Vatican Concedes Papal Visit To Ukraine Failed To Achieve Reconciliation

By Maria Kalafati | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Athens ( - Pope John Paul II headed back to Rome this week after a controversial visit to Ukraine fiercely opposed by the country's largest Orthodox Church.

Vatican officials acknowledged the trip had not achieved its main goal of reconciling Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians in the borderland between Christianity's historical western and eastern traditions.

The pope had visited Ukraine "as a pilgrim of peace, impelled solely by the desire to testify that Christ is the only truth," church officials were quoted as saying.

"He went there to pay homage to the shrines of Ukraine's history. The Orthodox made criticism of his trip, but we strongly believe that there will be another opportunity to heal the division [between] Catholic and Orthodox churches," they said.

Throughout the five-day trip the 81-year old pontiff asked forgiveness for past Catholic wrongs in a bid to heal the 1,000 year old schism.

His homily in Lviv, capital of western Ukraine, was an attempt at unity between the churches.

"During the last centuries, too much stereotyped ways of thinking, too much mutual resentment and too much intolerance have accumulated," he said. "The only way to clear the path is to forget the past, ask forgiveness of one another and forgive one another for the wounds received."

Memories remain fresh of one of the countries most painful episodes of the last century: During the Second World War, many Ukrainian Catholics collaborated with the Nazis in the hope of ousting the communist regime.

Despite the pope's efforts, Ukraine's Orthodox leaders remained strongly opposed to the visit and refused to meet with him, pointing to bitter church property and other disputes between Orthodox and Catholics in Ukraine.

Orthodox leaders went so far as to call the situation in Ukraine, especially in the western region, "an ongoing religious war," citing unresolved feuds over who controls the churches in the country as their main reason for boycotting the visit.

Following the direction of their religious leaders, Orthodox believers organized demonstrations against the pope's visit in the capital, Kiev, while prayer sessions against the visit were held in various Orthodox churches.

The Russian Orthodox Church, too, said the visit epitomized what it perceived as Catholic encroachment on traditionally Orthodox territory. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II warned that the visit would bring "further religious rifts" to Ukraine.

"There are forces in the world whose soul is against the unity of the Slav peoples," he said. "Those forces, using peaceful rhetoric, want to break that unity apart and are engaged in attempts at spiritual and political expansion," he said in a joint statement with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

Russia's ambassador to Ukraine, former Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, expressed opposition too, deploring the pope's visit as an "affront to Orthodox religious sensibilities."

By contrast, President Leonid Kuchma, who called the visit "an historic and a major political," one that could bring "peace and accord to Ukraine", warmly welcomed Pope John Paul II.

Despite Orthodox objections, the pope ended his trip by putting 28 members of the Greek Catholics denomination on the road to sainthood at an open-air religious celebration attended by a million people in Lviv.

This region is the stronghold of Ukrainian Catholics - most of them so-called Greek Catholics, who practice the Orthodox ritual but bear allegiance to the Vatican. Greek Catholics faced persecution under both Russian imperial and Soviet rule.

It was here in 1596 that breakaway Orthodox leaders declared loyalty to Rome and established the Greek Catholic Church.

After World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin banned the Greek Catholic religion, killing most of its leaders and giving their churches to the state-sanctioned Orthodox Church.

When the Soviet Union collapsed a decade ago, Greek Catholicism was reborn and began to reclaim its churches in a struggle that has turned violent at times.

Despite the gloomy assessment by the Vatican, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, pronounced the papal pilgrimage "quite successful."

He asked forgiveness on behalf of those Greek Catholics who over the last century "consciously and voluntarily did evil things, both to their own people and to others."

A "spirit of mutual forgiveness," Husar said, would help alleviate the weight of the "horrible past."