Pope Francis’ recent comments about “mother Russia” have been condemned as praise for the country’s imperialist past. In a prepared speech, Pope Francis told Russian youths to be “artisans of peace” and to sow reconciliation “in this winter of war.”
However, during a video address on Friday, the pope reminded Catholic youngsters, “You are the heirs of the great Mother Russia. Heirs of the great Russia of Peter the Great of Catherine II, that great imperial Russia, cultivated, with so much culture and humanity.
The Pope’s address, which was published on the website of the Church of the Mother of God in Moscow, provoked protests and criticism from Ukraine, as President Putin considered Peter the Great an example to justify his invasion of the country.
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said the pontiff’s comments caused “great pain and concern.” In a statement, he said the Pope’s references to Peter I and Catherine II were the “worst example of imperialism and extreme Russian nationalism.”
The Vatican has since sought clarification, saying the Pope never intended to glorify imperialistic thinking, but simply wanted to praise the positive aspects of Russia’s spiritual and cultural history to encourage the next generation to “preserve and promote” these positives.
The Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said “Certainly not to exalt imperialistic logics and governmental personalities, cited to indicate certain historical periods of reference”.
Joe Ronan from Catholic Voices said that the Pope was seeking to build connections with his Russian audience as he addressed youths. According to him, “One of the titles of the Pope, of course, is pontiff, which means bridge builder. And I think to build bridges, you have to work from sort of both sides of the bank.”
Ronan adds that it’s important not to take Pope Francis words out of context: “If you just pick up the pieces where he’s talking about Russian history, you get quite a lopsided idea. A lot of what he was doing was saying to the youngsters that their way of being must be very different to everything else, they must be bridge builders, they must be there to preserve and to promote peace.”