Pope, urging young Russians to be proud of their heritage, stirs controversy

Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill stand together after a meeting in Havana in this Feb. 12, 2016, file photo. (CNS photo/Alejandro Ernesto, Reuters pool)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Although Russia's continuing war on Ukraine may make peace seem an impossible dream, Pope Francis urged young Russian Catholics to sow seeds of reconciliation and peace however they can.

But the pope also told them never to forget their heritage and culture, remarks that later drew criticism, especially from Ukrainians, and a note from the Vatican nunciature in Ukraine saying Pope Francis "has never endorsed imperialistic notions."

"I wish you, young Russians, the vocation to be artisans of peace in the midst of so many conflicts, in the midst of so many polarization on all sides, which plague our world," the pope said in his prepared remarks during an hourlong video call Aug. 25 with 400 participants in a Russian Catholic youth festival.

"I invite you to be sowers, to sow seeds of reconciliation, little 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," he told them.

"Have the courage to replace fears with dreams. Replace fears with dreams. Replace fears with dreams," Pope Francis repeated. "Do not be stewards of fears but entrepreneurs of dreams. Allow yourself the luxury of dreaming big!"

The Vatican press office published the pope's prepared remarks to the gathering in St. Petersburg Aug. 26, but he also responded to questions from participants, and, in a video posted on YouTube by Siberian Catholic Television, encouraged them to be proud of their heritage.

Speaking in Italian, the pope told the Russian young people, "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. Never give up this heritage."

Pope Francis did not mention the expansionist policies of Peter the Great and Catherine II.

A statement posted on the website of the Vatican nunciature in Kyiv Aug. 28 said, "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 that negatively impacted neighboring populations, including the Ukrainian people."

The nunciature "firmly rejects the aforementioned interpretations, as Pope Francis has never endorsed imperialistic notions. On the contrary, 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.

Fides, the news agency of the Dicastery for Evangelization, reported that a young woman asked Pope Francis how diplomacy could end the war in Ukraine.

Diplomacy does not ignore conflict, but it strives to foster dialogue and unity, Pope Francis told her. "Diplomacy advances following a path where unity is superior to conflict. Real diplomacy is not afraid of conflicts, but it does not underline them: it takes conflicts, and, with conflicts, it moves forward through dialogue and prayer."

"Diplomacy is not easy. Diplomats do so much good for humanity. It is not easy work, but it is very fruitful," the pope said. "And this, both with regard to the Ukrainian situation and with other countries. Diplomacy always builds, it does not destroy."

In his prepared remarks, Pope Francis focused on some of the themes he had spoken about in Lisbon, Portugal, earlier in the month during World Youth Day, including his insistence that in the church there is room for everyone.

"How many wounds, how much despair can be healed where we feel welcomed. And the church welcomes us," he said. "That is why I dream of a church where no one is superfluous, where no one is extra."

He pleaded with people not to treat the church as some kind of "customs office" where some are allowed in, and others are not.

"Entrance is free," he said. "And then, let everyone hear Jesus' invitation to follow him, to see how he stands before God; for this journey there are the teachings and the sacraments."


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