In comments made by video to Catholic youth in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday, Pope Francis praised 18th-century Russian rulers and the Great Russia they helped create — an empire that President Vladimir V. Putin has invoked in framing his invasion of Ukraine.
“Never forget the legacy,” Francis said. “You are the heirs of Great Russia: Great Russia of saints, rulers, Great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire — great, enlightened, of great culture and great humanity.”
The pope, who was finishing his address at the closing of a conference focused on the church’s young members in St. Petersburg, had shifted from his prepared remarks in Spanish to urge the audience in Italian to keep history in mind, according to Reuters. The Vatican released only the prepared remarks, but a clip circulated later by religious agencies showed him making the additional comments.
While for the past year Francis has been consistently supportive of peace and the Ukrainians he has called “martyrs” in the fight against Russia’s invading forces, his comments were quickly criticized in Ukraine and other countries near Russia that used to be part of the Soviet Union.
“It is 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,” Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, wrote on Facebook.
The former Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, wrote on the X platform, previously known as Twitter, that the remarks were “truly revolting.”
And the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, issued a statement noting the “pain” and “disappointment” caused by the pope’s remarks and calling for the Holy See to clarify Francis’ comments to avert “any manipulation of the intentions, context and statements assigned to the Holy Father.”
Mr. Putin — who last year compared himself to Peter the Great — has over the past 18 months used the idea of rebuilding the Russian empire to frame the invasion of Ukraine, which was a Soviet state until 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolving. He has also portrayed the invasion as an effort “to put an end to the war that was unleashed by the West,” as he put it last week.
The pope’s prepared speech, released in a Vatican bulletin that did not mention his final statements, revolved around the importance of young people building bridges between generations.
“I invite you to be sowers, to sow seeds of reconciliation, tiny seeds that in this wintertime of war will not germinate for the moment on frozen ground, but in a future spring will flourish,” the Vatican transcript read.
In the early months of the conflict, Francis appeared to avoid picking sides and refrained from overtly criticizing the Russian president or the war’s chief religious backer, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church. In May, after a video conference with Kirill, Francis changed course and warned Kirill not to “transform himself into Putin’s altar boy.”
On Monday, the Vatican issued a statement saying that the pontiff never takes a political stance and that his words “are to be read as a voice raised in defense of human life and the values attached to it.”
It maintained that the pope always condemned a “morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious” war.
A peace envoy sent by the pope, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, has traveled to Ukraine, Russia and the United States to facilitate peace talks over the summer.