Pope visit gives a boost to Ukraine religious minority

Greek Catholics, forced to hide beliefs in Soviet times, are reclaiming their heritage.

Apologies and calls for Christian unity are the top themes of Pope John Paul II's current journey to Ukraine. But many of the country's 5 million Greek Catholics - who are led by the Vatican - see the visit casting a new spotlight on the underground resistence of a church outlawed for decades by the Soviets.

Their experience, from secret forest Masses to clandestine priest-training programs, honed their faith and a strong sense of nationalism.

It has made them bolder, too, in challenging the dominant Moscow-led Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which is protesting the pope's visit.

"Everything was secret," says Bogdan Smuk, a priest of the St. Sofia church in Lviv who struggled to preserve belief in an era of atheism. "The Soviet authorities tried to catch us 'in the fire,' doing a baptism or Mass."

The pope praised religious persistence at his first Mass in Ukraine yesterday, before a smaller than expected crowd. He paid tribute to all Christians who suffered "in the dark times of the Communist terror."

When the pontiff arrives today in Lviv, a Catholic stronghold in western Ukraine, he will beatify 27 Soviet-era martyrs - a first step toward making them saints.

Among the martyrs is a Catholic priest the church says was boiled to death by Communist officials in 1941. Thousands of other priests and members of their flock were forced by Stalin in 1946 to make a stark choice: convert to Russian Orthodoxy or go into exile in Siberia.

Tales of how Ukraine's Greek Catholics coped - by creating an "underground church" - are being collected by the Oral History Project of the Institute of Church History in Lviv.

"We not only want to show why the system tried to destroy Greek Catholicism," says Oleh Turiy, acting head of the Greek Catholic Institute. "We want to show how people with only their faith can resist the system and say 'no.' "

"This experience, for this church, has been extraordinary," Mr. Turiy says. "People are learning of these horrible persecutions. There is a retelling for a new generation."

Some 1,200 files so far - packed with yellowing documents, sepia prints, and thick questionnaires - are being turned into a computer database. One is on Father Smuk, who today leads Mass at the hilltop St. Sofia church - used as a warehouse in Soviet times. Practicing his religion openly was a dream that Smuk never expected to realize, as he secretly trained as a priest in the 1960s.

"My heart was crystallized with nationalism and a religious spirit," says Smuk, his face framed by a graying beard. Two nights a week, Smuk and six or seven others would meet a priest for all-night sessions. "We couldn't arouse suspicion, so we worked every day in the factories and fields," he says. "We shut the windows and doors so tight that you couldn't see any crack of light through them. Then we studied until six in the morning."

Smuk's group was one of many, though they kept numbers small to avoid detection. They sought young recruits who had already done military service, he recalls, "because the Soviet Army was such a hard life. They were very used to difficulties, and so were strong inside."

Smuk served three years with a parachute detachment in Lithuania - though he learned more there than just how to clean his rifle. "In that country I saw heroes trying to protect their nation and religion from this [Soviet] evil," he says. "I learned much."

Despite the care he took, Smuk was arrested several times when informants told the police about secret meetings; once he was let go by a KGB chief only after a three-day hunger strike.

Still, hidden masses were carried out - never with singing - and a big part of the job was training lay church members to conduct services without a priest. The result has been a depth of faith that has caught the attention of the pope.

"These peoples have suffered tremendously in the 20th century, with 17 million Ukrainians killed in the world wars, and by artificial famine. Millions more were exiled," says Borys Godziak, an American priest and rector of the Lviv Theological Academy.

"All this trauma was something you couldn't talk about, you couldn't mourn," he says. "It was all covered up, ignored, and in a perverse way, even glorified."

"Those who remember this underground life feel related to the church, and want nothing to do with the Orthodox from Moscow anymore," says Smuk. "[Moscow] sent their priests, and while they weren't spies, they did not have the Holy Spirit. They were only people using their power."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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