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Ukraine: Pope John Paul Holds Masses In Kyiv, Meets With Church Leaders

  • Askold Krushelnycky

The pope today celebrated his second open-air mass near the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. The Pope also participated in a cordial meeting with the leaders of Ukraine's two independent Orthodox churches. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Ukraine.

Kyiv, 25 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul today presided over a Divine Liturgy for Ukrainian Catholics of the Eastern Rite. It was the second of four open-air masses the pope will hold during his five-day visit to Ukraine, the first ever by a pope.

There are around six million Catholics in Ukraine. Most are members of the Greek Catholic Church, which observes the Eastern or Orthodox rite but acknowledges the supremacy of the pope as the leader of the church. During communist times the Catholic Church was outlawed. Many of its clergy and faithful were executed, deported to the gulags or repressed in other ways. One of the pope's aims in traveling to Ukraine was to commemorate the suffering of its Catholics.

During today's mass at the Chaika airfield on the outskirts of Kyiv, the stage that held the altar was decked out in symbols of the Eastern rite, including a large wooden cross with double crossbars. Turnout was disappointing -- according to some estimates, fewer than 50,000 people attended.

In his sermon, the pope touched on the subject of the corruption which is rampant in Ukraine and reaches the top strata of business and political life. The pope said:

"These 10 years have shown that despite the temptation of crime and corruption, [Ukraine's] spiritual roots are strong. My heartfelt hope is that Ukraine will continue to draw strength from the ideals of personal, social and ecclesiastical morality, of service for the common good, of honesty and sacrifice, while not forgetting the gift of the Ten Commandments."

After the mass, the pope visited the ravine called Babi Yar on the outskirts of Kyiv. It is the site of the mass murder of about 100,000 Jews by German forces during the occupation of Ukraine by the Nazis in World War II. The pope, who lay flowers at a monument to those murdered at Babi Yar, is seeking to foster reconciliation among Catholics and other faiths, including Jews and Muslims.

On 24 June, the pope visited a forest near Kyiv where tens of thousands of people executed by the communists during Stalinist times lie in mass graves. Historians believe that millions of Ukrainians were killed by the communists during mass repression or died during the famine caused by forced collectivization.

The pope is particularly keen to heal the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches that began in 1054. Ukraine has three Orthodox churches. Two are independent Ukrainian ones, which eventually hope to unify. The third -- a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church -- has accused Catholics of seeking converts and has organized demonstrations against the pope before and during his visit. The small protest actions have had little impact, but the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church refused to participate in a meeting the pope had with most of Ukraine's religious leaders on Sunday (25 June) evening.

The leaders of the two independent churches did meet the pope and praised him lavishly. Representatives of Ukraine's Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities also attended the meeting and had warm words for the pope.

At the meeting, the pope urged all believers to work together to minister to the spiritual welfare of the entire population and bear witness to the existence of God and the worth of humanity:

"The faithful should fulfill a special task: together they can give clear testimony of the primacy of the spirit over material needs. Together they can testify that a world view based on God also guarantees the inalienable value of a human being. If we take God out of the world, then nothing truly human will be left in it."

The leader of the larger of the two Ukrainian Orthodox churches, Metropolitan Filaret, said that he did not believe the pope was in Ukraine to proselytize and expressed the hope that the visit would mark the beginning of reconciliation between the Eastern and Western churches.

Filaret took a swipe at the Russian Orthodox Church, which has condemned him for welcoming the pope and for his efforts to build an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Filaret expressed the belief that the visit would contribute to the development of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue rather than deepening the rift:

"The Moscow Patriarchate is afraid of proselytism, which has been condemned by all Christian churches. We believe that [the pope's] visit to Ukraine has nothing to do with proselytism. On the contrary, it will help move toward a reconciliation between the Orthodox and Catholics and an affirmation of Christian love. Today our churches are divided. But we pray daily to the head of our Church, Jesus Christ, for the unity of God's churches and we dream of achieving this unity."

Russian Orthodox leaders had previously declared they would not meet the pope, but their boycott of the meeting ended any hopes they would relent in their opposition to the pontiff during his Ukrainian visit.

Later today, the pope leaves for the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where larger crowds are expected to attend two masses he will celebrate tomorrow -- the first according to the Latin rite, the second according to the Greek Orthodox.