Arduous road to common prayer

– As a matter of fact, this is the most important postulate that results from the process of forgiveness and reconciliation – Archbp. Gądecki concluded his Volyhnian sermon in Parośla, standing over a still provisional burial site. – I am therefore making an ardent appeal to the presidents of Poland and Ukraine as well as to the parliamentary authorities of both nations for consent to dignified burials for all the genocide victims.

“To begin with, I’d like to introduce myself”. I’m a son of Volhynia. I was born is August 1942 in the village of Budy (Verba district, Dubno poviat). The Poles living here were assaulted on April 15, 1943, so three months before the terrible “bloody Sunday”. My parents’ khutor was fortunately situated remotely from the village and this circumstance saved our lives. Namely: a frightened Ukrainian woman, known to us only by sight, came running to us, shouting that we should flee because Poles were being murdered in the village”.

It was with these words that Fr. Jacek Salij, OP opened his sermon in the Łuck Cathedral – but not now, during the recently concluded ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Volhynia massacre. Fr. Jacek came to Volhynia four years ago, on July 11, 2019 and now his sermon has been recalled, first by “Gość Niedzielny”, then by the Catholic Information Agency (KAI) and perhaps some other media too. It’s not only a testimony – “if it had not been for that anonymous Ukrainian woman, I probably would have ended my life as an eight-month toddler” – but also, as it is in Fr. Salij’s preaching – a profound moral and historical lesson. As well as a call for…?

To call a spade a spade

Archbp. Stanisław Gądecki drew extensively from this words & thoughts of Jacek Salij during the Mass in Parośla, Volhynia, on the second day of a Triduum sui generis – Forgiveness and Reconciliation Pilgrimage to Volhynia. In addition to Archbp. Gądecki, Archbp. Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), and the Bishop of Lutsk, Vitaliy Skomarovski, chairman of the Ukrainian Episcopal Conference, set off on this route. They embarked on it to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Volhynia massacre. The first service was held in St. John’s Cathedral in Warsaw, where they announced the Message read and signed on Friday by the chairman of the Polish Episcopal Conference, Archbp. Stanisław Gądecki and Archbp. Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the UGCC. The last meeting was held at St. Peter and Paul in Lutsk, where they were joined by the Apostolic Nuncio to Ukraine and representatives of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organisations.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE On July 8, Archbp. Gądecki put it bluntly: “we are gathering at the Eucharist in the non-existent village of Parośla, which, before WWII was a Polish settlement comprising 26 homesteads. This place became witness of an atrocious crime, actually the beginning of a genocide. Its dwellers expected no attack, so a sotnya of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army [or unrelated band], passing itself off as a Soviet guerrilla unit entered the village without impediment; after which it positioned guards close to the Polish homesteads. Then the assailants slayed the bound and defenceless villagers with knives and axes, killing 173 people [the figure varies between 115 and 188], including women children and babes. Some say eight, other say five Poles were saved, mostly children [recent research has shown that at least 22 identified Poles survived – trans. note] . The property of the dead was looted and taken away. The village ceased to exist.

The news spread the next day. Poles from the vicinity started coming to the burnt village. They took the wounded to the hospital in Volodymyrets and asked the Germans form Antonivka for help. Under their protection they managed to bury the dead and photograph the victims.

In 1943, the first cross (which doesn’t exist today) was erected here to commemorate the victims. Then, in the forest, in on the site of the former colony, the Ukrainian Anton Kovalchuk erected a memorial cross, informing that the crime was committed by Ukrainian nationalists.

It was the first mass murder perpetrated here against the Polish population on February 9, 1943. It is considered the beginning of the Volhynia massacre [not unanimously – some historians claim it was an isolated action aimed at confiscating weapons, while the massacre itself didn’t begin until the summer of 1943 – trans. note.]”.

Church commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Volhynia massacre. The President of the Polish Episcopal Conference Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki (right) and the Major Archbishop of Kiev-Galicia, Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk during a service in Warsaw’ Metropolitan Cathedral. Photo: PAP / Andrzej Lange
I’m quoting this extensive account not to dazzle the reader with cruelty – the author would be the last who would wish that – but to demonstrate that everything has been called by its name here. Not for the first time, although Ukrainian bishops speak of “ethnic cleansings” whereas only the Polish hierarch mentions a genocide. But the story of this arduous journey to common prayer and to a subsequent common address – even if unsatisfactory for many – is already long and full of many important moments.

Support from the Greek Catholics in the USSR

Already John Paul II embarked on this journey in 1987, when, on his initiative two meetings took place: of Polish and Ukrainian supreme church hierarchs in the Polish and Ukrainian Colleges in Rome.

It was so long ago that probably many participants in the religious life, also publicists and maybe even younger priests don’t remember – or don’t know – that the Greek Catholic Church at that time existed only in the free world. In Ukraine – and in all the countries of the Soviet bloc – it was completely forbidden. It was supposed not to exist and yet the primates of Poland – first Card. Stefan Wyszyński, then, after his death it was Card. Józef Glemp – in a deeply considered and secret manner supported conspiracy actions of the Greek Catholics. It was already then that the Primate Glemp pointed out to the great importance and necessity for forgiveness and Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, while Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky recalled that the aggressive and criminal atheist-communist regime longed to destroy not only religion but also our nations. Already then they started speaking about the need to take the path that would lead to reconciliation.

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A year later, the Polish bishops showed great courage and radicalism when they organised a celebration of the millennium of the baptism of Rus’-Ukraine at Jasna Góra. With the participation of Cardinal Lubachivsky as well as a number of diaspora bishops and clergymen from Ukraine, where the Greek Catholics began to break cover. This was – as a KAI report emphasised – the first public celebration with the official presence of Greek Catholics organised in one of the USSR dependent countries.

– At that time, the Ukrainian language resounded throughout Jasna Góra, which the Poles call their spiritual capital. It was a great step towards Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation was made then thanks to this celebration – said Fr. Jacek Sailj in Lutsk, assuming that it was also due to this that, in 2017, at St. Peter’s in Rome Archbp. Sviatoslav Shevchuk called John Paul II “a patron of the scared cause: the Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation”.

Fr. Salij copiously quoted the Polish Pope in his “Volhynian” sermon, pointing out how much the Pope cared about the Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation.

In 1991, there was no Ukrainian state yet. In Przemyśl, the Pope met with the faithful of the Greek Catholic Church and – as Fr. Salij recalled – expressed his wish that those millennium celebrations of the Church at Jasna Góra turned out to be a prophetic harbinger of reconciliation between Poles and Ukrainians. John Paul II then said that: “our two nations have gone through so much bitterness and anguish over the last few decades. May this experience (the meeting at Jasna Góra in 1988 – ed. note) serve as a purification which will help to look at past disputes, grievances and mutual distrust with a distance, and above all, facilitate mutual forgiveness of past wrongs”. Today, literally everything – and above all a common faith in Jesus Christ – calls for reconciliation, brotherhood and mutual respect; to find what unites. Stirring up old nationalisms and resentments would be an action against Christian identity; it would also be a blatant anachronism, undeserving of both great nations.

Further meetings and messages

I could now go on about subsequent events, meeting and messages undertaken with particular intensity on the great anniversaries of the Volhynia massacre. But I will content myself with a dry recital.
John Paul II's pilgrimage to Ukraine in June 2001. The Pope and the head of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, Liubomir Huzar (right, at the back), greet visitors at Boryspil airport near Kiev. Photo: PAP / Radek Pietruszka
Surely, John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Ukraine in June 2001 was of great significance; according to experts it even brought about a breakthrough in the process of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. The then head of the UGCC, Card. Liubomyr Huzar said at the time: “We acknowledge that there were dark and morally tragic moments in the history of our Church in the last century. It came to pass that some sons and daughters of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church – alas, consciously and voluntarily – did evil to their neighbours from their own nation as well as from other nations. In your presence, Holy Father, and on behalf of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, I want to ask forgiveness for them from the Lord, Creator and Father of us all and from those against whom we have in any way trespassed”.

– But the Polish Pope resolutely stressed the falsity of such historical settlements, which deepen hatred and close the door to reconciliation – recalled Fr. Salij – and quoted JP II: “Thanks to the purification of historical memory, let everyone be ready to put what unites above what divides in order to build together a future based on mutual respect, fraternity, cooperation and genuine solidarity”.

– Two years later, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Volhynia massacre, John Paul II, perhaps for the last time, demanded in a letter to the Primate of Poland and to both Greek Catholic cardinals in Lviv to work for reconciliation: “The new millennium we have just entered requires that Ukrainians and Poles not remain enslaved by their sad memories of the past. As they consider past events in a new perspective and commit themselves to building a better future for all, may they look at each other with eyes of reconciliation” – he wrote.

A year later, on August 7-8, 2004, a “Pilgrimage of Love and Reconciliation” to the Marian Sanctuary of Zarvanytsia, Ukraine took place on the initiative of Card. Huzar. 200 thousand young people from both countries participated in it. In turn, on August 26, 2004, on the feast of Our Lady of Częstochowa several hundred Ukrainians came to Jasna Góra to pray with Poles for reconciliation. The following year, on June 19, 2005 – immediately after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine – a spectacular act of reconciliation took place. After the Creed, Archbp. Józef Michalik and Card. Liubomyr Huzar said a prayer of forgiveness. In it, they acknowledged that Poles and Ukrainians had done many wrongs to each other, which “fills us with unspoken pain”.

Our tears versus others’ tears

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Father Jacek Salij, an unattainable authority on moral issues for many of us, would not have been himself, had he not bluntly said in his Volhynian sermon what we generally do not want to talk about: “I would like to say a few sentences about the danger of hypocrisy that may lurk behind too easily thrown calls to seek agreement on the basis of the whole truth, which we will not hide from each other, even if this truth is God knows how painful and embarrassing”.

Namely, dor all of us, even the most honest among us, succumb - whether we like it or not, consciously or not - to various self-centred distortions. When it comes to wrongs - both those we have done to others and those we have suffered from them - this self-centred bias is inevitable. Yes, if we honestly want to know the truth about the harm, we try to overcome our succumbing to subjective judgments, but even with the best of intentions, the picture of the same events will be marked by some subjectivism on both sides”.

The point I’m trying to make is perfectly expressed in a Lithuanian proverb, popularised by Józef Mackiewicz: “Only your own tears are bitter, others’ tears are just wet “. Let us try, in the context of this proverb, to comment on the statement included in the pastoral letter of the Catholic Episcopate of Ukraine issued six years ago, on the 70th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday”, that in the face of the crimes committed by Ukrainian nationalists “the Polish reaction was to undertake defensive actions and sporadic retaliatory actions in which innocent Ukrainians also perished. However, these actions weren’t proportional either in number or in the barbaric methods used.

Of course, from the point of view of the material truth, it was indeed so. But this does not justify the crimes committed by the Poles against the Ukrainians. You do not settle scores with crimes! The tears shed at that time by the injured Ukrainians, they too were bitter and not just wet. We, Poles, should definitely be much more aware of these crimes, repent for them before God and apologise for them to our Ukrainian Brothers”. There are still no graves

And let no one think that in this way Fr. Jacek Salij – or, this year also Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki – are trying to persuade people to relativize the truth. By no means. Father Salij clearly said in Lutsk: “Well, it is obvious that reconciliation is possible only on the basis of truth. It can be said that reconciliation rests on two pillars. These pillars are, firstly, settling reckoning, i.e. reliable knowledge and recognition of the truth, and secondly, forgiveness. Both are necessary for reconciliation to take place. However, one must constantly be careful that one of these pillars does not dominate the other.

Because if we talk primarily about settling scores, we may further deepen our mutual enmities (rather than alleviate them) and miss the very cause of reconciliation. If, on the other hand, we talk mainly about forgiving each other, we run the risk of making such an over-hasty reconciliation inauthentic. I repeat, both are necessary. Evil must be accounted for, the bodies of those unjustly murdered must be respected and placed in graves; the whole truth about the crimes committed should be named and acknowledged.

However, let this whole process be carried out with a view to contributing in this way to mutual reconciliation. A reckoning so fierce that it would only deepen mutual enmity cannot possibly please God. But reconciliation based on pretending that there was no evil that did exist, or on pretending that this evil was not so great would also be bad. Such pseudo-reconciliation would be like putting a sticking plaster on a festering wound, nothing more”.

That is, a purification of historical memory, a purification – not its blurring or rejection. This theme is constantly present in subsequent messages, in different perspectives, on both sides. In it, the most important issue is the one of graves, rightly demanded by the descendants of the victims under the leadership of Fr. Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, otherwise a pastor of the Armenian Catholic Church, so strong in pre-war Poland, in Volhynia and Pokucie. This year, this expectation was greatly supported by Archbp. Stanisław Gądecki, who puts it bluntly: Volhynia massacre victims deserve to have graves.
A non-existent cemetery in the non-existent village of Huciska near Bóbrka (Bibrka) in the Lviv region. Photo: PAP / Vitaliy Hrabar
The collegiate church in Olyka, the former seat of the Radziwiłł Entail, is a shocking illustration of the lack of graves and places of unmarked burials, most often hasty and under the cover of night. A magnificent Baroque temple, with great effort, slowly being renovated thanks to the efforts of the Cultural Heritage Foundation and money from Poland, hides many remains of the Volhynia massacre around its walls: so what is Baroque if we cannot bury our dead? This is no longer the drama of Antigone, the problem is about thousands of non-existent graves.

– As a matter of fact, this is the most important postulate that results from the process of forgiveness and reconciliation – Archbp. Stanisław Gądecki concluded his Volyhnian sermon in Parośla, standing over a still provisional burial site. – I am therefore making an ardent appeal to the presidents of Poland and Ukraine as well as to the parliamentary authorities of both nations for consent to dignified burials for all the genocide victims, preceded by exhumations of the murdered, so that their families can finally light a candle and pray over these graves, which are very instructive for our future – said Archbp. Gądecki.

I don’t know if the hierarch already knew at that point that the presidents Andrzej Duda and Volodymyr Zelenskyy would come together to pray in the Lutsk cathedral. In fact, the latter is in an extremely difficult situation, since many Jews were also victims of UPA troops. – A hypothesis is possible that Zelenskyy is guided by conditions much more serious than just the history of Polish-Ukrainian relations. Deploring the insufficient reaction of the Greek Catholic clergy, prof. Jan Żaryn commented on this year’s church celebrations: sooner or later the Ukrainians will have to face the problem of their participation in the Holocaust.

Is there another way?

All these events, messages and prayers, of course, do not prevent political commentators – either they did not read it or they know better in advance – to write that the Church serves politicians or something like that. And that “contemporary Polish bishops believed that Poland had an eastern policy and had some sort of diplomacy. As history teaches, it is better for Poland that the Church, dealing with reconciliation, conducts diplomacy alone, and gives the state a wide berth”, wrote Witold Juarsz, a commentator for the Onet Intetnet portal.

As Archbp. Gądecki’s sermon at Jasna Góra (commented on TVP Weekly) shows the Church didn’t not intend to wait and see what our state would do with the next anniversary. And it set about paving further fragments of the road leading to reconciliation, even if it didn’t receive everything it expected from its Greek Catholic brothers. Over only 20 years a considerable stretch of this road has been built. But it is essential to get on it and keep going, even if it’s a slow process… – Although, of course, different people have different sensitivities and there will always be those who – as our editorial colleague Piotr Kosciński, an eminent expert on Eastern affairs says – are not yet satisfied with genocide accounts, memorial crosses (even if there are a thousand of them), Ukrainian repentance and pleas for forgiveness.

If not the Dominican Jacek Salij, nor Archbp. Stanisław Gądecki, nor John Paul II nor any other saint – who else can convince us that there isn’t and won’t be another way?

– Barbara Sułek-Kowalska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Ruins of a church on the site of the now-defunct village of Huciska near Bóbrka (Bibrka), Lviv region. Representatives of the Lviv Regional Military Administration, employees of the Polish Consulate General in Lviv and local Polish organisations laid flowers and lit candles to mark the 80th anniversary of the Volhynia massacre. Photo: PAP / Vitaliy Hrabar
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