Oleg Nikolenko – a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry – said that the pope’s comments, made in a live video address to Catholic youths gathered in St Petersburg, were “imperialistic propaganda”.
However, Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, has now said the worldwide head of the Catholic Church merely wanted to praise the positive aspects of Russia’s spiritual and cultural history. Pope Francis praised Russia’s imperial rulers Peter and Catherine the Great – and told Russian youths that they are the heirs of the “the great imperial Russia” they created.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has used similar rhetoric to justify the invasion of Ukraine. Nikolenko said: “It is by such imperialistic propaganda, ‘spiritual staples’ and ” the need to rescue ‘the great mother of Russia’ the Kremlin justifies the killing of thousands of Ukrainians and Ukrainian women and the destruction of hundreds of Ukrainian cities and villages.
“It is very unfortunate that Russian grand-state ideas, which, in fact, are the cause of Russia’s chronic aggression, knowingly or unknowingly, come from the Pope’s mouth, whose mission, in our understanding, is precisely to open the eyes of Russian youth to the disastrous course of the current Russian leadership.”
However, in a statement, Bruni said Pope Francis “certainly didn’t want to exalt imperialistic logic or government personalities, who were cited to indicate certain historic periods of reference”.
In remarks that appeared to be ad-libbed – and that were omitted from official text of the speech published by the Vaticam – the supreme pontiff said: “Never forget your inheritance. You are the heirs of the great Russia. The great Russia of the saints, of the kings, of the great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, that great imperial Russia, cultivated, with so much culture and humanity.
“Never forget this inheritance. 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.”
Ukraine’s Greek Catholic leader, His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, also complained about the Pope’s comments. He said “the reference to Russia’s imperial leaders “refer to the worst example of Russian imperialism and extreme nationalism”.
“We fear that those words are understood by some as an encouragement of precisely this nationalism and imperialism, which is the real cause of the war in Ukraine. War that every day brings death and destruction to our people.”
The Pope has also previously appeared to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by saying that NATO was “barking at Russia’s gates” with its eastward expansion.