Pope John Paul II taught us an important lesson: he came to Ukraine not to argue with Russia but to raise the significance of the Kyivan Christian tradition
Many of us could not believe the first news of Pope John Paul II’s possible visit to Ukraine. Because of the Cassette Scandal, Ukraine was pushed aside in world politics; in the protocol of international meetings the alphabet was changed so that the world’s most powerful leaders wouldn’t have to sit next to the Ukrainian president. The only hand extended to Ukraine at this time was the hand of the Great Pope.
Moscow voiced its categorical protests, the Orthodox hierarchy in Kyiv advised against it, and the Roman Curia and the entire Catholic world warned against “unwisely upsetting Moscow.” One had to be very strong to go against this critical “Gulf Stream.”
When the pope’s plane landed in Ukraine, two opposing prayers were said to God. One was from the Kyivan monks of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, begging that “the plane with the pope not fly to Kyiv.” The other, even more emotional prayer was for the first prayer to not have any strength…
In Russia Archdeacon Andrey Kurayev rejoiced: “It’s good that the Ukrainians will see not a young and energetic pope, but a feeble old man who will not charm them.” However, already on the first day of the visit Kyivans – even many Orthodox and nonbelievers – were impressed that “despite his weakness, this old pope has come to us.” That, which was supposed to scare them away, on the contrary, charmed them. Indeed, “Ukraine is not Russia”!
Immediately after landing at Boryspil Airport, Pope John Paul II proclaimed his traditional pontifical message: “Let us recognize our faults as we ask forgiveness for the errors committed in both the distant and recent past. Let us in turn offer forgiveness for the wrongs endured.” His evangelical teaching of forgiveness lit the heart of others. So it is not surprising that during the celebratory liturgy on June 27, 2001, in Lviv in the pope’s presence UGCC Patriarch Lubomyr Husar said: “The history of the past century knew moments of darkness and spiritual tragedy, moments in which most unfortunately certain songs and daughters of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church consciously and voluntarily did evil things to their neighbors, both to their own people and to others. For all of them, in your presence, Most Holy Father, in the name of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, I wish to ask forgiveness from the Lord, the Creator and Father of us all, and also from those whom we, sons and daughters of this church, may have wronged in any way. So that the horrible past may not weight down upon us, and not poison our life, for our part with all our hearts we forgive those who in any way have wronged us…”
The pope taught us an important lesson: he came to Ukraine not to argue with Russia but to raise the significance of the Kyivan Christian tradition. It was honored not to spite Moscow, but for its good. For Pope John Paul II the light of the Slavic East emitted from the hills of Kyiv: “Kyiv itself played the role of a ‘precursor of the Lord’ among the many peoples who would receive the proclamation of the gospel form here.” Unlike many politicians around the world, Pope John Paul II developed a “Ukrainian policy” that was independent and not a derivative of the “Russian policy” (as much as this was possible).
Pope John Paul II, being a patriotic Pole, came to us above all as the head of the Catholic Church. That is why he became the matrix of reconciliation between the Ukrainian and Polish people. The words spoken by him in 2001 in Lviv sounded like a true apotheosis of fraternization, in which the Christian and national sides were merged: “The time has come to break free from the painful past! … Let forgiveness – given and received – be poured, like a healing balm, into every heart. Let us through the purification of historical memory be ready to put first that which unites and not divides us, to build a future founded on mutual respect, brotherly cooperation and genuine solidarity.”
He came to us as a friend, as someone on whom we could lean. Because of his assistance, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was legalized earlier under the USSR, and during his visit, the first group of the 27 new martyrs were beatified. And even if this pope did not fulfill all of our dreams, he nevertheless officially recognized that today there are no canonical or historical barriers to the recognition of the patriarchate of the UGCC; he also expressed his conviction that Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky would be declared a saint. These two statements cannot be erased form church memory. Thus the issue is only which of the Roman pontiffs will read the “signs of the time” and hear the appropriate will of the Holy Spirit.
The pope’s visit to Ukraine gave him the opportunity to repeat his famous words: “Here the church breathes with two lungs, both East and West,” and to call Ukraine a “church laboratory,” in which unity will be built on multiplicity and “legal plurality, guaranteed by Peter’s Successor.”
At a very moving meeting with the youth, the pontiff reminded them that “without God nothing good can be accomplished.” Having sung a Polish song, he captured their young hearts. By blessing the cornerstone of the Ukrainian Catholic University, he won the hearts of the students. Not to mention the hearts of all Ukrainians: his Ukrainian language was better than that of the Ukrainian president…
Pope John Paul II reminded us that every person bears the image of God, on whose likeness he is crated, and this involuntarily lifted our self-esteem. A few weeks after the pope’s pilgrimage to Lviv the streets were still clean, drivers politely drove past one another and kindly let pedestrians cross. And later during the Orange movement the fruits of his pastoral impact were still evident.
The great pope of modern times left us a prophecy, immortalized from the ancient prophecy of Apostle Saint Andrew’s about the radiance of God’s glory over the Kyivan hills: “The apostle’s vision is not just about your past; it is directed also at the future of your country. It seems to me that with my heart I truly see how a new light is covering your blessed land…”
Let us be bearers of this light, brothers and sisters in Christ, and this prophecy will come true!
Vice rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, human rights defender, and publicist