The Ukrainian bishops and those papal remarks on Russian culture

The Ukrainian Catholic bishops know their history. They consider it part of their duty to remember with and for their people. More to the point: When they look out their windows these days, they see the Russian invader and the ruin he has wrought.

Pope Francis speaks with Ukrainian Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych during a private meeting at the Vatican Nov. 7, 2022. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“Journalism is the first draft of history,” the saying goes, and journalists who wrote the first draft of Pope Francis’s visit to Mongolia earlier this month made some note of its genuinely historic character. Most of the story they told, however, was about other things.

That was mostly Pope Francis’s own fault.

“The idea to visit Mongolia came to me while thinking about the small Catholic community [there],” Pope Francis told journalists during the in-flight presser on the way home from the landlocked former Soviet satellite state* that had once been the seat of the largest land empire in history and is home today to some 3.48 million people, about fifteen hundreds of whom are Catholic.

Pope Francis wanted to show special solicitude for the Catholic community in Mongolia, not despite its miniscule size but because of it. He also spoke of his desire generally to “enter into dialogue with the history and culture” of the peoples he visits and to learn about the ways they live their spiritual lives.

“It is important that evangelization is not thought of as proselytism,” Pope Francis said, touching a recurrent theme of his pontificate, “because proselytism is always restricting.” He recalled his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who “said that faith does not grow by proselytism but by attraction.”

“The proclamation of the Gospel enters into dialogue with culture,” the pope also said. “There is an evangelization of culture and also an inculturation of the Gospel, for Christians also express their values with the culture of their own people.”

Whatever else you want to say about the insufficient development of “proselytism” – often it appears to be a term of abuse in Francis’s lexicon, functionally equivalent to “the evangelization we don’t like” – the vision Francis offered of the Gospel penetrating and transforming culture from the inside out is powerful, bracing, heady and beautiful. “That is the complete opposite of what religious colonization would be,” Pope Francis said, hitting another of his pontificate’s bugbears.

“[T]his journey,” Pope Francis went on to say, “was about getting to know the people of Mongolia, entering into dialogue with them, experiencing their culture, and accompanying the Church on its journey among this people, with much respect for them and their culture.”

“I am satisfied with the result,” he said.

Pope Francis’s week-and-a-bit with the press in the run-up to the Mongolia visit was dismal, however, and also mostly his own fault. If Francis was hoping his visit to Mongolia would help to put that week or so behind him, he instead created the conditions for likely disappointment before he’d even arrived and almost before he even got off the ground.

The lion’s share of the trouble came from Pope Francis’s controversial take on Russia and had been stewing for years – certainly ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 – and it boiled over when the pope praised Peter and Catherine the Great, the Russian imperial rulers who brutalized and enslaved Ukraine, as “bridge builders” worthy of emulation.

That scalded the long-suffering leadership of the sorely tried Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It also drew the attention of reporters, analysts, and commentators in both the Catholic and the secular mainstream press.

“Do not forget your heritage,” Pope Francis told a gathering of Russian young people in off-the-cuff remarks at the end of a Q&A session via video conference shared by the Catholic Archdiocese of Moscow. “You are heirs of a great Russia,” he went on to say, “the great Russia of saints, of kings—the great Russia of Peter the Great, Catherine II—that great and learned Russian Empire of much culture and much humanity.”

“Never deny this heritage,” Pope Francis said. “You are the heirs of the great Mother Russia: Carry forward.”

It’s more than likely that Pope Francis had in mind, at least in part, the willingness of those Russian emperors to learn from and adopt Western technology, social and economic policy, and cultural practice. Still, it doesn’t take a PhD political science with a focus on Eastern European history to understand why the Russians were as glad to hear the pope’s remarks as the Ukrainians were nonplussed by them. In any case, the pope’s utterances caused quite a stir.

The pope’s words garnered the attention of the worldwide secular mainstream media as well as Church figures, world leaders, and diplomats.

The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, issued a statement noting that the pope’s examples “actually contradict” Francis’s own “teachings on peace, since he has always condemned any form of manifestation of imperialism in the modern world[.]” Shevchuk also noted how Francis has “warned of the dangers of extreme nationalism, stressing that it is the cause of [a piecemeal] third world war.”

“As a Church,” Shevchuk said, “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 apostolic nunciature in Moscow – that’s the papal embassy, for those of you keeping track from home – issued a statement “firmly reject[ing]” any “interpretations” suggesting the pope “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 press office of the Holy See also issued a statement along the same lines, explaining that Pope Francis merely “intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote what is positive in Russia’s great cultural and spiritual heritage.”

“[C]ertainly,” the press office clarification went on to say, “[Pope Francis did] not [intend] to exalt imperialistic logics and governmental personalities, cited to indicate certain historical periods of reference.”

Read side-by-side and taken all together, the statements from the nunciature and the press office basically say the pope did not intend to say what he said, in words.

The Russians, for their part, remained pleased with the pope’s intervention, and were more than willing to take the remarks at face value.

“The pope knows Russian history,” Russian spokesman Dmitri Peskov said, “and this is very good.” Peskov noted the efforts of Russian authorities “to bring this legacy to our youth, to remind them of it,” and called it “very gratifying” to hear the pope speak “in unison with these efforts.”

Then, in remarks to reporters aboard the plane carrying him to Mongolia, Pope Francis said he relies on the music of a Russian composer to understand Mongolian culture.

“Mongolia is understood with senses,” Pope Francis said according to a report from Crux. Then, he praised Russian romantic nationalist composer Alexander Borodin as one who “was able to express [in music] this length and greatness of Mongolia.” Borodin composed his 1880 orchestral tone poem, In the Steppes of Central Asia, to celebrate the achievements of Tsar Alexander II, who expanded the Russian empire deep into central Asia, the Caucasus, and the far East.

That did not help things too terribly much.

On the plane home from Mongolia, Pope Francis tried to do his own damage control. Those efforts cost him another couple of news cycles in which he almost completely lost control of the Mongolia narrative, at least in the short term. His Russophile fawning also cost him a goodly portion of whatever bona fides he had left with Ukrainian Catholics and indeed the whole Ukrainian people. That expense of political capital may have put his hope to serve as an honest broker of peace in Ukraine permanently out of reach.

“[P]erhaps it was inopportune,” Pope Francis told journalists, “but in speaking of great Russia, not in a geographical sense, but in a cultural sense, I remembered what we were taught at school about Peter I, Catherine II.”

Francis explained that he had first spoken of young Russians’ duty to “shoulder their legacy” and own the cultural heritage of “great Russia.”

“[H]ence this third aspect came up,” Pope Francis said – i.e., his mention of Peter and Catherine – “which perhaps wasn’t quite correct.”

“Russian culture has great beauty and depth,” Pope Francis said, “and should not be cancelled on account of political problems.” It’s tough to argue with that, but it’s also a statement that stands between a straw man and a red herring. “There have been dark years in Russia, but its legacy has always remained intact,” Pope Francis said.

He’s not wrong about that, either, but all of it came to a lot of words, none of which quite succeeded in dislodging his foot from his mouth.

“I wasn’t thinking of imperialism when I spoke,” Pope Francis also said. “I was speaking about culture, and the transmission of culture is never ‘imperialistic’, never,” though one supposes that folks whose cultural memories include subjection to foreign invaders – like Ukrainians who remember Soviet rule and still sing songs from the dark days under the Czars before that – may be reluctant to take the statement at face value.

The Ukrainian Catholic bishops know their history. They consider it part of their duty to remember with and for their people. More to the point: When they look out their windows these days, they see the Russian invader and the ruin he has wrought.

Gathered in Rome this week for their synod – not the show Pope Francis has planned for next month, but the one the Ukrainian bishops hold each year, one that actually does things – the Ukrainian Catholic Church leadership had a meeting with Pope Francis in which they told him that his remarks about Russia “are painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people, who are currently bleeding in the struggle for their dignity and independence.”

“Misunderstandings,” the Ukrainian bishops’ statement said, “have arisen between Ukraine and the Vatican since the beginning of the full-scale war,” and “are used by Russian propaganda to justify and support the murderous ideology of the ‘Russian World’.”

“Therefore,” the statement continued, “the faithful of our Church are sensitive to every word of Your Holiness as the universal voice of truth and justice.”

That was a rebuke. The Ukrainian bishops, however, did not flatly refuse to accept the pope’s non-apology. They were at once forceful and diplomatic. Other statements from senior Ukrainian Churchmen recognized some of the pope’s own conciliatory gestures.

A statement from the Ukrainian bishops noted with appreciation Pope Francis’s assurance of daily prayers before an icon of Our Lady daily imploring the gift of peace in Ukraine. The man who is now Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, gave the icon many years ago to the man who would become Pope Francis, when they were both in the pope’s native Argentina.

That’s not nothing.

Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, who leads the Ukrainian Catholic community in Great Britain, told the Associated Press the pope’s willingness to listen to the Ukrainian bishops in “a non-rushed, non-bureaucratic atmosphere,” was for them nothing short of “amazing.”

On Thursday, as hints of a thaw were becoming discernible, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna – Pope Francis’s personal peace envoy to both Russia and Ukraine – met with the bishops and told them that “victory” in their nation’s war to repel Russian aggression requires “peace, and never the humiliation of the enemy,” which, “only leads to future enmity and hostility.”

What Zuppi did not say is that Russia will require a significant chunk of Ukrainian territory for its trouble in order to avoid humiliation, and there’s the rub.

“There are some imperialists who want to impose their ideology,” Zuppi told the Ukrainian bishops. One supposes that became clear enough to the Ukrainian bishops no later than the day the whole Russian army invaded their country.

“When a culture is distilled and becomes ideology,” Zuppi said, “this is poison.”

Cardinal Zuppi may be faithfully rehearsing his principal’s remarks about culture, the practical upshot of which was that Russian culture is great and ought not be cancelled because of politics. That’s an odd line to take with the Ukrainian bishops, whose main concern at present is that Ukraine be not cancelled by Russian politics.

(*This article originally identified Mongolia as a former Soviet republic.)

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About Christopher R. Altieri 212 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. When I read the Pope’s initial comments about Russia, I thought I was reading the Babylon Bee. But then I came to my senses and thought, “I’ll bet Vladimir Putin is going to convert to Catholicism and be confirmed by Pope Francis at the Vatican soon…maybe he’ll even take “Francis” as his confirmation name. Vladimir Francis Putin has a nice ring to it. (No RCIA necessary as that would be viewed as too rigid.)

    The good thing about the Pope’s trip to Mongolia and subsequent kerfuffle over his comments about Russia is that for a week we didn’t hear a single word from him about those “rigid” Catholics in the US. Thank you, Mongolia. We hope the Pope visits you more often.

    If Pope Francis follows Pope Benedict’s lead and decides to step aside, he will have no trouble securing a professorship in Russian history (or at least an honorary degree) from an Ivy League school.

    • Dear Gilberta!

      Once again, with a word or a phrase, you cut to the heart of an issue — in this case, the extreme dysfunction of the Bergoglio papacy:

      “Hagan lio.”


      It is destined to be the catchphrase for the entire ill-fated, Bergoglio’d-up enterprise.

  2. I have been searching for the explanation for all of Bergoglio’s seemingly inexplicable behavior.

    Has it been incompetence? Evil intention? Or just sheer nincompoopery?

    But Mr. Altieri has provided it here, when he suggested the reason for the Bergoglio’s visit:

    “Pope Francis wanted to show special solicitude for the Catholic community in Mongolia, not despite its miniscule size but because of it.”

    Aha! So Bergoglio apparently has a special affinity for minuscule groups of people! And so, obviously, that’s what he’s trying to turn the Catholic Church into!

    That explains everything!

    And it certainly places Bergoglio’s efforts in a far more positive light! In fact I’d say he’s doing a really good job of it!

  3. Mongolia is not a “former Soviet republic.” It was dominated by the Soviet Union from 1921 to 1990, but it was always an independent country.

  4. Why dwell so much on the Popes voyage to Mongolia?

    Excerpt: “the Ukrainian Catholic Church leadership had a meeting with Pope Francis in which they told him that his remarks about Russia “are painful and difficult for the Ukrainian people, who are currently bleeding in the struggle for their dignity and independence.”

    The inhuman Ukrainian/Russian war might end if all Christian prelates and political leaders, from around the world, were to form a “battalion” to go to Moscow and confront Putin the child killing war criminal. Putin’s murderous lifetime autocratic tenure must end. Moreover, emphasis must be with the suppressed Russian people. I see little evidence of a world-wide uproar to support Ukraine.

    Almighty God please interveine to save the inocent people of Ukraine!

    • It’s even more painful and difficult for Ukraine now.

      The following article in the Daily Telegraph gives the certainty of divine faith to the proposition that Ukraine’s war against Russia is Christ’s war against Amalek, and against the demented idolatry of North Korea.

      Daily Telegraph 13 September 2023

      Kim Jong-un told Vladimir Putin that the Russian army and people would triumph against “evil” on a visit to the country’s Far East region.

      The North Korean leader is expected to have agreed a deal on providing Russia with artillery shells and anti-tank missiles for its war in Ukraine, in return for satellite technology.

      Kim told the Russian president: “The Soviet Union played a very big role in the liberation of our country, as well as in the independence of our state, and our friendship has deep roots.

      “Now Russia has risen to the sacred fight to protect its sovereignty and security against the hegemonic forces that oppose Russia. And now we want to further develop the relationship.

      “We will always support the decisions of President Putin and the Russian leadership… I also hope that we will always be together in the fight against imperialism and for the construction of a sovereign state.”

      “We are confident that the Russian army and people will certainly win a great victory in the sacred struggle to punish the gathering of evil that claims hegemony and nourishes expansionist illusions.”

  5. And while we’re at it, “Almighty God please intervene and save the Catholic Church in America from Pope Francis” (he truly IS the Pope, you know.)

  6. Perhaps, for the sake of peace, Pope Francis could explain to the world that the Russian aggression in the Ukraine is all his fault. According to Fatima Seer Sister Lucia, the Russian menace of today was caused by Catholic Popes not heeding God’s offer for World Peace instead of WWII. God had asked for Popes to preach to mankind repentance for their sins, and the proper Consecration Russia to the Immaculate heart of Mary, and in exchange God would grant world peace instead of the Russian menace of today and WWII. I still do not hear Pope Francis preaching for ’humankind’s repentance of their sins so that God will grant us Peace in the Ukraine.

    Str. Lucia in 1982
    “Sister Lucia had already given an indication for interpreting the third part of the “secret” in a letter to the Holy Father, dated 12 May 1982:

    “The third part of the secret refers to Our Lady’s words: ‘If not [Russia] will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated’ (13-VII-1917).

    The third part of the secret is a symbolic revelation, referring to this part of the Message, conditioned by whether we accept or not what the Message itself asks of us: ‘If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, etc.’.

    Since we did not heed this appeal of the Message, we see that it has been fulfilled, Russia has invaded the world with her errors. And if we have not yet seen the complete fulfilment of the final part of this prophecy, we are going towards it little by little with great strides. If we do not reject the path of sin, hatred, revenge, injustice, violations of the rights of the human person, immorality and violence, etc.

    And let us not say that it is God who is punishing us in this way; on the contrary it is people themselves who are preparing their own punishment. In his kindness God warns us and calls us to the right path, while respecting the freedom he has given us; hence people are responsible.”
    Quoted from:

    • Missing the point? I try to give someone the benefit of the doubt. I don’t see any advantage in trashing Pope Francis or say that “Russian aggression in the Ukraine is ALL his fault”. A more constructive approach would be to acknowledge that ALL Popes did not use their office to fail Christ. Popes Pius VII, Saint John Paul II, Saint Paul VI. If you want to blame anybody it is the “politician” who said that “Putin was a brilliant genius” just after Putin launched his brutal unlawful attack on the Ukrainian people and their democracy!!

  7. The pope is again true to his word when he stated early in his pontificate that he was going to make a mess of things. He has, he is, and he probably will. Still, Perhaps it would be well to allow him some slack. This is who he is and he knows it. We are stuck with him “for better or for worse “ and that’s how it is. Perhaps his heart, head and mouth are not capable of working together. We must tough it out and thicken our skin while we wait for the next pontificate. May the Lord have mercy on the next Pope! 😰

  8. I have professional credentials in physics and electrical engineering but never had a great desire to teach except as an act of a corporal work of mercy. So for a period of time I taught electrical theory at a prison and with spare time occasionally had chat sessions with a few inmates that were genuine sociopaths, those who gave no sense of a personal conscience. They would say anything at all that would reward their ego, and that is all that mattered to them. They would passionately refuse to take anything back. I constantly search for a reason to believe Francis is not as shallow and unaware as those prisoners I worked with, but I simply can not find it.

    • I should have noted in my last sentence “the worst of the prisoners I worked with”, not to imply by any means that all inmates are sociopaths.

  9. It’s also worth noting that at the beginning of the Russian invasion, the Pontiff Francis called the Ukrainian Catholic Church “Uniates,” which is a slur used by Eastern Orthodox antagonists against the Eastern Catholic Church leaders and people who pledged communion with the Catholic Church.

    Well, communion with the Popes that welcomed them, those being the Popes reigning in the years prior to 2013.

  10. Why doesn’t this Bishop of Rome, focus on the saving Gospel message of Christ Crucified for the forgiveness of sins? For where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is life and salvation. Has Pope Francis forget the mission of Christ’s Church? Jesus the Christ commissioned His Apostolic Church to baptize, to preach, to teach, to forgive and to offer forgiveness of sins, to celebrate the Eucharist “for the forgiveness of sins” Thus we respond: “Thanks be to God!”

  11. It is unfathomable that with our faith based solely upon THE WORD made flesh, we have a pope with such utter disregard for the power of words. Please pray without ceasing!

  12. I disagree with Francis on almost everything *except* his balanced approach to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

    Recall that he was rebuked earlier for saying that Russia was “provoked.”

    Fact: The West provoked Russia by expanding NATO to Russia’s borders and increasing its member states from the original 12 to 31.

    Fact: Another provocation: in 2014 the US overthrew the legitimately elected president of Ukraine–Yanukovich– for the “crime” of being friendly toward Russia, and replaced that government with handpicked cronies of the USA. Ukraine became a puppet state subordinate to the US and its CIA.

    Fact: Another provocation: Ukraine violated the Minsk accords countless times. This was an agreement signed by Ukraine. It called for Ukraine to cease its shelling of the Donbass (14,000 killed) and discuss semi-autonomy for the Donbass within the Ukrainian federation. But the shelling was actually re-doubled in the months leading up to the Russian invasion. Putin finally responded to the Donbass republics’ appeals for Russian help; he recognized them, and invaded, defeating the Ukrainian forces, and secured, for the time being, their liberty. Donbass and Lugansk are now fully alienated from the Kiev regime. Kiev will never get them back.

    Revealing their cynicism, Western leaders now admit that the Minsk accords were a just a ploy to buy time in order to build up the Ukrainian army–with Nato equipment, training, and doctrine–making it a virtual NATO member.

    And Russia is just supposed to accept this?

    Finally, Zelensky’s war on many Orthodox Christians in his own country is also a provocation (recall his expulsion of the monks of Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, and his recent closing of churches suspected of sympathy for Russia).

    In his simile of the concentric circles of the “dialogue of salvation” Paul VI thought that we Catholics were the closest to the Orthodox than to any other religious community.

    Where then are Catholics when it comes to defending the religious liberty of Christians in Ukraine?

    It seems that many Catholics today prefer a Jewish comedian, Zelensky (one whose comedy routines are disgusting, by the way), over Christian leaders like Putin and Orban.

    The Russians are a brave and noble people, as the Ukrainians and their Western overlords are learning to their sorrow.

    The finger of Divine Providence is on that great-souled man: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

    The consecration of Russia by Pius XII is bearing fruit–but not in the way in which many devotees of Our Lady of Fatima had thought. They thought the consecration of Russia would lead to some kind of humiliating defeat of Russia.

    They were wrong.

    To consecrate means to set aside for a sacred purpose. Russia’s vocation is to revivify Christianity throughout the world; first by defeating the godless West in Ukraine, and then, after embracing Catholicism, by leading a new evangelization towards a new worldwide Catholic civilization.
    That is my hope and belief, at any rate.

    May God bring peace to Ukraine. May God bless both peoples: Russian and Ukrainian.

    Peace and Good to all readers of CWR!

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