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When his plane lands at Borispol international airport outside Kiev on the afternoon of June 23, Pope John Paul II will begin what will arguably be the most controversial foreign visit he has undertaken during his 23-year reign. His destination will be Ukraine, a country whose government, after 10 years of independence, is shaky, and whose Catholic and Orthodox churches have had a very difficult time learning to live together under the new conditions of religious freedom.

The very word “Ukraine” originates from a Slavic word meaning “borderland,” and as Samuel P. Huntington pointed out in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, the country does indeed sit astride one of Europe’s great civilizational boundaries. Huntington notes the existence of opposing Western and Orthodox civilizations, and refers to Ukraine as a “cleft country,” caught between its conflicting cultural and religious ties to Orthodox Russia to the east and Catholic and Protestant nations to the west.

Kievan Rus’, the ninth-century political forerunner of Ukraine, adopted the Byzantine form of Christianity as its state religion with the baptism of the inhabitants of Kiev in the river Dnieper at the behest of Prince Vladimir in 988. After the later division between the Christian East and West, the Ukrainians came to identify with Orthodoxy. But much of Ukraine was occupied from the 14th to 18th centuries by Catholic Poland and Lithuania. In 1596, an agreement called the Union of Brest established unity between the Orthodox Metropolitan Province of Kiev and the Catholic Church. That union was the point of origin of today’s Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. A long period of religious and political conflict followed, and the union with Rome was gradually suppressed as Russia expanded its control over Ukraine. By the mid-19th century the tsars had eliminated the Greek Catholic Church within the Russian Empire, but it survived in the far western border Ukranian province of Galicia, which had come under Austrian rule in 1772 and passed to Poland at the end of World War I. Galicia became part of Ukraine again only when the Soviet Union annexed it at the beginning of World War II. Joseph Stalin resurrected the old tsarist policy by forcibly suppressing the Greek Catholic Church in its last homeland. He gave its churches to the Orthodox and subjected it to a vicious persecution that ended only with the collapse of the communist government and dismemberment of the Soviet Union in 1991.

This history has left its mark on the modern Ukrainian nation, which is seeking to find its place in relation to Russia and Western Europe. This has not been an easy task, as there are conflicting views about Ukraine’s identity in different regions of the country. The eastern areas are largely Russian-speaking and strongly support close relations with Russia or even absorption into it. As one moves west, more Ukrainian is spoken and there is stronger support for Ukrainian independence and ties to the West. These demographic and political realities are closely paralleled by religious ones. In the east, which is mostly Orthodox, there is strong sentiment in favor of maintaining the links with the Moscow Patriarchate that have existed for centuries. In the west, the Ukrainian Greek Catholics have their ties with Rome, and two recently established non-canonical Orthodox churches have broken relations with the Moscow Patriarchate.

During the 20th century, any loosening of Russian control over Ukraine was accompanied by the formation of an autocephalous (independent) Ukrainian Orthodox church. The first emerged in 1921 during the brief period of Ukrainian independence, only to be suppressed by the Soviets in 1930. The second formed behind German lines in 1942; but as the Soviets pushed back the Nazi armies, the church dissolved and the episcopate went into exile in the United States. In 1990, aware that Ukraine was moving towards independence, the Moscow Patriarchate granted autonomy to its Ukrainian metropolitanate under the name of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (U.O.C.). This did not prevent the head of the church in exile, Patriarch Mstyslav, from traveling to Ukraine in June 1990 to preside over the third emergence of the autocephalous church. But he returned to the United States for reasons of health the following October.

The situation grew more complicated in 1992, when the U.O.C.’s Metropolitan Filaret (Denisenko) of Kiev was deposed by the Moscow Patriarchate because of his attempts to distance his church further from Moscow. He then joined the autocephalous church and even claimed the title of locum tenens (temporary substitute) in Mstyslav’s absence. This was done without the knowledge of Mstyslav, who broke all ties with Filaret in November 1992. This incident led to the division of the autocephalous movement into two camps: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kiev Patriarchate (U.O.C.K.P.), headed by Filaret, who has been patriarch since 1995, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (U.A.O.C.), which remained faithful to Mstyslav.

Patriarch Mstyslav died in 1993, and his successor, Dimitri, died in February 2000. The U.A.O.C. has not yet elected a new patriarch because it hopes to achieve reconciliation with the other Orthodox churches in Ukraine. Filaret—who is himself a very controversial personality—was formally excommunicated by an assembly of the entire episcopate of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1997. Moreover, neither of the two autocephalous bodies are recognized by any other Orthodox church, and the U.O.C. remains the only canonical Orthodox church in Ukraine.

Overall about 55 percent of the Ukrainian population is Orthodox, but the relative size of the three groupings is a matter of dispute. According to statistics provided by the Ukrainian government in 1999, the U.O.C. had 8,016 parishes and monasteries, while the U.O.C.K.P. had 2,195 and the U.A.O.C. had 1,024. But all opinion polls conducted in Ukraine since 1992 have indicated that the majority of Orthodox believers support the U.O.C.K.P. Both of the non-canonical jurisdictions have a large presence in western Ukraine, where nationalist sentiment is strongest; the U.O.C.K.P. is spread through other areas as well.

There is also a large Catholic presence in Ukraine, concentrated in the western segment of the country and making up about 11 percent of the population. The Roman Catholic community has been traditionally identified with the ethnic Polish minority in these areas, but at least 50 percent of its members are now ethnic Ukrainians, and the great majority are native Ukrainian-speakers. They now have four dioceses and one apostolic administration in Ukraine, with a total membership of about 870,000.

The much larger Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has experienced a dramatic rebirth since the government restored its legal status in late 1989. After decades underground with no infrastructure or property whatsoever, the church now has—according to official statistics in the 2000 edition of the Annuario Pontificio—4,404,789 faithful in the country, 2,710 parishes, 1,614 diocesan priests, 134 religious priests, 581 men religious, 592 women religious and 944 seminarians. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is a major archepiscopal church, which means that it has a high degree of autonomy, selecting its own bishops and—subject to Vatican confirmation—electing its own major archbishop as its head. Major Archbishop Myroslav Cardinal Lubachivsky, who returned to Ukraine from exile in Rome in 1991, died in December 2000 and was succeeded in January 2001 by Lubomyr Husar, who was almost immediately made a cardinal. Ukrainian Greek Catholics have been trying for a long time to get the Vatican to raise the rank of their church to a patriarchate, since it is larger than any of the existing Eastern Catholic patriarchates. Even now the major archbishop is commemorated liturgically as patriarch throughout Ukraine. But the Holy See has not been receptive to the idea, perhaps out of deference to the Moscow Patriarchate, which would undoubtedly be offended by such a move.

And relations with the Moscow Patriarchate are already difficult. It is well known that the pope would also like to visit Russia and that the Russian government would welcome this. But it has been Vatican policy that the pope will not visit an Orthodox country without a twofold invitation—from the government and from the local Orthodox Church. Russian Patriarch Aleksy II has stated many times that his church is not ready to issue such an invitation because of Catholic proselytism and unresolved problems in western Ukraine, where he says Catholics are “persecuting” the Orthodox. There is no doubt that the reemergence of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the formation of the two non-canonical Orthodox churches have drastically reduced the presence of the U.O.C. in western Ukraine. But according to most observers, the situation on the ground is for the most part amicable, there are few ongoing disputes about property, and references to persecution are not appropriate.

It was these problems, however, that led Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev, head of the U.O.C., to send a letter to Pope John Paul II in January relaying the unanimous decision of the 42 members of his synod of bishops to ask the pope to postpone his visit to Ukraine. In his letter the metropolitan says that it is “bewildering” that the visit was set in place without notifying his church and without an invitation from that church. He says the main reason for the synod’s decision is the existence of continuing problems with Greek Catholics in western Ukraine. These Greek Catholics are said to have seized over 1,000 Orthodox churches, and as a result three Ukrainian Orthodox dioceses have been “smashed.” Vladimir fears that the pope’s planned visit “will only seal the existing state of affairs, very unfavorable to our church.” So if the pope comes on the dates proposed, “there will be no meeting between us, and no cleric of our church will take part in the program of the visit.”

Metropolitan Vladimir also states his belief that the Catholic Church has not been clear in its attitude toward the noncanonical Ukrainian Orthodox churches. He warns the pope that any meeting with their leaders would be an interference in Orthodox internal affairs, and would mean “a virtual rupture of any relations between our churches.” Since this letter was written, high Russian Orthodox officials have stated that the visit would create new problems in relations, and Patriarch Aleksy himself has called the proposed visit “untimely.”

Meanwhile, the government of Ukraine has been going through difficulties of its own. President Leonid Kuchma’s government has been rocked by scandals, most seriously by accusations that the president may have been involved in the murder of George Gongadze, a prominent opposition journalist whose decapitated body was found outside Kiev last November. Tape recordings have surfaced on which a voice that sounds like Kuchma’s orders security officials to “deal with” Gongadze. These incidents have sparked a “Ukraine Without Kuchma” movement, marked by protest demonstrations in the streets of Kiev. Western governments are beginning to link the future of financial aid to a resolution of the turmoil. Thus the future of Kuchma’s administration (whose second term does not expire until 2004) appears uncertain. If the president were forced to resign, his successor would have to consider whether or not to reissue the invitation for a papal visit.

In broad strokes these are the political and religious factors that the pope will encounter when he arrives in Ukraine in June. What does he hope to accomplish there?

There is no doubt that one of the pope’s prime objectives is to encourage the long-suffering Catholic community in Ukraine. While it is true that the Soviet government persecuted all religions in various ways, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was singled out for particularly brutal suppression, and large numbers of its faithful paid with long prison terms or even their lives for their refusal to break communion with the Church of Rome. The pope will honor that martyrdom, along with that of countless others who died for their faith under Soviet rule.

The pope will also try to extend a hand of friendship to the Orthodox. This will be particularly difficult, especially if the U.O.C. clergy refuse to meet with him and contacts with the noncanonical groups prove too hazardous. If current Orthodox divisions rule out personal meetings, still it can be expected that the pope will find ways to praise the witness of Orthodoxy in the Christian East and renew his calls for reconciliation.

And it is here that the pope’s visit to Ukraine may have its greatest symbolic importance, not only for the churches but for the state as well. Briefly put, Pope John Paul II rejects Huntington’s thesis that the border between the western and eastern Christian traditions is a permanent civilizational divide. On the contrary, his vision of a renewed and reunited Christendom and European civilization is predicated on the reconciliation of these two great traditions, on overcoming the division between them that has lasted 1,000 years. In his 1980 apostolic letter Egregiae Virtutis, in which he proclaimed the Byzantine Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius co-patrons of the continent along with the Latin St. Benedict, he spoke of Europe as “the fruit of the action of two currents of Christian tradition, to which were joined two different—but at the same time profoundly complementary—forms of culture.”

This is the vision the pope hopes to promote in his visit to Ukraine, where those two currents have both blended and clashed. He has his work cut out for him.

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