KIEV, Ukraine — As has so often been the case with the travels of Pope John Paul II, the first three days of his historic five-day trip to Ukraine held out the promise of healing ancient wounds.
At his first Mass in Ukraine, John Paul II paid tribute June 24 to Christians persecuted during the Communist era and Jews murdered by the Nazis.
“Land of Ukraine, drenched with the blood of martyrs, thank you for the example of fidelity to the Gospel, which you have given to Christians the world over,” the Pope said on Day Two of his visit.
The June 24 Mass, held on a rain-swept grassy field at the old Chayka airport 10 miles outside Kiev, drew 150,000 pilgrims, about a third of them Orthodox. One organizer said that the rain, the distance from Kiev, and heavy security kept more people from attending the Mass, the Associated Press reported.
Yet, the Mass attracted Catholics from Siberia, as well as Lithuania, Kazakhstan and other countries, who came with their bishops. Emigrant Ukrainians from the West also attended.
President Leonid Kuchma and the country's entire Catholic hierarchy also attended the Latin-rite Mass, celebrated in Ukrainian.
In welcoming the Pope, Kuchma said that his visit would be “a milestone in the country's history.” Kuchma stressed Ukraine's “European vocation” and paid tribute to the Holy Father's “historic personality.”
At the beginning of the celebration, Catholic Bishop Jan Purwinski of Kiev-Zhytomyr said that only 11 years ago, when the Church was still persecuted, a meeting with the Pope in these lands was unthinkable.
In memory of those years of persecution, the bishop gave John Paul II a gift: a handwritten prayer book used by Catholics during the persecution.
During his homily delivered in Ukrainian, the Polish Pope recalled that Kiev was the cradle of Slavic Christianity at the end of the first millennium.
Thus, the Holy Father extended an olive branch to the Moscow Orthodox Church, as he had done on arrival Saturday, hoping that “the one baptism that we share will help to restore that situation of communion in which diversity of traditions posed no obstacle to unity in faith and ecclesial life.”
Appeal for Unity
The Pope continued his outreach the next day, appealing for an end to the 1,000-year schism between Catholics and Orthodox Christians at the second open-air Mass of his visit, Agence France Presse reported.
John Paul prayed there for “the unity of God's disciples,” quoted the news source. “It is a heartfelt appeal for the unity of Christians,” the Pope said. “It is an unceasing prayer.”
The June 25 Mass was celebrated according to the Eastern rite followed by most of Ukraine's Catholics. Observers attributed an unexpectedly low turnout of only about 30,000 for the service, held at a Kiev airport, to opposition from leaders of the Moscow Orthodox Church, which commands the loyalty of most of the country's Orthodox.
Catholicism has grown steadily over the past decade in Ukraine and now claims an estimated six million believers in the country of 50 million, compared to 10 million practicing Orthodox.
The Orthodox have been split by schisms in recent years, with a substantial minority of parishes now recognizing the authority of Orthodox Patriarch Filaret of Kiev or of Metropolitan Methodius, leader of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, rather than the Moscow Orthodox Church.
Ukraine's Orthodox Archbishop Vladimir, who is obedient to the Moscow Orthodox Church, signaled his displeasure at the Pope's pilgrimage by boycotting an interfaith meeting June 24 where John Paul called for an end to Christianity's 1,000-year schism.
But the Pope had a warm reception from other Ukrainian religious leaders, including Patriarch Filaret and Metropolitan Methodius.
Referring to the tragic history of the Jews in Ukraine, the Pope spoke of the memorial at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev where up to 200,000 Jews and others were shot and killed by the Nazis (see accompanying story). He called the massacre “one of the most atrocious of the many crimes” of the past century.
The two Orthodox leaders thanked the Pope for his visit, and assured him of their efforts to seek unity between Moscow and Rome. Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny even asked the Holy Father to appeal to nonbelieving Jews to embrace faith.
Patriarch Filaret said that Archbishop Vladimir, by his absence, rejected dialogue with the Pope as well as with the other Ukrainian confessions.
Prayers for the Dead
After the meeting, the Holy Father went to the site of another atrocity: the mass graves of up to 200,000 Ukrainians who were killed in Soviet jails from 1929 to 1941, Associated Press reported. He stood in prayer for two minutes before a 20-foot bronze cross.
Yellow ribbons around tree trunks mark the spots in the Bykivnia Woods where the victims’ bodies were dumped. Some trees bear simple wooden plaques listing victims' names.
On arrival Saturday in Boryspil airport in the Ukrainian capital, the Pope renewed his personal tradition when visiting a new country by kissing Ukrainian soil.
In his remarks immediately afterward, the Pope spoke delivered a stern warning to leaders of politics, business, science and culture not to fall into the abyss of corruption that has trapped other former Soviet republics.
“I come as a brother in the faith to embrace all the Christians who, amid the severest of tribulations, have persevered in their fidelity to Christ,” he told the state and Church officials who had come to the airport to greet him.
No Orthodox leaders were at the airport to greet him, but the Holy Father addressed their bishops, priests, monks and faithful, and admitted that in the past Catholics and Orthodox have obfuscated “the image of Christ's love.”
His words that echoed the apology he offered to hostile Greek Orthodox leaders in Athens on May 4 for the past sins of Catholics against the Orthodox. But this time he said that both sides, not just Catholics, needed to seek forgiveness for past errors.
“Bowing before our one Lord, let us recognize our faults,” he proposed. “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. The most fervent wish that rises from my heart is that the errors of times past will not be repeated in the future.”
A Catholic Church source said it would have been impossible for the Pope to place the burden of the past entirely on the Catholic church, ignoring the bitterness that the Greek Catholic Church feels toward the Greek Orthodox Church for collaborating with Communist authorities, who confiscated Greek Catholic property and imprisoned bishops, priests, nuns and laity.
Many Orthodox lay people seemed more receptive to the Holy Father's message of reconciliation than did the leaders of the Moscow Orthodox Church.
Oleksandr Karmasyn, an Orthodox believer, said he had come to worship at the June 25 Mass because he believed the church split was “artificial,” Associated Press reported.
“As I remember, it says in the Bible that we should be orthodox in our faith and catholic in our love,” he said.
Another Orthodox, Liudmyla Kanish, was critical of the Orthodox leaders’ objections to John Paul's trip, Associated Press reported. Said Kanish, “The Moscow Patriarchate's reaction is linked to the fight for power and the Pope's visit is linked to people's well-being.”
(Combined news services contributed to this story)
Prayers at Babi Yar
BABI YAR, Ukraine — Standing before a statue of twisted and tormented figures, Pope John Paul II offered a prayer for the dead June 25 at Babi Yar, the ravine where the Nazis began the systematic slaughter of Europe's Jews during World War II, Associated Press reported.
The Pope and Ukraine's chief rabbi stood together at the base of the main Babi Yar memorial, an imposing concrete-and-bronze statue erected by the Soviet government between 1966 and 1974.
John Paul stood for two minutes in silent prayer, and recited a prayer for the dead in Latin. He then turned to Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, reported Associated Press, and said, “God bless you,” according to Bleich.
More than 33,000 Jews were taken to Babi Yar and shot over the first two days of the mass killing by the Nazis that began Sept. 28, 1941.
Jews constituted about half of the up to 200,000 people killed at Babi Yar and pushed into a mass grave.
Jews erected their own monument at the site in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bleich, who was born in New York, said that he would have preferred that the pope visit the Jewish memorial, Associated Press reported. “But the fact that he's come,” said Bleich, “means a lot to Jews worldwide.”