Catholic / Orthodox Relations
Will there ever be a Papal Trip to Russia?
Having failed to keep the Pope out of Ukraine, Russian Orthodox leaders may find themselves powerless to resist a cherished papal ambition.
In the middle of June, just before Pope John Paul II arrived for a four-day visit, a pamphlet entitled The Crusade of Pope Wojtyla began circulating among the Orthodox parishes of Ukraine. In impassioned language ("invasion by foreigners," "a threat to the fatherland," "profanation of the land of our forefathers"), the text warned of an alleged papal plot to encircle and control Russia. A graphic image depicted the Pope's recent visits to Orthodox lands as military movements, with the vectors of progress all curving from Rome--through Bucharest, Athens, and Kiev--toward Moscow.

This pamphlet was not the work of a radical fringe group; it was published by a well-known Russian Orthodox news agency. It contained essays by Patriarch Aleksei II of Moscow and by the two most prominent prelates in Ukraine who enjoy Moscow's favor: Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev and Archbishop Augustin of Lviv.

In the days before the Pope's arrival, a dispassionate reader might have seen this pamphlet as evidence that the hostility of the Moscow Patriarchate toward the Church of Rome was based on a fear that shaded toward paranoia. But by the time the Pontiff completed his whirlwind tour, the same neutral observer might have concluded that the Orthodox fears were justified.

Not for the first time, powerful leaders in Moscow found themselves looking on helplessly as Pope John Paul II won the sympathies of huge crowds in a neighboring country, undermining the authority of Russia's chosen representatives. Once again the Pope was stirring up a combination of religious fervor and national pride, and in the process exposing the lack of popular support for Moscow's delegates.

Few Ukrainian Christians, Orthodox or Catholic, saw John Paul as a foreign invader. When he spoke, it was in fluent Ukrainian. When he presided at the Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine rite, nothing in the ceremony was unfamiliar to Eastern-rite Ukrainian Catholics--or, for that matter, Ukrainian Orthodox. The Pope appeared to be exactly what he professed to be: an elder brother, the successor to Peter, coming to promote unity among the faithful.


The papal trip, the 94th foreign journey of this pontificate, took John Paul to a land of just over 50 million people. The majority--about two-thirds--are Orthodox. But the Orthodox faithful are split among three competing groups. Roughly 6 million Ukrainians are Catholics; of these, the vast majority are members of the Byzantine-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Ukrainian Christians proudly trace their heritage to the year 988, when Prince Vladimir was baptized and Ukraine became officially Christian. The Church that Vladimir established in Kiev would eventually be driven east by persecution, founding a new see in Moscow that in time would emerge as the center of the Russian Orthodox Church: the largest of all the Eastern churches.

The Orthodox faith revived in Ukraine during the Middle Ages, and grew steadily until 1596, when a group of Orthodox bishops pledged their loyalty to Rome in the Union of Brest, and the Ukrainian Catholic Church was born. The Ukrainian Catholic Church follows the same liturgical and theological traditions as the Orthodox, while maintaining full communion with the Holy See.

Over the years, the Orthodox Church became better established among the people of eastern Ukraine, who were inside the orbit of Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian Catholic Church flourished in the west of the country, closer to Catholic Poland. Today the Ukrainian Catholic Church is by far the largest of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome.

In the 20th century the Soviet Union, seeing the Ukrainian Catholic Church as a potentially subversive force, brutally repressed the Eastern-rite Catholics. Ukrainian Catholic churches were forcibly closed down, their property handed over to the neighboring Orthodox parishes. Thousands of Ukrainian Catholics died in Soviet labor camps; the faithful were driven underground. When the Catholic Church re-emerged after the fall of Communism, there were scores of confrontations as Catholic believers sought to regain control of their parish property, with Orthodox clerics often resisting. Eventually most of these conflicts were peaceably resolved, although tensions linger.

While the Ukrainian Catholic Church has grown steadily since the official revival of the Byzantine-rite hierarchy in 1989, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been afflicted by severe divisions. Until 1993, the acknowledged leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox faithful was Metropolitan Filaret of Kiev. But when he demanded autonomy for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Filaret was condemned by the Moscow Patriarchate, and finally excommunicated. In response, he established the Orthodox Patriarchate of Kiev, which is steadily luring believers away from the Russian-backed Ukrainian Orthodox Church. A third group, the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, is more friendly toward Filaret's patriarchate than toward Moscow.


The Moscow Patriarchate had consistently, even bitterly, opposed the Pope's plan to visit Ukraine. Patriarch Aleksei II argued that the papal visit would aggravate divisions within Christianity. He voiced his fear that the Pontiff would meet with Patriarch Filaret or other Orthodox leaders who are not recognized by Moscow, thereby giving them greater legitimacy. And he repeated his frequent complaints that the Vatican has harmed the cause of Christian unity by supporting Catholic efforts to "proselytize" the people of Ukraine. Aleksei frequently speaks of the "canonical territory" of the Orthodox, saying that it is inappropriate for the Roman Church to maintain an active presence in a land where the Orthodox claim historical and cultural dominance.

At Moscow's behest, Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev--the prelate recognized by Moscow as the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox--had written to Pope John Paul, asking him to postpone his visit. When the Pope gently refused, Metropolitan Vladimir made it known that he would not meet with the Pope, nor would he participate in any ecumenical encounters during the visit.

Patriarch Filaret, on the other hand, made it abundantly clear from the outset that he would welcome a papal visit to Ukraine. Saying that the tensions between Ukrainian Catholics and Orthodox had "virtually ceased to exist," he characterized the Russian position as "ridiculous."

The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church also helped to allay fears of a Vatican "invasion" by stressing that his Eastern-rite Church is independent of Roman administration and yet in full communion with the Holy See. He contrasted the unity of Catholicism with the sharp divisions that mark the Orthodox Church, and argued that all Christians should recognize the Bishop of Rome as the focus of genuine unity. "If Ukraine had just one Church, founded by our holy Prince Vladimir, holding relations with the Roman Pontiff, we would want to be part of this Church," the Ukrainian prelate said.

In Moscow, meanwhile, the leader of the Catholic community was telling reporters that the Pope does not need the approval of Orthodox leaders in order to visit an Eastern European country. Asked whether the Pope might someday visit Russia despite the opposition of Patriarch Aleksei, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz observed: "The Holy Father's visit to Ukraine is the answer to that question." The archbishop rejected Moscow's claim that Russia is the "canonical territory" of the Orthodox Church. "Christ did not speak of 'zones of influence,'" he pointed out. "He said simply, 'Go and teach.'"

And to compound the concerns of the Moscow Patriarchate, a mid-June poll found that most ordinary residents of Russia had no objection to a papal visit. Thirty-five percent of the 1,500 Russians interviewed by the Public Opinion Foundation said they viewed the upcoming papal trip to Ukraine in a positive light, 50 percent said they were indifferent, and only 8 percent said they were opposed. The same survey showed even greater support for a papal trip to Russia itself: 48 percent of the respondents were in favor of a papal visit, while 41 percent were indifferent. Still more ominously, from the Russian Orthodox perspective, the poll showed that the percentage of Russians who view John Paul II favorably had risen significantly--from 25 percent to 37.5 percent--in the past twelve months.


The actual details of the papal visit conformed to a now-familiar pattern. The Holy Father arrived at Boryspil airport outside Kiev on Saturday, June 23. He kissed the proffered bowl of Ukrainian soil, and was greeted by the country's President Leonid Kuchma.

In his first remarks the Pope said that he had come to Ukraine, "the cradle of Christian culture for the whole of Eastern Europe," in order to pay homage to the "brave and determined witness" of the Christians there. "What an immense burden of suffering you have had to endure!" he said.

The Pontiff also set the stage for his ecumenical efforts, saying that he was confident his visit would be "welcomed with friendship by those who, "while they are not Catholics," are open to dialogue and cooperation." And in another move that could only disarm Orthodox critics, he acknowledged that Catholics have sometimes been harsh in their treatment of their Orthodox neighbors (and gently hinted that the Orthodox themselves had not been blameless). He suggested: "As we ask forgiveness for the errors of the distant and even more recent past, let us also offer forgiveness for the wrongs we have suffered." On Sunday morning, the Pope celebrated Mass (using the Latin rite) in Kiev, and afterward met with the country's Catholic bishops. "Among you there are still some men who had the experience of prison and persecution," he noted. "I salute you with great emotion." He went on to ask the bishops to work for Christian unity, noting that Ukraine furnishes an "ecclesial laboratory" in which the Church might discover ways of restoring full communion among all the Christian faithful.

That same afternoon the Pope met with 20 other Christian leaders at the Philharmonic Palace in Kiev. This meeting brought about the encounter that Moscow had feared, as the Orthodox Patriarch Filaret embraced John Paul. The papal visit, Filaret observed, "shows the world that Catholics and Orthodox can live together as brothers."

The following day, the Pope was again sounding the theme of unity within diversity. As he presided at a Byzantine-rite liturgy in Lviv, the Pope called attention to "the plurality of traditions, rites, and canonical disciplines" within the Catholic Church. That diversity, he said, "far from harming the unity of the Body of Christ, actually enriches the Church, through the gifts that each one brings." He also said that such diversity nourishes a missionary impulse, because: "There is no authentic evangelization without full fraternal communion."


By the midway point of the papal trip, Vatican officials--who had been terribly careful to avoid giving offense to Moscow prior to the voyage--had become more open in their criticism of the Russian Orthodox leadership. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, remarked to reporters that while Orthodox critics have charged Catholics with engaging in "proselytism," there is a profound disagreement about the meaning of that term. "Catholics do not accept that expression," he said, adding that proselytism—if it is understood to mean the use of power or manipulation as a means of effecting religious conversion—is condemned by the Catholic Church.

The Pope's official spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, went even further when he met with the press after the ecumenical gathering in Kiev. Recognizing the historic implications of the Pope's embrace with Filaret, the head of the Vatican press office told reporters that the Russian Patriarch might regret his opposition to the papal visit.

"When Aleksei II notices the positive developments that the meeting caused in the atmosphere between Catholic and Orthodox Ukrainians, he will only be able to regret having asked Metropolitan Vladimir not to attend," Navarro-Valls said. If Russian Orthodox leaders do not recognize the trend toward ecumenical unity that is developing in Ukraine, Navarro-Valls added, "they risk missing the train of history."

Supporters of the Orthodox Patriarch Filaret continued their own steady criticism of the Moscow Patriarchate. Father Georges Mytsyk, an Orthodox priest of the Patriarchate of Kiev, told the press that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church had become overly dependent on Moscow. Now, he said, it is time to move out of the Russian sphere of influence. "Since we are politically independent today, we should be independent on religious terms as well," he reasoned. He explained the situation in largely political and nationalistic terms because the Moscow Patriarchate is, he charged, "virtually a department of the Russian foreign ministry."

When Patriarch Filaret of Kiev was excommunicated by the Moscow Patriarchate because of his outspoken stance in favor of independence, Father Mytsyk cast his lot with the upstart Kiev Patriarchate. Filaret, he had concluded, was "closer to the people." Father Mytsyk added bitterly that the among the Orthodox churches of Ukraine, those backed by Moscow are the only ones "that do not celebrate Masses in memory of the victims of the artificial famine caused by the Communists in 1933, which caused several million deaths in Ukraine." THE CATHOLIC STRONGHOLD

Vatican organizers admitted that they were a bit disappointed by the size of the crowds that had greeted the Pontiff in Kiev during the first two days of his visit. But they found a much more enthusiastic reception in Lviv, in the western part of Ukraine, where Catholics are more numerous. An estimated 300,000 people gathered under sunny skies at a stadium in Lviv on Tuesday as Pope John Paul II presided at the first of two beatification ceremonies. The next day, an estimated 1.1 million people braved the rain to attend another beatification ceremony. The two liturgical services--the first in the Latin rite, the second Byzantine--honored 30 Ukrainian martyrs of the 20th century.

The Holy Father praised the "sons and daughters of the glorious Church of Lviv" who were "tested in many ways by proponents of the infamous Nazi and Communist ideologies," and finally "were killed out of hatred for the Christian faith." He exhorted today's Catholics to be equally dedicated to the Gospel and to uphold the cause of Christian unity.

At the beginning of the second ceremony, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar--the Major Archbishop of Lviv and head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church--followed the Pope's lead by asking forgiveness for offenses committed by members of his Byzantine community in the past. While honoring the martyrs, he said, Ukrainian Catholics should call to mind "the sad moments and spiritual tragedies in which sons and daughters of our Church deliberately harmed their neighbors and countrymen." For these offenses, the cardinal said, "we ask pardon."

And there was another noteworthy aspect to the second beatification ceremony. In a break from the posture of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, an Orthodox archpriest from Moscow had traveled to Lviv to participate. Father Ioan Sviridov, a professor at the State University of Moscow, said that he had come on his own initiative, after hearing Pope John Paul II deliver his message to the people of Kiev. Again clearly varying from the line established by the Moscow Patriarchate, Father Sviridov said that "the presence of John Paul II in Ukraine, far from dividing Ukrainians, will instead help them toward a better mutual understanding."


When John Paul II returned to Rome, he told pilgrims in St. Peter's Square that the experience had bolstered his confidence that Ukraine could serve as "the historic bridge between East and West."

The positive results of the papal initiative were clear enough in the actions of Ukrainian prelates. Cardinal Husar announced that the Ukrainian Catholic Church would set up two new exarchates (ecclesiastical jurisdictions roughly corresponding to dioceses) in the eastern part of the country, at Donetsk and Odessa. That announcement might have sparked new protests from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but the leaders of that body had more pressing concerns.

On June 27, the leaders of Ukraine's two dissident Orthodox bodies revealed that they had agreed to merge, and had approached the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, seeking his recognition as the authentic Orthodox Church of Ukraine. According to Russian news reports, the initial response from the Ecumenical Patriarch had been favorable, and talks were continuing. (One report went so far as to say that the prelates had agreed on a leader for their new Orthodox union: Archbishop Vsevolod Skopelsky--who is known to be friendly to the Ukrainian Catholic Church.)

To date, neither the Kiev Patriarchate nor the Autocephalous Orthodox Church has been formally recognized by any Orthodox body outside Ukraine. Recognition by the Ecumenical Patriarchate would quickly lead to acceptance by other Orthodox bodies; it would also be a serious blow to Moscow's authority. A spokesman for the Patriarchate of Moscow, Father Nikolai Balashov, warned that such a development could cause "a break in relations between Moscow and Constantinople and a grave crisis for the Orthodox world." The result, he said, could be "a schism identical to that of 1054."

But rather suddenly, no one seemed overly worried about incurring the wrath of the Moscow patriarchate. Back in Rome, Joaquin Navarro-Valls made an unambiguous prediction: "John Paul II will definitely go to Moscow before the end of his pontificate."

Acknowledging that Patriarch Aleksei has voiced loud opposition to the prospect of a papal visit, the Vatican spokesman reminded reporters that Greek Orthodox leaders had also resisted the Pope's plan to visit Athens. So if the Holy Father now wants to travel to Moscow, his spokesman declared, "There is no credible obstacle."
© Catholic World Report