Catherine the Great, praised by Pope Francis, forcibly united 1.5 million Catholics to Orthodoxy
August 29, 2023
Catherine II (the Great), the Russian empress praised by Pope Francis in a recent address, forcibly united 1.5 million Eastern Catholics to Orthodoxy.
In an August 25 video address to Russian Catholic youth, Pope Francis said extemporaneously, “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’s remarks, not included in the Vatican’s version of his address, provoked anger from Ukrainian leaders. Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said in a statement that the Pope’s words caused “great pain.” He added:
The words about “the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that great, enlightened empire—a country of great culture and great humanity”—are the worst example of imperialism and extreme Russian nationalism. There is a danger that these words could be taken as supporting the very nationalism and imperialism that has caused the war in Ukraine today—a war that brings death and destruction to our people every day. The examples given by the Holy Father actually contradict his teachings on peace ...
Described by Encyclopaedia Britannica as a “harsh and unscrupulous ruler,” Catherine the Great, who reigned from 1762 to 1796, welcomed Jesuits to Russia and refused to permit Pope Clement XIV’s 1773 suppression on the order to be promulgated in her realm. Writing in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Father W. C. Jaskievicz, SJ, who led Fordham University’s Institute of Contemporary Russian Studies, noted:
Although the Jesuits found protection with Catherine, the Eastern Rite Catholics were persecuted. After the first partition of Poland, she sent missionaries, accompanied by soldiers, to restore the “renegades” to Orthodoxy. She did agree to the nomination of a new bishop for the Eastern Rite diocese at Polotsk, but later, after the second partition of Poland and despite her promise to protect Catholics of both rites, Catherine suppressed all other Eastern Rite dioceses, forcibly united over 1.5 million Eastern Rite Catholics to Orthodoxy, and dispersed the Order of Basilians.
Encyclopaedia Britannica likewise notes that Peter the Great, the Russian czar from 1682 to 1725, “often used the methods of a despotic landlord—the whip and arbitrary rule. He always acted as an autocrat, convinced of the wonder-working power of compulsion by the state.” By eliminating the Moscow Patriarchate and replacing it with a Holy Synod that “ferociously persecuted all dissenters and conducted a censorship of all publications,” Peter the Great subjected church to state and turned the Russian Orthodox Church “into a pillar of the absolutist regime.”
Discussing Peter the Great’s relations with the Catholic Church, Father Jaskievicz wrote:
Although Catholics of the Latin rite were generally left in peace, such was not the case with the Eastern Catholics in the western regions of Russia. Although promised protection by Peter, they were constantly harassed by Russian troops. Some priests even died at the hands of the soldiers.
Peter’s tolerance for Catholics came from his desire for Vatican support against Charles XII of Sweden. He protested concern for reunion, but Pope Clement XI recognized his aims as political and refused to endorse the campaign against Sweden. After the battle at Poltava (1709), Peter had no further use for the Vatican and all talk of reunion ceased.
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