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Ukraine: Pope, Catholics Look Forward To Visit In June

  • Askold Krushelnycky

The Vatican confirmed this week that Pope John Paul will go ahead with a planned visit to Ukraine this summer, his first trip to the country. During the visit, the Pope is expected to promote a long-held dream of trying to reconcile differences between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox rites. But some among the Russian Orthodox Church have opposed the visit

Prague, 26 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Vatican announced this week that Pope John Paul will visit Ukraine in June (23-27) on a first journey to the country.

The visit comes at the invitation of President Leonid Kuchma and has been eagerly anticipated by Ukraine's five million Catholics, most of whom belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Father Hlib Lonchyna is the attach to the Papal Nunciate in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. He says the pope has long looked forward to visiting Ukraine:

"He has himself said that he has waited impatiently to come to our land -- that he has long desired to visit Ukraine."

Lonchyna says the visit will attract many Ukrainians from around the country, the Diaspora, and from neighboring countries. He says many people who are not of Ukrainian origin will also come to see the pope.

But not everyone appears eager at the prospect of a papal visit.

The majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians and there have been tensions in the past between the faiths. Ukraine has three Orthodox churches. Two are independent of Russia, but the third is loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, which claims authority throughout Ukraine.

The Ukranian Orthodox Church loyal to Moscow this week (22 January) sent a letter to the Vatican asking the Pope to postpone his visit. Citing religious tensions in Western Ukraine, the letter said that the church's leader (Metropolitan Volodymyr) and his clergy would not meet with the pope.

The pope has long sought to bring the Orthodox and Catholic churches closer together, but that ambition has been opposed by some within the Russian Orthodox Church, who are concerned that the Catholic Church is trying to minimize their authority outside of Russia.

Tensions also exist over the issue of church property between Orthodox leaders and Eastern-rite Catholics, who follow Orthodox practices but are loyal to Rome.

Lonchyna acknowledges the Russian Orthodox Church has resisted the visit, but says a meeting is planned between the pope and all of the religious leaders in Ukraine:

"There are those (among the Orthodox) who look negatively upon the visit and are against it, and others who view it very positively and hope that this will be a good step toward improving relations between the Orthodox and Catholics."

The pope will arrive in Kyiv, but the high point of his tour is likely to be in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, the spiritual center and headquarters of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. A spokesman for the Ukrainian Church, Father Ken Nowakiwski, said that although details of the visit are still being worked out, intensive planning has begun and most hotel rooms in Lviv are booked up. Father Nowakivski said:

"People are already making plans. There have already been government meetings, meetings with the local government and Lviv administration on the part of the church. There's been a great amount of excitement in the city of Lviv alone. I think that everyone is seeing this as probably one of the most historically important visits in the last few hundred years and certainly the most exciting thing that's happening in this new millennium.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church is the predominant faith in western Ukraine, which was only swallowed up by the Soviet Union during World War Two. The church, also known as the Uniate Church, was for centuries an important symbol of unity for West Ukrainians who lived without their own state in the Austro-Hungarian empire and later under Polish rule.

When Stalin forcibly joined West Ukraine to Soviet Ukraine, the Catholic Church was one of the first institutions he banned. Many of its priests were murdered or imprisoned. The same fate befell many of the faithful, and those caught attending clandestine masses were at the very least punished by bureaucratic methods that deprived them and their families of good housing, education or job opportunities.

But the church continued to function underground -- with religious services held in secret -- and provided a focus for human rights and political activists. Lonchyna said the pope has for many years wanted to demonstrate his solidarity with the Catholic community, which suffered harshly under communist rule.

"This visit is very important because the head of the church is coming to his people, to meet with them and to reinforce them in their faith and in their hopes. For Ukrainians this will be a very special moment -- the first time ever in fact that a pope will visit Ukraine. This will have significance not only for Catholics and Christians but for all people of good will."

One of those murdered on Stalin's orders was Archbishop Theodor Romzha in 1947. According to the memoirs of a Soviet intelligence officer and self-confessed assassin, Anatoli Sudoplatov, Romzha was injured in a car accident intended to kill him and then finished off by poisoning in hospital.

Nowakiwski said during his visit that the pope will initiate the process to make Romzha a saint.

"Bishop Theodore Romzha is the first person who the Holy Father will be beatifying who is a martyr for his Christian faith at the hands of the Soviet Union."

Father Lonchyna says that yet another controversial issue is likely to be raised during the visit -- whether or not to revive the Ukrainian Catholic Church's patriarchate. When the Ukrainian Catholic Church came into being by the Union of Brest in 1596, it was allowed to have its own head, a patriarch, who would be second in authority only to the pope. That tradition was suspended during communist times and has not been reinstated. Many of the Ukrainian Catholic clergy and faithful hope the pope will revive the patriarchate.

But that would likely infuriate the Russian Orthodox Church, something that could harm the position of Catholics in Russia and Belarus and worsen relations between the Russian church and the Vatican. Lonchyna says:

"The question of the Ukrainian patriarchate is always a pertinent one and the bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church always raise this matter and hope for a positive resolution of it. But we will see whether the visit of the pope will resolve this issue."

The Ukrainian Catholic Church's most senior leader, Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, died last month and a synod (meeting) of Ukrainian Catholic bishops this week in Lviv elected a new leader, Bishop Lubomyr Husar. Many Ukrainian Catholics hope that, after the pope's visit, Husar will eventually become their patriarch.