At a video address broadcast to a gathering of Russia’s Catholic youth in St. Petersburg on Aug. 25, Pope Francis sparked outrage by calling on young Russians to effectively perpetuate the imperial policies of their bloodiest autocrats.
At first his discourse echoed the usual Catholic talking points, calling on the youth to be “builders of bridges” and “sowers of reconciliation.” But as he concluded his exhortation, he seemed to echo the Kremlin’s propaganda, which official Vatican channels omitted from their publications.
“You are the heirs of the great Russia,” the Pope said, “the great Russia of saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, of that great, enlightened Russian empire, of great culture and great humanity.”
Neither the Vatican nor Pope Francis have offered an explanation as to why he would choose to put two of Russia’s bloodiest tsars on such a pedestal.
One of Peter’s most notorious acts was to have his own son tortured to death. Whereas Catherine conspired to have her husband deposed and killed in order to take the throne.
To Ukrainian ears, it would seem the Pope had chosen the very tsars who had made it their policy to destroy any Ukrainian national consciousness whatsoever.
Peter I destroyed the Cossack fortress of Baturyn in 1708, killing upwards of 10,000 civilians, while Catherine II liquidated the Zaporozhian Cossack Sich in 1775 and imposed serfdom on Ukrainian lands.
Ukrainians’ outrage and Catholics’ dismay
Oleh Nikolenko, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry expressed regret on Aug. 28 that the Pope is spreading Russian chauvinist ideas which the Kremlin uses to justify the killing of Ukrainians.
The leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, released a statement on Aug. 28 in response to the Pope: “It is with great pain and concern that we learned of the words attributed to His Holiness Pope Francis at an online meeting with Russian Catholic youth on Aug. 25, 2023 in St. Petersburg.”
The Major Archbishop – who is subordinate to Pope Francis, the Vatican’s primate – initially hedged his criticism by offering the Pontiff the excuse of ignorance: “We hope that these words of the Holy Father were spoken spontaneously, without any attempt at historical evaluations, let alone support of Russian nationalism.”
After the preamble Sviatoslav shared “the great pain” caused by the Pope’s words and the “deep disappointment” in society that they have caused.
Sviatoslav went on to point out the historical issue that particularly upset Ukrainians: “The words about ‘the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire – a great, enlightened, 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 support for the nationalism and imperialism that today has caused the war in Ukraine – a war that brings death and destruction to our people every day…”
Sviatoslav added: “As a Church, we want to state that in the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, such statements inspire the neo-colonial ambitions of the aggressor country, and such a way of ‘being Russian’ should be categorically condemned.”
The Major Archbishop pointed out that “the examples given by the Holy Father actually contradict his doctrine of peace, because he has always condemned any form of manifestation of imperialism in the modern world.”
He also said that the bishops of the UGCC would be convening in Rome from Sept. 3 to 13 for their annual Synod where they would “meet His Holiness and personally convey to him the doubts and pain of the Ukrainian people.”
In a statement released on Tuesday, the Vatican addressed the comments, saying: “The Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote all that is positive in the great Russian cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logic and government personalities, mentioned to indicate some historical periods of reference.”
The Pope’s consistently “neutral” stance
Since Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022, Pope Francis has gone to great efforts to appear unbiased, often drawing the sharp criticism of Ukrainians, who have accused him of equating the aggressor with the victim.
The Pope has even echoed various Kremlin talking points, such as insinuating NATO is to blame for the invasion because of their “barking at the gates” of Russia.
Yet when Russian occupiers desecrated a Roman Catholic church in Ukraine’s Kherson region on Aug. 22, just three days before the Pope’s video speech, the Vatican’s response was silence.
Archbishop Sviatoslav, said he would bring his concerns directly to the Pope: “In order to avoid any manipulation of the intentions, context and statements attributed to the Holy Father, we await an explanation of this situation from the Holy See."
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