VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Vatican July 4, the two negotiating common ground while eyeing ways to make yardage on their competing views of Christianity and nationhood.
For Putin, the meeting, for which he was an hour late, represented a way to reify his stature as a global leader.
For Francis, the meeting represented a way to gain leverage in his relationship with populist, anti-migration Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and in negotiating better relations with the Russian Orthodox Church — as well as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The 55-minute private meeting in a room in the Vatican library was described as "cordial," with the men engaging in traditional gift-giving and expressing "satisfaction at the development of bilateral relations."
Francis gave Putin a signed copy of his peace message for this year and an 18th-century etching of St. Peter's Square, "so you don't forget Rome."
Putin gave the Pope a DVD of Sin, a movie about the Renaissance master painter and sculptor Michelangelo by the Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky and a painted Orthodox icon of Ss. Peter and Paul.
The Vatican and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the collaboration between the Bambino Gesù Children's Hospital in Rome and pediatric hospitals in the Russian Federation. The memorandum was signed by Fr. Paolo Borgia, assessor for general affairs of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See and by Veronika Skvortsova, minister of health of the Russian Federation.
The Russian team was informed of the hospital's most innovative techniques and areas of research, including advanced genetic research and the development of cell therapies for the treatment of leukemia.
Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Vatican Press Office, tweeted the words of Bambino Gesù Hospital President Mariella Enoc to Minister of Health of the Russian Federation Veronika Skvortsova: "We love children. You love children. There is no better understanding to work well together!"
La presidente Enoc alla ministra della salute della Federazione Russa: "Noi vogliamo bene ai bambini. Voi volete bene ai bambini. Non c'è intesa migliore per lavorare bene insieme!" pic.twitter.com/kjg7pmFr2K— Bambino Gesù (@bambinogesu) July 4, 2019
Reportedly, the topic of Ukraine and its mired religiopolitical history was also broached.
In January, Ukraine broke from the Russian Orthodox Church it had been tied to for more than four centuries and started its own independent Orthodox Church, as had been reported.
Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, to which Ukraine had been loyal until 1686, recognized the independence of Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
In response, the Russian Orthodox Church — which stood to lose a significant chunk of real estate — said it would no longer recognize the Istanbul-based patriarch. Putin sided with Cyril, patriarch of Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church, and Francis needs the support of Putin to smooth things out with Cyril.
The larger context of the Francis-Putin Vatican meeting heightens the stakes of its outcomes.
Francis is hailed by many European liberals as "the greatest moral voice against the resurgence in populism" and a great supporter of migrants.
Putin, however, figures for many nationalists throughout the world as an "alternate pope — the spiritual strongman of their movement."
Gianmatteo Ferrari, the secretary of Lombardy Russia, a pro-Russian, anti-globalist organization, said: "I may be speaking heresy, but President Putin looks more like a pope to me, for the way he is living Christianity, compared to the one who should to all effects be the pope."
"The greatest, proudest and most strenuous advocate of our Christian values is President Putin," Ferrari said.
Of the most gushing takes on Putin is to compare him to "Katechon, a Greek word referring to a force that keeps the Antichrist at bay."
Putting a wedge into easy black-white interpretations, Roberto de Mattei, president of the Lepanto Foundation, an organization critical of what it sees as Francis' failure to defend Europe from Islam, said he did not share the sympathy some Catholic traditionalists feel toward Putin and suspected that the Russian leader was waging a "political operation."
"My fear is there is a double game," de Mattei said, adding that he felt stuck on a chessboard between Putin and Francis, while "the West doesn't have a real leader."
Putin thanked Francis for "very substantive" talks on the day before Francis would welcome the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, as well as other Ukrainian Catholic leaders to the Vatican.
Modern relations between the Vatican and the Kremlin can trace their inception to the December 1989 meeting of St. Pope John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev. It was the first meeting of a pope with a Soviet leader. Diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Soviet Union have flown out of that banner ever since.