On November 24, Pope Francis greeted 3,000 pilgrims from Ukraine and Belarus who had come to the Vatican to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the translation of the relics of St Josaphat to St. Peter’s Basilica. Celebrating the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine rite was Ukrainian Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk. Speaking to the pilgrims assembled at St Peter’s at noon, Pope Francis praised St Josaphat and told the visitors that “the best way to commemorate St. Josaphat is to love each other and to love and serve the unity of the Church. We are supported in this by the courageous witness of the many more recent martyrs, who constitute a great richness and great comfort for your Church.”
Speaking to the fierce devotion to the papacy shown by eastern Catholics, the pontiff said he hopes that “the intense communion that you wish to deepen every day within the Catholic Church may help you also to build bridges of fraternity with other Churches and ecclesial communities in Ukraine and in other countries where your communities are present.”
Many Eastern Catholic priests and bishops were persecuted and murdered in the aftermath of WW2, and Catholic Church properties were either closed or given over to the Orthodox Church, with which the Soviet government had conducted a rapprochement during the war. Catholics of both the Eastern and Western (Roman) rites worshipped secretly for decades. It was only after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Ukraine’s communist government in the 1980s, that Catholics of both rites emerged from hiding. While there is official tolerance of religious differences in Ukraine, for example, there remain continuing controversies over seminaries, land, and places of worship that once belonged to the Catholic Church and now remain in the hands of the Orthodox.
Devotion to the papacy, for Eastern Catholics, continues to be a significant source of identity and pride. Thus, relations between the Catholic Church and the various Orthodox Churches remain complex. While the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Turkey has given many signs of reconciliation with Rome, relations with the Russian patriarchate remain nettlesome.
Bishop Josaphat – a hero for Eastern Catholics and a source of national pride for some - was a 17th century Catholic bishop of the Byzantine rite who, while insisting on the dignity of Ukrainian Greek Catholic liturgy and spirituality, remained in communion with the Pope of Rome. A violent controversy over ecclesiastical authority pitted supporters of union with the Vatican with those who supported the Orthodox hierarchy. Eventually, despite warnings the popular Bishop Josaphat was killed in 1623 by Orthodox Christians at Vitebsk, which is located in present-day Belarus.
Among those Orthodox Christians who followed Bishop Josaphat into communion with the papacy were Patriarch Ignatius, the second Patriarch of Moscow who died 1620, and Manuel Kantakouzenos, who was descended from the family of the Byzantine Emperor Palaeologus. The Orthodox Church in Russia now considers Patriarch Ignatius to be illegitimate, despite the fact that his election was heralded at the time in the 1600s.
Historical memory continues to complicate relations also between Russians and Ukrainians. While there are significant cultural, religious, and linguistic affinities between Russians and Ukrainians, Ukrainians continue to resent a centuries-long tradition of Russian supremacy. The attempted assassination in 2004 of Viktor Yushchenko, during his presidential campaign, was largely blamed on Russia, for instance. The memory of other Russian and Communist excesses remains vivid in Ukraine. Recalling the horror of the 'Holodomor' - the great famine enforced by Soviet Communist leader Josef Stalin, Pope Francis prayed the Angelus with the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square. "I greet the participants in the National Congress of Mercy and the Ukrainian community, which commemorates the eightieth anniversary of the Holodomor, the great famine provoked by the Soviet regime, which claimed millions of victims." Experts estimate that at least 2 million died in Ukraine because of Communist policies, but the real figure may be much higher due to diseases and birth deficit sparked by the induced food shortages.