Francis made his comments last Friday in a live video address to Catholic youths gathered in St. Petersburg.
He read his prepared speech in Spanish but at the end, shifted into impromptu Italian and said:
“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 Vatican released the text of the address on Saturday but did not include the last, improvised paragraph. A video of the pope making the comments was posted by religious websites.
“Hearing the pope of Rome, in this delicate moment in history, praise Catherine II … appears to many Catholics to be quite odd,” said an editorial Italy’s Il Sismografo website, which specialises in Catholic affairs.
It noted that Catherine, commonly known as Catherine the Great and who ruled from 1729 to 1796, annexed Crimea in 1783. It also noted that Catherine protected Jesuits in Russian-controlled lands after Pope Clement XIV suppressed the order worldwide in 1773. Pope Francis is a Jesuit.
Last year Putin paid tribute to Tsar Peter the Great, the other Russian leader mentioned by the pope, drawing a parallel between what he portrayed as their twin historic quests to win back Russian lands.
Putin has repeatedly sought to justify Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where his forces have devastated cities, killed thousands and put millions of people to flight, by propounding a view of history that asserts Ukraine has no real national identity or tradition of statehood.
“This is truly revolting,” former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said on X, formerly known as Twitter, about the pope’s remarks.
Nexta, a site that reports on Belarus from Poland, said on X: “By the way, the Catholics of Poland, Lithuania and Belarus raised uprisings three times against this ‘enlightened empire'”.
There was no immediate comment from the Kyiv government.
Francis has called Russia’s actions in Ukraine brutal, cruel and ferocious and has said that the invasion violated a country’s right to self-determination. He has spoken of a “martyred Ukraine” at nearly every public appearance since the invasion in February, 2022.
But he also has made a series of apparent gaffes when speaking extemporaneously.
Last year he upset Kyiv by referring to Russian ultra-nationalist Darya Dugina, who was killed by a car bomb near Moscow, as an innocent victim of war.
The comment prompted Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to summon the Vatican’s ambassador in Kyiv to protest, saying the pope’s words were “unfair” and had “broken Ukraine’s heart”.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)