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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pope's Visit to Ukraine Heals and Hurts

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LVIV, Ukraine — The noise is deafening and the dust obscures the view as stonemasons, carpenters and craftsmen swarm around the cathedral that is the seat of Ukraine's Catholics and the centerpoint of a papal visit.

Pope John Paul's trip to Ukraine this weekend — the first by a pontiff — will be a chance to lay to rest decades of Soviet repression, but is also fraught with the risk of ripping open wounds between the country's Orthodox and Catholic faiths.

Here in Lviv, the Catholic and nationalist heartland of western Ukraine, the mood is of frantic preparation. The pope's face beams down from billboards and street traders are doing a brisk trade in papal postcards.

But in Kiev, where the pope will start his five-day visit Saturday, it is at best viewed with detached interest, and at worst with outright hostility. Hundreds of Orthodox nuns and priests have staged protests against the visit.

While Soviet rule tolerated the Russian Orthodox Church, which blossomed after the fall of communism, other faiths struggled. Ukraine's main Catholic Church, called the Greek-Catholic Church, was banned in 1948.

Its churches, including St. George's Cathedral in Lviv, which is now being renovated, were turned over to Orthodox parishes and its believers were either driven underground, into exile outside the Soviet Union, or carted off to Siberia.

"People have gone through a very difficult period and they have come out of this persecution bruised, wounded," said Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, the head of the Greek-Catholic Church.

"I somehow hope that the words of the Holy Father will be words that will heal and will help these people on the road of rebirth," he said.

The highlight for many Ukrainian Catholics will be the pope's beatification of 27 Soviet-era martyrs. It is the first beatification in Ukraine — the penultimate step toward being proclaimed a saint — for the Greek-Catholics since 1867.

Those to be beatified include Yakym Senkivsky, a priest who the church says was boiled to death in a cauldron after being arrested by Communist authorities in 1941 in western Ukraine.

Another priest, Emilian Kovch, died in a death camp at Majdanek in Poland in 1944 after the Nazi secret police arrested him for aiding Jews. Others died in Soviet labor camps in Siberia or as the result of maltreatment in prison.

"In a way I hope it may draw a line under the past in a formal way," Husar said.

However, in a country in which millions died during both World War II and Josef Stalin's purges, Husar says the church is conscious its martyrs must represent "a huge number of all sorts of people … who have died innocently."

Such gestures toward other faiths have, however, done little to allay Orthodox fears that the Vatican sees Ukraine as a land ripe for conversion. There are about 6 million Catholics in Ukraine and in excess of 10 million Orthodox believers.

The Orthodox churches are based in Kiev, seen as the font of Russian Orthodoxy because it was there in 988 that Prince Vladimir accepted Christianity.

Less than a century later, in 1054, Christianity split into a Western branch in Rome, which became the Roman Catholic Church, and an eastern one in Constantinople, now Istanbul, which became the Orthodox Church.

In a mark of the tensions the visit rouses among the Orthodox, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate — which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church — sent the pope a letter in January demanding he cancel his visit.

Russian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Alexy II this month accused Catholics of belligerence in Ukraine.

Father Ken Nowakowski, spokesman for the Ukrainian Catholic Churches, said fears about the pope were misplaced. "This is not a man who's coming with an army and is going to force mass conversions on the Orthodox — he's coming to visit his faithful."

And to that end, the builders at the Metropolitan's Palace opposite St. George's, where the pope is to stay, are working at breakneck speed.

Carpenters sand floors, craftsmen apply gold leaf to woodwork and engineers test a lift — a necessity wherever the frail 81-year-old pontiff travels. Even a podium in a field where he will preach to 500,000 has been fitted with one.

"Naturally it is very difficult to prepare everything as we would like to," Husar said. "But I think it will be sufficient to receive the Holy Father in a dignified manner."