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A Pilgrimage Through Eastern Europe

Excerpts from the editor’s journal, kept while on a January trip to Poland, Ukraine and Russia.

We arrived in Warsaw late last night.

Early today we walked through Warsaw’s Old Town, which the Nazis completely leveled. The communists rebuilt the quarter – churches, palaces and homes.

St. Martin of Tours Church is startling in its simplicity. When the citizens of Warsaw rebelled in 1943, a group of armed boy scouts occupied the church. The Nazis annihilated the young patriots and destroyed the church. All that remains is half a corpus from the crucifix. Today it hangs as a memorial.

We then visited the site of the former Jewish ghetto. Today a large square with a bronze memorial stands where a once vibrant community lived. There are fewer than 5000 Jews left in Poland.

We left Warsaw for Czestochowa, to Jasna Gora Monastery, the shrine of the Black Madonna. The air was thick with pollution, the monastery buildings covered with soot. After a tour of the library, a special eucharist was celebrated at the altar of the Black Madonna. Worshippers were few but fervent. Some, while praying, walked on their knees around the altar. We reached Krakow by evening.

Today we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. An eerie silence oppressed my heart and tongue. A multitude of men, women and children were killed within these camps – mostly Jews – because of their race, religion, nationality or mental or physical condition.

Later we toured Krakow, a city crammed with splendid examples of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and neo-classical architecture. The Church of Our Lady, with its competing spires, is a veritable jewel.

Each hour, every day, a city fireman climbs to the top of the highest spire and plays a melody on a bugle. In the middle of a note he stops, in memory of his 15th century predecessor whose life ended as an arrow struck him while warning the city of the approaching Turkish invader.

This morning we drove through the Polish and Ukrainian countryside. Our destination was Lviv, Ukraine, the historical seat of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. The major archbishop, Myroslav Cardinal Lubachivsky, returned to his See only a year ago.

Our hosts arranged a splendid meal for us with Ukrainian folk musicians, singers and dancers. The evening ended with a friendly contest of American and Ukrainian folk tunes, hymns and Christmas carols.

We took part in an early morning divine liturgy celebrated by Cardinal Lubachivsky. Afterwards we breakfasted with him in his residence.

We then toured this city of 800,000 people – a Hapsburg gem. Although surrounded by opulent 18th and 19th century structures, we were acutely aware of a poverty-stricken society. The shops were empty. Queues formed in the streets as citizens sold a boot, a shoe, a used stick of lipstick or fried dough.

In the afternoon we drove to the village of Hrushiv, the site of a purported Marian apparition. Despite the communists’ attempts to destroy these villages, little has changed since the 19th century.

When our bus pulled up to the church, the villagers were there to greet us. We were ushered into the small church and listened as Father Zenoviy Maykut recited a brief history of the sufferings of the parish. Many wept. As word spread of our arrival, more villagers crammed into the already crowded church. We listened as a shy and embarrassed 16-year-old-girl attempted to answer our questions about her vision of the Virgin Mary. One woman was not satisfied; she volunteered additional details about the apparition and life of the local church under communism.

After a few hymns, the pastor invited us to the local school for lunch. Seated on children’s stools, we sat down to a feast prepared by the priest’s wife. Their son, a young man who intends to follow in his father’s footsteps, played the accordion. Although separated by language, faith and food united us.

We left Lviv for Kiev on the first flight in 10 days due to chronic fuel shortages. It was in Kiev in 988-89 A.D. that Vladimir, Grand Prince of the Rus’, accepted Christianity from the church in Constantinople and instructed his people to be baptized. This conversion irrevocably altered the course of what would become Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

Kiev is an elegant city, the third largest in the former Soviet Union. St. Andrew’s Cathedral, a rococo masterpiece, overlooks the Dnepr River, the alleged site of Vladimir’s baptism.

Before dinner we visited St. Vladimir’ Cathedral for vespers. A masterpiece of the late 19th century, the cathedral was packed with worshippers. I noticed many young couples clumsily following the routine. In the evening we had dinner in the former KGB hotel with Archbishop Antonio Franco, the Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine. During the meal he expressed his desire to solicit the West’s assistance for the resurrected Ukrainian church.

Before leaving Kiev we visited Haghia Sophia Cathedral and Pecherska Lavra, or the Monastery of the Caves. Haghia Sophia houses magnificent 11th and 12th century mosaics and frescoes. The cathedral remains a museum because of the inter-confessional hostilities in Ukraine.

Pecherska Lavra is an ancient institution; however, many of its churches date to the 16th and 17th centuries. While visiting one church, we saw two young soldiers lighting candles in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary. A middle-aged woman appeared to be instructing them. The soldiers seemed receptive. In one courtyard stand the ruins of the cathedral – dynamited by the Nazis. All that remains are the walls of the sanctuary and a cross where the altar once stood.

We arrived in Moscow late in the afternoon. Brother David and I wandered through Kitai Gorod, the ancient market quarter just behind St. Basil’s Cathedral. We encountered many churches, or rather the shells of churches. The exteriors, while gaily painted, housed galleries and workers’ clubs.

While wandering these back streets we discovered St. Vladimir’s Church. Recently this 16th century church was returned to the Orthodox Church. Timber and nails surrounded the exterior. The interior was simple – a temporary iconostasis broke the expansive white-washed walls. While a young choir practiced, a few worshippers, men and women, young and old, arrived for Epiphany Vespers.

We later entered the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, built in the 17th century by Peter the Great’s maternal family. The vesper liturgy was in full swing. Worshippers wandered from icon to icon, crossed themselves fervently and chanted as the deacon intoned the psalms. It was an uplifting experience.

Today we visited the heart of Holy Russia and the citadel of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin. The Armory Museum houses Russia’s treasures – crowns, court jewelry, armor and icons. Icons, strewn with precious gems, pearls, silver and gold are hung and labeled with meticulous care. The faces of Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints peer from behind these gem-encrusted covers; their painted eyes meet those of the viewers.

The Cathedrals of the Annunciation, Dormition and Archangel Michael – the sites of the tsars’ christenings, marriages, coronations and burials – are tremendous edifices. We left awestruck.

I watched the faces of the ordinary Russians who, apparently seeing these monuments for the first time, looked overwhelmed. Families and groups wandered the halls and courtyards of the Kremlin. What were they thinking?

Our last day in Moscow. Before we departed for the airport I walked up Tverskaya Boulevard. I made a left through an arch and encountered an intimate Moscow scene. There, as the snow fell on the courtyard, children played on crudely erected swings; their mothers chatted in the portals of their apartment buildings while old men played chess. In one corner stood a pink church, its gilded onion domes covered with snow. As two children passed this pastry-like edifice, they crossed themselves. My camera was at the hotel, but the image remains clear.

In January, Brother David Carroll, F.S.C., and I participated in a familiarization trip to Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Our purpose was to explore how our Association can assist the churches of Eastern Europe as we approach the 21st century.

“This is a most exciting time not only for the people of Eastern Europe, enslaved under the godless communist regime, but for the whole world, which struggled with the Cold War,” Myroslav Cardinal Lubachivsky stated in an address to the group.

“We are in a time of rejoicing and rebuilding. The war has ended, but we are still struggling. Our struggles are joyful because we are finally free. We are struggling not only to rebuild buildings, but people. So many lives have been sacrificed so that the people of Eastern Europe would be able to throw off their yoke of oppression.

“Please accept our humble gratitude as you journey through our land and spread this Good News to the faithful of the United States. May the blessings of the Lord be upon you!”

Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.

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