The pontiff made a video address to the 10th All-Russian Catholic Youth Assembly in St. Petersburg on Friday, during which he urged them to view themselves as descendants of the Russian empire.
“Never forget your heritage. You are the descendants of great Russia: the great Russia of saints, rulers, the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire – educated, great culture and great humanity. Never give up on this heritage,” the pope said.
“You are descendants of the great Mother Russia, step forward with it. And thank you – thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian.”
On Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleh Nikolenko lambasted the pope’s speech.
“This is the kind of imperialist propaganda, ‘spiritual bonds’ and the ‘need’ to save ‘Great Mother Russia’ which the Kremlin uses to justify the murder of thousands of Ukrainians and the destruction of hundreds of Ukrainian towns and villages,” Nikolenko said in a Facebook post.
The pope’s mission should be “precisely to open the eyes of Russian youth to the devastating course of the current Russian leadership” and instead he is promoting “Russian great-power ideas, that are, in fact, the reason for Russia’s chronic aggression,” Nikolenko said.
Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared himself to Peter the Great during an exhibition dedicated to the first Russian emperor, using the comparison to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years,” Putin said at the time. “On the face of it, he was at war with Sweden taking something away from it … He was not taking away anything, he was returning. This is how it was.” He added that it didn’t matter that European countries didn’t recognize Peter the Great’s seizure of territory by force.
Those remarks were swiftly condemned by Ukrainians, who saw them as a naked admission of Putin’s imperial ambitions – and were highlighted again this week after the pope’s address.
Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said in a statement that Peter the Great and Catherine the Great are the “worst examples of imperialism and extreme Russian nationalism,” warning that the pope’s words “could be perceived as support for the nationalism and imperialism that has caused the war in Ukraine today.”
“As a Church, we want to state that in the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, such statements inspire the neocolonial ambitions of the aggressor country,” Shevchuk said.
On Tuesday, the Vatican rejected the interpretation of the pope’s words as praise of imperialism.
“The Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote all that is positive in the great cultural and Russian spirituality, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logic and government personalities, cited to indicate some historical periods of reference,” the Vatican statement said.
The pope has previously been criticized for some of his comments about Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In remarks published by Italian newspaper La Stampa in June last year, Francis said the war “was perhaps in some way either provoked or not prevented.” He said that before Russia invaded Ukraine he met with “a head of state” who “was very worried about how NATO was moving.”
In August last year, the pope angered Kyiv by referring to Russian political commentator Darya Dugina, the daughter of an ultra-nationalist philosopher, as being among the “innocent” victims of the war after she was killed by a car bomb on the outskirts of Moscow.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine, Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, to discuss Francis’ statement, saying that it “unjustly” equates “the aggressor and the victim.”
Ukrainian officials have previously said they have “no knowledge” of a Vatican peace mission to resolve the conflict with Russia, following the pope’s claim of involvement in the process.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with the pontiff in Rome in May, when Francis assured “his constant prayer” for peace and stressed the need for “human gestures” toward victims of the war, according to the Vatican.
CNN’s Ivana Kottasová contributed reporting.