ROME (AP) — Pope Francis went to the Russian Embassy on Friday to “express his concern about the war,” an extraordinary, hands-on papal gesture that came on the same day the Vatican announced he was canceling other upcoming events because of an “acute” flareup of knee pain.
Usually popes receive ambassadors and heads of state in the Vatican, and diplomatic protocol would have called for the Vatican foreign minister to summon the ambassador to him. For Francis, the Vatican head of state, to leave the 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. “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.”
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, presumably for fear of antagonizing the Russian Orthodox Church.
News of Francis’ initiative came just after the Vatican announced he had canceled a scheduled Sunday visit to Florence and will not preside over Ash Wednesday commemorations next week because of a flareup of “acute” knee pain. The Vatican said the 85-year-old pope was canceling his participation in the events after his doctors prescribed a period of rest.
The pope, has long suffered from sciatica nerve pain that makes him walk with a pronounced limp, 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 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 neighborhood 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 33 centimeters (13 inches) 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’ itinerary for an April 2-3 visit to Malta, making clear he plans to go ahead with his agenda.