Rome — Pope Francis has again waded into controversy with remarks about Russia amid President Vladimir. The pontiff drew condemnation with remarks delivered to a gathering of Russian Catholic youth on August 25, whom he urged to be proud of their heritage.
During a video conference with approximately 400 youth in St. Petersburg, Francis urged the youngsters not to “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, enlightened Russian Empire of so much culture, of so much humanity,” he said. “Never give up this heritage.”
Francis made the remarks spontaneously at the end of an hourlong video address in which he urged the young Russians to work toward peace.
“I wish you, young Russians, the vocation to be artisans of peace in the midst of so many conflicts, in the midst of so much polarization on all sides, which plague our world. I invite you to be sowers, to sow seeds of reconciliation, little 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,” he said.
The pope’s praise of Russia’s imperialist history quickly drew criticism from Ukraine and elsewhere.
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said in a statement that Francis’ words exalting Peter the Great and Catherine II (better known as Catherine the Great) had caused “great pain and apprehension.”
Saying the pope’s remarks had referred to “the worst example of extreme Russian imperialism and nationalism,” Shevchuk added: “We fear that these words will be understood by some as an encouragement of this nationalism and imperialism which is the real cause of the war in Ukraine.”
Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, said in a social media post that it was “very unfortunate that Russian grand-state ideas, which, in fact, are the cause of Russia’s chronic aggression, knowingly or unknowingly, come from the pope’s mouth, whose mission, in our understanding, is precisely to open the eyes of Russian youth to the disastrous course of the current Russian leadership.”
Putin oftenof Ukraine, and last year he compared himself to Peter the Great, who expanded the Russian empire by annexing several countries.
On Tuesday, the Vatican issued a statement clarifying the pope’s comments, saying it was “clear from the context in which he pronounced them, the pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote what is positive in the great Russian cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logics and government personalities, cited to indicate some historical periods of reference.”
Meanwhile, at the Kremlin, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday called Francis’ words “very gratifying.”
“The pontiff knows Russian history and this is very good,” he said. “It has deep roots, and our heritage is not limited to Peter (the Great) or Catherine, it is much more ancient.”
At virtually all of his public appearances since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 2022, Francis has consistentlyas morally unjust, barbaric, repugnant and sacrilegious. But he last year that NATO expansion could have provoked Russia’s invasion, echoing another justification put forth from early on by the Kremlin.
In an effort to help mediate an end to the conflict, the pope appointed Cardinal Matteo Zuppi as his personal peace envoy this year. Zuppi has already travelled on the pope’s behalf to Kyiv, Moscow and Washington.