On Wednesday, Ukraine’s Eastern Rite Catholic bishops engaged in a remarkably candid and emotionally charged meeting with Pope Francis in Vatican City.
During the two-hour session, the bishops voiced their deep concern, asserting that certain comments made by the Pope about Russia had caused considerable pain and were being manipulated by Moscow to legitimize a “murderous ideology.”
The dispute at the heart of this encounter stemmed from unscripted remarks made by Pope Francis during a video conference with young Russian Catholics on August 25th. In that virtual address, the Pope made reference to the historical legacies of Russian tsars Peter I and Catherine II, both known for expanding Russian territory. He spoke of these figures in the context of young Russians being heirs to the “great Russian empire.” However, these comments sent shockwaves through Ukraine, given that Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously cited the actions of these monarchs to justify his military intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of its territory.
The Kremlin welcomed Pope Francis’s remarks, praising his apparent understanding of Russian history. However, Ukrainian bishops, in their frank statement, conveyed the profound pain, suffering, and disappointment felt by the Ukrainian people regarding the Pope’s comments. They expressed their concern that the Holy See’s statements and gestures, including those of Pope Francis himself, were causing significant distress among Ukrainians who were currently fighting for their dignity and independence.
The bishops emphasized that such statements were being exploited by Russian propaganda to bolster the contentious concept of the “Russian World,” which is often used to justify Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This view of history denies Ukraine’s distinct national identity and its historical tradition of statehood.
Acknowledging the controversy, Pope Francis, while returning from a trip to Mongolia just two days prior, admitted that his comments on Russia had been poorly phrased. He clarified that his intention had been to remind young Russians of their rich cultural heritage rather than endorsing a political or imperial agenda.
During their meeting, the bishops did not mince words in their conversation with the Pope. They asserted that the statements and actions of the Holy See, as well as Pope Francis himself, had been painful and challenging for the Ukrainian people in the midst of their ongoing struggle. These comments from the Vatican were, according to the bishops, being leveraged by Russian propaganda to reinforce the narrative supporting Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The statement from the Ukrainian bishops quoted Pope Francis as saying, “The fact that you doubted whom the pope is with was particularly painful for the Ukrainian people. I want to assure you of my solidarity with you and constant prayerful closeness. I am with the Ukrainian people.”
In contrast to the bishops’ candid account of the meeting, the Vatican’s statement provided a less tense portrayal. While Pope Francis has consistently condemned the war in Ukraine as an unjustified act of aggression, and has referred to Ukraine as a “martyred nation” at various public appearances since the invasion began, there has been disappointment among Ukrainians due to the Pope’s reluctance to explicitly call out President Putin as the instigator of the conflict.