Vatican clarifies statement praising Russian emperors saying it does not endorse expansionist and imperialist ideas
Pope Francis praised Russian rulers for “great culture and humanity” and has never endorsed conquest or colonialism, the Vatican’s mission in Kiev said on Monday, after online outrage over the pontiff’s remarks at a Russian event.
“Do not 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, educated Russian Empire of so much culture, of so much humanity. Never give up this heritage,” the pontiff said, in Italian, during a video address to some 400 young Russian Catholics in St. Petersburg last Friday.
The comments were part of a question-and-answer period and were therefore not included in the Vatican’s official transcript of his prepared remarks. A video of the Pope’s response, with Russian subtitles, made its way to social media over the weekend – and was met with condemnations from Ukraine, Poland and the Baltics.
“It is very unfortunate that Russian grand-state ideas, which are the cause of Russia’s chronic aggression, knowingly or unknowingly come from the Pope’s mouth,” Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said on Facebook.
The Pope’s words caused “great pain” among the clergy and “great disappointment” in Ukrainian civil society, the head of Ukraine’s Greek-Catholic Church told the Wall Street Journal.
In social media posts, former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves called the Pope’s remarks “truly revolting” and dubbed the seat of the Roman Catholic Church “the Vatnikan,” using a Ukrainian slur for Russians. The Poland-based outlet Nexta pointed out that “the Catholics of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus raised uprisings three times against this ‘enlightened empire’.”
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Russian President Vladimir Putin during an audience at the Apostolic Palace in 2019 © Vatican Pool / Getty Images
The papal embassy in Kiev on Monday reacted to the criticism by explaining what the pontiff really meant.
“According to some interpretations, 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 nunciature said in a statement.
The Vatican “firmly rejects the aforementioned interpretations, as 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 Kremlin meanwhile welcomed remarks by Pope Frances on Russia’s historical legacy.
“It’s very good that the pontiff knows Russian history, which is deeply rooted,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Tuesday.
Peskov noted that Russian history is far broader than the two monarchs named by the head of the Catholic Church, and that there are many teachers in Russian schools and universities, whose goal is to inspire students with the nation’s past.
“The fact that the pontiff sounded in unison with those efforts is very pleasing,” the official concluded.
Modern Ukraine considers cossack chief Ivan Mazepa a national hero, and Russian Emperor Peter the Great – whom Mazepa betrayed at Poltava in 1708 – a foreign occupier. They likewise revile Catherine II the Great, under whose reign Crimea became Russian and Odessa was founded.
Pope Francis is a member of the Jesuit order, which honours Empress Catherine for giving them sanctuary during their persecution by the papacy in the late 1700s.
Moscow has rejected this framing of the conflict. It has insisted that it had to use force in response to Kiev’s continued persecution of its ethnic Russian population, the empowerment of extremist nationalists in Ukraine, and the continued build-up of NATO forces on Russia’s borders.