Ukraine Could Be a Hard Trip for John Paul II

Russian-Literature Professor Views the Situation

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ROME, MAR. 18, 2001 (ZENIT.orgAVVENIRE).- John Paul II´s trip to Ukraine this June could prove to be his most difficult, predicts Vittorio Strada, a professor of Russian language and literature at the University of Venice.

Ukraine is one of the most complex pieces in the Eastern European mosaic, he warned in an interview with the Italian newspaper Avvenire.

«In [that] country there are three Orthodox Churches,» he said. «There is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, faithful to the Moscow Patriarchate, which is in the majority, with between 14 million and 15 million faithful. There is the Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, schismatic of Moscow and nationalist, with between 3 million and 4 million; and then, the little autocephalous Orthodox Church, which has around 1 million members.»

The internal schisms of the Orthodox Church in that country are complicating the papal trip very much, he said. «Moscow fears that the Pope will recognize the schismatic Kiev Patriarchate as the interlocutor,» Strada noted.

–Q: In fact, Kiev Patriarchate leader Filaret has just said that he is favorable to the Pope´s trip, putting the question of so-called proselytism in its place. However, Archbishop Vladimir, the man in the Moscow Patriarchate, is opposed.

–Strada: Filaret´s statement is not new. Back in January he replied with this thesis to the letter in which Vladimir requested the Pope to postpone the trip. He is interested in softening the tone. During the visit, he will seek every possible way to be creditable to the Pope. However, this is unacceptable for Moscow.

«The worst enemy of dialogue between our Churches could not have suggested a worse idea to the Pope than to seek good relations with Moscow through a trip to Ukraine,» the person responsible for relations with Catholics said recently.

–Q: All this is intertwined with the delicate political moment Ukraine is living.

–Strada: Of course. Up until a few weeks ago. Leonid Kuchma seemed to be the undisputed president. Now, instead, after the murder of a reporter of the opposition, he has been accused by the people who have taken to the streets in great numbers.

–Q: What will happen in June when the papal trip takes place?

–Strada: It is difficult to predict. We do not know how the situation will unfold on the political plane. There are also unknowns from the ecclesial point of view. The contrast is clear, but it will depend very much of the ecumenical inspiration and diplomatic tact of John Paul II. The way he relates will be very important.

–Q: In January, Archbishop Vladimir wrote that there is a risk of a return to the pre-conciliar freeze. Is it an exaggeration of the debate or a real danger?

–Strada: I stress. It will depend on how the Pope´s visit is really perceived; and on the considered thought of Alexis II, Moscow´s Orthodox patriarch. Following the inevitable debate, he will be given the possibility of mediation.

–Q: Will Alexis II be open to dialogue again?

–Strada: There is room for hope. He is a sensitive, cultured man. However, as opposed to the Pope, he does not have a compact Church behind him. In Russia the Orthodox positions are also very varied. There are those who are more open leaders and fundamentalists, and he will not be able to ignore the strong forces.

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