Join our Lenten Campaign 2024.
Every morning at 9:00 am, journalists accredited to the Holy See — the so-called Vaticanistas — scrutinize Pope Francis’ provisional agenda for the morning. On the list there are usually audiences with various groups: members of communities, charities, guilds, sports clubs, and many others.
Also announced are the Pope’s meetings with senior members of the Roman Curia and with bishops from around the world, as well as his meetings with political figures. Believers or non-believers, Catholics or not, these heads of state or government come to meet the sovereign of the world’s smallest state with incomparable influence.
In the afternoon, Pope Francis leaves the Apostolic Palace and returns to his residence at Casa Santa Marta, where he continues to receive guests. Little, if anything, leaks about these private meetings. And it’s often only later, on the occasion of a photo posted on Twitter or of various meetings, that journalists manage to glean a few details of the Argentine Pope’s hidden schedule.
As 2023 draws to a close, let’s look back at some of Pope Francis’ most memorable encounters.
The cordial understanding between the Pope and the prime minister of Italy
A few months after taking the helm of a right-wing coalition Italian government in October 2022, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was received at the Vatican in January by the Pope, in what was a cordial meeting. Later, in May, the Pope and the Italian leader attended the “General States of Births” in Rome. The two leaders denounced of one accord the excesses of a society hostile to the family. The only point on which they disagreed was the Pontiff’s insistence on the importance of immigration as a means of revitalizing Italy’s flagging population.
At the end of the year, the Pope and the prime minister would be on the same page to try and help little Indi Gregory, the eight-month-old girl who eventually died in Great Britain of a serious mitochondrial disease.
The Pope and Viktor Orbán, a meeting for Ukraine
One of the most talked-about meetings this year was with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, during the Pope’s trip to Budapest from April 28 to 30. Due to disagreements with the government’s migration policy, which closed the borders of the Balkan route, Francis had been distant with the prime minister in the past, although he did greet him during his visit of a few hours to Budapest in 2021.
But in the context of the war in Ukraine, Vatican diplomacy has found convergences with the isolated voice of Hungary, which wants a diplomatic resolution to the conflict and is reluctant to provide military support to Kiev. The Pontiff therefore made this trip to urge Europe to make “creative efforts for peace.” This did not prevent him from calling for Old Continent solidarity in the face of the migratory challenge, and warning against “self-referential populism.”
Volodymyr Zelensky at the Vatican: Palpable unease
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican on May 13 for the second time, following a first visit on February 8, 2020, a few months after his election as Ukrainian President. However, this was his first visit to the Vatican since the start of Russia’s large-scale offensive on his country on February 24, 2022.
A certain coldness emerged from the meeting. Over the months, Pope Francis had consistently called for an end to the fighting, sometimes provoking misunderstandings among Ukrainians and their allies, who are worried about the risk of armistice conditions too favorable to Russia. A few hours after his visit to the Vatican, while taking part in the popular Italian television (RAI) program Porta a Porta, the Ukrainian president showed little enthusiasm for the idea of Vatican mediation. Rather, he stressed that the peace plan had to be drawn up by the Ukrainians themselves, as victims of Russian aggression.
Nevertheless, the two have stayed in contact. In fact, at the end of December, Zelensky reported on X that they’d just spoken by phone: