ROME – In the latest expression of Ukrainian irritation with Pope Francis’s efforts to be even-handed with regard to Russia’s ongoing invasion, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has accused the pontiff of trafficking in “imperialist propaganda” during a recent video address to Russian youth.
The Vatican fired back Tuesday morning, insisting that the pope “certainly did not intend to exalt imperalistic logic.”
The pope spoke to a gathering of Catholic youth in St. Petersburg on Aug. 25. When the Vatican released a transcript of his comments the next day, they focused on his call to the Russian youth to be “artisans of peace.”
There was, however, a section not included in the transcript and largely ignored in most news reports, including the Vatican’s own official media platforms. The comments were released later by the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow and in a video from a church-run television agency.
In that section of his talk, Francis called on the youth not to “forget your identity.”
“You are heirs of the great Russia, the great Russia of the saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, that great, enlightened Russian empire, of so much culture, so much humanity,” the pope said.
“Never set aside this legacy. You are heirs of the great Mother Russia, so go forward and thanks for your way of being and for your mode of being Russians,” he said.
That language did not escape the attention of many Ukrainian commentators, including Oleg Nikolenko, the spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, who posted a reaction to the pope’s words on his Facebook page.
“This is the kind of imperialist propaganda, ‘spiritual bonds’ and the ‘need’ to save ‘Great Mother Russia’ which the Kremlin uses to justify the murder of thousands of Ukrainians and the destruction of hundreds of Ukrainian towns and villages,” Nikolenko said.
“It is very unfortunate that Russian great-power ideas, which are, in fact, the reason for Russia’s chronic aggressiveness, are consciously or unconsciously coming from the mouth of the Pope, whose mission, in our understanding, is precisely to open the eyes of Russian youth to the devastating course of the current Russian leadership,” the spokesman said.
Nona Mikhelidze, a Ukrainian and a researcher for the Italy-based Institute for International Affairs, said the pope’s language has been exploited by Russian media.
“Those words hurt all of us who were colonized and who’ve suffered the oppression of empire in the name of ‘Great Mother Russia,’” she said. “It was certainly noticed by the Russian media, which quickly picked it up, grabbing the pope by the jacket and thanking him for his ‘support.’”
Even the leader of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, was critical in a lengthy statement released on Monday, saying the pope’s words caused “great sorrow and concern.”
“We presume that the words of the His Holiness were spoken spontaneously, without the pretense of giving an historical evaluation, much less the intention of sustaining the imperialist ambitions of Russia,” Shevchuk said.
“Nonetheless, we share the great pain caused by his observations among bishops, clergy, monks and faithful not only of our Church, but also of other Christian confessions and representatives of other religious confessions,” the 53-year-old prelate said.
Perhaps unintentionally, Shevchuk said, the pope’s rhetoric referred to “the worst example of Russian imperialism and extreme nationalism.”
“We fear that those words have been understood by some as an encouragement of precisely this nationalism and imperialism, which is the real cause of the war in Ukraine. It’s war that every day carries death and destruction for our people,” he said.
Shevchuk said Ukrainians are awaiting a clarification from the Vatican.
“To avoid that the words and the intentions of the Holy Father are manipulated, we await an explanation of the situation from the Holy See,” he said, adding that the bishops of the Greek Catholic Church shortly will be in Rome and will “personally present the doubts and pain of the Ukrainian people, trusting in his paternal concern for our people.”
The Vatican embassy in Kyiv on Monday issued a statement defending the pope’s remarks.
“Pope Francis has never endorsed imperialistic notions,” the statement said. “On the contrary, he is a staunch opponent and critic of any form of imperialism or colonialism across all peoples and situations.”
Vatican officials noted that the pope’s basic message in that Aug. 25 address was a call to peace.
“I wish you, young Russians, the vocation of being artisans of peace in the midst of so many conflicts, in the midst of so many polarizations that afflict our world on all sides,” he said.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni made a similar point in his statement Tuesday.
“In the words of greeting addressed off the cuff to some young Russian Catholics in recent days, as is clear from the context in which he pronounced them, the Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote all that is positive in the great Russian cultural and spiritual legacy, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logic and government personalities, cited to indicate some historical periods of reference.”
Ironically, the controversy over the pope’s language came the day after he issued a new legal document intended to stabilize relations between a new Apostolic Exarchate he created in 2019 for members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Italy and the Italian bishops’ conference.
At the moment, the Greek Catholic community in Italy numbers roughly 60 priests and 70,000 faithful, totals likely to continue to grow amid ongoing migration out of Ukraine due to the war.