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Ukraine: Pope's Last Mass Draws More Than A Million, Including Kuchma

  • Askold Krushelnycky

The final day of Pope John Paul II's trip to Ukraine saw him preside over a Mass attended by an estimated one million people. At the Mass, the Pope beatified 28 Ukrainians who suffered for their faith under the communists and the Nazis. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from Lviv that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma received a mixed reception when he unexpectedly arrived at the Mass.

Lviv, 27 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An estimated one million people turned out in the west Ukrainian city of Lviv this morning to see the pope preside over the final Mass of his five-day visit to Ukraine.

The crowd waiting at the horseracing track on the outskirts of the city seemed stunned when Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma unexpectedly turned up minutes before the pope himself arrived.

Today's Mass was the last of four during the pope's visit to Ukraine, the first by any pope to the country.

Ukraine, a predominantly Orthodox country of 50 million people, has about six million Catholics, five million of whom are Greek Catholics who observe the Eastern Byzantine ritual but accept the pope as head of their church.

Most of Ukraine's Catholics live in the west of the country and Lviv is the center of both the Greek and Roman Catholic churches.

The pope has been celebrating both Roman and Greek Catholic masses. Yesterday he presided over a Roman Catholic Mass that drew an estimated half a million people, including tens of thousands from neighboring Poland, the pope's native country.

Today it was the turn of the Greek Catholics. The racetrack was crowded hours before the pope arrived, and when his familiar white, high-sided "popemobile" arrived, the air reverberated as people chanted, "We welcome you."

Pope John Paul II was greeted by the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Cardinal Lyubomyr Husar, who thanked the Roman Catholic Church for the support it gave Ukraine and the Greek Catholic Church during the years of communist persecution.

Stalin banned the Greek Catholic Church in 1946 and many of its clergy and faithful were executed or imprisoned.

At today's Mass, the pope presided over the beatification of 27 people, most of them Greek Catholics, who are regarded as martyrs because they were executed by the communists or died in prisons. All except one suffered at communist hands. The exception was a priest who died in a concentration camp after being arrested by the Nazis for helping Jews in German-occupied Ukraine.

In his sermon, Pope John Paul II spoke of the conflicts and wars that have afflicted western Ukraine in the past. He recalled the words of a former leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, who spent 17 years in Soviet gulags. Slipyj was the head of the church from 1963 until his death in 1984.

"This Galician [western Ukraine] soil, which in the course of history saw the development of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church -- in the words of the unforgettable Cardinal Josyf Slipyj -- was covered by a mountain of corpses and rivers of blood."

The pope began his address to the faithful by quoting from the Bible: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." That statement, he said, was echoed in the sacrifices of those who were beatified.

"Martyrdom is the highest form of serving God and the Church. With this liturgy we want to glorify them and to thank them for their faithfulness."

The pope returned to the theme of reconciliation between different religions and peoples that he has addressed several times during his five-day trip. At yesterday's Mass, the pope made an emotional appeal for historical memories not to tarnish present and future relations between Ukrainians and Poles. Today he said:

"In past centuries, we have accumulated too many stereotypes, mutual insults and intolerance. The only way to free ourselves from this is to forget the past, to ask and grant forgiveness of one another for hurts done and received."

One of the pope's hopes had been to meet with leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of three Orthodox churches in Ukraine. Two of them, both independent Ukrainian churches, met with the pope and welcomed him warmly. The Russian Orthodox Church virulently opposed the pope's trip before he came and maintained a hostile stance while he was in Ukraine, accusing him of trying to win converts to Roman Catholicism.

But the pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, announced that one member of the Russian Orthodox Church did come to today's Mass and was even up on the stage, close to the pope.

Father Ivan Sveridov, a Russian Orthodox priest since 1995, said he is the head of an Orthodox radio station in Moscow. He said he has met the pope eight times and developed a warm relationship with him. Sveridov said that he had come to Lviv in a private capacity as a gesture to the pope because he felt that the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexii II, had been "mistaken" and too aggressive in his remarks about the pope.

Another unexpected visitor at the Mass was Ukrainian President Kuchma, who arrived in a motor cavalcade just minutes before the pope. It was Kuchma who issued the invitation for the pope to visit Ukraine, and he gave him a warm welcome when the pontiff arrived in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Saturday (23 June).

Kuchma's arrival at the Mass site at first seemed to astonish the crowd. People from western Ukraine have been in the forefront of many of the demonstrations against the president over the last few months, accusing him of corruption and involvement in the murder last year of an opposition journalist.

Soon after Kuchma entered the racetrack, thousands of people started to shout "Ukraine Without Kuchma," the slogan that was the hallmark of many demonstrations in Kyiv and elsewhere against the president.

Before the chant was taken up by tens of thousands of voices, Ukrainian Catholic Church leader Cardinal Husar defused a potentially humiliating moment for the president. He announced to the crowd that the Greek Catholic Church was grateful to Kuchma for issuing the invitation to the pope and making the tour possible. The pope also added his praise for the president.

"I am personally grateful to the president of Ukraine, Mr. Leonid Kuchma, for his presence at this solemn Liturgy."

In Lviv today, a festive air prevailed. Everyone our correspondent spoke with had lavish words of praise for the pope. One man who attended the Mass with his family and friends, Roman Tokarivsky, said:

"Lviv has waited for many years for the pope to come. He has not disappointed us, and the things he has spoken about will be thought about for a long time. He has had a tremendous impact, and I'm certain much good will come out of it, not just for our Greek Catholic Church but for Ukraine as a whole."

The pope's visit also prompted thousands of people from the Ukrainian diaspora to return to their homeland to attend the masses. One of those was a retired craftsman, Stefan Chalupa, who lives in Passaic in the U.S. state of New Jersey.

Chalupa said the Ukrainian Catholic Church had always been in the forefront of promoting Ukrainian independence and preserving the nation's identity when it was threatened. He said he was overjoyed by the pope's visit and believes it has done much to enhance Ukraine's prestige. "I'd like the pope to live for 100 years," he said, "but to live at least a few of those years in Ukraine."

Pope John Paul II was scheduled to fly back to the Vatican this evening after a farewell ceremony at Lviv's Saint George Cathedral.

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