AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
On May 13, 1981, the shocking news about the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II appeared in the world headlines. Freedom fighters in Eastern Europe instantly realized that not only did the Kremlin order it, but that the Soviets would continue to try to eliminate the Polish Pope – just as they once tried to silence a brave Ukrainian priest whose exemplary life remains an inspiration to this day to Ukrainians resisting the brutal Russian invasion of their homeland.
To the Soviets, Pope John Paul II was a threat to Marxist-Socialist ideology. Two years earlier, he had spoken at the Gniezno Cathedral in Poland, a powerful symbol of the 1,000-year history of Christianity in Central Europe.
In that speech, Pope John Paul II spoke metaphorically about the Holy Spirit descending on Slavic peoples, referring not only to Poles but all the people of Central and Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. He also emphasized that the unity of European Christianity must rest on two great traditions of the West and the East.
For the Soviets, such rhetoric was unacceptable, not least because it undermined their grand narrative of Slavic peoples as engaged in an existential battle with the West for supremacy. But it also called for the unification of Catholic believers under the papacy in Rome, flying in the face of Moscow’s efforts to de-legitimize and erase the influence of the Catholic Church in Soviet territory. According to STASI secret police archives recovered in East Germany, a KGB report from September 1979 stated that the Pope’s message resonated with believers, and the Soviet Politburo subsequently ordered the KGB to “utilize all means necessary” to discredit the Pope.
One church leader who was particularly inspired by Pope John Paull II’s homily was Cardinal Josyf Slipyj. Although he has not been blessed or canonized yet, Slipyj displayed a saintly character of humility, generosity, and truthfulness.
Born into a modest family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1892, Slipyj studied at the Greek-Catholic seminary in Lviv, becoming ordained as a priest in 1917. He then went on to study in Rome before returning to Lviv, then a part of the Second Polish Republic.
In December of 1939, just a few months after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Slipyj was ordained as an archbishop with the blessing of Pope Pius XII. Two years later, in June of 1941, he supported the Act of Declaration of the Ukrainian State. He became the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1944, setting him on a collision course with the Stalin regime.
When Soviet troops captured Lviv in 1945, Slipyj was arrested along with other bishops by the NKVD, the Russian secret police. After a sham trial where he was accused of collaborating with the Nazis, Slipyj was sentenced to eight years of hard labor in the gulag.
When the Archbishop was imprisoned, the Russian Orthodox Church, then completely controlled by Moscow, launched a sham council which forcefully united the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with the Moscow Patriarchate.
In the Siberian work camp, the Archbishop met a segment of that church, including Catholic intelligentsia, bishops, priests and laymen who in the gulag responded to hatred and desperation with love and charity. Without a doubt, Slipyj’s persona and testimony became the heart and soul of this community, transcending the barbed wires and spreading to the secret faithful in Ukraine.
In 1957, when the Archbishop celebrated the fortieth anniversary of his ordination, Pope Pius XII sent him a personal letter conferring his apostolic blessing. But the KGB censors withheld that correspondence, passing it instead to the prosecutor. Facing socialist judicial proceedings over “contact with Pope,” the Archbishop once again refused to separate from the Roman Catholic Church. For that, he had to serve another seven years of compulsory labor in the concentration camp.
Finally, in 1963, Slipyj was freed by the Khrushchev regime after aggressive lobbying by U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII, arriving in Rome in February of that year. Although he was banned from entering Ukraine, Slipyj refused to give up his Soviet passport until he died in Rome in 1984. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, his relics were returned to St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv.
Today, numerous soldiers defending Ukraine against Russian aggression carry Slipyj’s image as a holy icon. His perseverance and consistent and uncompromising faith in the Ukrainian people and, more broadly, the dignity of humankind, continues to provide inspiration for all those defending freedom against tyranny.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian and researcher.
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