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Kiev or Lvov: Orthodoxy Meets Catholicism in Ukraine?
Let us feel ourselves gently nudged to recognise the infidelities to the Gospel of not a few Christians of both Polish and Ukrainian origin living in these parts. It is time to leave behind the sorrowful past. May pardon, given and received, spread like a healing balm in every heart. May the purification of historical memories lead everyone to work for the triumph of what unites over what divides, in order to build a future of mutual respect, fraternal co-operation and true solidarity. - HH John-Paul II - 26 June 2001

26 June   |   2001   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

From Kiev ..

This is an excerpt of the sermon delivered by Pope John-Paul II on Tuesday at the Hippodrome stadium of Lvov in western Ukraine. His words were heard by a crowd of 600,000 Catholics of Ukrainian and Polish origin who had assembled in this border area to witness a first visit by the Bishop of Rome since Ukraine gained its independence ten years ago. In fact, the Pope’s message of harmony during this difficult and controversial trip represented the crucible that held seeds of reconciliation as much as of challenge.

Controversial? Yes, since this pontifical visit has been fraught with intra-Christian and ecumenical difficulties from the start. Challenging? Yes again, since it also represented the Pope’s perfervid desire to enhance the present fellowship and eventual reconciliation of the whole Church - particularly between its Orthodox and Catholic lungs.

But the visit was also one of marked contrasts. From the golden domes of Kiev, itself a bustling capital and the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy, to the baroque cathedrals of Lvov, the western Catholic stronghold, Pope John Paul II witnessed the contrasts of Ukraine today. Separated by a mere 550 kilometres, Kiev and Lvov are worlds apart.

Starting with Kiev, the pontiff's reception was subdued and attendance at his masses was noticeably low. At the first open-air mass on Sunday, there were no more than 200,000 faithful present. And on Monday, when the Roman pontiff held his second open-air mass at an airport just outside the capital, only 50,000 worshippers turned out. On both days, organisers blamed poor weather, stringent security and difficult travel arrangements.

However, John-Paul II was undaunted by the modest showing at those masses. Speaking in fluent Ukrainian, he urged his followers to relish their post-Communist freedom but also to tackle the widespread corruption that has come with it. "My heartfelt hope is that Ukraine will continue to draw strength from the ideals of personal, social and Church morality, of service to the common good, of honesty and sacrifice", he said. I believe that the particular reference to corruption in his sermon was intentional since many international organisations and business groups rate Ukraine as one of the world's most corrupt countries.

In Kiev, the Pope’s trip was also marred by a snub from HE Metropolitan Vladimir, leader of Ukraine's largest Orthodox Church, who boycotted a meeting with him and others. Orthodox protests also prevented the Pope from visiting holy places as the St Sophia Cathedral and the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra or Monastery of the Caves.

In historical terms, Kiev has often been called the ‘mother of Russian cities’. It is where Prince Vladimir baptised the Kievan Rus state in the late 10th century. A focal point of the Imperial Russian and later Soviet grip on Ukraine, it remains a heavily Russified city where it is quite easy to get by speaking only Russian. Built over the ages, with much of its centre ruined during WW2 and rebuilt in Josef Stalin's pompous style, it showed the pope a mixture of the old and new. Soviet-era office complexes and monuments stood out amid 19th-century buildings and gold-domed churches. The outlying areas are a belt of panel apartment houses reminiscent of council houses.

Kiev is also the financial capital of Ukraine. Many of its tree-shaded streets today are lined with luxury shops and cafes. Posh cars abound and exclusive hotels are springing up. Kiev is striving to be European.

Onto Lvov ...

Lvov, on the other hand, was flooded with Catholic pilgrims from both Ukraine and neighbouring countries such as Poland and Hungary. In fact, Lvov greeted John Paul II with outstretched hands, and it is stated that the Pope’s mother was born near Lvov, and that he underwent military training in this region during his student days.

Lvov has already made its mark in terms of historical identity. Founded in the 13th century and ruled by Polish kings since the 14th, Lvov knew Austro-Hungarian rule and experienced independence for a few months after WW1 in 1918. Seized by the USSR in 1939 during the division of Poland, Lvov fell to the Nazis in 1941 but was recaptured by the Soviets in 1944. Since then, a large Russian-speaking populace has settled in the city and Moscow turned it into an industrial centre. Yet Lvov’s character has not been altered by this Russification. The city's narrow streets and old buildings, some dating back to the 14th century, whisper of Europe. There is little evidence of the nouveau riche glitter of Kiev. Nor are there the onion domes of Orthodox churches. Instead, the skyline is dotted with the baroque curves of Catholic cathedrals.

Today, Lvov is a stronghold of Ukraine's Latin-rite Roman Catholics. But it is much more a stronghold of the numerous Greek or Eastern-rite Catholics, who were forcibly incorporated into Russia's Orthodox Church in 1946 and shook off Moscow's rule in the years of Soviet collapse. In fact, the Cathedral of St George - where the Pope stayed in Lvov - was given to the pro-Russian Orthodox Church by Josef Stalin in 1946. It was returned to the Catholics in 1991. But Lvov is allegedly also the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalists, with some tensions reported between the Ukrainian and Russian-speaking communities in recent years.

Another important station for the Pope’s visit in Lvov was the beatification of Archbishop Jozel Bilczewski and Father Zygmunt Gorazdowski of the Latin-rite Roman Catholic Church as well as twenty eight Greek Catholics - mainly Soviet-era martyrs. In the Catholic Church, beatification is the penultimate step toward sainthood.

Impressions ...

In its Catholic dimension, I believe the papal visit to Ukraine was an unqualified success. The people I spoke with - in rather pidgin English - expressed an admiration for the holiness, faith, intelligence, humour, charisma and humility of this man. The outpouring of joy - more so in Lvov than in Kiev with one million participants at the last mass - was an incontrovertible evidence of the hunger Catholics felt for their first shepherd. His presence in their midst - despite his debilitating and weakened health - was a religious fillip and a spiritual renewal for those Catholics who have felt pressured by years of Soviet oppression and subsequently by Orthodox-Catholic strains.

In its ecumenical dimension, though, I believe that this visit did not succeed in managing - let alone harnessing - the tensions existent between Orthodoxy and Catholicism in some parts of Eastern and Central Europe. The opposition to this visit by HB Alexis II, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, was both unyielding and uncompromising. Even when reacting to the Pope’s public apology, his spokesperson claimed that centuries of division cannot simply be overcome with one declaration. The boycott of the largest flank of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the visit was equally a visible symptom of the malaise that still haunts inter-church relations despite the palliative words of HE Cardinal Lubomyr Hussar who professed that a mild improvement was palpable.

The main schisms of the past have been compounded today by three-fold grievances expressed time and again by the Orthodox Church hierarchs. They include proselytism by the Roman Catholic Church in countries claimed to be ‘canonically orthodox’, disputes over some 2500 parishes and church property as well as historical feuds. This is not too different from the issues that arose during the papal visit to Greece in May 2001. But unlike Greece, the papal visit to Ukraine seemed to heal even less the wounds of the Church.

Yevhen Sverstiuk, an Orthodox layman and editor of ‘Our Faith’ monthly magazine, expressed his disacquiescence with the Orthodox boycott of the papal visit. He also had strong words to the Russian Orthodox hierarchy for their nationalistic tendencies. I tend to concur, since Orthodox nationalism - a sense of exclusive ownership of the faith by one Church on one land at the expense of all others - is quite prevalent within some shades of the Orthodox ethos. The ecumenical tensions it fuels become visible when comparing the attitudes or positions of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate in Moscow with the much broader ones of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople.

But where Pope John-Paul II failed with a considerable cross-section of the Ukrainian [and] Russian Orthodox hierarchies, he succeeded admirably with the followers of the Jewish faith. This Pope has been intent on sustaining the teachings of the Second Vatican Council by mending Catholic relations with its older sister of Judaism. His most memorable gestures were those in Jerusalem in March 2001 when he visited Yad Vashem and later the Western Wall - an extension of the Jewish Temple - where he meaningfully laid a prayer in one of its cracks.

On the third day of his visit to Ukraine, during which he urged reconciliation and harmony between the great religions, the Pope stood to pray at the Babi Yar ravine just outside central Kiev. Silence fell as the pontiff, with Kiev's Chief Rabbi Ya’akov Dov Bleich at his side, bowed his head in prayer at the site where Nazi troops gunned down more than 30,000 Jews in late September 1941 in one of the bloodiest early chapters of the Holocaust. Before leaving, the 81-year-old Polish-born Pope also read aloud the De profundis, a Catholic prayer for the dead.

Concluding Thoughts ...

Every time Pope John-Paul II undertakes another one of his globe-trotting visits, I wonder whether it will be his last one! And every time I feel confident that his frailty will prevent him from leaving Rome again, he surprises me with yet another trip! His faith-centred determination is a determinism in itself that constantly defies the odds. In September 2001, a mere three months away, he is eagerly awaited in Armenia - and then Kazakhstan - where he will participate in the official 1700th celebrations of Armenia adopting Christianity as a nation-state in 301 AD.

I suppose that the real measure of such visits is the ferment the Pope leaves behind him. In Lvov, I talked to a young Catholic woman assisting at a mass as well as to an Orthodox lawyer from Hungary who was interested in this ‘man of God’, and then chatted with a self-declared atheist soldier guarding the stadium where one of those open-air pontifical masses took place. All three affirmed their delight at the visit. They spoke highly of the Pope’s strength of faith, will and charisma. But they also voiced their serious misgivings about the longer impact of such visits - either on the future of the Christian faith itself, or on Orthodox-Catholic relations in Eastern and Central European countries such as Georgia, Romania, Russia or Ukraine where the Orthodox are the majority. Indeed, so tepid was the official Orthodox warmth to this papal trip that the attendance of the beatification mass by Father Ivan Sviridov, archpriest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate, sent the media into an absolute frenzy! So much so that both the archpriest and his Patriarchate issued statements that he was there in his personal capacity only!

But I exit from this article with one final thought! Is it possible that the symbiotic relationship this Pope has established with the youth all over the world will encourage a future spiritual re-birth within the whole Church? After all, one had to see him singing under the rain with 300,000 young men and women in Lvov in order to appreciate his easy-going demeanour! He joked and laughed with them, but then became serious and urged them not to ‘deny God’ and pursue consumerism, but rather to stay at home and build a prosperous nation from the ashes of communism. This was a plea for Ukrainians not to emigrate to - supposedly - more affluent countries.

Doubtless this latest visit had its huge impact on Ukraine. Pope John-Paul II has already stamped an indelible mark on the Catholic Church - both liberal and conservative - in terms of theological as much as social teachings. But I still maintain that time alone - once his successor has well and truly been chosen - will help us discover whether the throngs following the Pope in most of his travels did so out of a real stirring of faith or whether they were simply dazzled by a personality cult in a world that is suffering from a lamentable dearth of religious leaders ..?

Unity and harmony. This is the secret of peace and the condition for true and stable social development. - HH John-Paul II - 27 June 2001

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   26 June


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