Pope Francis did not intend to “glorify imperialistic logic” in off-the-cuff remarks last week about expansionist 18th-century Russian rulers, the Vatican said on Tuesday, seeking to calm an outcry over comments that some critics said were too close to President Vladimir V. Putin’s justifications for invading Ukraine.
In a video speech to young Russian Catholics on Friday, “The Pope intended to encourage the youth to preserve and promote all that is positive in the great Russian cultural and spiritual legacy,” the Vatican spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said in a statement. “Surely not to glorify imperialistic logic and government personalities.”
At the conclusion of his speech, in which Francis encouraged young Catholic Russians to build bridges between generations and spread seeds of reconciliation, he invoked the legacy of the “Great Russia of saints, rulers, Great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire — great, enlightened, of great culture and great humanity.”
Those comments appeared to deviate from his prepared remarks, which were released in a Vatican bulletin that did not mention the extemporaneous references to the two former Russian tsars, who invaded parts of Ukraine in the 18th centuries.
Those comments were immediately criticized in Ukraine and in other former Soviet countries. Mr. Putin, who compared himself to Peter the Great in a speech last year, has mentioned the idea of rebuilding the Russian empire in connection with the war in Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in three decades ago.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, Oleg Nikolenko, wrote on Facebook that it was “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.”
The leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, also expressed “pain” and “disappointment” over the pope’s remarks, which he said contradicted Francis’ doctrine of peace.
In the early months of the war set off by the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the pope was criticized for not taking a strong enough stance against Russia, apparently following a standard strategy of the Holy See to avoid alienating any warring side before possible peace negotiations. But as the war has continued, Francis has reversed course and called Ukrainians “martyrs” in a “morally unjust” war.
Gaia Pianigiani is a reporter based in Italy for The New York Times. More about Gaia Pianigiani
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