A papal misadventure in a divided nation

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The election of a Polish pope set in motion the chain of events that led to the collapse of Communism and the return of democracy to central and eastern Europe. But, in the fading twilight of this longest papacy of modern times, John Paul II is learning in Ukraine this week that it is far harder to heal the spiritual wounds that haunt the region than tear down its oppressive old political order.

After his pilgrimage last year to the Holy Land, the Pope had intended the visit to Kiev, the historic cradle of Eastern Christianity, to hasten the process of reconciliation between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. This started so promisingly in Greece last month with the Pope's sweeping apology for the sins committed by Roman Catholicism against the Orthodox faithful and Orthodox lands. This time, however, an old man's dream is proving far less persuasive.

Ancient religious quarrels where neither side any longer feels threatened are one thing. Those that are a metaphor for contemporary political struggle are quite another. The truth is that, however much the Pope might wish it otherwise, the front line between Orthodoxy and Catholicism lies in Ukraine, which is predominantly Orthodox but has a sizeable minority belonging to the eastern Uniate church which – while observing the Orthodox rite – professes allegiance to Rome. Unsurprisingly the Uniates, who have gained much ground since Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union, are regarded by most of the Orthodox hierarchy as a Trojan Horse for Vatican proselytisation in their own backyard.

But there is more. The rivalry between the churches reflects the wider struggle for the soul of a divided country. Does Ukraine belong to the East or the West? We may think the end of the Cold War has rendered such questions superfluous. Not in Ukraine.

The ferocious, quite unspiritual hostility of the Russian Orthodox church to the Pope's visit bespeaks Russia's belief that Ukraine, a country pivotal to the stability of Europe, belongs to its sphere of influence. Similarly, the ecstatic welcome for John Paul II in Catholic western Ukraine, culturally so similar to his own Poland, reflects a desire that Ukraine, like Poland, should be anchored in the West. This is the minefield the Pope has entered. By travelling to Ukraine, the Pope may have fulfilled a personal ambition. Unfortunately, he risks deepening the very divide he professes he wants to narrow.