LVIV, Ukraine, June 27 (RNS) -- Like thousands of other faithful present at Wednesday's final papal Divine Liturgy, Irina Balukh clearly remembers what life was like in the catacomb Ukrainian Catholic Church.

"It was forbidden," said Balukh, 32, an unemployed accountant, who recalled how her First Communion in 1979 was held secretly in a small apartment in this heavily Catholic city.

"The Roman Catholic churches were open and so some people went there for the holidays but it wasn't the same," she said, explaining that the Roman Catholic liturgy was in the Polish language.

The Byzantine-rite Ukrainian Catholic Church, which is virtually identical to local Orthodox churches except for recognizing the pope's primacy, was outlawed and brutally suppressed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1946.

The 5 million-member church remained underground until 1989 when Pope John Paul II met with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who gave the church its freedom. At Wednesday's Divine Liturgy, the pontiff beatified 27 local martyrs, putting them one step away from sainthood.

The ceremony had a special meaning for Balukh. As a little girl, she heard the story of the bravery and saintliness of Bishop Mykola (Charnetsky), who spent the final years of his life in Lviv, living in an apartment building directly opposite Balukh's.

Well before Wednesday's beatification, local Ukrainian Catholics "considered him a saint," Balukh said. "At the Lichakhovskoye cemetery, you'll see a lot of people go to his grave. They go for healing mostly, but for all kinds of other requests, too."

Bishop Mykola was arrested in the waning days of World War II by the Soviet secret police, who were cracking down on the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Mykola spent the next 11 years in Soviet labor camps. After his release, he continued to work for the church -- underground. He died in 1959.

Although Wednesday's service focused on the beatifications, the crowd was most interested in catching a glimpse of the pope.

To do so, they made their way across the treacherously wet Hippodrome where the mud was the kind in which believers easily lost their loafers. Many of the faithful improvised, fastening plastic bags around their feet.

As was the case at the previous three papal services in Ukraine, a sizeable percentage of the believers were Orthodox Christians.

Lida Romanenko, a 35-year-old nurse in a textile factory here, is a member of the smallest of Ukraine's three Orthodox denominations, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

The Polish pontiff's presence in Ukraine was an important step toward healing the divisions between Orthodox and Catholic here, she said.

"It means a lot because he is someone who brings good and peace and reconciliation to the people," said Romanenko, adding that she planned to take communion later in the Divine Liturgy. "It is not a problem. I think there are people of all faiths here."

A spokeswoman for the Lviv diocese of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church- Moscow Patriarchate said later that an Orthodox believer's taking of Catholic communion was a sin that must be confessed and punished.

On what easily could have been a day of triumphalism in this Catholic stronghold and hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism, the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, went out of his way to strike a chord of humility in his greeting to the pope at the start of the Divine Liturgy.

In remarks delivered in slightly accented Ukrainian, Husar recalled "that the history of the past century knew moments of darkness and spiritual tragedy, moments in which most unfortunately certain sons and daughters of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church consciously and voluntarily did evil things to their neighbors, both to their own people and to others."

Husar, an American citizen, was perhaps referring to some Ukrainian Catholics' support of the Nazis during their World War II occupation of the area, or to the violent clashes in the early 1990s between Ukrainian Catholic believers and Orthodox loyal to the Russian Orthodox Church.

For all the talk about peace and reconciliation coming from the Hippodrome's raised altar, one Orthodox man, Ivan Dida, said he was having a difficult time raising money for the construction of a nearby church.

"It is going badly," said Dida, wearing a double-breasted green suit and walking with a wooden collection box for the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. "Everybody asks, `What denomination?' I tell them and they say, `That's not ours,' and walk on."

Pilgrims from Poland -- just a 1 1/2-hour drive from Lviv -- were particularly cool to the idea of supporting an Orthodox project. On Tuesday, Dida said he staked out a parking lot where 5,000 Poles were disembarking from their buses.

"They didn't give much at all. Even the Polish priest didn't want to," said Dida, estimating that 100 of the 5,000 made a donation. He will not know the exact amount until the church's building committee convenes and opens the sealed box.

Not far from Dida, at the point where the mud gave way to solid asphalt, Natasha Khusnullina said she was quite pleased at the pace of sales of pope-related items at her souvenir stand. Postcards, prayer books and candles were moving well but sales on buttons and toilet paper for nearby restrooms were sluggish.

Khusnullina, 23, said that even though she personally was not a believer, she was heartened by the event.

"I am proud of the people, my people, who come here and stand in the mud, stand in the rain, and endure all this," she said, keeping a close eye on her wares for fear of shoplifters.

"It happens sometimes," she explained. "Mostly small children."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad