Pope John Paul II's five-day trip to Ukraine will be one of the toughest tests yet of his reconciliation-building skills.
The visit, which begins tomorrow, is meant to bolster the faith of 6 million Greek and Roman Catholics who remain loyal to the Vatican, and to begin healing a millennium-old divide that split Christendom into East and West.
But the dominant Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which remains aligned to the Russian Orthodox Church, accuses the Vatican of fomenting a religious "war" by spreading Catholicism into Orthodox areas.
The Vatican says Ukraine can be a "bridge" for a historic reconciliation. But Orthodox opponents - some 1,000 of whom have taken to the streets in the capital, Kiev, to protest the pope's visit - say it can only be a barrier.
The chasm marks a challenge for the pope, a Pole whose 23-year Vatican rule has sparked an unprecedented historical reckoning, with apologies for past Church positions on everything from the Crusades to the Jews. A growing theme has been unity, such that the East and West Christian churches may again "breathe with two lungs."
"No pope in recent history has so ardently sought a Christian reconciliation," says Borys Gudziak, an American priest who is rector of the Lviv Theological Academy, a Greek Catholic institute. "The pope is a Slav, and these issues are close to his heart. Unity is a divine command, and even if it is not perfect, we can never stop grasping for it."
The battle lines are already drawn, however, and result from past brutalities felt by all faiths here and a strong desire to maintain power strongholds.
Greek Catholics were repressed by the Czar in the mid-19th century. Every denomination was hounded in the decades after Russia's 1917 revolution. Western Ukraine - a nationalist and catholic stronghold - was once part of Poland, but was handed by invading Nazis to the Soviet Union in 1939.
Stalin outlawed the Greek Catholic Church in 1946, forcing conversions to Orthodox, and sending dissenters to Siberia. The Russian-led church - itself strictly limited and heavily persecuted throughout much of the Soviet era - took over many Catholic churches for their own.
"From that Russian side, for centuries there was only evil," says an Orthodox parishioner in Lviv, who is a member of a breakaway Orthodox branch loyal to Kiev. "The Russian church wants to control everything for itself. But we in Ukraine have our own nation, and should have our own church."
Back to their roots
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago, tensions have run high as entire congregations and their priests in western Ukraine reverted back to their Greek Catholic roots. They reclaimed churches built by their fathers, often leaving remaining Orthodox with no buildings at all.
Today, some 5 million Ukrainians count themselves Greek Catholic, while another 870,000 are Roman Catholic. Well over half of the 50 million population are Orthodox. But while 70 percent of those follow the Moscow Patriarchate, two breakaway Orthodox groups - including the larger one loyal to Kiev - are gaining ground.
This is the quicksand of conflicting loyalties and venomous rivalry into which the pope will wade. There is no starker example of the dwindling Russian Orthodox influence - at least in western Ukraine - than the contrast between the new towering, gold-domed cathedral in Lviv where the pope will say mass, and the nearest Orthodox-Moscow "church."
That church is less than a quarter-mile away, but is no more than a log-cabin style shed, with a roof made partly of plastic sheeting. Rudimentary Orthodox crosses have been painted on abandoned concrete construction blocks nearby, as if to mark the territory.
"The future of our church is to be a bridge, or better yet, a mediator between the Latin West and the Byzantine East," said Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the Greek Catholic archbishop of Lviv, in late May. "Being astride these two cultures, we want to help both understand one another."
Not all Orthodox oppose the papal visit, and one recent survey found that 74 percent of Ukrainians favor it. Even 30 feet away from the Moscow-Orthodox shed, there is sympathy at a larger Kiev-Orthodox church.
"The pope is coming here like a father to his children, and everybody wants to be there, to take his spiritual heritage for themselves," says Volodymyr Tsupka, priest of this modest Kiev-Orthodox church, a faction that is not recognized by Moscow.
"To bring peace, the pope must talk about two things: a love of God, and a love of each other," Fr. Tsupka says. "Just these two sentences."
But translating that into unity may be difficult. The pope was somewhat successful with his message in Orthodox Greece, during his recent trip there. In part, that was due to - eventually - an official welcome by Orthodox leaders, who prayed with the pontiff.
But suspicion runs much deeper in the Russian Orthodox church, which has faced severe challenges of its own in the past decade. Russian churches have been speedily rebuilt, though spiritual needs of the flock have often been neglected in the process, say priests and faithful alike in Moscow. The result has been a widely recognized public disillusion with religion - one that many in Ukraine hope the pope's visit will help them avoid.
"Some Orthodox leaders do not favor [a reconciliation], because they see it as a challenge to their own power and influence," says Michael Kwiatkowski, the vice-rector of the Lviv academy and a Canadian expert on Eastern canon law. "The problem is no longer theological, or the practice of faith, but a question of authority and mutual respect."
Ukraine risks a similar disillusionment to Russia, he adds, because of the post-Soviet obsession with church property - and five separate churches struggling for their share.
"People want something physical to lay their hands on," Fr. Kwiatkowski says. "But already, people are beginning to wonder if the church is only a place to pray. We have to turn our hearts to all the needs of our people. The challenge for this pope will be to show us how."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor