Pope’s praise of Russian culture gets him into trouble

    Ukrainian church head and others took Francis’ extolling of the “great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine II” amiss

    Last Friday, August 25, Pope Francis addressed Russian young people participating in the 10th National Meeting of Catholic Youth at Russia’s oldest Catholic Church, St. Catherine’s Basilica, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

    As reported by Vatican News service the next day, Francis spoke via video link for over an hour with the 400+ young people gathered there, encouraging them to value their cultural heritage as “heirs of great Mother Russia.”

    Before blessing the young people, as reported by the international Catholic website Il Sismogrofo, the Pope included an extemporaneous coda to his remarks: “Do not forget the heritage. You are heirs of the great Russia: the great Russia of saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine II, that great, cultivated Russian empire of so much culture, of so much humanity. Never give up this heritage. You are the heirs of the great Mother Russia, go ahead. And thank you. Thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian.”

    Then trouble erupted, in the form of a statement, issued yesterday, August 28, by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — the largest of the 23 Eastern rite churches in Catholicism – criticizing the Pope’s parting message to the young Russians. Archbishop Shevchuk felt that “The words about ‘the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that great, enlightened empire — a country of great culture and great humanity’ — are the worst example of imperialism and extreme Russian nationalism. There is a danger that these words could be taken as supporting the very nationalism and imperialism that has caused the war in Ukraine today — a war that brings death and destruction to our people every day.”

    This morning, in a bid to quiet the controversy and smooth ruffled feathers, the Holy See issued a rare “clarification” of the Pope’s words, saying the Pope ” intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote what is positive in Russia’s great cultural and spiritual heritage.”

    Below are texts elucidating the exact context of the Pope’s off-the-cuff remarks — and the reaction it engendered.

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    Pope Francis Praises Historical Russian Imperialism Amid War in Ukraine (link)

    Pontiff celebrates the reigns of Russian czars who subjugated Ukraine for their ‘great culture and great humanity’

    By Francis X. Rocca

    Updated Aug. 28, 2023 2:45 pm ET

    ROME—Pope Francis praised 18th-century Russian emperors whom President Vladimir Putin has invoked as models for his territorial annexations in Ukraine, drawing denunciations from Ukraine’s government and the leader of the country’s Greek-Catholic Church.

    On Friday, speaking by video to a gathering of Russian Catholic youth in St. Petersburg, Pope Francis urged them to follow in the path of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, whom he called rulers of a “great, enlightened empire of great culture and great humanity.”

    The comments on Peter and Catherine, which came at the end of the pope’s speech, weren’t included in the official transcript released by the Vatican, but were released by the Catholic diocese of Moscow and later in a video from Siberian Catholic television, a church agency.

    Putin has cited Peter, who expanded Russian territory and curtailed Ukrainian autonomy, to justify the current invasion. Putin has used the term Novorossiya, or New Russia, for Russian-occupied southern Ukraine—using a term that dates back to Russia’s conquest of southern Ukraine under Catherine in 1764.

    Catherine also harbored the Jesuit order, of which Pope Francis is a member, during the order’s suppression by Rome in the late 18th and early 19th century.

    Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, called the pope’s words “imperialist propaganda” of the kind that the Kremlin uses to justify its invasion of Ukraine. “It is a shame that Russian great-power ideas, which are actually the cause of Russia’s chronic aggressiveness, are voiced, knowingly or not, by the Pope,” Nikolenko wrote on Facebook. The pope’s mission, he wrote, should instead be “to open the eyes of Russian youth to the destructive course of the current Russian leadership.”

    The leader of Ukraine’s Greek-Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said in a statement Monday evening that the pope’s words had caused great pain in the church’s hierarchy and great disappointment in Ukrainian civil society, since the empire lauded by the pope was “the worst example of extreme Russian imperialism and nationalism.”

    “We fear that those words may be understood by some as an encouragement of precisely this nationalism and imperialism, which is the real cause of the war in Ukraine,” Shevchuk said, adding that he planned to express “the doubts and pain of the Ukrainian people” directly to the pope within a few days at a previously scheduled meeting in Rome.

    The pope’s remarks drew angry reactions on social media, especially in countries near Russia. Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves called the comments “truly revolting” on X, formerly known as Twitter. Nexta, a Belarusian media outlet based in Warsaw, Poland, posted on the same platform: “By the way, the Catholics of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus raised uprisings three times against this ‘enlightened empire.’ ”

    In a statement released on Monday afternoon, the Vatican’s embassy to Kyiv rejected suggestions that “Pope Francis might have encouraged young Russian Catholics to draw inspiration from historical Russian figures known for imperialistic and expansionist ideas and actions that negatively impacted neighboring populations, including the Ukrainian people.”

    “Pope Francis has never endorsed imperialistic notions. On the contrary, he is a staunch opponent and critic of any form of imperialism or colonialism across all peoples and situations,” the statement said.

    Pope Francis has frequently decried Ukrainian suffering since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, but he has refrained from explicitly condemning Moscow for the war, while suggesting it may have been provoked by the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe’s east. The pope’s stance has drawn criticism from Ukrainians including leaders of the Catholic Church there.

    The pope has repeatedly cast the war in Ukraine as a struggle between the Russian and U.S. superpowers, with Ukraine as a victim caught in the middle. “There are imperial interests at stake, not just the Russian empire, which has been around since Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, but the other empires too. There are these empires. And empires put nations in second place,” the pope said in a March interview with Swiss public television.

    The Vatican has offered to broker a peace agreement in Ukraine, and Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi has traveled to Kyiv, Moscow and Washington as the pope’s envoy in pursuit of that mission. But neither Ukraine or Russia has shown interest in mediation.

    In May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met the pope in Rome and called on him to support Kyiv’s formula for peace, based on the withdrawal of Russia’s invasion forces, the restoration of Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory, war-crimes prosecutions and reparations.

    Write to Francis X. Rocca at [email protected]

    [End Wall Street Journal article]

    Video meeting with young Russians gathered in Saint Petersburg, on the occasion of the 10th National Meeting of Young Catholics of Russia (23 to 27 August), 26.08.2023 (link)

    Yesterday afternoon, the Holy Father Francis connected with young Russians gathered in Saint Petersburg on the occasion of the tenth National Meeting of Young Catholics in Russia, taking place from 23 to 27 August. The theme chosen for this tenth meeting is the same as that of World Youth Day in Lisbon: “Mary arose and went in haste” (Lk 1:39).

    The following is the address delivered to them by the Pope during the meeting:

    Address of the Holy Father

    Dear young people, may the peace and joy of Jesus be with you!

    Three weeks ago, we celebrated World Youth Day in Lisbon, with young people from all around the world. Today I feel a great joy at being here to share with you this moment of faith and hope. The motto of this World Youth Day was: “Mary arose and went in haste” (Lk 1:39). I would like to propose three ideas to you, based on this motto, so that you can work on them further, in a reflection you can carry out as a group, each one according to his or her own experience.

    First idea: God calls, and is outbound. We are all chosen and called. Each one of you, like Mary, is called by God. Yes, called by God, chosen and called. We are all chosen and called. Ask yourselves: Am I chosen? Yes, the Lord has called to you from the beginning of your life, He called you by name! Called before the talents we have, before our merits, before our obscurities and wounds; before everything, we were called. Called by name, one by one. God does not go to the pile, God goes one by one.

    Elizabeth, who was barren, and Mary, the virgin: two women who became witnesses, of what? Of the transforming power of God. God transforms. It is this experience of God’s overflowing love that cannot but be shared. This is why Mary arose and set out without hesitation, immediately. She had to get up quickly. When God calls, we cannot remain seated. We must go in haste, because the world, the brother, the suffering, he who is next to us, who does not know the hope of God, needs to receive it, needs to receive the joy of God. I get up in haste to bring the joy of God. This is the first idea: we are called and outbound.

    Second idea: God’s love is for everyone, and the Church is for everyone. God’s love is recognized by its hospitality. God always welcomes, He creates, He creates space for everyone, and sacrifices Himself for the other, He is attentive to the needs of the other. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, helping her in her needs. These two women were creating space for each other, communicating between themselves. The Church is a mother with an open heart, who knows how to welcome and to receive, especially those who need greater care. How many wounds, how much desperation can be cured when one feels welcomed. And the Church welcomes us. This is why I dream of a Church in which no-one is superfluous, where no-one is “extra”. Please, may the Church not have a “border control” to select who enters and who does not. No, everyone, everyone. Entrance is free. And then, may each person feel Jesus’ invitation to follow Him, to see how one feels before God; and for this path there are the teachings and the Sacraments. Let us remember the Gospel: when the master of the banquet sends people out to the crossroads, saying: “Go to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find” (cf. Mt 22:9). Do not forget this word: everyone. The Church is for everyone: young and old, healthy and sick, the righteous and sinners. This is what Jesus meant: everyone, everyone, everyone.

    And the third idea: it is fundamental that the young and the elderly open themselves to each other. The young, encountering the elderly, have the opportunity to receive the wealth of their experiences and their lives. And the elderly, encountering the young, find in them the promise of a future filled with hope. It is important that you young people dialogue with the elderly, that you speak with your grandparents, that you listen to your grandparents, that you listen to the experience of life that goes beyond that of your parents. The point of encounter between Mary and Elizabeth is dreams. Both of them dreamt. The young dream, the elderly dream. It is precisely the dream, the capacity to dream, the vision of tomorrow that has kept and keeps the generations united, as the prophet Joel reminds us: “Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (cf. 2:28). In this way, the elderly dream of many things: democracy, the unity of nations… and the young prophesy, they are called to be artisans of the environment and of peace. Elizabeth, with the wisdom of years – she was elderly – strengthens Mary, who was young and full of grace, guided by the Spirit.

    Dear young people, I do not want to deliver a long sermon. I invite you to be builders of bridges. Builders of bridges between the generations, recognizing the dreams of those who preceded them along the way. The alliance between the generations keeps the history and the culture of a people alive. I wish for you, young Russians, the vocation of being artisans of peace in the midst of so many conflicts, in the midst of so many polarizations that are everywhere, that afflict our world. I invite you to be sowers, to sow seeds of reconciliation, tiny seeds that in this wintertime of war will not germinate for the moment on frozen ground, but in a future spring will flourish. As I said in Lisbon: have the courage to replace fears with dreams. Replace fears with dreams. Do not be administrators of fear, but entrepreneurs of dreams. Permit yourself the luxury of dreaming big!

    Dear young people, thank you for the time you have given to me, for having wanted to share with me a few of your dreams and your hopes, your fears and your sufferings. Thank you to Varvara for her witness of family. Thank you to Alexander for his witness of life. Thank you! And thank you all for the witness you are giving today, in this meeting.

    I invite you to look to Mary, to find the Lord, to conceive of Him in your heart and to bring him promptly, in haste, to those who are distant, to bring him to those who are in need. Be a sign of hope, a sign of peace and joy, like Mary, because with the same “humility of his handmaid”, you too can change the historical moment in which you live. Put yourselves into play for the future, anchored by the roots of your grandparents. I greet you affectionately. I am happy to have spoken with you. I give you my blessing. I pray for you, and please, do not forget to pray for me.

    [End Holy See Statement dated 08/26/2023]

    Ukrainian Greek Catholic leader on Pope’s remarks on Russia: “inspires neocolonial ambitions” (link)

    Statement of His Beatitude Sviatoslav, Head and Father of the UGCC, on the debate concerning some of the statements of His Holiness Pope Francis at a meeting with young Catholics in Russia on August 25, 2023.

    (ZENIT News / Kiev, 08.28.2023).- We offer the statement of the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, in communion with the Pope, following some statements made by the Supreme Pontiff at a meeting with young Catholics on the evening of Friday, August 25, via video-call. The words have caused controversy in the context of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The Pope said specifically in one part of the speech: “Never forget your roots. You are the heirs of the great Russia: the great Russia of saints, of rulers, of the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that great, enlightened empire of great culture and great humanity. Never give up this heritage. You are the heirs of the great Mother Russia, go forward. And thank you. Thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian”. This part was omitted from the original communiqué of the Holy See Press Office.


    With great pain and concern, we have learned about the words attributed to His Holiness Pope Francis during the online meeting with Russian Catholic youth on August 25, 2023, in St. Petersburg.

    We hope that these words of the Holy Father were spoken spontaneously, without any attempt at historical assessment, and certainly not in support of Russia’s imperialistic ambitions. Nevertheless, we share the profound distress they have caused, not only among the bishops, clergy, monks, and faithful of our Church but also among other denominations and religious organizations. At the same time, we are aware of the deep disappointment they have ignited within society.

    The words about “the great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, that grand empire – grand, enlightened, a country of great culture and great humanity” are the worst example of Russian imperialism and extreme nationalism.

    There is a danger that these words may be perceived as support for the nationalism and imperialism that have caused the war in Ukraine today, a war that brings death and destruction to our people every day.

    The examples cited by the Holy Father are, in fact, contrary to his doctrine of peace, as he has always condemned all forms of imperialism in the modern world and warned of the dangers of extreme nationalism, emphasizing that it is the cause of the “third world war in parts.”

    As a Church, we want to affirm that, in the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, such statements fuel the neocolonial ambitions of the aggressor country, although we should unequivocally condemn this form of “being Russian.”

    To prevent any manipulation of intentions, context, and statements attributed to the Holy Father, we hope that the Holy See will explain this situation.

    The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, along with all the citizens of our country, condemns the ideology of the “Russian world” and all forms of criminal “Russian identity.” We hope that the Holy Father will heed our voice.

    In a few days, the bishops of our Church will gather in Rome for the annual Synod of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. We will have the opportunity to meet with His Holiness and personally convey the doubts and pain of the Ukrainian people, trusting in his paternal care for them.

    [End Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk Statement]

    Holy See Press Office: Pope did not exalt imperialist logic in remarks about Russia (link)

    The Director of the Holy See Press Office clarifies Pope Francis’ remarks on Russia made on 25 August during a video link-up with participants at the Russian Youth Day in St Petersburg, saying the Pope “intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote what is positive in Russia’s great cultural and spiritual heritage.”

    By Salvatore Cernuzio

    “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, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, made that clarification on Tuesday regarding the words spoken by Pope Francis at the end of a virtual meeting on 25 August with participants in the Russian Youth Day that had opened three days earlier in St Petersburg.

    To the young people gathered in the Russian city’s St. Catherine’s Basilica, the Pope, after reiterating the invitation to be “sowers of seeds of reconciliation”, asked them to never forget their “heritage”.

    He then referred to ‘great Russia’ and its cultural history, and cited Peter the Great and Catherine II.

    The Pope’s words – published on the website of the Church of the Mother of God in Moscow – provoked several protests from Ukraine, which criticised the Pope’s greeting as an encouragement of imperialist ideas.

    A reaction from Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, followed a few hours later.

    The Nunciature in Kyiv, however, rejected all interpretations, stating that Pope Francis “is a convinced opponent and critic of any form of imperialism or colonialism, in all peoples and situations. The words of the Roman Pontiff, pronounced on 25 August, should also be interpreted in this same key.”

    [End Holy See Statement from 08/29/2023]

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