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Vatican reassures Ukrainian Catholics that pope did not intend to praise Russian imperialism

Pope Francis and Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. / Mazur/Олександр Гаврик via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Rome Newsroom, Aug 29, 2023 / 10:34 am (CNA).

After the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church expressed “great pain and concern” at Pope Francis’ recent video message to young Russian Catholics, the Vatican said that the pope did not intend to exalt Russian imperialism.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Tuesday that “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 glorify imperialistic logic and government personalities.”

The statement came in response to concern from Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church over Pope Francis’ words referring to “the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that great and enlightened Russian empire of much culture and much humanity.”

Pope Francis made the comment while speaking off the cuff during a live video conference with Russian youth on Aug. 25. 

Before the final blessing, Pope Francis said: “Do not forget your heritage. You are heirs of a great Russia. The great Russia of saints, of kings. The great Russia of Peter II [a likely reference to Peter I], Catherine II, that great and enlightened Russian Empire of much culture and much humanity. Never deny this heritage, you are the heirs of the great Mother Russia, carry on with it, and thank you, thank you … for your way of being and for being Russian.”

The remarks were made in Italian after the pope’s question-and-answer session with the youth, before the blessing, and were not included in the available livestream nor in the official transcript of Pope Francis’ speech released on Aug. 26 by the Holy See Press Office.

Young Catholics participating in the 10th edition of the All-Russian Meeting of Catholic Youth in St. Petersburg, Russia, watch a livestream of Pope Francis at the Basilica of St. Catherine of Alexandria on Aug. 25, 2023. Credit: Basilica of St. Catherine of Alexandria

The pope’s words were published on the Moscow Archdiocese’s platform at the conclusion of the youth event on Aug. 27. 

Pope Francis referenced Russian czars who expanded the Russian empire in centuries past and whom President Vladimir Putin previously invoked in justifying the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian major archbishop responded with alarm. “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. 

“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,” he added.

The apostolic nunciature in Ukraine later released a statement “firmly rejecting” the interpretation 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.”

The Vatican embassy added that the words of the Roman pontiff are to be understood in the context of Pope Francis being “a staunch opponent and critic of any form of imperialism or colonialism across all peoples and situations.” 

The Archdiocese of Moscow told CNA that it stands with the clarification provided by the Holy See Press Office.

In Pope Francis’ video conference with the young Russian Catholics, the pope urged them to be peacemakers and “bridge builders.”

“I wish you, young Russians, the vocation to be artisans of peace in the midst of so many conflicts, in the midst of so many polarizations on all sides, which plague our world,” he continued.

“I invite you to be sowers, to sow seeds of reconciliation,” he said, “little seeds that in this winter of war will not sprout for the moment in the frozen ground, but which in a future spring will blossom.”

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