Russian clergy and lay Catholics were “caught by surprise” by the pope’s remarks in a video call Aug. 25 to a youth gathering in St. Petersburg praising the country’s past empire and urging young people to “never give up this heritage.”
Ukrainians were even more surprised as the papal remarks caused pain and concern in the country fighting the Russian invasion.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych said that he learned the words “attributed” to the Holy Father “with great pain.”
“We assume that His Holiness’s words were spoken spontaneously, without the pretension of giving a historical assessment, let alone the intention of supporting Russia’s imperialist ambitions,” Archbishop Shevchuk wrote in an Aug. 28 statement.
“The words about ‘the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, of that empire — great and enlightened, a country of great culture and great humanity’ refer to the worst example of extreme Russian imperialism and nationalism,” the leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church said.
“We fear that those words are understood by some as an encouragement of precisely this nationalism and imperialism, which is the real cause of the war in Ukraine. War that every day brings the death and destruction of our people,” he stressed.
The next day, the director of the Vatican’s press office, Matteo Bruni, emphasized that the pontiff’s remarks should be “seen in context.”
“The pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and develop the positive things that are in the great Russian cultural and spiritual heritage, and by no means to glorify imperialist logic, and rulers who are mentioned to denote certain historical periods,” Bruni told Rome journalists Aug. 29, a remark seen as an attempt to calm outrage caused by the pontiff’s words, spoken off-the-cuff in Italian at the end of the video call.
Pope Francis caused international controversy with his Aug. 25 closing remarks to the 10th Russian Catholic youth festival, in which the pope called on participants to preserve the legacy of Russia’s “great, educated” empire.
The remarks were not included in an Aug. 26 Vatican News report on the meeting, but carried on Cathmos.Ru, the website of the Catholic Church’s Moscow-based archdiocese.
A statement posted on the website of the Vatican nunciature in Kyiv Aug. 28 said that while “according to some interpretations, Pope Francis might have encouraged young Russian Catholics to draw inspiration from historical Russian figures known for imperialistic and expansionist ideas and actions,” the nunciature “firmly rejects the aforementioned interpretations, as Pope Francis has never endorsed imperialistic notions.”
“On the contrary,” the papal embassy in Kyiv said, “he is a staunch opponent and critic of any form of imperialism or colonialism across all peoples and situations. The words of the Roman Pontiff spoken on Aug. 25 are to be understood in this same context,” the statement said.
The meeting at St. Petersburg’s St. Catherine Basilica was attended by about 400 young Catholics, as well as by the Vatican’s nuncio, Archbishop Giovanni D’Aniello, and Russia’s five Catholic bishops.
In his video address, the pope revived themes of vocation and belonging from the Catholic Church’s Aug. 1-6 World Youth Day festival in Portugal and told young Russian Catholics, “The alliance between generations keeps the history and culture of a people alive.”
He added that he hoped young Russians would become “artisans of peace,” amid “so many conflicts and amid so many polarizations,” as well as “sowers of seeds of reconciliation, small seeds that in this winter of war will not sprout in the frozen ground for the time being, but will blossom in a future spring.”
Answering questions, Francis said diplomacy, although “not easy,” could be “very fruitful,” also in regard to “the Ukrainian situation.”
At the end of the video call, he also urged Russians never to forget their country’s “heritage.”
“Do not forget your heritage. You are heirs of the great Russia — the great Russia of saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine II, the great, educated Russian Empire of so much culture, of so much humanity,” the pontiff told young Russians.
Polish author and journalist Grzegorz Gorny said Aug. 28 the remarks had caused “great shock” in Ukraine, adding that Emperor Peter I (1672-1725) and Empress Catherine II (1729-1796) had both been cited by President Vladimir Putin to “justify his imperial policy.”
He added that both rulers had “pursued a policy of imperial conquest, expanding Russia’s territory at the expense of other countries,” while attempting to wipe out Ukraine and its population, and instrumentalizing religion.
“Some might say Francis’ words about Peter I and Catherine II were unfortunate because they came at the wrong time when Ukraine is in an unequal battle with a more powerful aggressor — but they are unacceptable even if we disregard the Ukrainian context,” Gorny told wpolityce.pl, an online news site in Poland.