Russian clergy and lay Catholics were "caught by surprise" by the pope's remarks in a video call Aug. 25 to a youth gathering in St. Petersburg praising the country's past empire and urging young people to "never give up this heritage."
Ukrainians were even more surprised as the papal remarks caused pain and concern in the country fighting the Russian invasion.
Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych said that he learned the words "attributed" to the Holy Father "with great pain."
"We assume that His Holiness's words were spoken spontaneously, without the pretension of giving a historical assessment, let alone the intention of supporting Russia's imperialist ambitions," Archbishop Shevchuk wrote in an Aug. 28 statement.
"The words about 'the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, of that empire -- great and enlightened, a country of great culture and great humanity' refer to the worst example of extreme Russian imperialism and nationalism," leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church said.
"We fear that those words are understood by some as an encouragement of precisely this nationalism and imperialism, which is the real cause of the war in Ukraine. War that every day brings the death and destruction of our people," he stressed.
Archbishop Shevchuk said that in order to "prevent the Holy Father's words and intentions from being manipulated," they "await an explanation of the situation from the Holy See."
The next day, the director of the Vatican's press office, Matteo Bruni, emphasized that the pontiff's remarks should be "seen in context."
"The pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and develop the positive things that are in the great Russian cultural and spiritual heritage, and by no means to glorify imperialist logic, and rulers who are mentioned to denote certain historical periods," Bruni told Rome journalists Aug. 29, a remark seen as an attempt to calm outrage caused by the pontiff's words, spoken off-the-cuff in Italian at the end of the video call.
The Vatican's response came after the Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, speaking Aug. 29, welcomed the pope's "very gratifying" remarks, adding that they were "in unison with the Russian authorities" and highlighted the pontiff's knowledge of Russian history, with its "deep roots" and "legacy."
Jesuit Father Stephan Lipke, secretary-general of the Russian bishops' conference said that he thought Pope Francis "wanted to show how true humanism means thinking about the past, not superficially leaving it behind, as in Bolshevik times -- and thinking about it for yourself, not just repeating what others have said."
He explained the video call from Pope Francis "was important in creating the feeling that young Catholics here were not alone or isolated," he said.
Pope Francis caused international controversy with his Aug. 25 closing remarks to the 10th Russian Catholic youth festival, in which the pope called on participants to preserve the legacy of Russia's "great, educated" empire.
The remarks were not included in an Aug. 26 Vatican News report on the meeting, but carried on Cathmos.Ru, the website of the Catholic Church's Moscow-based archdiocese.
A statement posted on the website of the Vatican nunciature in Kyiv Aug. 28 said that while "according to some interpretations, Pope Francis might have encouraged young Russian Catholics to draw inspiration from historical Russian figures known for imperialistic and expansionist ideas and actions," the nunciature "firmly rejects the aforementioned interpretations, as Pope Francis has never endorsed imperialistic notions."
"On the contrary," the papal embassy in Kyiv said, "he is a staunch opponent and critic of any form of imperialism or colonialism across all peoples and situations. The words of the Roman Pontiff spoken on Aug. 25 are to be understood in this same context," the statement said.
A Catholic bishop from Ukraine said the pope had "sprung several other surprises" since Russia's February 2022 invasion and warned his words would be "received very badly" in the war-ravaged country.
He added that priests and lay Catholics had been driven out of Russian-occupied parts of his diocese, and said the Church of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus at Skadovsk, near Kherson, had been the latest sacral building to be commandeered, with its doors and windows smashed by Russian troops Aug. 22.
"Only recently, I dedicated a chapel to hundreds of Catholics killed in the 1940s, as Russia's empire continued its mission of total destruction," Bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk of Odesa-Simferopol told OSV News Aug. 28.
"If the pope has said something positive about this great Russian empire," he added, "I shall be at a loss for words. With new people falling victim today to violence, rape and cruelty, leaving so many bereft and grieving, we can only imagine the reaction to hearing such an aggressor praised."
The meeting at St. Petersburg's St. Catherine Basilica was attended by about 400 young Catholics, as well as by the Vatican's nuncio, Archbishop Giovanni D'Aniello, and Russia's five Catholic bishops.
Oksana Pimenova, deputy director of St. Thomas Institute in Moscow, addressed the group, which also heard testimonies from Alexander Baranov, a former satanist and Catholic convert, and Varvara Molotilova, a Catholic from Yekaterinburg.
In his video address, the pope revived themes of vocation and belonging from the Catholic Church's Aug. 1-6 World Youth Day festival in Portugal, and told young Russian Catholics, "The alliance between generations keeps the history and culture of a people alive."
He added that he hoped young Russians would become "artisans of peace," amid "so many conflicts and amid so many polarizations," as well as "sowers of seeds of reconciliation, small seeds that in this winter of war will not sprout in the frozen ground for the time being, but will blossom in a future spring."
Answering questions, Francis said diplomacy, although "not easy," could be "very fruitful," also in regard to "the Ukrainian situation."
At the end of the video call, he also urged Russians never to forget their country's "heritage."
"Do not forget your heritage. You are heirs of the great Russia -- the great Russia of saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine II, the great, educated Russian Empire of so much culture, of so much humanity," the pontiff told young Russians.
"Never give up this heritage," he said, adding: "And thank you -- thank you for your way of being, for your way of being Russians."
Among reactions to the address, which contained no mention of damage and suffering in the current war, or of Russia's mass abduction of Ukrainian children and youth, Bishop Vitaly Skomarovskyi, president of Ukraine's Roman Catholic bishops' conference said in an Aug. 29 statement that the pope's "mention of 'great Russia,' with its great culture and humanity, unfortunately testifies to the continued existence of the myth of humanism and the greatness of the state, which has been waging a bloody and brutal war against Ukraine for 9 years."
Bishop Skomarovskyi said the pontiff's statement was "painful" and caused "concern" for Ukrainians, he also added that any "manifestations of support for the 'Russian peace,' which brought so much pain and suffering to our land and to our families" they consider "unacceptable."
Meanwhile, Polish author and journalist Grzegorz Gorny said Aug. 28 the remarks had caused "great shock" in Ukraine, adding that Emperor Peter I (1672-1725) and Empress Catherine II (1729-1796) had both been cited by President Vladimir Putin to "justify his imperial policy."
He added that both rulers had "pursued a policy of imperial conquest, expanding Russia's territory at the expense of other countries," while attempting to wipe out Ukraine and its population, and instrumentalizing religion.
"Some might say Francis' words about Peter I and Catherine II were unfortunate because they came at the wrong time when Ukraine is in an unequal battle with a more powerful aggressor -- but they are unacceptable even if we disregard the Ukrainian context," Gorny told wpolityce.pl, an online news site in Poland.
The spokesman for Ukraine's Foreign Ministry, Oleg Nikolenko, also bitterly criticized the pope's praise for Russia's imperial legacy.
"It is by such imperialistic propaganda ... that the Kremlin justifies the killing of thousands of Ukrainians and Ukrainian women, and the destruction of hundreds of Ukrainian cities and villages," Nikolenko, a former United Nations official, said in an Aug. 28 Facebook post.
"It is very unfortunate that Russian grand-state ideas -- which are, in fact, the cause of Russia's chronic aggression -- come knowingly or unknowingly from the mouth of the Pope, whose mission, in our understanding, is precisely to open the eyes of Russian youth to the disastrous course of the current Russian leadership."
For Bishop Skomarovskyi such misunderstandings "are caused by the lack of appropriate dialogue between the pope and Ukraine, at the ecclesiastical and diplomatic level," at the same time the prelate has no doubts about the pontiff's "support for our people," which he expresses "constantly and loudly."
Ukrainian-based bishops stress the pope has mentioned the suffering of Ukraine almost in every Angelus prayer and Wednesday papal audience. At the beginning of World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, Pope Francis met with a group of Ukrainian youth, expressing his support. The Dicastery for the Service of Charity, led by Polish Cardinal Krajewski, spent $2.2 million (2 million euros) in 2022 for humanitarian help in Ukraine.
Pope Francis has however caused controversy with previous remarks about the Ukraine war.
In May 2022, he told Italy's Corriere della Sera daily that NATO had contributed to the conflict by "barking at Russia's door" and questioned whether Ukraine should be supplied with weapons.
In June 2022, he said that "war cannot be reduced distinction between good guys and bad guys" in an interview with the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, while in August 2022, Ukraine's politicians and diplomats protested after the pope described an assassinated Russian far-right commentator and war supporter Darya Dugina as an "innocent," "poor girl," paying for the "madness" of war.
In a subsequent clarification, the Vatican confirmed the war had been "initiated by the Russian Federation," and said Pope Francis had condemned it as "morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious."
The latest controversy coincided with a new wave of Russian missile and drone strikes across Ukraine, as well as with counterattacks on sites inside Russian territory.
In his OSV News interview, Father Lipke said the St. Petersburg meeting had been arranged for Catholics unable to attend the World Youth Day festival in Lisbon and had not required official authorization since it took place on Catholic Church property.
However, he added that staging public Catholic events had become "very difficult" in Russia, where four Catholic priests had been refused visas or forced to quit the country during 2023, and said many lay Catholics had also left, while numerous monuments to Polish and Lithuanian Catholics had also been removed by officials.
"The pope's fondness for (Fyodor) Dostoevsky and other Russian cultural figures is well known, and I'm sure he wanted to say something encouraging for Russian Catholics, who are part of their country's history," the bishops' conference secretary-general told OSV News.
"But I wouldn't know how to reassure people who've been offended by his remarks, especially bearing in mind what figures like Peter I and Catherine II mean in Ukraine and Poland."