(RNS) — Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican's secretary of state and Pope Francis' top lieutenant, said in an interview to Italian papers on Monday that the Holy See is willing to mediate between the two warring parties in the conflict in Ukraine.
The Vatican, the cardinal said, is "willing to facilitate dialogue with Russia" and "ready to help" all parties involved to return to the negotiating table.
"I am convinced there is always space for negotiation. It's never too late!" said Parolin, citing Francis' repeated calls to overcome conflict through dialogue and fraternity.
As Russian and Ukrainian representatives arrived for talks Monday at the Ukraine-Belarus border, Ukrainian representatives have voiced skepticism that the talks will put an end to the conflict.
But while "we must avoid every escalation, halt the conflict and negotiate," Parolin said, he also looked to longer-term implications between East and West. The cardinal said that "returning to a new cold war" is a "disturbing scenario" and that only "a culture of fraternity" can build a stable and just world peace.
In an interview with Italian press published Monday, Parolin became the first high-ranking Vatican official to state that "Russia waged war against Ukraine." In the weeks leading up to the war in Ukraine, Francis made numerous appeals for restraint by all parties involved in the conflict but avoided pointing the finger directly at Russia in his remarks.
The cardinal acknowledged the danger facing Europe and the eerie echoes of the world wars. A European intervention in the Ukrainian conflict "would be a catastrophe of massive proportions," he said, but the eventuality "cannot be excluded."
"I have seen some of the statements these days that recalled the incidents that preceded and provoked the Second World War," Parolin said. "These references make one shudder."
The Vatican has mobilized its diplomatic branch to promote peace in Ukraine. Parolin canceled his attendance at a conference for peace in the Mediterranean this weekend to remain in Rome. Francis spent the past few days meeting with Russian ambassadors to the Holy See and calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Parolin renewed the pope's appeal to the Russian ambassador "to stop combat and return to negotiations." He quoted Pope Pius XII, who, days before the start of World War II, made an impassioned appeal for peace, dialogue and respect for human rights.
The cardinal lamented the "mutual deafness" of Russia and Ukraine that have led to the war, saying, "When we stop communicating and listening sincerely, we look at the other with suspicion and you end up only exchanging mutual accusations." At the same time, he added, nations must respect the self-determination of peoples and international law.
Churches also have an important part to play in promoting peace, Parolin said. Vatican observers believe Rome hopes to leverage its improved ecumenical relations with the Orthodox Church in Moscow and Kyiv to improve the chances for peace.
The Orthodox Church in Ukraine declared autocephaly, or independence, from the leadership in Moscow just as the tensions escalated in the country, adding religious division to the already fraught political situation. The cardinal acknowledged the "painful divisions" in the church but praised the "positive signs" by religious leaders advocating for peace.
Churches "agree in expressing the grave concern for the situation and affirming that beyond every other consideration the values of peace and human life are really at the heart of churches, which can play a fundamental role in avoiding the further worsening of the situation," he said.
In Orthodox Christian-majority Ukraine, Catholics declaring their allegiance to Rome make up less than 10% of the population and are for the most part Greek Catholics. Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, said in a statement on Monday that the country is "experiencing the fifth day of a crooked, inhumane, vicious war."
Despite the heavy fighting and the surge of refugees fleeing the embattled country — nearing 500,000 people, according to the United Nations — "we are standing," the archbishop said from Kyiv. Shevchuk said Sunday that priests would be descending into bunkers to say Mass for the Ukrainian faithful hiding from the air raids.
He praised the pope for condemning those "who, starting a war against other nations, are fighting against their own nation," during his weekly prayer service on Sunday. "I am thankful to the Holy Father that he supports us, prays for us, and desires to do everything to stop this war," Shevchuk added.
"Let us do everything to stop this aggression, to stop the war. Even when this seems impossible, even when diplomats, lawyers, leaders of nations say this is very difficult, let's pray that the Lord God, the Lord of Peace, grant wisdom so that the aggression may be stopped through dialogue," he said.
"We know that the alternative to war is diplomacy and dialogue. And always, at the end of war, it is necessary to sit down at the negotiating table. May dialogue and diplomacy conquer war," he added.