They called it a catacomb church, and for more than 40 years under Soviet persecution, it nurtured a resilient spirit that, according to its 5 million believers, emulated the courage of the early Christians.
Most of the bishops, priests and nuns of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church were rounded up by Stalin's henchmen and sent off to Siberia, many never to return.
In response, seminaries opened in secret to train new priests, who worked by day as bookkeepers and dentists while conducting clandestine liturgies at night. Underground clerics used stoles made of ribbons and chalices made of matchboxes to disguise their sacral activities as they moved from village to village, officiating at weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Occasionally on religious holidays, whole villages defied the Communist authorities and prayed outside their padlocked churches, challenging police to arrest them.
Nowhere in the Soviet Union, in fact, did an organized opposition to communism, religious or otherwise, persevere so long.
Sight of Pope's Arrival Refreshes the Spirit
On Monday, Pope John Paul II, who played a key role in winning the church's decriminalization at his first meeting with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1989, arrived to an exuberant welcome to honor the church at its historic seat in western Ukraine. On Wednesday, he will preside at the beatification of 28 Greek Catholics, 27 of them considered martyrs to the faith.
Understandably, the Greek Catholic Church is in a celebratory mood, seeing the papal visit as a culmination of its rebirth since it emerged from underground.
"It is God's blessing for us at long last, his coming to our long-suffering Ukrainian soil," said Lidia Jushchik, 43, whose father, an underground priest, died without seeing his church legalized again.
When she saw the pope on television stepping onto Ukraine, she said, she had a sensation that someone had poured "bright water all over me after a long, hard day of toil--I felt that relieved. It was a feeling of purification."
Flag-waving spectators by the thousands lined the papal route from Lviv's airport Monday evening, some standing 20 deep in the unseasonably chill and damp weather. The crowd, rewarded by a brief glimpse of the pontiff passing in his white popemobile, appeared to exceed the total of about 70,000 who attended his two outdoor Masses in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, on Sunday and Monday.
The welcome underlined the Polish pontiff's close ties to this terrain, which--like his old archdiocese in Krakow 150 miles from here--formed part of the historic region of Galicia. After World War II, however, western Ukraine, including Lviv, fell into Stalin's grasp, despite several years of fierce resistance from Ukrainian nationalist guerrillas.
It was against this historical background that in 1946 Stalin ordered the liquidation of the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine on the pretext that its Eastern-rite believers actually wanted to belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. Greek Catholic clergy were ordered to sign documents stating loyalty to the Moscow patriarchate, which was controlled by Soviet authorities. Those who refused were arrested.
Stalin's propagandists painted the Greek Catholic Church as a nest of pro-Hitler foreign spies, an image that has stuck with many Russians to this day. But even before Stalin, the existence of the Greek Catholic Church was considered an affront by many devoted Orthodox faithful in Russia and Ukraine.
According to their view of history, the church was illegitimate from its start in 1596, when the reigning Kievan metropolitan and almost all Ukrainian Orthodox bishops severed links to Constantinople and aligned themselves with Rome. They were allowed to retain Orthodox rituals and customs, which include permitting priests to marry.
The Orthodox see that "Union of Brest" as a simple subjugation, forced on Ukrainian believers by Polish lords. They reject the view of Greek Catholic historians that the union was voluntary and arose from a complex of historical and ecclesiastical factors, ranging from irritation with the Greek patriarch to a way to counter the new challenge of Protestantism in Ukraine.
In any case, the union met with resistance almost instantaneously. Over the next 300 years, backed by the patriarchate in Moscow, Orthodoxy grew in power and wealth as the Russian state expanded. Greek Catholicism, whose geographic area was once twice the size of France, became confined to three dioceses in the west of Ukraine.
The Soviet annexation and the order liquidating the church should have been its death knell. But instead of submitting to the terror, believers kept their religion alive, in the words of John Paul, "amid suffering of every kind."
Researchers Chronicle Religious Oppression
The full extent of the resistance is only now coming to light, thanks to an oral history project organized by the Lviv Theological Academy, a Greek Catholic institution that existed before the war but was forced underground during the Stalinist years.
Over the past eight years, researchers have painstakingly conducted more than 1,200 interviews with survivors, former police officials and other witnesses; assembled a computer database; and created archives that include original documents, photos and artifacts from the underground years.
A one-room museum inside the academy gives moving testament, with fading black-and-white prison photos of emaciated priests, snapshots of secret ordination ceremonies, hand-copied prayer books and rosary beads fashioned in prison from unconsumed bread.
One result of the research is that the academy assembled convincing evidence to support the beatification of 11 bishops, 12 priests and four nuns who died after being sent to Soviet prisons or work camps.
'People . . . Thank Me for the Things He Did'
One person who contributed her memories was Olexandra Orurok, whose father, Roman Litvin, was a priest arrested in 1946. Her mother was left on her own to take care of their family, which included eight children.
When her father was finally let go for good in 1954, after Stalin's death, he was not registered to live with his family in Lviv and was always dodging the police. Nevertheless, he carried out his priestly duties until his death in 1966, she said, celebrating liturgies every day and counseling people who found their way to the family's house.
"Even now, people come to me and thank me for the things he did," said Orurok, whose late husband was also a Greek Catholic priest.
The leader of the Greek Catholic Church today is Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, who presides over nine eparchies (or dioceses), 14 bishops, nearly 2,800 priests and nearly 3,500 parishes.
Husar, who would like someday to be allowed to use the title "patriarch," explained last month to reporters at the Vatican that the time of resistance is past and that now his church has a new mission to help the Catholic Church improve relations with the Orthodox.
"Being astride these two cultures, we want to help both to understand one another mutually, because the difficulties we find in the ecumenical field are due above all to ignorance, and ignorance generates fear," he said.