The Vatican issued a rare clarification Tuesday of a statement by Pope Francis.
The clarification followed the even rarer public criticism of papal remarks by the head of an Eastern Catholic Church.
The leader in question is Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who has guided the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church since 2011.
What prompted Shevchuk to speak out? What did he say? And what’s the historical background? The Pillar takes a look.
What was Major Archbishop Shevchuk reacting to?
On Aug. 25, Pope Francis was connected via video link to participants in the 10th National Meeting of Catholic Youth of Russia in St. Petersburg.
According to a Vatican News report dated Aug. 26, the pope interacted for “a little more than an hour” with the roughly 400 young people present in St. Catherine’s Basilica, the oldest Catholic church in the Russian Federation.
On the same day, the Holy See press office released the text of the pope’s address, in Spanish and Italian.
Il Sismografo observed that before blessing the young people, Pope Francis said: “Do not forget the heritage. 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. Never give up this heritage. You are the heirs of the great Mother Russia, go ahead. And thank you. Thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russian.”
The website commented: “To hear the pope of Rome, at this delicate moment in history, praising Catherine II, the Empress ‘who forbade the proclamation in her state of any papal provision’ and who ‘in 1783 annexed the Crimea thus sparking a new Russo-Turkish war,’ seems for many Catholics quite curious.”
“But perhaps, more than the pope, it was the ‘Jesuit’ Jorge Mario Bergoglio who gratefully recalled the Czarina who prevented the suppression of the Society of Jesus in the Russian Empire.”
What did Major Archbishop Shevchuk say?
In a statement published on the official website of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church — the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome — Major Archbishop Shevchuk said that the papal comments had caused “great pain and concern.”
“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,” he said.
“Nonetheless, we share the great pain which they caused, not only among the episcopate, clergy, monastics, and faithful of our Church, but also among other denominations and religious organizations. At the same time, we are also aware of the deep disappointment that they have caused in society.”
He went on: “The words about ‘the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that great, enlightened empire — a country of great culture and great humanity’ — are the worst example of imperialism and extreme Russian nationalism. There is a danger that these words could be taken as supporting the very nationalism and imperialism that has caused the war in Ukraine today — a war that brings death and destruction to our people every day.”
“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, stressing that it is the cause of the third world war in segments.’”
“As a Church, we wish to state that in the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, such statements inspire the neo-colonial ambitions of the aggressor country, even though such a way of ‘being Russian’ should be categorically condemned.”
The major archbishop said that he awaited a clarification of the comments from the Holy See. He also promised to raise the matter with Pope Francis when the Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops gather soon in Rome for their annual synod.
What’s the historical background?
The two figures that Pope Francis chose to illustrate Russia’s greatness both played major but highly controversial roles on the world stage.
Peter I was the Czar of all Russia from 1682 until 1721, when became the first Emperor of all Russia, holding the position until his death in 1725. The man commonly known as Peter the Great was physically imposing. He reputedly stood 6 feet 8 inches tall and was known to beat his top officials with a stick.
Peter, a ruthless autocratic ruler, imposed far-reaching changes on the Russian Orthodox Church whose effects are still being felt today. He effectively brought the Church under state management when he declared that it should no longer be governed by a patriarch but by a body composed of bishops and bureaucrats known as the Most Holy Synod.
Despite his Western leanings, he was not known for his sympathy toward the Catholic Church. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Peter the Great revealed his anti-Catholic hatred when, at Polotsk in 1705, he killed with his own hand the Basilian [monk] Theophanus Kolbieczynski, as also 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 ukases to draw Catholics to Orthodoxy, and to prevent the children of mixed marriages from being Catholics; and finally, he celebrated in 1722 and in 1725 monstrous orgies as parodies of the conclave, casting ridicule on the pope and the Roman court.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn comparisons between himself and the emperor, highlighting Peter’s struggle against Sweden in a battle known as the Great Northern War.
“Peter the Great waged the Great Northern War for 21 years. It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned [what was Russia’s],” Putin said after visiting an exhibition devoted to Peter a few months after he launched the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Catherine the Great became Empress of Russia in 1762, after overseeing the arrest and forced abdication of her husband, Peter III.
Catherine was born in Stettin, in the Kingdom of Prussia, and raised as a Lutheran until 1744, when she converted to Russian Orthodoxy despite her father’s objections.
As Il Sismografo noted, Catherine refused to allow the Society of Jesus to be suppressed in Russia, an act that some scholars believe ensured the Jesuits’ survival. But she treated Eastern Rite Catholics harshly.
Catherine was accused by her enemies of sexual immorality throughout her reign, but historians consider many of the accusations unfounded.
During her long reign, she extended the Russian Empire’s borders considerably, expanding into what was known as New Russia (the southern mainland of Ukraine), the part of modern-day Ukraine to the west of the Dnieper River, and Crimea.
What has the Vatican said?
In an Aug. 29 statement, the Holy See press office sought to clarify the pope’s comments.
“In his words of greeting addressed to young Russian Catholics in the past few days, as is clear from the context in which he spoke them, the pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote what is positive in Russia’s great cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to exalt imperialistic logic and governmental personalities, cited to point to certain historical periods of reference,” it said.