LVOV, USSR — FATHER BOGDAN sighs from weariness as he finishes his fifth christening of the day and receives a young couple he will soon marry. But it is a happy weariness. For only a month earlier, this Ukrainian Catholic priest was still performing his duties ``underground'' - in private apartments and in village houses with the windows tightly shut.
Now he is working openly in Lvov's Transfiguration Church, which on Oct. 29 ``transformed'' itself from a Russian Orthodox to a Ukrainian Catholic, or Uniate, house of worship. The change came when one of its priests unexpectedly invoked the name of Pope John Paul II during Mass.
The solemn air at this 17th-century church, situated in the heart of western Ukraine's regional capital, belies its new status as the flash point of the long struggle by the Uniates for legal recognition by the Soviet government. When Mikhail Gorbachev meets the pope on Friday, a first for a Soviet leader, the Uniate question is expected to top the agenda.
The Vatican has set legalization of the Uniate Church as a prerequisite for establishing formal diplomatic ties with the Kremlin, which Mr. Gorbachev is said to want.
``But Gorbachev,'' says Maksim Krotov, a religious historian in Moscow, ``is in a no-win situation. If he recognizes the Ukrainian Catholics, it will anger the Russian Orthodox Church and establish further Ukraine's identity as a separate nationality. If he does not, it will only deepen the Uniates' resentment of Russian rule and will contradict President Gorbachev's image of allowing more freedom of conscience.''
At a time when Gorbachev faces increasing opposition to his reform policies, he can little afford to alienate any centers of power, including the Russian Orthodox patriarchate. The Uniates, in interviews here, revealed why Gorbachev could be risking greater nationalism in extending formal status to the church.
``The church has always been a united people, as for example the Polish church, which inspired the struggles for freedom in Poland,'' said Ivan Hel, the Uniates' lay president. ``This is how we understand the role of our church in uniting our people, in this struggle for sovereignty.''
According to the weekly Argumenty i Fakty, the Uniates still claim between 4 million and 5 million believers in Ukraine and Byelorussia - this for a church that was forcibly merged with the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946 by a staged synod. Behind the liquidation lay a fear of Ukrainian nationalism in a part of the Soviet Union that was taken from Poland under the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. But despite persecution, Uniates have held onto their faith, which combines Eastern rites with allegiance to Rome.
In recent weeks, legalization appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Adamishin hinted as much last week in a press conference. And the Uniates themselves have been acting with unprecedented boldness, to ensure that Gorbachev has no choice but to decide in their favor. The metamorphosis of Lvov's Transfiguration Church has emboldened other nominally Russian Orthodox Churches around the Ukraine to do the same, according to lay activist Miroslav Soptye.
On Sunday, more than 100,000 Uniate believers gathered in central Lvov for a legally sanctioned open-air Mass and parade as a show of strength on the eve of Gorbachev's departure for Rome. The highlight of the demonstration was a taped message in Ukrainian from the pope, who urged the masses to hold onto their faith. Members of the nationalist Ukrainian People's Movement controlled the crowds while police stood to the side.
For its part, the Russian Orthodox Church is fighting to maintain its hold on the Ukrainian Catholics and the hundreds of church buildings that would revert to their control if they were to regain legal status.
At a press conference yesterday in Moscow, Archbishop Kirill, the new chairman of the Orthodox Church's department for external relations, maintained that the Uniate control of Lvov's Transfiguration Church was achieved through violence and that therefore the Moscow Patriarchate had to cancel a visit by a Vatican delegation that was due in Moscow last week. The cancellation of the visit has thrown doubt on an early legalization of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.