Pope Francis draws fire after praising Russian empire

Pope Francis is under fire for recent comments where he appeared to praise the Russian empire in an address to Russian Catholic youths, sparking criticism from both state and religious leaders in Ukraine. 

In a video of the end of the pope’s speech posted to a religious website in Moscow, Francis said, suddenly switching from his prepared speech in Spanish to Italian, “Don’t forget (your) heredity. You are heirs of the great Russia, the great Russia of the saints, of kings,” according to a translation from Reuters.

Francis made reference to former Russian rulers Peter I and Catherine II, both known to be Russian imperialists who helped Russia expand into Europe. Last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin compared himself and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Peter the Great’s conquests.

“The great Russian empire, cultured, so much culture, so much humanity. You are the heirs of the great mother Russia. Go forward,” Francis continued. 

Oleg Nikolenko, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, called out Francis’ comments as “imperialist propaganda.

“It is with such imperialist propaganda, ‘spiritual ties’ and the ‘need’ to save ‘great Mother Russia’ that the Kremlin justifies the killing of thousands of Ukrainian men and women and the destruction of hundreds of Ukrainian cities and villages,” Nikolenko said in a translated post on Facebook.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of Ukraine’s eastern Rite Catholic Church, said it is “with great pain and concern” to learn about Francis’ comments. Shevchuk said Francis’ comments about Peter I and Catherine II are “the worst example of imperialism and extreme Russian nationalism.” 

“There is a danger that these words can be perceived as support of nationalism and imperialism that caused the war in Ukraine today,” Shevchuk wrote on Facebook. “A war that brings death and destruction to our people on a daily basis,” adding the pope’s comment “contradict his science of peace.” 

The Vatican posted Francis’s entire prepared speech, but left out the impromptu comments Francis made at the end of the speech. Earlier in the speech, Francis urged the Russian Catholic youth to be “artisans of peace” and to “sow the seeds of reconciliation.”

Nexta, a media group in Belarus, called out Francis’ speech, writing in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, “Pope #Francis called on the Russian youth to be proud of the Russian Empire, as well as the tyrants and organizers of aggressive wars, Peter I and Catherine II”

“By the way, the Catholics of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus raised uprisings three times against this ‘enlightened empire.’”

Francis has repeatedly denounced the war between Russia and Ukraine and recently tasked a leading Italian cardinal with a mission to pave “paths to peace,” in Ukraine. Ukrainian diplomats, however, have reportedly complained that Vatican leaders don’t come down hard enough on Russia and its leader, according to a CBS News report.

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