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Josef Slipyj
Metropolitan Josef Slipyj

Prisoner and Exile (cf. Isaiah 53: 3-4, LXX)

Lakota: We should manufacture the authentic Christian revolution – work for all, bread for all, dignity for all men.

Cardinal Leone: But without violence!

Lakota: Well excuse me, but violence, is a reaction against a situation that has become intolerable; isn’t it?

Cardinal Leone: Oh?

Lakota: Well in the camps in Siberia we were starved and brutalized. I stole. I stole some bread I fed it crumb by crumb to a man whose jaw had been broken by a guard.  I fought the guard to save my friend. I could have killed him. It was a terrifying experience – I a Bishop could have killed a man.

Cardinal Rinaldi: So as a Bishop – you would give your approval to social disorder.

Lakota: I might have to accept it as a price for social change.

Cardinal Rinaldi: You are walking a moral tightrope.

Lakota: We all have to walk it – that is what we pay for being men.

Cardinal Rinaldi: But what if you had killed a guard?

Lakota: I don’t know, I don’t know Eminence – I do know we are in action in a brutal world, the children of God are ours to protect; and if we have to fight – we fight.

The Shoes of the Fisherman, (Screenplay, 1968, Motion Picture)

Josef Slipyj

Josef Slipyj

It is the evening of February the 9th, 1963. The Cold War is at its height. John F. Kennedy is President of the United States; Nikita Khruschev leads the Soviet Union; and John XXIII is the Head of the Universal Church on earth.

The Alpen Express is making its journey to Rome from the North of Italy. A shroud of secrecy surrounds this journey, because of one passenger on-board. At Orte the train stops to allow two high-ranking clerics to embark. This is Vatican espionage at its best. The mysterious traveler has just been released from a Soviet prison camp in Siberia. Khruschev has been directly involved in the passenger’s release;  of a man originally imprisoned as the ‘enemy of the Soviet people’. The train arrives thirty minutes late into Rome. From the station the passenger is accompanied by one of the clerics who had embarked at Orte – and is driven to Grottaferrata Monastery. The second cleric drives to the Vatican; he reaches his destination at exactly midnight. There outside the bedroom of His Holiness Pope John XXIII, Archbishop Loris Capovilla scribbles a note and slips it under the door of the Pontiff. The note reads: “Holy Father! I got back at midnight. Metropolitan Slipyj arrived safely. He is very grateful to your Holiness. He admired your gifts. He said: ‘If Pope John in his goodness hadn’t brought this off, I wouldn’t have lived much longer’ … He gives the impression of being a wise man, strong and gentle at the same time”. (Hebblethwaite, 1984, p. 476). (1)

Ironically it was the ‘caretaker’ Pope who had decided not only to convene Vatican II, but also not to begin the Council without Slipyj’s presence, with all the political machinations that such a determination would require. President Kennedy had even been invited to assist in the negotiations to free Slipyj from his 18 years of imprisonment.(2)

The final decision to liberate Slipyj, had been made by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on the 12th of January, 1963, and contained the condition that Slipyj never return to Ukraine.

When Pope John saw Slipyj had knelt and was kissing his feet, he hastened to make him rise, quoting the phrase: “O felix hora quando Iesus vocat de lacrymis ad gaudium spiritus” (O happy hour when Jesus calls us from tears to the joy of the spirit), taken from the Imitation of Christ.

The next day, Pope John is at Lombardy College, blessing a foundation stone. He tells his audience: “From Eastern Europe there came last night a moving and consoling grace for which I humbly thank the Lord”. (Hebblethwaite, 1984, p. 477). It was not until later on that night that the Pope and the Metropolitan would finally meet.

In the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican, a tall man with a white beard is walking down a corridor. His face reflects years of deeply engrained suffering and torment. He sees a figure at the end of the hall, and quickens his pace towards a small form dressed in white. Despite the pain that riddles his limbs, he kneels. Archbishop Capovilla, the secretary to Pope John XXIII later recounted: “It was the Church of the catacombs kneeling before the Vicar of Christ: the Church of witness, not of words; the Church of history, not of fleeting news reports. Still on his knees, Metropolitan Slipyj spoke words branded on my memory, expressing ardent faith, unbreakable union with the Apostolic See of Rome, determination to live and to do everything possible for his people.” (Giampaolo Mattei, L’Osservatore Romano, Jan. 2001). Capovilla continued: “When Pope John saw Slipyj had knelt and was kissing his feet, he hastened to make him rise, quoting the phrase: “O felix hora quando Iesus vocat de lacrymis ad gaudium spiritus” (O happy hour when Jesus calls us from tears to the joy of the spirit), taken from the Imitation of Christ. The Metropolitan replied with a verse from Isaiah: “How beautiful are the feet of him who announces salvation.” And he added: “Holiness, I thank you for having delivered me from the pit.” After a moment, he said again, quoting Daniel: “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not hurt me.” (Giampaolo Mattei, L’Osservatore Romano, Jan. 2001).

Metropolitan Slipyj and Pope John Paul II

Metropolitan Slipyj and Pope John Paul II, 1978, Rome

Afterward Pope John XXIII leads Metropolitan Slipyj to the private papal chapel. There Metropolitan Slipyj hands to the Pontiff a map of the Soviet Union and indicates on this map where the various gulags are located. From that moment onward Pope John XXIII keeps Slipyj’s map by his bedside praying each night for those countless innocent lives that had been imprisoned. John XXIII would write on the map: “The heart is closest to those who are geographically furthest; prayer hastens to seek out those who have the greatest need to feel understood and loved.” (Hebblethwaite, 1984, p. 477)

Josef Slipyj had become on the death of Metropolitan Andrii Sheptyts’kyi, the Head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.  Arrested on April the 11th, 1945, at St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv, by Soviet police, Metropolitan Slipyj was sentenced on June the 3rd, 1946, to eight years hard labour in a Soviet Gulag; his sentence would later be extended by another seven years, after it was discovered that he was attempting to send pastoral letters to the priests and laity in Ukraine.(3) Of those Church hierarchs who like Slipyj had been imprisoned, none by 1963 – remained. The Soviets had dis-emboweled the Ukrainian Catholic Church; and the list of those killed indicated the systematic manner in which the communist regime sought to strike a death-blow at the nerve-centre of Ukrainian Catholicism.(4)

Since the election of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II, the central character of Morris West’s 1963 novel The Shoes of the Fisherman, has become confused with the person of the late Pope from Krakow. Such a comparison however, loses much of the poignancy of Morris West’s story of the Archbishop-Major of L’viv, becoming the Head of the Universal Church, and the dilemma that this would, had it occurred, have posed the Catholic Church.

Metropolitan Kiril Lakota, in reality never existed – as a single person at least; rather West’s character is a composite of the lives of two men: Josef Cardinal Slipyj, the Head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and the Auxiliary Archbishop of Peremyshl, Hryhorij Lakota, a Ukrainian Catholic prelate who was to be one of the Ukrainian Church hierarchs who were to be executed in Soviet prisons.

Cardinal Slipyj’s commitment to God and the freedom of men was unshakable, despite punishment and exile for his beliefs. Because of his inspired life, he has long been a symbol of the strength of God and human spirit. He will remain such, cherished not only by Ukrainians, but by men and women of good will in all nations

As Head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Cardinal Josef Slipyj, would nearly outlast Soviet Communism, dying half a decade before Ukraine’s independence. At the time of his death he had for 40 years served the Church as Patriarch; yet strangely for only six months of these 40 years was he actually the Metropolitan within his own See of L’viv.

On the occasion of Slipyj’s passing from this life into eternal rest, in 1984, the then President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, mourned his death in the following words: “Cardinal Slipyj’s commitment to God and the freedom of men was unshakable, despite punishment and exile for his beliefs. Because of his inspired life, he has long been a symbol of the strength of God and human spirit. He will remain such, cherished not only by Ukrainians, but by men and women of good will in all nations.”

Metropolitan Josef Slipyj, 1978, United States

Slipyj: a man who had given his life to protect and preserve the world’s largest underground Church, would have rejoiced at the present day freedom of his people and the growing strength of the Church in Ukraine. Whereas Slipyj never reached the heights of the Pontificate, as fictionalized by Morris West; he reached heights of spiritual endurance that certainly one day will see him counted among the Saints of the Universal Church. Slipyj’s own recollections attest to the greatness of his spirit: “I had to suffer imprisonment by night, secret court-rooms, endless interrogations and spying upon me, moral and physical maltreatment and humiliation, torture, and enforced starvation.  In front of the evil interrogators and judged I stood, a helpless prisoner and silent witness of the Church who, physically and psychologically exhausted, was giving testimony to his native Church, itself silent and doomed to die. 
    As a prisoner for the sake of Christ I found strength throughout my own Way of the Cross in the realization that my spiritual flock, my own native Ukrainian people, all the bishops, priests and faithful – fathers and mothers, children, and dedicated youth as well as the helpless old people, were walking beside me along the same path.  I was not alone!”

[1] “Minister Andreotti described his [Slipyj’s] arrival in Rome, almost incognito.  “When you came to this city you were greeted by us, the Catholics of Rome, with a peculiar silence.  Ours is a strange world, a world in which one fears that the persecutor will be driven to do even more evil than he has done up to now.  We would have wished to salute you with the same explosive joy with which the Christians of Rome greeted St. Peter.”

[2] Slipyj would tell Pope John XXIII that while he had been a prisoner in Siberia, he had ministered to both Catholics and Orthodox – not only as their ‘Bishop’, but as a fellow prisoner. Slipyj was also in a carriage of prisoners that was attached to a train taking Vice-President Nixon across Russia in 1953; Slipyj survived the journey, barely, because the other prisoners pushed him closer to the window so that he could survive. Thus a representative of the world’s most powerful democracy, was unwittingly accompanying Slipyj to his next prison camp.

[3] See: Pius XII, Orientales Omnes – Papal address to the Ukrainian Catholic Church: “We think, beloved sons, that we cannot reinforce this fatherly exhortation of ours and bring it to an end more fittingly than by these admonitions of the same Apostle of the Gentiles: “Be on the watch, stand firm in the faith, play the man, be full of courage.”[30] “Obey those who have charge of you,”[31] your bishops and priests, when they give you instructions for your salvation and in accordance with the prescriptions of the Church. Offer active resistance to all those who in any way whatever scheme against your faith. Be “eager to preserve that unity the Spirit gives you, whose bond is peace. You are one body, with a single Spirit; each of you, when he was called, called in the same hope.”[32] In the midst of every kind of sorrow and affliction remember “that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared to the glory to come that shall be revealed in us.”[33] “But the Lord keeps faith with us; he will strengthen you, and keep you from all harm.”[34] [4] Monsignor Petro Verhun, Apostolic Visitor for Ukrainian Catholics in Germany and Western Europe, had been arrested in 1945, deported to Siberia and died on the 7th of February, 1957;

  • Nykyta Budka, Auxiliary Bishop of Lviv, had died in exile in Siberia on the 6th of October, 1949;
  • Hryhorij Khomyshyn, Bishop of Stanislaviv, had died in prison on the 17th of January 1947;
  • Nicholas Charneckyj, Apostolic Visitor Charneckyj of Volyn, died on the 2nd of April 1959, after 12 years of imprisonment in Siberia;
  • Hryhorij Lakota, Auxiliary Bishop of Peremyshl died in Vorkuta Siberia in 1951;
  • Pavlo Goydych, Bishop of Priashiv, imprisoned in 1950, died in a Czech concentration camp on the 19th of July, 1960;
  • Josaphat Kocylowskyj, Bishop of Peremyshl, Sianik and Sambir, died in prison on the 21st of August, 1947;
  • Augustine Voloshyn, President of the Independent Carpatho-Ukrainian State in 1938. Executed by the Russians in 1945;
  • Theodore Romza, Bishop of Mukachiv and Uzhorod, died after a road ‘accident’ with a Soviet Armoured car on 1st November, 1947;
  • Ivan Latyshewskyj, Auxilary Bishop of Stanislaviv, Ivan Latyshewskyj – died as Confessor of the Faith after 10 years in a Russian Prison.

About Mariana Davydovska