- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2001

Pope John Paul II's recent visit to the Ukraine ought to be a watershed event, drawing Ukraine closer into the Western orbit. In late June, at the age of 81, the pope embarked on his 94th pastoral mission. While the pontiff failed to bridge the gap with the Russian Orthodox Church, his visit will nonetheless be regarded as influential in crystallizing the direction for Ukraine as the nation approaches its 10th year of independence. Those who welcomed him and his message of reconciliation tend to favor Ukrainian integration with Europe and the adoption of Western values. By contrast, those who objected to the pope's visit tend to be eastern-oriented and reactionary. Some even denounced the pope as a forerunner of the apocalypse and claimed his visit as responsible for hailstorms that destroyed wheat crops in three provinces.
Most of the country's Catholics reside in Western Ukraine the hotbed of Ukrainian nationalist and independence sentiment. Catholics were forced underground in 1946 when they were persecuted by Stalin and their churches were seized and given to the Orthodox. In the 1990s, Catholics reclaimed their property, despite the objections of the Orthodox Church.
The pope's visit celebrated the underground movement which kept Catholicism alive during years of Russian-led repression. He also paid tribute to 28 martyrs who gave their lives to preserve Christianity amidst Soviet barbarism. In poignant moments, the pope remembered the victims of the atrocities committed in the 20th century on Ukrainian soil.
The pontiff's healing message was warmly received by the Ukrainian people, who crowned his last mass by appearing in droves. Approximately 1.5 million attended, making this the largest crowd to gather for Pope John Paul II in Eastern Europe and perhaps the largest to assemble since the independence of Ukraine. Hence, although the leaders of the Orthodox Russian Church showed the pope little respect, Ukrainians spoke with their feet. Once again, Pope John Paul II's shining virtue has lit a path for harmony, liberty and unity amidst the peoples of Eastern Europe.

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