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VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a rare intervention, the Holy See Press Office has stepped in to clarify Pope Francis' stance on the Russia–Ukraine conflict after the pontiff's extempore comments praising Russia triggered a diplomatic fiasco.
"The pope's intention was to inspire young people to uphold the positive aspects of Russia's great cultural and spiritual heritage" and "not to exalt imperialistic logics and governmental figures," Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, clarified on Tuesday.
The clarification followed a blistering attack on Francis by His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who warned that the pope's words could be interpreted as supporting "Russia's imperialist ambitions."
On Friday, Pope Francis applauded Russia's history and culture in his address via video link to more than 400 young people assembled for the 10th National Meeting of Catholic Youth of Russia in St. Catherine's Basilica, the oldest Catholic church in the Russian Federation.
"You are heirs of the great Russia: the great Russia of saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine II, that great, cultivated Russian empire of so much culture, of so much humanity," Francis told the youth just before pronouncing his blessing.
"Never give up this heritage. You are the heirs of the great Mother Russia; go forward. And thank you. Thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian," the pope said.
While the unscripted remarks were not included in the Holy Father's speech and were omitted in the Vatican media's official transcripts, a video posted on YouTube showed the pope ad-libbing the controversial remarks in Italian.
In a statement published on the website of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church on Tuesday, Abp. Shevchuk noted that Francis' remarks had caused "great pain" among the Catholic episcopate, clergy, monastics and faithful, as well as among other denominations.
Blasting Francis' praise of Peter I and Catherine II as "the worst example of imperialism and extreme Russian nationalism," Shevchuk warned that the pope's words "could be taken as supporting the very nationalism and imperialism that has caused the war in Ukraine today."
"The examples given by the Holy Father actually contradict his teachings on peace, since he has always condemned any form of manifestation of imperialism in the modern world and warned of the dangers of extreme nationalism," the major archbishop emphasized.
"We hope that these words of the Holy Father were spoken spontaneously, without any attempt at historical evaluations, let alone support of Russia's imperialist ambitions," Shevchuk observed.
Commentators noted that the Jesuit pope's praise for Catherine II, the empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, may have been because she refused to allow the Society of Jesus to be suppressed in Russia.
According to Jesuit historian Fr. Marek Inglot, Catherine II saved the Society of Jesus almost singlehandedly by protecting the 201 Jesuits she had acquired in 1772 with the First Partition of Poland and insisted that they continue their apostolate as Jesuits.
In his book, How the Jesuits Survived Their Suppression: The Society of Jesus in the Russian Empire (1773–1814), Inglot explains that the Russian Society of Jesus was the only surviving Jesuit entity in the world after 1780, except for a few Jesuits in Québec.
The Russian Jesuits served as a beacon of hope for former Jesuits everywhere, made possible partial restorations outside the empire before 1814 and led directly to the general restoration of the Society in that year, Inglot notes.
The Society of Jesus was almost extinguished when Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits worldwide on July 21, 1773, with the brief Dominus ac Redemptor.
According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, Peter the Great "was inimical to Catholicism" and "revealed his anti-Catholic hatred when, at Polotsk in 1705, he killed with his own hand the Basilian Theophanus Kolbieczynski."
Moreover, "by many other measures, he caused the most offensive calumnies against Catholicism to be disseminated in Russia; he expelled the Jesuits in 1719; he issued [decrees] to draw Catholics to Orthodoxy and to prevent the children of mixed marriages from being Catholics."
"Finally, he celebrated in 1722 and in 1725 monstrous orgies as parodies of the conclave, casting ridicule on the pope and the Roman court," the encyclopedia entry notes.
The Vatican nunciature in Kyiv, however, rejected any pro-Russian interpretation of Francis' remarks, stating that Pope Francis "is a convinced opponent and critic of any form of imperialism or colonialism, in all peoples and situations."
"The words of the Roman pontiff pronounced on Aug. 25 should also be interpreted in this same key," a statement from the nunciature clarified.