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Tense visit to Ukraine

NCR Staff
Kiev and L’viv, Ukraine

For lack of a loftier vocabulary, one could say Catholic leaders who take a stance on relations with Eastern Orthodoxy fall into two camps: the hawks and the doves.

Doves believe that Catholicism, as the larger, richer and more powerful branch of the Christian family, should approach the Orthodox with humility in order to reassure the Orthodox, whose concerns range from proselytism in the present to pillage in the era of the Crusades.

Hawks, meanwhile, urge a policy of peace through strength. Unity, they argue, doesn’t mean always saying you’re sorry.

While the doves dominated the pope’s May visit to Greece, the hawks held the upper hand during his June 23-27 swing through Ukraine, a predominantly Orthodox nation of 50 million people on the western flank of Russia.

John Paul divided his five-day visit between the capital city of Kiev, located in the eastern part of the nation, and L’viv in the west. That part of Ukraine was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian empire, and is roughly half Catholic.

The principal motive for the trip, John Paul’s 94th outside Italy, was to bolster the 6 million Greek Catholics in Ukraine who follow Eastern liturgies but are loyal to Rome. These believers, first brought into the Catholic fold under a Polish king, were brutally suppressed under the Soviets and would obviously stir deep echoes in John Paul.

It was in Kiev in 988 that Prince Vladimir the Great was baptized, signaling the birth of Slavic Christianity. That too helps explain why a papal spokesperson said that John Paul II, the Slavic pope, was “living a dream” here.

In dealing with Orthodox sensitivities, the Catholic attitude in Ukraine was more muscular, less apologetic, than in other recent encounters.

Although the pope had been careful to hold off on visiting Greece until he got an invitation from the Orthodox hierarchy, he came to Ukraine over the bitter opposition of Orthodox leaders here and in Moscow (the largest branch of Orthodoxy in Ukraine is part of the Russian Orthodox church).

In Greece, John Paul wouldn’t even ride in the popemobile for fear of whipping up resentment over papal triumphalism. Here, not only did the popemobile tool through the streets, but John Paul allowed himself to be photographed in a brotherly embrace with Public Enemy No. 1 for Russian Orthodox leaders – Patriarch Filaret. Filaret is a rebel bishop threatening to peel away the Ukrainian Orthodox from Moscow’s control.

The encounter with Filaret, albeit in the context of an interreligious session, was a clear statement that the pope’s agenda was not going to be dictated from Moscow.

In Athens, John Paul left behind his own expert on Eastern churches, Cardinal Ignatius Moussa I Daoud, because Greek Orthodox leaders sniffed that the mere presence of an Eastern-rite Catholic on Greek soil would be offensive. Here, Daoud was conspicuously present.

How to explain the difference?

First, the response of Patriarch Alexei II in Moscow to the pope’s sweeping apology to the Orthodox in Greece annoyed many Catholic ecumenical experts. Alexei said the apology didn’t solve problems on the ground and renewed his veto on a possible papal trip to Moscow. The result was a loss of patience on the Catholic side.

Daoud, for one, said during the May 21-24 consistory in Rome that the Catholic church should be wary of apologizing too much and too often.

Second, unlike Greece where Catholics are the tiniest of minorities, in Ukraine the Greek Catholics represent 15 percent of the population. Memories of the Soviet era, when the Orthodox received Catholic property seized by the communists and in other ways were perceived as complicit in oppression, are very much alive.

On June 28, John Paul II beatified 27 martyrs of the Greek Catholic church, many killed precisely because they refused to be assimilated into Orthodoxy as Stalin dictated in 1946. In his homily the pope quoted former Greek Catholic leader Josef Slipyi, who said Ukraine had been covered “with mountains of corpses and rivers of blood.”

One of those martyrs was boiled alive, another was crucified in prison, and a third may have been bricked into a wall.

Given that history, Greek Catholics are often impatient with suggestions that one should ask for Orthodox permission in Catholic matters.

The pope seemed at times to be consciously positioning himself as a pastor spiritually closer to Ukraine than the Russian Orthodox patriarch. The pope spoke a very polished Ukrainian at every public occasion, creating an obvious contrast with Alexei, who has never spoken Ukrainian to his own flock here. One Catholic said bitterly that during the years of Soviet occupation, Russians typically said that Ukrainian was fit “only to speak to livestock.”

Still, there were moments when deference prevailed. John Paul had wanted to visit the Monastery of the Caves and the Church of St. Sofia in Kiev, both among the holiest sites in the Orthodox world. A small band of Orthodox believers maintained a round-the-clock prayer vigil at the monastery, chanting a ritual designed to ward off the approach of an enemy. The pope contented himself with stopping his car outside St. Sofia and offering a prayer from the back seat.

John Paul also held back from one concession devoutly wished by many Greek Catholics: acknowledging their leader, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, as a patriarch, the traditional term for the head of an Eastern church. Doing so would offend Moscow, but Greek Catholics intend to press ahead. During the Byzantine-rite Mass in Kiev, a Greek Catholic priest referred to Husar as patriarch during a moment in the liturgy when church leaders are invoked. It was, according to observers, a deliberate prod.

“Ninety percent of Greek Catholics already think of Husar as their patriarch,” said Fr. Andriy Chirovsky, a Greek Catholic priest who runs a program of Eastern Studies at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa.

Husar himself struck a gracious note at the final Mass June 27, offering an apology for “certain sons and daughters of the Ukranian Greek Catholic church who consciously and voluntarily did evil things to their neighbors.”

There were disappointing moments for John Paul. Turnout at the two papal Masses in Kiev, one each in the Latin and the Byzantine rites, was surprisingly low. Organizers had planned for 300,000, but only some 40,000 showed up each day.

Yet a massive youth gathering in L’viv obviously cheered the pope’s spirits. By the end, a beaming John Paul was belting out Polish folk songs about the rain.

Ironically, while Catholics and Orthodox may wrangle on a conceptual level, in the trenches the most painful fissures are often within, not between, the two churches.

On the Catholic side, there is tension between the Latin-rite church, dominated by Poles, and Greek Catholics. While the Eastern-rite Catholics are numerically much larger, they feel that the Poles wield a disproportionate influence -- for example, deciding that the pope’s first Mass in both Kiev and L’viv would be in the Latin, rather than the Byzantine, rite.

Meanwhile the Orthodox in Ukraine are split into three groups. The largest branch is connected to Moscow, while the other two are independent. Though the Ukrainian government is officially neutral, in reality observers here believe the state favors an independent Ukrainian church less subservient to Russia.

The Greek Catholics likewise generally hope for an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church, as the first step toward restoring the “ancient church of Kiev”-- the undivided Ukrainian church that entered into union with Rome in 1596, thinking it could be both Orthodox and yet loyal to the pope. The long-term goal is détente between an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church and the Catholic church.

Diplomatic observers were attentive to the political message of the trip. In a Ukraine teetering between pro-Western and pro-Russian pressures, the pope’s call for the country to embrace its “European vocation” had special resonance.

While in Ukraine, John Paul also visited two sites with memorials to 20th-century atrocities. At Babi Yar, Nazis executed some 200,000 people, mostly Jews, while at Bikivnya, thousands of victims of Stalinist repression were buried in mass graves. Both sites are in Kiev.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001