Pope Francis’ recent comments praising the historical legacy of the Russian Empire have ignited controversy, particularly among Ukrainians. Here’s the full story.
Pope Francis’ Controversial Comments
The Vatican found itself on the defensive this week following Pope Francis’ comments on Friday, which celebrated the history of Russia’s imperial might.
His remarks immediately resulted in some sharp insults from Ukrainian officials and caught the attention of an approving Kremlin.
Addressing Russian Catholics
Pope Francis, addressing a young group of Russian Catholics via live stream in St. Petersburg, seemed to beg them, “Don’t 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. 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.”
An Unintended Endorsement?
The Pope’s sentiments, while perhaps intended to inspire pride, instead ignited a powder keg of anger.
Pope’s Remarks Amid Russian-Ukraine Conflict
These comments were especially sensitive given the backdrop of the Russian-Ukraine war. Russian President Vladimir Putin has frequently romanticized a version of history where Ukraine and other territories naturally belong within Russian territories.
To many Ukrainians, Pope Francis seemed to be echoing these nationalist narratives, which Moscow uses to support its war efforts.
Insults and Criticism Directed at Pope’s Comments
Oleg Nikolenko, representing the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, vented his dismay on Facebook, stating, “It is precisely with such imperialist propaganda, the “spiritual ties” and the “need” to save “great Mother Russia” that the Kremlin justifies the killing of thousands of Ukrainians and the destruction of Ukrainian cities and villages.
The Vatican’s Damage Control
The Vatican, sensing the incoming diplomatic crisis, swiftly responded.
Spokesperson Matteo Bruni attempted to clarify the Pope’s intent, emphasizing that Pope Francis sought to “encourage young people to preserve and promote what is positive in Russia’s great cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to extol imperialistic logics and governmental personalities, cited to point to certain historical periods of reference.”
Controversial Legacies of Peter and Catherine
However, the historical figures Pope Francis named – Peter the Great and Catherine the Great – both have controversial legacies, particularly in relation to Ukraine. Catherine II’s annexation of Crimea in 1783 directly parallels Russia’s annexation of the same region in 2014.
Putin’s Approval of Pope Francis’ Comments
Never missing a beat, Putin praised the Pope’s appreciation of Russian history. “It is admirable that the pontiff knows Russian history,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated.
He went on to remark, “It is deep, and the legacy is very old, not restricted to Peter I. The entire society and schools work hard to hand over this to young people. The pontiff going along with this effort is really good and makes us glad.”
Historical Expert’s Perspective
Olivia Durand, a renowned expert on Russian colonial history, expressed concern regarding the Pope’s comments, noting that they uncomfortably align with the talking points of great Russian chauvinism.
“This speech is understandably an upsetting one for people in Ukraine and beyond – it feels tone-deaf and unaware of the deeper history of religious politicization during the successive ages of Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the USSR, and today’s Russian Federation,” Durand stated.
For Ukrainians, the Pope’s words are not merely a gentle reminder of history; they evoke real fears and memories.
The timing of these remarks – against a backdrop of incredibly strained Ukrainian-Russian relations – only worsens the sting.
A Delicate Balancing Act
The Vatican will likely tread carefully in the coming days as it tries to navigate the pitfalls involved in talking about faith, history, and politics.
Pope Francis has previously stood up for the Ukrainian cause, condemning Russia’s interventions. Still, Ukrainians everywhere feel betrayed by his recent remarks, seeing them as a deviation from his usually supportive stance.
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Featured Image Credit: Shutterstock / Alessia Pierdomenico. The people shown in the images are for illustrative purposes only, not the actual people featured in the story.