Memory on the Pope

18.04.2005, 16:21
Myroslav MARYNOVYCH, Vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, director of the Institute of Religion and Society in Lviv

Myroslav MARYNOVYCH, Vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, director of the Institute of Religion and Society in Lviv

It’s sad that, because of practical limitations, at the last farewell to the pope there were so few representatives of that people which is so thankful to him for many important achievements in its recent history.

To understand why, we have to start with the role that John Paul II played in the fall of communist regimes. The shining words of Karol Wojtyla, “Be not afraid!” above all set the hearts of Poles on fire, but the energy of transfiguration reached even the far Ural prison camps where, in particular, Ukrainian political prisoners were filled with the hope and faith that was so important for them. The first nails in the coffin of communism were hammered by Polish Solidarity, and the Ukrainian land was roused only 10 years later. But Juliusz Slowacki, the 19th-century Polish poet, was totally correct when he predicted that someday a Slavic pope “will lead various peoples from darkness into light, where God is.” The heroism of Solidarity, supported by the brave figure of the pope, pointed to those narrow gates of the Gospel that led Ukrainians out of the house of slavery.

Unlike many of his predecessors, John Paul II well understood the significance for civilization of the tradition of Christian Kyiv and did not put in its place the tradition of Moscow, as is traditionally done in the West. When in 1988 the Vatican celebrated the 1000th anniversary of Prince Volodymyr's baptism of the entire Kyivan Rus people, it happened according to the Kyiv-centered historiography and not the official Soviet scenario in Moscow, despite all the signals of displeasure that came from the capital of the USSR. In all his pastoral letters, the pope tirelessly emphasized the evangelizing strength of the Kyivan tradition, which he himself personally admired.

As a Pole and a former bishop of Krakow who well knew the history of Halychyna (Galicia), John Paul II understood better than his predecessors the historical wrongs against one of Ukraine's major confessions, the Greek Catholic Church, a kind of hybrid church that follows the Byzantine rite, but has long acknowledged the Roman Catholic pontiff as spiritual leader. The Greek Catholics make up Ukraine's third largest confessional community after the Orthodox of the Moscow and Kyiv Patriarchates. One of these church's most painful episodes was the ill-famed Lviv "pseudo-council" of 1946 which cut the church's ties to Rome and placed it under the control of the Moscow Patriarchate. Relations with the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate demanded delicate diplomacy, nevertheless, the right of Greek Catholics to religious freedom and their very existence was, in the pope’s eyes, unquestionable. Thanks to the successful discussions between John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev, the faithful of this church can be grateful for its legalization in 1988-1989. They achieved the main thing, the right to a legal existence, and all the other problems that today depend on the success of interchurch diplomacy now look like faint echoes against this background.

But the culminating moment in the spiritual uniting of Ukrainians with John Paul II came during his pilgrimage to Ukraine in the summer of 2001. At that time the government of Leonid Kuchma, and because of him the whole country, was suffering silent international isolation. The pope's was perhaps the only hand of support that the world offered to Ukraine. The Moscow Patriarchate protested loudly against this visit, seeing in it a direct threat to its far-reaching plans to recreate a new form of “the union of the brotherly Slavic peoples” into a single nation. Nevertheless, here too the pope held firm: when it was an issue of giving honor to a people, of spiritually uniting with those who wanted such a meeting, politics took second place. And, characteristically, neither in Kyiv nor Lviv did the pope address any negative words to those in Russia with bad intentions. He showed that the real purpose of his visit was not a competition with Moscow, as some presented it, but simply the honoring of the Ukrainian people as such.

For Greek Catholics above all, the pope's beatification of 27 victims of the communist terror crowned his visit. This was an event long awaited, but unimaginable, let’s say, during the pontificate of Paul VI. Under the influence of John Paul II, the Vatican, and with it the whole Catholic Church, every year came to a better understanding of the historical pain of the Greek Catholics, the great price that they paid for their faithfulness to the Roman Apostolic See.

Yet there were some Greek Catholics who reproached the pope, especially over what they saw as a delay in acknowledging the patriarchate of their church. The will to establish a patriarchate (as a normal hierarchial completion for an Eastern Church) has been primarily presented by Josyf Slipyj to the counciliar fathers of the Vatican II and later periodically confirmed by the Synod of Greek Catholic bishops, which is the highest legislative body of this Eastern Catholic Church. The 2002 Synod took unanimous decision to establish a patriarchate and ask the pope to acknowledge it. John Paul II never really became the pope to take this step. Here political and ecumenical obstacles appeared stronger than the call of the late Patriarch Josyf Slipyj, expressed by him personally to John Paul II and which he often recalled. That not all Greek Catholic expectations were realized does not, however, mean that the pope remained inactive. Matters of such a scale cannot be incarnated in life by a single ecclesiastical act. They demand a full dynamic of growth, a well-planned and balanced foundation, and over a long period John Paul II was involved in this construction. This bore important fruits: today in the Vatican and in the Catholic Church in general a whole list of Greek Catholic arguments are considered self-evident, which before were difficult and sometimes hopeless to try to prove.

As for those moves by John Paul II to meet the Moscow Patriarchate, which Greek Catholics did not always like, it’s necessary to note that the pope could not be the spiritual leader for Greek Catholics alone. Russian Orthodox also were entitled to feel the importance of the universal dimension of his ministry, and that he understood their arguments and their historical pain. So the art of balance and permissible compromise became a distinctive mark of the pontificate of John Paul II. Through his constant attention to the evangelical dimension of interpersonal relations, the late pope left an extraordinary influence on the whole body of Polish-Ukrainian relations. The inheritance of these relations is very complex, and politicized approaches often led both peoples into the blind corner of antagonism, out of sight of the logic of the Gospel. Pope John Paul II gave back to this logic its legitimacy and practical effectiveness. In the presence of this pope or in his spiritual field, historical opposition lost its starry logic and inevitability, and mutual forgiveness and understanding became the absolute need of the day. Touching the problems of history, this Polish pope placed accents with a fine line that did not call forth suspicions from Ukrainians or Poles. Finally, Pope John Paul II tirelessly affirmed in the world the “civilization of love.” He brought before humanity the main postulates of Christianity, high among them the ideas of human dignity, the ethos of non-violence, the foundational role of moral values, the liberating meaning of the truth, and others. For some time it was difficult for us Ukrainians to concretely answer the question of our Polish colleagues who were interested in the direct consequences of the spiritual and physical pilgrimage of the pope to Ukraine. It might have looked as though Ukraine would not see such noticeable consequences as in Poland. And then, suddenly, late last year in Kyiv the revolutionary square took fire and with one accord Ukrainians sought the truth; they stood on the side of love and non-violence, sapping the strength of all the attempts to provoke them. It became clear that on the square germinated the seed that, more than anyone, this great modern pope had so generously sowed.

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Translated by Matthew Matuszak (RISU)