Next month, I will be presenting an overview on post 1939 Vatican sources pertaining the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, in a conference organized by the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. Much of this information comes from a book I am publishing about Metropolitan Sheptytsky and from recently opened archives.
During the Second World War, the Holy See (the Vatican) struggled to obtain reliable information about the situation of the local Churches in war-torn Europe. This was particularly difficult in areas under the control of Soviet forces, which did not permit communication with the rest of the world.Soon after the Nazis and Soviets partitioned Poland, in September 1939, rumours began circulating in the west that Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, Greek-Catholic primate and Archbishop of Lviv-Halych, had been arrested, deported, or killed by the Soviet invaders. Indeed, Sheptytsky himself had been expecting such a scenario, since the Imperial Russian authorities had deported and imprisoned him in 1914. But no such orders were issued, neither in September 1939 nor when the Soviets returned to Lviv in the summer of 1944, following a German interregnum. Kyr Andrey’s moral authority had become too great and Stalin preferred to wait for his imminent demise before setting in motion his plans to suppress and merge the Greek-Catholic Church with his own state-controlled entity, staffed (especially in Ukraine) by clerics working for the Soviet secret services.
Having endured most of the Second World War, following a long and painful illness, Metropolitan Andrey finally succumbed on 1 November 1944. His brother, Hieromonk Klymentiy, wrote a note to their other brother, General Stanisław, which read: “This very day, at a quarter-to-two in the afternoon, our dear Metropolitan fell asleep in the Lord.” Four days later, news of the venerable prelate’s death was already appearing in the European press, and the Polish Ambassador to the Holy See informed the Papal Secretariat of State of the fact on 12 November. A brief notice was published on the front page of the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano on 14 November followed, the next day, by a longer panegyric containing laudatory declarations from the Cabinet of Ministers of the Polish Government in London. The Government-in-Exile also ordered a solemn requiem Mass to be said by the Polish Military Ordinary on 2 December, at the Church of Saint Stanislaw in Rome.
Confirmation of Sheptytsky’s death from Lviv was not forthcoming for three months. On 6 March 1945, a letter arrived from Sheptytsky’s successor, Metropolitan Yosyf Slipyi, addressed to Pope Pius XII and dated 19 November 1944. Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, head of the Congregation for the Eastern Church (Oriental Congregation), presented the letter to the Pope when he was next received in audience, on 10 March.
News of Slipyi’s succession presented a problem for the Vatican. According to the Concordat between the Holy See and the Second Polish Republic, episcopal appointments required a nihil obstat from the Polish President. But Slipyi had been appointed secretly as coadjutor-successor to Sheptytsky in November 1939, shortly after the Soviet takeover. The Vatican foreign ministry (a section of the Secretariat of State) chose to keep the appointment secret until the end of the war, in order to avoid an inevitable clash with the exiled government. After news arrived that Slipyi succeeded to the post, this became unavoidable.
Monsignor Domenico Tardini, head of the Vatican foreign office, informed Polish Ambassador Casimir Papée that Yosyf Slipyi had succeeded Andrey Sheptytsky in the primatial Lviv-Halych See. Papée had no choice but to issue a diplomatic protest, but his government was in a precarious position. In July 1945, the United States followed by the Allied Governments gave in to Stalin and transferred diplomatic recognition from London to Lublin, where the Soviet occupiers had set up a supposed coalition which was really a Communist regime. Although Papée tried everything to countermand the appointment, in the end diplomatic notes were exchanged stating that it was an exception to the rule, made under wartime conditions. Rather than the exception, it became the new norm: No further placets would be solicited from London, and the Polish People's Republic declared the concordat to be void.
Unbeknown to either party, three days before the Holy See and the Government-in-exile resolved the theoretical conundrum, the entire Greek-Catholic hierarchy, including Slipyi, was arrested and deported by the Soviet secret police. The first news of their arrest reached the Vatican three months later from a Greek-Catholic priest of Polish origins, Count Piotr Rzewuski (later known as Bronsisław Kreuza). He had been a eyewitness to Sheptytsky’s death and the events that followed. As a Pole, he was permitted to leave Soviet Ukraine on 15 June and immediately made his way to Rome.
After checking his story with the exiled auxiliary-bishop of Lviv, Ivan Buchko, Cardinal Tisserant informed Pius XII on 11 August 1945. At the audience’s conclusion, the Pope kept the typed agenda (foglio di udienza), containing the details, among his own papers. Tisserant’s second in command, Bishop Antonio Arata, sent official notification to the Secretariat of State on 17 September. A week later, further details arrived, via Bishop Buchko, from five sources that had contact with Ukraine via underground agents. The sources specified the exact date of the hierarchs arrest, 11 April 1945, and confirmed their deportation to Kiev, the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. In October, Rzewuski would be allowed to present to the pontiff the homage of the loyal Ukrainian clergy, who had been “deprived of their shepherd.” In December, the Pope issued an encyclical letter, Orientales omnes, decrying their imprisonment only days after the Russian Patriarch issued a call to Greek-Catholics to join his fold (a call which would be implemented by force by the NKVD at a fake synod, the following year).
No concrete news of the Ukrainian Catholic bishops’ condition would be be forthcoming for a decade. False reports were published announcing Slipyi’s demise, the first of these appearing in January 1945 in the British Catholic paper, The Tablet. Following the hierarchs’ condemnation by a Soviet military tribunal, on 3 June 1946, the Holy See assumed that Slipyi had died, and Tardini said as much to the peeved Polish ambassador. It was only after Stalin’s death, and the release of some of the bishops and clergy from the gulag, that news to the contrary reached Vatican City. In January 1954, Buchko (now Archbishop), reported that Slipyi was still alive and in prison. The news prompted an elderly and ailing Pius XII to include Slipyi’s name at the top of hierarchs to which he addrressed his encyclical Novimus nos in May 1956. The following December, he sent a formal apostolic letter to Slipyi on the occasion of the latter’s seventieth birthday, congratulating him on his fidelity. We know that a copy of the papal message reached the imprisoned metropolitan. Pius XII did not live to greet Slipyi upon his arrival in Rome seven years later, in January 1963. Negotiations for the longsuffering prelate’s release were carried out by curial officials of Pius’ successor, Pope John XXIII.