The Vatican released a statement clarifying comments from Pope Francis regarding Russia on Wednesday, saying he was not praising a Russian imperialist agenda.
Francis addressed a gathering of Russian Catholic youths last week and urged them to be proud of their Russian heritage. Many observers, however, criticized the remarks as justifying the imperial ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“In the words of greeting addressed to several young Russian Catholics a few days ago, as is clear from the context in which he pronounced them, the Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote what is positive in Russia’s great cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to exalt imperialistic logics and governmental personalities, cited to indicate certain historical periods of reference,” Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, wrote Wednesday.
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) had reacted with dismay at Francis’ comments earlier this week. Head and Father of the UGCC Sviatoslav Shevchuk wrote on Tuesday that the words caused “great pain and concern.”
“We hope that these words of the Holy Father were spoken spontaneously, without any attempt at historical evaluations, let alone support of Russia’s imperialist ambitions,” Shevchuk said. “Nonetheless, we share the great pain which they caused, not only among the episcopate, clergy, monastics, and faithful of our Church, but also among other denominations and religious organizations.”
Ukrainian officials argued Francis’ words had echoed the Putin regime’s own justifications for its ongoing invasion.
“Never forget your heritage. You are the descendants of great Russia: the great Russia of saints, rulers, the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire – educated, great culture and great humanity. Never give up on this heritage,” the pope had told Russian youths.
“You are descendants of the great Mother Russia, step forward with it. And thank you – thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian,” he added.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday that this language echoed “imperialist propaganda” through which “the Kremlin justifies the killing of thousands of Ukrainians and Ukrainian women and the destruction of hundreds of Ukrainian cities and villages.” At the outset of the invasion of Ukriane, Putin had compared himself to Peter I, or Peter the Great.
“It is 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,” Nikolenko wrote.