Turning the Other Cheek to the Orthodox

Pope Moves Ahead Despite Snubs From Alexy II

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LVIV, Ukraine, JUNE 26, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The contrast was stark. On one hand, no sooner had John Paul II kissed Ukrainian soil when he arrived in Kiev last Saturday, he requested and offered forgiveness for the mutual offenses inflicted in history by Orthodox and Catholics.

On the other hand, from the Byelorussian city of Brest, Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow accused the Pontiff of «buying» the faith of Ukrainians, of «proselytizing,» and of «violating» the Orthodox «canonical territory» to which Ukraine belongs.

The 94th international visit of this pontificate has been one of the most difficult. For the first time, John Paul II decided to travel to a country without an invitation from the leaders of the majority religion, in this case, the Orthodox Church faithful to Moscow.

For the past nine years, Ukrainian Catholics, who have emerged from the shadow of Soviet persecution, repeatedly invited the Holy Father to visit them. The Russian patriarch´s veto, however, obliged the Pope to delay his reply on numerous occasions.

Yet, the time arrived when it was difficult for Ukraine´s 5 million Catholics to understand why they could not welcome Peter´s Successor, for whom their bishops, priests and laity had sacrificed their lives. Seeing the disappointment of Catholic Ukrainian bishops during a meeting in the Vatican, John Paul II said: «I cannot abandon them.»

So the Holy Father decided to go to Ukraine. This is the Pope who with his trips to Poland challenged the Soviet empire and who stood up to a Sandinista protest meeting in Managua. Now, he was turning the other cheek to be buffeted by his Christian brothers.

«Precursor of the Antichrist,» the Orthodox-protest banners read, carried by priests with long beards and nuns in black habits, who marched on the streets of Kiev, just 48 hours before the Pontiff´s arrival.

For the Western observer, it is almost impossible to understand Patriarch Alexy II´s obstinacy. Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls later said the patriarch runs the risk of «losing the train of history.» Yet, the Orthodox leader had no alternative, at least politically, for various reasons.

The first reason for the Russian Orthodox opposition is the Greek-Catholic question. These Christians have the same rites and traditions as the Orthodox Church, including married priests, but are obedient to the Pope. Alexy II sees them as a Catholic «Trojan horse» in Orthodox territory.

It is not the first time that the patriarchate has sought to eliminate them. In the 1940s, given the enthusiastic coexistence of Orthodox bishops with the regime, Stalin decreed the demise of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of Eastern rite, and obliged its faithful and bishops to become members of the Orthodox Church.

Those who opposed the decree were imprisoned or shot, and their property was handed over to the Orthodox Church.

Now, some 50 years later, those Catholics have undergone a rebirth. Mikhail Gorbachev gave them religious liberty and established a system for the return of their property in parishes where Catholics are in the majority.

The measure greatly displeased Alexy II. For the past decade he has refused to negotiate a solution to the question of Greek-Catholic properties.

At the grass-roots level, the problem practically has been resolved by the common sense of Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic faithful who live far from Moscow. More than 100 parishes in Lviv use the churches according to agreed timetables.

Indeed, the highlight of the papal visit is the beatification of Ukrainian martyrs in Lviv, a homage to the martyrdom of thousands of «Uniates,» as Moscow pejoratively refers to them. Hence, the patriarch´s opposition to the trip is easy to understand.

But there is a second, more important reason to explain the Moscow Patriarchate´s opposition.

Since the fall of the Soviet regime, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been split by at least two schisms. Metropolitan Archbishop Filaret of Kiev, who wanted to be appointed patriarch of the Russian capital, rebelled when the Holy Synod elected Alexy II.

When Ukraine became independent, he proclaimed himself patriarch of Kiev. Irked, Moscow´s patriarch responded by excommunicating Filaret and reducing him to the lay state. The Orthodox who were persecuted under Communism also rebelled against Alexy II´s appointment, believing him to be a former KGB agent in Estonia. Their disaffection resulted in the creation of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, considered schismatic by Moscow.

Numbering the faithful of these churches is difficult. Even some Orthodox are uncertain about which church they belong to, since, to a large extent, this is the decision of parish priests.

Nikolai Balashov, head of the Moscow Patriarchate´s relations with other Orthodox Churches, believes that 8,000 Ukrainian parishes belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, 2,000 support Patriarch Filaret, and just over 1,000 belong to the autocephalous Church.

Quoting Gallup polls, Patriarch Filaret states that 19.5% of the faithful, or 10 million Ukrainians, belong to his patriarchate; 8.5%, or 4.25 million, adhere to the Moscow Patriarchate; and about 600,000 follow the autocephalous Church. About 10 million people are undecided. Neither religious leader admits that atheists constitute more than 40% of the population.

Given this situation, Alexy II was afraid that the Orthodox schismatics would give the Pope an impressive welcome — which is exactly what happened.

Patriarch Filaret, a Soviet-era enemy of the Greek-Catholics — he refused to shake hands with Ukrainian Cardinal Myroslav Ivan Lubachivski in Assisi during the 1986 Prayer Day for World Peace — kissed the Pontiff and called him the apostle of unity among Churches. For his part, Metropolitan Methodius of the autocephalous Church, when he addressed the Pope, said that unity is possible between Orthodox and Catholics.

At last Sunday´s meeting of the Pan-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Confessions, a notable absentee was Metropolitan Archbishop Vladimir of Kiev, who is faithful to Moscow.

Ukrainian television, which transmitted live the events of the papal visit, emphasized the metropolitan´s absence, and the cohesion of schismatics vis-à-vis «Russian» Orthodoxy. Since the end of Soviet domination, the latter has received bad press. Alexy II´s nightmare — the revolt of Kiev, cradle of Russian Christianity — was more obvious than ever.

John Paul II did everything possible to avoid this situation. He repeatedly requested a meeting with Archbishop Vladimir, offering to visit him in his see. The metropolitan refused to welcome him, and even prohibited the Pope from visiting the Cathedral of St. Sophia, though it was in the visit´s official program.

John Paul II´s determination to pursue Christian unity led him to offer the other cheek to the offenses of this Orthodox Church. His most often repeated expression during his visit was that of Jesus at the Last Supper — «May they be one!» — a call for reconciliation and unity among the Churches.

Hopes for a papal visit Moscow seemed to fade after the Kiev visit. Yet, Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Moscow said that the Pope could visit Russia without Alexy II´s permission, since the Orthodox patriarch does not need the Pope´s permission when he visits Catholic countries.

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