Pope Hails Ukraine´s Victims of Persecutions

Has Warm Meeting With Religious Leaders

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KIEV, Ukraine, JUNE 24, 2001 (Zenit.org).- At his first Mass in Ukraine, John Paul II paid tribute today 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 historic five-day visit to Ukraine.

The 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, officiated in Ukrainian.

At the beginning of the celebration, Catholic Bishop Jan Purwinski of Kiev-Zhytomyr, became the spokesmen of those present and 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 a hand 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.»

The Pope challenged Ukraine to foster unity in the social, civil and religious fields. This objective was symbolized by the great platform erected in the center of the Chayka field, in the shape of a boat that navigates with its sails unfurled, following the storm of persecution.

The Pontiff also appealed to youth: «Do not let yourselves be taken in by the deceptive mirages of an easy happiness. Follow the way of Christ: He is demanding, certainly, but he alone can help you to savor the full meaning of life and enjoy peace of heart.»

Later, John Paul II lunched with the country´s Catholic bishops. In the afternoon, he had a warm meeting with representatives of all Ukraine´s religions, including Orthodox Patriarch Filaret of Kiev, and Metropolitan Methodius, leader of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

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. He called the massacre «one of the most atrocious of the many crimes» of the past century.

The two Orthodox leaders thanked the Pontiff for his visit, and assured him of their efforts to seek unity with Moscow and Rome. Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny even asked the Holy Father to appeal to nonbelieving Jews to embrace faith.

The only key religious leader absent was Kiev Metropolitan Orthodox Archbishop Vladimir, who is obedient to Moscow´s Orthodox Patriarchate. Patriarch Filaret said that Vladimir, by his absence, rejected dialogue with the Pope as well as with the other Ukrainian confessions.

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, AP 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.

When the Pope landed in Kiev on Saturday, he referred to himself «as a pilgrim of peace and brotherhood,» and asked for and offered forgiveness to the Orthodox Church.

«I wish to assure them that I have not come here with the intention of proselytizing, but to bear witness to Christ together with all Christians of every Church and ecclesial community, and to invite all the sons and daughters of this noble land to turn their eyes to him who gave his life for the salvation of the world,» the Holy Father explained.

On arrival Saturday in Boryspil airport in the Ukrainian capital, the Pontiff kissed Ukrainian soil. He then spoke affectionately and respectfully about the Orthodox Church. 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.»

«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.»

The Pope had already made a solemn petition for forgiveness from the whole of Orthodoxy on May 4, when he lamented the sins of Catholics against their Eastern brothers, especially the sacking of Constantinople during the Crusades.

In welcoming the Pope, President Kuchma said that his visit would be «a milestone in the country´s history.» Kuchma stressed Ukraine´s «European vocation» and praised Karol Wojtyla´s «historic personality.»

On Monday the Pope will celebrate an Eastern-rite Mass in Chayka airport. In the afternoon he travels to Lviv, where he will stay until Wednesday.

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