The Pope Steps into a Ukrainian Minefield

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Ukrainian Orthodox priests protest against Pope John Paul II's visit Pope John Paul II arrives in the Ukraine Saturday for his third visit to a predominantly Orthodox country, and this may arouse even greater resentment among Orthodox Christians than his recent visit to Greece. Is this the most difficult trip of his papacy?

Greg Burke: It's certainly one of the more complicated trips he's ever made — and there have been some tricky ones before, such as his 1995 visit to the Sudan, where there has been considerable persecution of Christians as that country's rulers try to spread Islam. The Ukraine trip is complicated because the pope is going very much against the will of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is trying to maintain its hold over the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Church there faces challenges not only from the country's Eastern-rite Catholics, but also from within the Ukraine's Orthodox Church. So it's a three-way battle, if not more.

It's absurd, in a way, because in pursuit of his goal of Christian unity, he's stepping right into a minefield. He'd hoped to have Christendom united to coincide with the Millennium, but instead this visit will probably show just how deeply divided the churches are.

But doesn't John Paul II undertake these visits precisely because he believes that his presence, even if it draws the anger of the Orthodox clergy and worshippers, ultimately helps bridge the divide?

Van Biema: In terms of healing the rift, the ultimate goal has to be rapprochement between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church. And you have to ask whether this trip, against the wishes of the Russian Orthodox patriarch, is ultimately going to make it easier or more difficult to heal the rift with the Russian church. Is it going to make the Russian church more open, following the experience of the pope's visits to Greece and Rumania and now Ukraine, to Rome, or more hostile? That remains to be seen.

The Ukraine trip is certainly a lot more complicated than the Greek trip. In Greece, the pope was able to turn animosity against the Vatican into a more positive feeling by apologizing for the sacking of Constantinople. But the difficult relations between Catholics and the Orthodox in the Ukraine are much more recent and more complex. They won't easily be ameliorated in a rhetorical stroke.

A second difference is that while the Orthodox Church in Greece is united, in the Ukraine it's divided into factions, the largest of which is connected to the Russian Church and disinclined to get too comfortable with the pope. So while there's something remarkable in this man's faith in what can be achieved by his personal presence and desire for fellowship, personal diplomacy has a better chance in a situation of lesser complexity.

What drives these deep contemporary tensions between the churches in the Ukraine?

Burke: The Catholic Church was pushed underground during the Soviet era after they were banned by Stalin. So when it began to reemerge after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it began to demand the return of Church property that had been taken over by the Orthodox. And the tensions this created have been intense.

The irony is how close they really are. Eastern rite Catholics and Orthodox Christians have most of the same sacraments and beliefs, and their masses are almost identical — although, of course, the Orthodox don't pray for the pope at Easter. Still, the animosity is deep and intense. It's amazing that the pope is even able to visit the Ukraine right now. That in itself is a sign that the tensions today are not as bad as they were a decade ago when the Catholic Church first reemerged in the Ukraine.