International News

Pope, Urging Young Russians to Be Proud of Their Heritage, Stirs Controversy

Pope Francis meets with Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, president of the Italian bishops’ conference and the pope’s envoy for peace in Ukraine, in the library of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Aug. 24, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church said Ukrainians were shocked when Pope Francis told Russian Catholic youths to be proud of their heritage and cited two historic Russian leaders that, the archbishop said, are “the worst example of imperialism and extreme Russian nationalism.”

“In the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, such statements inspire the neocolonial ambitions of the aggressor country,” Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, said in a statement Aug. 28.

While “the examples cited by the Holy Father actually contradict his teaching on peace,” the archbishop said a clarification from him is needed because “there is a danger that these words may be perceived as support for the nationalism and imperialism that has caused the war in Ukraine today — a war that brings death and destruction to our people every day.”

Speaking off the cuff in Italian at the end of a video call Aug. 25 with young Russians participating in a Catholic youth festival, Pope Francis told them, “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.”

Pope Francis did not mention the expansionist policies of Peter the Great and Catherine II.

Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, responded Aug. 29 saying, “As is clear from the context in which he spoke to them, 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 an imperialistic logic and governing personalities,” which were “cited to point to certain historical periods of reference.”

The Vatican press office had published the pope’s prepared remarks to the young people meeting in St. Petersburg, but not his responses to questions from participants. His comments about being proud of their heritage came at the end of the meeting, according to a video posted on YouTube by Siberian Catholic Television.

The Vatican nunciature in Kyiv also issued a statement Aug. 28 saying, “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 nunciature “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 words of the Roman Pontiff spoken on Aug. 25 are to be understood in this same context,” the statement said.

In his prepared remarks to the young people, the pope said that although Russia’s continuing war on Ukraine may make peace seem an impossible dream, young Russian Catholics need to sow seeds of reconciliation and peace however they can.

Young people hold a flag reading “peace” in Italian at the end of Pope Francis’s weekly general audience in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican Aug. 23, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

“I wish you, young Russians, the vocation to be artisans of peace in the midst of so many conflicts, in the midst of so much polarization on all sides, which plague our world,” the pope said in his prepared remarks during an hourlong video call Aug. 25 with 400 participants at the youth festival in St. Petersburg.

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

“Have the courage to replace fears with dreams. Replace fears with dreams. Replace fears with dreams,” Pope Francis repeated. “Do not be stewards of fears but entrepreneurs of dreams. Allow yourself the luxury of dreaming big!”

Fides, the news agency of the Dicastery for Evangelization, reported that a young woman asked Pope Francis how diplomacy could end the war in Ukraine.

Diplomacy does not ignore conflict, but it strives to foster dialogue and unity, Pope Francis told her. “Diplomacy advances following a path where unity is superior to conflict. Real diplomacy is not afraid of conflicts, but it does not underline them: it takes conflicts, and, with conflicts, it moves forward through dialogue and prayer.”

“Diplomacy is not easy. Diplomats do so much good for humanity. It is not easy work, but it is very fruitful,” the pope said. “And this, both with regard to the Ukrainian situation and with other countries. Diplomacy always builds, it does not destroy.”