St. Pope John Paul II and Ukraine

The Polish pontiff worked to overcome historical Polish-Ukrainian hostility and saw the Ukrainians as Slavic brothers in the family of nations.

Pope John Paul II at Mass during his June 23-27, 2001, Pastoral Visit to the Ukraine. (Image: INA Société/YouTube screenshot)

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine continues claim thousands of civilian lives and has precipitated the biggest refugee crisis in post-World War II Europe. Thus, it seems timely to reflect on the relationship of St. John Paul II, the first Slavic pope, to the Eastern European nation. Although Polish-Ukrainian relations have been difficult throughout the ages, John Paul was a champion of reconciliation. Meanwhile, his words defending Ukraine’s European destiny and independence during his 2001 pilgrimage to the country sound remarkably prescient today.

A painful history

Although Poles and Ukrainians share centuries of history, their co-existence was often about as amicable as that between Serbs and Croats or Palestinians and Israelis.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, much of Western Ukraine was annexed and colonized by Poland and Lithuania. In response to Polish hegemony over Ukrainian territories, the Cossacks led by Bohdan Khmelnytski rebelled against the Polish Crown in 1648, killing numerous Polish aristocrats, priests, and Jews (who were the subject of the Cossacks’ anger because the Polish nobility used the Jews to collect taxes from Ukrainian peasants). The Poles responded with bloody retaliation, and an independent Cossack state was established.

The Polish and Ukrainian “imagined communities” interpret the 1648 Cossack Uprising in starkly different ways. For Poles, this spelled the beginning of the end of the Polish state, while for Ukrainians it is a major episode in their centuries-long struggle for national independence.

After World War I, following more than a century of partition between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, an independent Polish state was restored. Meanwhile, Ukraine was partitioned between Poland and the Soviet Union, but the Ukrainian people did not abandon their struggle for independence and proclaimed the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

Poles and Ukrainians fought over their territory from 1918 to 1919, with Poland winning and ruling Western Ukraine for the next two decades. In the interbellum, the Polish state pursued a chauvinistic policy towards its Ukrainian minority. Polish colonists settled in the Ukrainian lands; Ukrainian children underwent aggressive Polonization in public schools; and Greek-Catholic churches were destroyed.

Ukrainian anger at state discrimination inspired the 1929 establishment of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which fought for national independence through acts of terrorism, assassinating public officials such as Bronisław Pieracki, Poland’s minister of the interior who oversaw the Polish state’s chauvinistic policies towards Western Ukraine.

During the Second World War, Polish-Ukrainian tensions only further soured. In the summer of 1943, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the paramilitary branch of the OUN, murdered up to 100,000 ethnic Poles.

Following the end of World War II, Poland’s borders shifted west. Poles were expelled from Ukrainian territories, and Soviet officials repopulated them with ethnic Ukrainians. In 1947, Poland’s communist regime tried to break up the base of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army by forcibly deporting 141,000 Ukrainians to Poland’s western territories. Many of those deported were women and children who had absolutely nothing to do with the war crimes of Ukrainian nationalists. In the forced labor camp in Jaworzno, 150 Ukrainians died of miserable conditions.

From strife to friendship

Given this often-bloody history between Poles and Ukrainians, it might seem surprising that, since 2004, Poland has arguably been Ukraine’s most loyal ally on the international stage.

In May 2004, Poland, a member of NATO since 1999, joined the European Union. Six months later, the non-violent Orange Revolution began in response to the fraudulent election of the corrupt, pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych as president of Ukraine. At this time, the government of Poland, then led by the post-communist left, strongly supported Ukraine’s pro-Western course.

Poland’s post-communists left power in 2005. Since then, the country has alternatively been ruled by the incumbent national-conservative Law and Justice party and the liberal Civic Platform party. Although these three political groupings differ greatly on many issues, they have all pursued the same policy of advocating Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the European Union.

Naturally, there have been tensions between Poland and Ukraine. This was especially apparent under the presidency of Petro Poroshenko (2014-2019), who honored the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and SS-Galizien as national heroes just as Poland’s Parliament passed laws prohibiting the promotion of Ukrainian nationalism and labelling the 1943 massacres of Poles as genocide.

Despite these tensions, Poland and Ukraine have remained close allies at the political level, as witnessed by the enormous generosity that Warsaw has shown towards Ukrainian war refugees in recent weeks.

A Slavic Pope

St. John Paul II’s approach to Ukraine preceded Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation at the political level.

While a patriot who breathed Polish theater and poetry, Karol Wojtyła’s love for his fatherland was never chauvinistic. Whereas in interwar Poland many right-wing politicians and not a few churchmen displayed hostility towards the Jews, John Paul II was always a philo-Semite who built bridges between Catholics and Jews.

Meanwhile, in 1965, just two decades after the carnage of the Second World War, Karol Wojtyła was a vocal supporter of the letter of the Polish bishops to their German counterparts asking for forgiveness and expressing forgiveness. This was five years before West German Chancellor Willy Brandt recognized the postwar Polish-German border and expressed remorse for wartime atrocities during an official visit to Warsaw. In 1980, during his first visit to Germany, John Paul II shocked many observers by kissing the German soil at the airport where he had landed.

Thus, it should not be surprising that St. John Paul II worked to overcome historical Polish-Ukrainian hostility and instead saw the Ukrainians as Slavic brothers in the family of nations.

In 2003, on the sixtieth anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s murders of ethnic Poles, the Polish pope issued a letter to Cardinals Józef Glemp, Primate of Poland; Marian Jaworski, the Latin Rite Archbishop of Lviv; and Lubomyr Huzar, the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. Like the 1965 letter of the Polish bishop to their German colleagues, it is written in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation:

In the turmoil of the Second World War, when solidarity and aid to one another should have been more urgent, the dark agency of evil poisoned hearts, while innocent blood was shed. Now, sixty years after these sad events, the hearts of most Poles and Ukrainians are increasingly reinforced in the need for a major examination of conscience. We sense a need for reconciliation that would allow us to look at the present and the future in a new spirit.

The pope added that the new millennium demands that “Poles and Ukrainians no longer be enslaved by their sad memories of the past” and look at one another “with forgiveness.”

John Paul II and Josyf Slipyj

John Paul II’s respect for the Ukrainian people was manifested literally from the very beginning of his pontificate. After a new pope is elected, the cardinals who have participated in the conclave kneel before him, a ritual known as the homagium. During his homagium, John Paul broke protocol and lifted up two cardinals from the kneeler before him and embraced them: Stefan Wyszyński, the indomitable Primate of Poland under communist rule, and Josyf Slipyj, the Greek-Catholic Archbishop of Lviv who, having refused to and head an Orthodox Church that was loyal to the Soviet regime, had been imprisoned in the gulag and released thanks to the intervention of Pope St. John XXIII. (In 1946, the Soviets had banned the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, which would emerge only after the fall of the USSR.)

In 1979, John Paul II sent a letter to Slipyj on the occasion of the one-thousandth anniversary of Christianity in Kievan Rus’:

In the past, as today, the Apostolic See has always attributed a special importance to this same unity which shines forth amid the very differences of the Byzantine rite and ecclesial tradition, in the Slavonic liturgical language, in the ecclesiastical chant and in all the forms of devotion which are so deeply ingrained in the history of your people. For these things reveal its spirit and in some definitive way show the peculiar nature as well as the complexity of the matter itself. That is confirmed, for example, when sons and daughters of the Ukrainian people leave their own state. Even as immigrants they still retain their association with their Church which through its traditions, language and liturgy stays with them as if it were a spiritual “fatherland” in foreign lands.

A papal visit to Ukraine

Pope Francis has been invited to visit war-battered Kyiv. So far, the only pope to visit Ukraine has been St. John Paul II, whose pilgrimage was on June 23-27, 2001.

A recent article published in Poland’s Catholic Information Agency describes Ukraine as a “religious mosaic.” Seventy-one percent of Ukrainians consider themselves to be believers. The vast majority identify as Orthodox, with a further 12 percent are Catholics (9.8 percent Greek-Catholics and 2.2 percent Roman Catholics) with smaller communities of Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists.

Fostering Christian unity was one of St. John Paul II’s greatest goals. His 1995 encyclical Ut unum sint (“That They May Be One”) dealt with this topic.

Ukraine was the third Orthodox-majority nation visited by John Paul II, after Romania (1999) and Greece (2001). Just as Patriarch Kirill today is a public defender of Russian imperialism against Ukraine, in 2001 the Russian Orthodox Church opposed the papal visit. John Paul II began his visit in Lviv by visiting the city’s three Catholic cathedrals: Latin, Armenian, and Greek-Catholic.

On the last day of his visit, in a ceremony attended by 1.2 million believers, John Paul II beatified twenty-eight Greek-Catholic martyrs, mostly under Soviet rule. They included the Greek-Catholic priest Roman Lysko, the first married Catholic priest to be raised to the altars, who was killed by the Soviets for refusing to become Orthodox.

John Paul II’s visit to Ukraine had a political dimension as well. At the end of the pilgrimage, he defended Ukraine’s European vocation and the bravery of its people amidst foreign oppression. Twenty-one years later, when Ukraine is courageously defending its territorial integrity and struggling to free itself of Russia and politically be a part of the West, these words are truly prophetic:

Thank you, Ukraine, who defended Europe in your untiring and heroic struggle against invaders. […]

May the Lord give you peace, People of Ukraine, who with tenacious and harmonious dedication have at last recovered your freedom and have begun the work of rediscovering your truest roots. You are committed to an arduous path of reforms aimed at giving everyone the possibility of following and practicing their own faith, culture, and convictions in a framework of freedom and justice.

Even if you still feel the painful scars of the tremendous wounds inflicted over endless years of oppression, dictatorship, and totalitarianism, during which the rights of the people were denied and trampled upon, look with confidence to the future. This is the opportune time! This is the time for hope and daring!

My hope is that Ukraine will be able fully to become a part of the Europe which will take in the entire continent from the Atlantic to the Urals. As I said at the end of that year 1989 which was of such great importance in the recent history of the continent, there cannot be “a peaceful Europe capable of spreading civilization without the interaction and sharing of the different though complementary values” which are characteristic of the peoples of East and West.

Marzena Devoud notes that at that time, Ukraine was ruled by the pro-Russian President Leonid Kuchma. Amidst rising poverty and corruption, many Ukrainians were losing faith in their independence, yet John Paul bolstered it. Meanwhile, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, leader of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, recently praised John Paul II for defending the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders.

St. John Paul II was not merely a religious leader. His words in defense of peace and the sovereignty of nations often carried great political weight. This was also on display during his 2001 pilgrimage to Ukraine, where he praised the Ukrainian people’s bravery and defended their place in Europe. As someone who experienced the great suffering of Poland in the twentieth century, he proved particularly adept to understand Ukraine.

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About Filip Mazurczak 79 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others. He teaches at the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow.


  1. US, CANADA, UKRAINE AND RUSSIA 2022 DISPUTES – HISTORICAL BACKGROUND AND SEQUEL TO FR. PETER MORELLO’S COMMENTS: (1) US, Canada, Ukraine and Russia are Caucasian-European nations by ethnic majority and nominally Christian nations by religious majority; (2) Ukraine and Russia are also Slavic nations and neighbors with similar laws (limits) on abortion and LGBT; (3) Russia was US’ supporter in the American Revolution at great cost to herself – the island of Menorca; (4) Russia was US’ supporter in the Civil War when US’ opponents were Britain and France, prompting US Secretary of Navy, Gideon Welles to say “God bless the Russians”; (5) US (western Alaska) and Russia are neighbors, and Canada (northwestern Yukon) is closer to Russia than to Britain and France or Mexico; (6) US and Russia were never at war, not counting the Cold War or proxy wars, as compared, for example, with the “G7” nations; (7) US, Canada, NATO and Ukraine have disputes with Russia since the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and militarization of countries neighboring Russia which was invaded over the centuries by NATO members Britain, France, Germany, (Mussolini’s) Italy, Romania, Lithuania-Poland, Turkey and by others including Sweden and the Mongols who inflicted on Ukraine and Russia death and destruction with hardly any parallels in world’s history – Germany also helped Lenin to impose psychopathic and deadly Marxism on Ukraine and Russia in 1917, while Ukraine and Russia, mostly by themselves, prevented Poland’s annihilation by Nazis and saved Europe from Nazi Germany and Mongols; (8) Ukraine and Russia have a border dispute, and a military conflict-war since the violations of the February 21, 2014 all-Ukrainian political agreement in Kiev and the violations of the 2014-2015 Minsk Peace Agreement signed by Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France (in the future, a joint venture by the Minsk signatories in securing Ukrainian segment of “Pan-European” gas pipeline might be a “win-win”) – by February 23, 2022 the war took some 15,000 lives and produced thousands of refugees as well as widespread material destruction in eastern Ukraine; on February 24, 2022 Russia escalated the war and invaded Ukraine resulting in many more deaths, refugees and material destruction across Ukraine; (9) US and Russia can destroy each other and the world with their nuclear weapons in an hour; (10) the irreplaceable way forward for resolving these issues are the eternally-valid biblical principles reflected in President Washington’s Farewell Address in which he called religion-morality the foundation of domestic well-being and peace with other nations and in President Lincoln’s last Inaugural Address “… with malice towards none, with charity for all … among ourselves and with all nations”, as well as in Pope Francis’ 2022 call for prayer and political talks centered on “human brotherhood instead of partisan interests”, all the while keeping in mind the 2022 Lenten message “Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return” and “Repent and believe in the Gospel” which also includes “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” and the parable of “the speck and the log” – moral principles given to us by Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace and the just Judge of the world, principles ignored at one’s great peril.

    • Added to your account of Russia Ukraine defeat of Nazi Germany largely by their own initiative and great loss of lives. As to that of West’s contribution to the effort, that effort though itself costly and heroic [especially Britain’s resistance in the air and at sea] was minimal in comparison. We however cannot neglect British convoys running the highly dangerous Norwegian coast route to deliver US trucks and equipment to Archangel [Arkhangelsk] trucks instrumental in moving Soviet troops faster than German troops were able to.
      A Soviet era movie, co written and directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and a film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel War and Peace has a great testament to the undying allegiance to Christ, the Blessed Mother, however compromised by Marxism and Stalinist persecution in the marvelous scene of Orthodox priests blessing by sung prayer and incense the Russian army moving out to prepare for the defense of Borodino. The army held beside their military ensigns religious icon banners of our Blessed Lady. That marked ambivalence between religion and national interests remains.

    • “[W]ith malice towards none, with charity for all … among ourselves and with all nations.” That’s funny. Said after conquering another country.

  2. There is, I fear, some tendentious material in the post of the Slavic Christian Society. But it being Good Friday I refrain from argument. Pax omnibus.

  3. I cannot imagine anything less combative than my post sent earlier and yet it has been censored. I would be grateful if Catholic World Report cease sending me its bulletins. Thank you. PAX OMNIBUS.

    • Two things to keep in mind: All (every single one) of CWR comments are moderated. That takes time, but we think it is important in order for discussions to not devolve into verbal scrums. Secondly, there is often a delay (minutes or, in some cases, hours) for WordPress to update. It’s frustrating (as it applies to article postings as well), but such is the case.

  4. CWR readers should be aware of the reports by Ukrainian Catholic Taras Tymo, which I found recommended at The Catholic Thing by Robert Royale. Latest report is linked here:

    In the horrific light of the atrocity of the Russian invasion, the Havana Accord co-signed between Pontiff Francis and the reptile Kirill (Russian Orthodox Patriarch) is morally indefensible and should be publicly torn up, in solidarity with those Orthodox Christians who have justly condemned Kirill for his monstrous blessing of this evil war.

    (And lest any reader continue expressing concerns along the lines “propaganda,” let’s stipulate that American Catholics and Christians and Jews other American people of good will who stand for a civilization rooted in the truth about the nature of men and women, and true identity and true human rights, including the rights of children to be protected from the abusive manipulation of leftist psycho-sexual fanatics, and from the new-found deceptions of the conformist “conservatives” like Matt Schlapp of the so-called “CPAC,” can all admit that the US government is itself promoting evil throughout the world, by flying the tyrannical flags of the nihilist ideologies of LBGTQ and the racist BLM.)

  5. Re: the post by the “Slavic Christian Society,” this is just another voice insisting that reality isn’t happening, and that we must deny reality if we expect to be allowed to live…case in point: we are expected to believe that the Soviets did not commit the Katyn Forest massacre. Etc etc etc.

    Today is the The Day Of The King of Truth, Good Friday, when The Son of God declared: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who os of the truth hears my voice.”

    • It should be noted that among the “Ukrainian New Martyrs” beatified by St. John Paul the Great during his visit to Ukraine there was one who was notable for being very much a Russian, rather than Ukrainian: Blessed Leonid Feodorov, a Russian Catholic Eastern Rite priest arrested and sent to slave labor by the communists.

  6. It’s been a NATO war of aggression against Russia and the people of Ukraine since 2014 and still is. US and NATO and Zelensky backed Nazis are committing heinous false-flag war crimes Learn the truth against the US/NATO/weigel propaganda here:

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