Pope Francis leads the weekly general audience in the Paolo VI hall of the Vatican, Vatican City, 30 August 2023. EPA-EFE/MASSIMO PERCOSSI


Lithuania summons Vatican representative after Pope Francis ‘praised the great Russian Empire’


The Vatican seems to have some explaining to do in Lithuania after Pope Francis expressed what many felt was a little too much admiration for Russia.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited the Apostolic Nuncio [Vatican representative] for an interview in early September, when Archbishop Petar Rajic returns from vacation,” the Lithuanian foreign ministry’s spokesperson Paulina Levickyte said, according to the Lithuanian broadcaster LRT.

Pope Francis caused consternation by telling Russian youths on August 28 to remember that they are the heirs of “the great Russian Empire”.

“Don’t forget [your] heredity. You are heirs of the great Russia – the great Russia of the saints, of kings, the great Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine II, the great Russian Empire, cultured, so much culture, so much humanity. You are the heirs of the great mother Russia. Go forward,” the pontiff stated.

The comments caused widespread condemnation as Russian President Vladimir Putin has explicitly compared himself to Peter the Great in justifying Moscow’s attack on Ukraine, expressing revanchist and imperialist sentiments; Catherine the Great was the empress who annexed Crimea in 1783.

Political and religious leaders across Europe, and in Ukraine in particular, lambasted Pope Francis for his remarks.

On August 29, the Vatican rejected the interpretation of his words as being in praise of imperialism.

“The Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote all that is positive in the great cultural and Russian spirituality, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logic and government personalities, cited to indicate some historical periods of reference,” the Vatican statement said.

Pope Francis’s intention was “to preserve and promote everything positive in Russia’s vast cultural and spiritual heritage”, it added.

The territories of Lithuania and Poland were annexed by Catherine the Great in the 18th Century and brought into the Russian Empire.

After the Second World War, the then-Soviet Union reoccupied Lithuania and installed a brutal regime. There were mass deportations designed to quell resistance and weaken national identity.

Mass migration from other parts of the Soviet Union was encouraged as the Soviets sought to isolate the country from Western influence. The Russian language became compulsory in schools and freedom of expression was restricted throughout the Lithuanian population.

At the time, the Catholic Church was spearheading the fight against Communism under the Polish Pope John Paul II, who reigned from 1978 to 2005.

It is not the first time the current Pope has found himself in hot water regarding the war in Ukraine. In May he said that NATO “barking” at Russia’s door may have led to Putin’s invasion of the country.