LVIV, Ukraine, June 26 -- As his pilgrimage to Ukraine turned from the bitter politics of religious feuds to a celebration of religious rebirth, Pope John Paul II today offered a fresh plea for Ukraine to overcome its centuries-old history of religious conflict.
On his first full day here in the center of Ukrainian Catholicism, the pontiff received an ecstatic welcome, celebrating Mass before huge crowds cheering the revival of a church repressed by the country's former Soviet rulers.
"It is time to leave behind the sorrowful past," he said at the Mass. "May the purification of historical memories lead everyone to work for the triumph of what unites over what divides."
At times today it seemed that all 800,000 residents of this graceful, cobblestoned city had turned out to hail the pope. His reception here -- the Mass drew an estimated 600,000 people -- was a pointed contrast to his uneasy welcome in the capital, Kiev, where Orthodox Church leaders had led weeks of protests declaring him persona non grata and far fewer worshipers than expected turned out.
Received as an almost-native son, the pope from nearby Poland was greeted at the Mass by a flag-waving crowd on a muddy racetrack turned into an open-air church. And tonight, even a torrential thunderstorm that struck just as the pope arrived didn't deter 300,000 people from attending a youth rally. John Paul seemed delighted, and even sang the soaked crowd a Polish verse, pleading with the rain to "go back to the sky!"
Those words -- and his acknowledgment of "infidelities to the Gospel" committed in this area by both Poles and Ukrainians -- had especially poignant meaning in a place that has long been a flash point for Ukraine's religious and political struggles.
It was here in 1596 that breakaway Orthodox leaders declared fealty to the Vatican and created the Greek Catholic Church. In 1946, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin banned the Greek Catholic religion, killing its leaders or driving them underground and giving their churches to the state-sanctioned Orthodox Church. When the Soviet Union collapsed a decade ago, Greek Catholicism was reborn and began to reclaim its churches in a struggle that turned violent at times. It now has more than 5 million followers -- the vast majority of all Catholics in this majority-Orthodox country of 50 million -- and most live near Lviv.
But Orthodox leaders call the situation in western Ukraine an ongoing "religious war" against them, and cite unresolved feuds over who controls the churches here as their main reason for boycotting the pope's visit.
Despite those complaints and the sparse crowds in Kiev, the leader of the Greek Catholic Church, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, pronounced the papal pilgrimage here "quite successful" and accused Moscow Patriarch Alexy II of "almost desperately" criticizing the papal visit. But he renewed the Vatican's call for Alexy to meet with the pope -- a necessary precursor to John Paul's long-held dream of visiting Russia itself.
Such delicate negotiations were far removed from the street-fair atmosphere in Lviv today, where Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics and more than a few curious Orthodox Christians came out to celebrate the pope's arrival.
"Today is a holiday for all people," said retiree Galina Volchuk. "I'm Orthodox, but I have very much hope for the pope's visit. I want all discords among religions to end."
"The pope's coming -- it's once in a thousand years," said Barbara Gretsanishin, a Greek Catholic who recalled the times when Communist authorities blocked children from attending church and babies were baptized in secret. "Of course we're all here today."
At tonight's youth rally, John Paul returned to a frequent theme, warning Ukrainians not to replace the shackles of communism with "the slavery of consumerism." And he pleaded with them not to emigrate from Ukraine, as tens of thousands have since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but remain here and not give in "to the illusions of an easy life abroad."
Throughout the day, John Paul spoke both Ukrainian and Polish, a reminder of the busloads from his native country who flooded across the border some 40 miles from here to see him. And he delighted the crowd -- both Ukrainian and Polish -- when he broke into his ad-libbed Polish song.
"Don't fall, rain, because we don't need you here. Go past the mountains and forests and go back to the sky!" he chanted in a clear if off-key voice as the amazed crowd laughed and cheered.