Pope brings out joy in Catholics, suspicion in Russians

By Patrick Cockburn,West Ukraine
Monday 14 April 2014 02:30

More than half a million people gave Pope John Paul II an ecstatic welcome in the heartland of Ukrainian Catholicism yesterday, their enthusiasm in sharp contrast to the small crowds and protests by the main Orthodox Church, which greeted him in Kiev.

The Pope, feebly waving with one hand, drove slowly in his Popemobile through the enormous crowd, which waited for him for six or seven hours at the Hippodrome racecourse in the outskirts of Lviv in western Ukraine. Many shouted "Long live the Pope" in Polish, indicating that they had crossed the nearby border with Poland to see the Pontiff.

At the high point of his visit, the Pope will today beatify 28 Greek Catholics, 27 of whom are regarded as martyrs for their faith under the Soviet Union when the Greek Catholic Church was banned, its priests thrown in prison and many tortured to death. Father Roman Lysko, one of those to be beatified, was arrested by the Soviet secret police in 1949 and disappeared. "We heard one report that he died after he was walled up alive in the prison," said his son, Lubomyr, yesterday. "But we never found the body."

The Pope's embrace of the Greek Catholics, which survived underground during Soviet times, will also cause controversy because of the church's role during the Second World War. Its charismatic leader at the time was Andrij Sheptytsky, the Metropolitan or head of the Greek Catholic Church for a quarter of a century, who was accused by Russia of supporting the German occupation and a locally recruited SS division, the Galicia.

"We greet the victorious German army that has already taken control over the whole of our region with joy and gratitude for liberation from the enemy," Metropolitan Sheptytsky is quoted as writing in July 1941, according to Vladislav Petrushko, a Russian theological specialist. He claims that Sheptytsky, with other Ukrainian leaders, wrote to Hitler on 14 January 1942, pledging their loyalty. He also congratulated the Germans for capturing Kiev.

Lviv, for all its attractive Renaissance and baroque architecture, is at the heart of a region that is soaked in blood. The city is wholly Ukrainian today, but in 1939 it was half Polish and more than a third Jewish. Ukrainians made up just 15 per cent of its population.

The Nazis killed most of the Jews and Stalin transferred many of the Poles to parts of eastern Germany he had given to Poland. Memories of past atrocities are not far below the surface. Poland has recently opened an investigation into the massacre of 35,000 Poles in Ukraine by extreme Ukrainian nationalists in 1943 as part of ethnic cleansing.

But there is no doubt that the Greek Catholic Church, with some five million adherents and 1,900 priests, is one of the most vibrant in the Roman Catholic world. "Here the priests are all so young," said Father Andriy Chirovsky, director of a Greek Catholic research institute.

The growing strength of the Greek Catholic Church has implications for the future of Ukraine. It emerged from half a century of persecution with its reputation enhanced. Its members are notoriously nationalistic and anti-Russian. The Pope's visit is seen by political and religious leaders in Moscow as part of an effort to curtail Russian influence in Ukraine.

Russian journalists noted with suspicion that postcards on sale in Kiev showed the head of John Paul II with the Orthodox cathedral of St Sophia and the Monastery of the Caves in the background. This was taken as an indelicate hint of future papal ambitions to take control of traditional Orthodox sites.

"Orthodox believers have no illusions left about the unity of Christians," writes Komsomolskaya Pravda. "According to the Vatican's version it is possible only under Catholic and western banners." It added that the way religious leaders – with the exception of the main Russian Orthodox Church – bowed and scraped to the Pope during a meeting in Kiev was similar to the way Communist Party activists used to make servile obeisance to Nikita Khrushchev when he was the party leader.

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