Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine continues claim thousands of civilian lives and has precipitated the biggest refugee crisis in post-World War II Europe. Thus, it seems timely to reflect on the relationship of St. John Paul II, the first Slavic pope, to the Eastern European nation. Although Polish-Ukrainian relations have been difficult throughout the ages, John Paul was a champion of reconciliation. Meanwhile, his words defending Ukraine’s European destiny and independence during his 2001 pilgrimage to the country sound remarkably prescient today.
A painful history
Although Poles and Ukrainians share centuries of history, their co-existence was often about as amicable as that between Serbs and Croats or Palestinians and Israelis.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, much of Western Ukraine was annexed and colonized by Poland and Lithuania. In response to Polish hegemony over Ukrainian territories, the Cossacks led by Bohdan Khmelnytski rebelled against the Polish Crown in 1648, killing numerous Polish aristocrats, priests, and Jews (who were the subject of the Cossacks’ anger because the Polish nobility used the Jews to collect taxes from Ukrainian peasants). The Poles responded with bloody retaliation, and an independent Cossack state was established.
The Polish and Ukrainian “imagined communities” interpret the 1648 Cossack Uprising in starkly different ways. For Poles, this spelled the beginning of the end of the Polish state, while for Ukrainians it is a major episode in their centuries-long struggle for national independence.
After World War I, following more than a century of partition between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, an independent Polish state was restored. Meanwhile, Ukraine was partitioned between Poland and the Soviet Union, but the Ukrainian people did not abandon their struggle for independence and proclaimed the Ukrainian People’s Republic.
Poles and Ukrainians fought over their territory from 1918 to 1919, with Poland winning and ruling Western Ukraine for the next two decades. In the interbellum, the Polish state pursued a chauvinistic policy towards its Ukrainian minority. Polish colonists settled in the Ukrainian lands; Ukrainian children underwent aggressive Polonization in public schools; and Greek-Catholic churches were destroyed.
Ukrainian anger at state discrimination inspired the 1929 establishment of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which fought for national independence through acts of terrorism, assassinating public officials such as Bronisław Pieracki, Poland’s minister of the interior who oversaw the Polish state’s chauvinistic policies towards Western Ukraine.
During the Second World War, Polish-Ukrainian tensions only further soured. In the summer of 1943, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the paramilitary branch of the OUN, murdered up to 100,000 ethnic Poles.
Following the end of World War II, Poland’s borders shifted west. Poles were expelled from Ukrainian territories, and Soviet officials repopulated them with ethnic Ukrainians. In 1947, Poland’s communist regime tried to break up the base of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army by forcibly deporting 141,000 Ukrainians to Poland’s western territories. Many of those deported were women and children who had absolutely nothing to do with the war crimes of Ukrainian nationalists. In the forced labor camp in Jaworzno, 150 Ukrainians died of miserable conditions.
From strife to friendship
Given this often-bloody history between Poles and Ukrainians, it might seem surprising that, since 2004, Poland has arguably been Ukraine’s most loyal ally on the international stage.
In May 2004, Poland, a member of NATO since 1999, joined the European Union. Six months later, the non-violent Orange Revolution began in response to the fraudulent election of the corrupt, pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine. At this time, the government of Poland, then led by the post-communist left, strongly supported Ukraine’s pro-Western course.
Poland’s post-communists left power in 2005. Since then, the country has alternatively been ruled by the incumbent national-conservative Law and Justice party and the liberal Civic Platform party. Although these three political groupings differ greatly on many issues, they have all pursued the same policy of advocating Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the European Union.
Naturally, there have been tensions between Poland and Ukraine. This was especially apparent under the presidency of Petro Poroshenko (2014-2019), who honored the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and SS-Galizien as national heroes just as Poland’s Parliament passed laws prohibiting the promotion of Ukrainian nationalism and labelling the 1943 massacres of Poles as genocide.
Despite these tensions, Poland and Ukraine have remained close allies at the political level, as witnessed by the enormous generosity that Warsaw has shown towards Ukrainian war refugees in recent weeks.
A Slavic Pope
St. John Paul II’s approach to Ukraine preceded Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation at the political level.
While a patriot who breathed Polish theater and poetry, Karol Wojtyła’s love for his fatherland was never chauvinistic. Whereas in interwar Poland many right-wing politicians and not a few churchmen displayed hostility towards the Jews, John Paul II was always a philo-Semite who built bridges between Catholics and Jews.
Meanwhile, in 1965, just two decades after the carnage of the Second World War, Karol Wojtyła was a vocal supporter of the letter of the Polish bishops to their German counterparts asking for forgiveness and expressing forgiveness. This was five years before West German Chancellor Willy Brandt recognized the postwar Polish-German border and expressed remorse for wartime atrocities during an official visit to Warsaw. In 1980, during his first visit to Germany, John Paul II shocked many observers by kissing the German soil at the airport where he had landed.
Thus, it should not be surprising that St. John Paul II worked to overcome historical Polish-Ukrainian hostility and instead saw the Ukrainians as Slavic brothers in the family of nations.
In 2003, on the sixtieth anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s murders of ethnic Poles, the Polish pope issued a letter to Cardinals Józef Glemp, Primate of Poland; Marian Jaworski, the Latin Rite Archbishop of Lviv; and Lubomyr Huzar, the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. Like the 1965 letter of the Polish bishop to their German colleagues, it is written in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation:
In the turmoil of the Second World War, when solidarity and aid to one another should have been more urgent, the dark agency of evil poisoned hearts, while innocent blood was shed. Now, sixty years after these sad events, the hearts of most Poles and Ukrainians are increasingly reinforced in the need for a major examination of conscience. We sense a need for reconciliation that would allow us to look at the present and the future in a new spirit.
The pope added that the new millennium demands that “Poles and Ukrainians no longer be enslaved by their sad memories of the past” and look at one another “with forgiveness.”
John Paul II and Josyf Slipyj
John Paul II’s respect for the Ukrainian people was manifested literally from the very beginning of his pontificate. After a new pope is elected, the cardinals who have participated in the conclave kneel before him, a ritual known as the homagium. During his homagium, John Paul broke protocol and lifted up two cardinals from the kneeler before him and embraced them: Stefan Wyszyński, the indomitable Primate of Poland under communist rule, and Josyf Slipyj, the Greek-Catholic Archbishop of Lviv who, having refused to and head an Orthodox Church that was loyal to the Soviet regime, had been imprisoned in the gulag and released thanks to the intervention of Pope St. John XXIII. (In 1946, the Soviets had banned the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, which would emerge only after the fall of the USSR.)
In 1979, John Paul II sent a letter to Slipyj on the occasion of the one-thousandth anniversary of Christianity in Kievan Rus’:
In the past, as today, the Apostolic See has always attributed a special importance to this same unity which shines forth amid the very differences of the Byzantine rite and ecclesial tradition, in the Slavonic liturgical language, in the ecclesiastical chant and in all the forms of devotion which are so deeply ingrained in the history of your people. For these things reveal its spirit and in some definitive way show the peculiar nature as well as the complexity of the matter itself. That is confirmed, for example, when sons and daughters of the Ukrainian people leave their own state. Even as immigrants they still retain their association with their Church which through its traditions, language and liturgy stays with them as if it were a spiritual “fatherland” in foreign lands.
A papal visit to Ukraine
Pope Francis has been invited to visit war-battered Kyiv. So far, the only pope to visit Ukraine has been St. John Paul II, whose pilgrimage was on June 23-27, 2001.
A recent article published in Poland’s Catholic Information Agency describes Ukraine as a “religious mosaic.” Seventy-one percent of Ukrainians consider themselves to be believers. The vast majority identify as Orthodox, with a further 12 percent are Catholics (9.8 percent Greek-Catholics and 2.2 percent Roman Catholics) with smaller communities of Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists.
Fostering Christian unity was one of St. John Paul II’s greatest goals. His 1995 encyclical Ut unum sint (“That They May Be One”) dealt with this topic.
Ukraine was the third Orthodox-majority nation visited by John Paul II, after Romania (1999) and Greece (2001). Just as Patriarch Kirill today is a public defender of Russian imperialism against Ukraine, in 2001 the Russian Orthodox Church opposed the papal visit. John Paul II began his visit in Lviv by visiting the city’s three Catholic cathedrals: Latin, Armenian, and Greek-Catholic.
On the last day of his visit, in a ceremony attended by 1.2 million believers, John Paul II beatified twenty-eight Greek-Catholic martyrs, mostly under Soviet rule. They included the Greek-Catholic priest Roman Lysko, the first married Catholic priest to be raised to the altars, who was killed by the Soviets for refusing to become Orthodox.
John Paul II’s visit to Ukraine had a political dimension as well. At the end of the pilgrimage, he defended Ukraine’s European vocation and the bravery of its people amidst foreign oppression. Twenty-one years later, when Ukraine is courageously defending its territorial integrity and struggling to free itself of Russia and politically be a part of the West, these words are truly prophetic:
Thank you, Ukraine, who defended Europe in your untiring and heroic struggle against invaders. […]
May the Lord give you peace, People of Ukraine, who with tenacious and harmonious dedication have at last recovered your freedom and have begun the work of rediscovering your truest roots. You are committed to an arduous path of reforms aimed at giving everyone the possibility of following and practicing their own faith, culture, and convictions in a framework of freedom and justice.
Even if you still feel the painful scars of the tremendous wounds inflicted over endless years of oppression, dictatorship, and totalitarianism, during which the rights of the people were denied and trampled upon, look with confidence to the future. This is the opportune time! This is the time for hope and daring!
My hope is that Ukraine will be able fully to become a part of the Europe which will take in the entire continent from the Atlantic to the Urals. As I said at the end of that year 1989 which was of such great importance in the recent history of the continent, there cannot be “a peaceful Europe capable of spreading civilization without the interaction and sharing of the different though complementary values” which are characteristic of the peoples of East and West.
Marzena Devoud notes that at that time, Ukraine was ruled by the pro-Russian President Leonid Kuchma. Amidst rising poverty and corruption, many Ukrainians were losing faith in their independence, yet John Paul bolstered it. Meanwhile, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, recently praised John Paul II for defending the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders.
St. John Paul II was not merely a religious leader. His words in defense of peace and the sovereignty of nations often carried great political weight. This was also on display during his 2001 pilgrimage to Ukraine, where he praised the Ukrainian people’s bravery and defended their place in Europe. As someone who experienced the great suffering of Poland in the twentieth century, he proved particularly adept to understand Ukraine.
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