Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard the papal plane Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard the papal plane  (VATICAN MEDIA Divisione Foto)

Pope: Holy See will work to return Ukrainian children taken to Russia

Pope Francis speaks to journalists traveling with him on the return flight to Rome from his Apostolic Journey to Hungary, and discusses the Holy See’s efforts to facilitate a truce in Ukraine and the return of Ukrainian children from Russia, as well as his recent hospitalization and recovery.

By Vatican News

In his traditional press conference aboard the return flight to Rome from Budapest, Pope Francis spoke to reporters about a range of issues.

These included the Holy See's efforts to facilitate the return to Ukraine of Ukrainian children taken to Russia during the war, hopes for peace, and contacts with the Kremlin, along with ecumenical dialogue. He also mentioned his health following his hospitalization at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital the week before Palm Sunday.

The Pope also spoke about the return of the Parthenon artifacts to Greece, calling it an example for similar gestures in the future.

The following is a working translation of the Pope's inflight press conference from the original Italian.

[Antal Hubai (Rtl Klub)] - What is your personal experience of your encounters in Hungary?

I enjoyed a first experience of encounters [with Hungarians] in the 1960s, at a time when many Hungarian Jesuits had been kicked out of their country. Then, several schools came… there was a school twenty kilometers from Buenos Aires, and I would visit it twice a month. Then I also had a relationship with a society of Hungarian lay people working in Buenos Aires. I did not understand their language. But there were two words I understood well: Gulash and Tokai (laughs). It was a good experience. I was so affected by their pain of being refugees and not being able to go home. The Mary Ward sisters stayed there [in Hungary], hiding in apartments so that the regime would not kick them out. Later, I learned more about the whole affair to convince Cardinal Mindszenty to come to Rome. And I also experienced the brief enthusiasm of 1956 and then the subsequent disappointment.

[Antal Hubai]: Has your opinion changed since then?

It has not changed. It has become richer, in the sense that the Hungarians I have met enjoy a great culture....

[Antal Hubai]: What language did you speak?

They normally spoke German or English. Hungarian is not spoken outside of Hungary. Only in Heaven, because they say it takes forever to learn it [laughs].

[Eliana Ruggiero, AGI]: Holy Father, you launched an appeal to open - to re-open - the doors of our selfishness to the poor, to migrants, to those who are not [legally] in order. In your meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán, did you ask him to reopen the borders of the Balkan route that he has closed? Then, in recent days, you also met Metropolitan Hilarion: Can Hilarion and Orbán himself become channels of openness towards Moscow to accelerate a peace process for Ukraine, or to make a meeting between you and President Putin possible? Thank you.

I believe that peace is always made by opening channels; peace can never be made by closure. I invite everyone to open relationships, channels of friendship ... This is not easy. The same things I have said in general I have said to Orbán and everywhere.

On migration: I think it's a problem that Europe must take in hand, because there are five countries that suffer the most: Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Italy, Spain, because they are the Mediterranean countries and the majority of migrants land there. And if Europe does not take charge of this, of a fair distribution of migrants, the problem will only be for these countries. I think Europe must give people the sense that it is the European Union even in the face of this.

There is another problem that is related to migration, and that is the birth rate. There are countries like Italy and Spain that have ... no children. Lately ... last year I spoke at a meeting for families about this, and lately I have seen that the government and other governments are also talking about it. The average age in Italy is 46, for Spain it is higher still and there are small deserted villages.

A migration programme that is well carried out with a model that some countries have had with migration - I am thinking for example of Sweden at the time of the Latin American dictatorships - can also help these countries that have a low birth rate.

Then, in the end ... what was the last one? Ah, yes, Hilarion: Hilarion is someone I respect very much, and we have always had a good relationship. And he was kind enough to come and see me, then he came to the Mass, and I saw him here at the airport as well. Hilarion is an intelligent person with whom one can talk, and these relationships need to be maintained, because if we talk about ecumenism - I like this, I don't like this - we must have an outstretched hand with everyone, even receive their hand.

With Patriarch Kirill I have spoken only once since the war began, 40 minutes via zoom, then through Anthony, who is in Hilarion's place now, who comes to see me. He is a bishop who was a parish priest in Rome and knows the environment well, and always through him I am in connection with Kirill.

There was a meeting that we were to have in Jerusalem in July or June last year, but it was suspended because of the war: that will have to take place. And then, with the Russians I have a good relationship with the ambassador who is now leaving; he has been the ambassador in the Vatican for seven years, he is a great man, a man comme il faut, a serious, cultured and balanced person. My relationship with the Russians is mainly with this ambassador.

I don't know if I have said everything. Was that it? Or did I skip something?

[Eliana Ruggiero]: If somehow Hilarion and also Orbán could accelerate the peace process in Ukraine and also make a meeting between you and Putin possible, if they could act “as intermediaries”?

You can imagine that in this meeting we not only talked about Little Red Riding Hood, right? We talked about all these things. We talked about this because everyone is interested in the road to peace. I am willing. I am willing to do whatever needs to be done. Also, there is a mission going on now, but it is not public yet. Let's see how ... When it is public I will talk about it.

[Aura Maria Vistas Miguel, Rádio Renascença]: Your next stop is Lisbon. How do you feel about your health? We were taken by surprise when you went to hospital; you said you fainted. So do you feel you have the energy to go to World Youth Day? And would you like an event with a Ukrainian and a Russian youth as a sign for the new generations?

First of all, [my] health. What I had was a sudden, strong illness at the end of the Wednesday Audience. I didn't feel like having lunch; I laid down for a bit. I didn't lose consciousness, but yes, I had a very high fever and at three in the afternoon the doctor immediately took me to hospital. I had severe acute pneumonia in the lower part of the lung—thank God, I can tell you about it—to such an extent that the organism, the body, responded well. Thank God. This is what I had.

About Lisbon: The day before I left I spoke with Bishop Americo [Aguiar, auxiliary bishop of Lisbon], who came to see how things are there. I will go. I will go. I hope to make it. You can see that it is not the same as two years ago, with the cane. Now it is better. For the moment the trip is not cancelled.

Then there's the trip to Marseilles, then there's the trip to Mongolia, then there's the next one, I can't remember where... my schedule keeps me moving.

[Aura Vistas]: And about the youth of Russia and Ukraine?

[Pope Francis]: Americo has something in mind. He told me he is preparing something. He is preparing it well.

[Nicole Winfield, Associated Press]: Holy Father, I wanted to ask you something a little different. You recently made a very strong ecumenical gesture. You donated, on behalf of the Vatican Museums, three fragments of the Parthenon sculptures to Greece. This gesture has also resonated outside the Orthodox world, because many museums in the West are discussing precisely the return of the colonial period, as an act of justice towards these people. I wanted to ask you if you are also available for other restitutions. I am thinking, in particular, of the indigenous peoples and groups in Canada who have made a request for the return of objects from the Vatican collections as part of the process of reparation for the damage suffered during the colonial period.

This is the seventh commandment: if you have stolen [something], you must return [it]. But, there is a whole history, i.e. that sometimes wars and colonisation lead to decisions being made to take the good things of others. This was a correct gesture; it had to be done: the Parthenon, to give something [back]. And if the Egyptians come tomorrow and ask for the obelisk, what will we do? But then again you have to make a discernment in each case.

With regard to the restitution of indigenous objects to Canada, it is ongoing, or at least we had agreed to do it. I will ask how that is going. 

But the experience with the indigenous people in Canada has been very fruitful. Even in the United States, the Jesuits are doing something with the group of indigenous people inside the United States. The [Superior] General told me about it the other day.

But back to restitution. To the extent that it is something that you can return, that it is necessary, that it is seen as a gesture, then it is better to do it. Sometimes one can’t; there is no political, real, concrete possibility. But when you can give [things] back, then please do so; this is good for everyone, so as to not get used to putting your hand in other people's pockets.

[Eva Fernandez, Radio COPE]: The Ukrainian Prime Minister has asked for your help in bringing back the children forcibly taken to Russia. Are you thinking of helping him?

I think so, because the Holy See has acted as an intermediary in some prisoner exchange situations, and though the embassy it went well. I think it can also go well.

It is important. The Holy See is willing to act because it is right, it is just. And we must help to ensure that this is not a casus belli, but a human case. It is a question of humanity before it is a question of the spoils of war or a displacement caused by war. All human gestures help, but gestures of cruelty do not help. We must do everything humanly possible.

I want to say that I am also thinking of the women who come to our countries, Italy, Spain, Poland, Hungary, so many women who come with children and husbands, or they are wives... or they are fighting against the war. It is true that right now they are being helped, but we must not lose our enthusiasm for this, because if the enthusiasm wanes, these women are left without protection, with the danger of falling into the hands of the vultures who are always on the lookout for these situations.

Let us be careful not to lose this tension of help that we have for the refugees. This concerns everyone.

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30 April 2023, 20:30