In an emotional, triumphant climax to his five-day pilgrimage to Ukraine, Pope John Paul II drew as many as 1 million worshipers Wednesday to an open-air liturgy of the country's reborn Greek Catholic Church.
It was believed to be the largest gathering of Ukrainians since the country regained independence 10 years ago from the Soviet Union.
President Leonid D. Kuchma attended the celebration, conducted at a shimmering white altar by crowned bishops whose robes sparkled in the sunlight. Kuchma's spokesman called the gathering of so many peaceable Ukrainians in one place a mark of the country's openness and maturing democracy.
At the start of the service, the head of the Vatican-aligned church issued a historic apology for the evils done by its members over the years and asked forgiveness from all who felt harmed. Cardinal Lubomyr Husar also offered to forgive all on behalf of the 5-million-strong church, which was severely suppressed by the Communists.
His statement echoed the theme of reconciliation preached by the pope throughout his visit to this western Ukrainian city and earlier in the capital, Kiev. It was a bid to reach out to the Russian Orthodox Church, which has accused Greek Catholics in western Ukraine of engaging in a religious "war" against Orthodoxy. It also seemed intended to recognize the awful legacy of World War II, when some Ukrainian nationalists sided with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union.
Russian Patriarch Alexi II in Moscow and Ukrainian Orthodox Church leader Metropolitan Vladimir in Kiev opposed the pope's visit, saying it would increase confrontation between the faiths. However, many who attended Wednesday's service said they were Orthodox believers and came because they saw the pope as a positive figure trying to help all Ukrainians.
"He wishes good to the people. We love him anyway," said Olkhove Molykh, an Orthodox teenager from Lviv.
There was an ocean of people packed onto the squishy bog of a racetrack for the liturgy. Some had waited all night to get choice positions.
Most were too distant from the pope to make him out clearly, except on the giant TV screens set up near the altar. But they listened attentively to his homily delivered in Ukrainian.
"He has such a wonderful command of our language," marveled Stepan Markiv, 43, a businessman from Stryy. "Sometimes he might make a mistake with the stresses, but you will hear him quickly correct himself. He could set a good example for some of our politicians in Kiev--after 10 years of independence, it's about time they learn our language."
The crowd cheered enthusiastically for the pope and Husar, but Kuchma's introduction drew whistles and boos. The president has been under a political cloud because of accusations that he was involved in the slaying last year of a journalist who was critical of his regime.
The pope beatified 28 Greek Catholics, including 27 deemed martyrs, one a victim of the Nazis and the rest victims of Soviet camps or prisons. Among them was the Rev. Yakum Senkivskyi, who officials said was boiled alive in 1941 by the Soviets.
In his homily, the pope said such suffering should inspire today's Ukrainians to show the courage to love and serve one another. "Their joint martyrdom is a pressing call to reconciliation and unity," he said.
The worshipers--almost all Ukrainians--were amazed at the size of their gathering. Organizers claimed as many as 1.5 million had attended. That number seemed at odds with earlier assertions that the site would hold 900,000.
There was little doubt, however, that the pope was seen by well over 1 million people in all in this city near the Polish border, counting his two huge services Tuesday and Wednesday and a rain-drenched youth rally Tuesday evening.
The eyes of Anna Palyk, a retired teacher, welled with tears when she thought about the size of the crowds. She remembered when she would worship only in a small chapel in a cemetery, fearful that if she was noticed by Communist Party officials she might lose her job. "I can hardly express how happy I am seeing so many people here," she said.
The pope was expected to receive a warm welcome in Lviv, so near his native Poland and the base of the Greek Catholic Church, which has gone from strength to strength since its years of Soviet persecution ended in 1990. Among other deeds in Lviv, John Paul blessed the cornerstone for a new seminary and plans to transform the church's Theological Academy into a full-fledged Catholic university.
The pope's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said the reception marks an important stage in the reconciliation of the eastern and western branches of Christianity.
"For the pope, [this trip] has been a dream for a long time--a dream that has been fulfilled," Navarro said.
It was also a dream come true for the resurgent Greek Catholic Church in this nation, giving it new prestige and seemingly energizing its faithful. When Cardinal Husar arrived, the crowd unsubtly asked the pope to award their shepherd a title equal to the other top religious leaders of the region.
"Patriarch, patriarch!" they chanted.