Amid church rifts, Ukrainian Catholics elated by pope's visit

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2001

ZVENYHOROD, Ukraine (AP) -- Slowly moving her tiny, poorly dressed body, Maria Sabenko painstakingly makes her way up the street, clutching a wooden fence for support in this dusty village in western Ukraine.

Pausing to recover her breath, the 81-year-old woman who spent her life working on a collective farm speaks of the event that has elated her and many in the village: Pope John Paul II's visit this week to Ukraine, a country that embodies the deep fault line between Orthodox and Catholic.

''I'm glad. But I have not heard yet what he says. We shall sit down with him and talk,'' Sabenko says.

Like many people in Zvenyhorod, Sabenko is a Greek Catholic, follower of a church that suffered persecution under the czars and the Soviets and saw its property seized by the Orthodox Church led from Moscow.

In Lviv, the capital of western Ukraine, government committees have bustled to prepare for the pope's five-day visit that begins Saturday.

A delegation from Poland, which has experience with the huge throngs drawn by the Polish pope, came to give advice on handling the estimated 1.7 million pilgrims expected to flood picturesque Lviv for his visit.

The hilltop St. George Cathedral, the Greek Catholics' main stronghold in Lviv, was renovated with the help of a $1 million state grant. In the courtyard, the three-story Metropolitan Chambers, was fixed up to serve as the pope's residence.

The pope is scheduled to lead two services at the Hippodrome, a huge, grass-covered field on the outskirts of Lviv -- a Latin-rite liturgy on June 26 and a Byzantine-rite service on June 27.

To see the pope blessing Ukraine is a dream shared by some 5 million Eastern rite Catholics and about 1 million Roman Catholics who live among a sea of Orthodox believers in this country of 50 million people.

There are hopes the visit will help advance Greek Catholic affairs, such as canonization of church martyrs, boost the prestige of the national capital, Kiev, and bring the Ukrainian people and churches closer together. But as the pope's recent visit to Greece did, his trip here has drawn angry denunciations from some Orthodox church members.

Above all, John Paul's trip is seen as a symbol of Ukraine's post-Soviet religious revival.

''For us, as believers, this is one of the most momentous events expected by the Ukrainian people,'' said Ihor Ozhyivskyi, spokesman for Greek Catholics in Lviv. ''The pope has the greatest world authority. He is a spiritual leader who has done much for reconciliation.''

''It is good that the visit takes place at the start of the third millennium,'' he added. ''We can demonstrate that Ukraine is recognized as a democratic nation that has freedom of speech and worship.''

Ozhyivskyi's sentiments are shared by most Ukrainians. A recent poll by the independent Democratic Initiatives foundation and the Socis polling service said nearly half of those surveyed welcomed the visit and only 4 percent opposed it.

Some of those opposed are vehement. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church, cited property disputes and purported Catholic missionary activities in opposing the pope's visit.

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, recently described the disputes between Catholics and Orthodox in Ukraine as a ''war.'' He said the pope's visit was not welcome and would cause further divisions rather than serve as the peacemaking mission envisaged by the Vatican.

''The pope's visit is Ukraine's affair, but maybe it's not very good and not very right,'' said Russia's ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin. ''We are Slav Orthodox. I don't think there should be cracks in our spirituality.''

Ukraine's government sees things differently. In Kiev, where John Paul will spend his first 2 1/2 days, President Leonid Kuchma's office is treating the pope's trip as a state visit.

''I feel that the Moscow Patriarchate reaction has something to do with state politics,'' said Myroslav Marynovych, head of Lviv Religion and Society Institute, referring to what many Ukrainians see as a continuing effort by Moscow to dominate their nation.

''There also are the ages-long Orthodox worries that the stronger Catholicism will attract the believers' attention. The fear of Catholicism is great,'' he said.

Zvenyhorod, which traces its history back to 1087, is a testament both to the church rifts plaguing Ukraine and to the Greek Catholics' tragic history.

Greek Catholics were suppressed during czarist rule in the mid-19th century. Although wiped out in some areas, the church continued to exist in western Ukraine.

Moscow's communist regime, which took years to quell Ukrainian nationalist guerrillas after World War II, viewed the local Catholic churches as the embodiment of nationalist spirit. Many priests were jailed and some were executed, and the church was forcibly incorporated into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946.

Some parishes managed to keep functioning secretly and, after the Soviet Union split up, the people of Zvenyhorod decided to restore justice in the 1990s. The village's church building and its belongings were turned back to the Greek Catholics, who account for half the 2,000 inhabitants.

''This is not what it used to be,'' said Hanna Martyniv, an elderly Orthodox follower standing next to the wooden St. Nicholas Church, built in 1890.

''We all have contributed to this church. It was like heaven for us. And they did not let us take anything, the books, the banners,'' she said. ''We, the Orthodox, are now building our own church, but there's little money -- it's all our own money.''

Other Orthodox villagers say they aren't upset with the situation. They pray in a small chapel while their brick sanctuary slowly takes shape. They say the church rifts have nothing to do with the essence of their belief.

''There is one God,'' said an Orthodox man who stopped to listen to Martyniv. ''There is one Jesus Christ. We shall all go to see the pope. Why not?''


On the Net:

Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church site on pope's visit:

Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine:

End Adv for Monday, June 18

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