the flood, referring to the olive branch as a symbol of peace and of renewal after destruction.
After meeting the pope, Zelenskyy and his entourage also met with Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Vatican foreign minister. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, was out of town.
The president and members of his government repeatedly have invited Pope Francis to visit Kyiv, but the pope consistently has said he would not visit the Ukrainian capital unless he also could visit Moscow on a mission of peace. Russian officials continue to say the time is not right.
Zelenskyy also met in Rome with Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and President Sergio Mattarella, thanking them both for their support of Ukraine and for the military assistance Italy is providing.