VATICAN CITY, JUNE 25 -- Pope John Paul II delivered an emotional welcome to leaders of the Ukrainian church here today and urged them to make peace with the rival Russian Orthodox Church as fruit of the peaceful revolution sweeping the Soviet Union.
The pope met and talked individually with 10 bishops from the Ukraine, where they had preserved their faith outside Soviet law in a church driven underground by Joseph Stalin in 1946.
Many of the Ukrainian churchmen had never before been outside the Soviet Union, and five had served time in jail. All but one had been consecrated in secret, and all had practiced their religion and led congregations behind the backs of Soviet police.
One bishop worked as a medical orderly, another as a collective-farm laborer, a third as a fish smoker, a fourth as a professor of physics. At least 300 priests also worked clandestinely among adherents of the Ukrainian Church until liberalization under President Mikhail Gorbachev allowed them to surface.
The 10 Soviet Ukrainian bishops are meeting here at the invitation of the pope with 18 Ukrainian Catholic bishops from around the world in the first full encounter of leaders of their Eastern Rite church in nearly half a century.
Four of the 18 "diaspora" bishops are from the United States -- from Parma, Ohio; Chicago, Philadelphia and Stamford, Conn. Their Rome-based patriarch, Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, also holds a U.S. passport.
Addressing the Ukrainian prelates at the opening of their two-day meeting here, the pope hailed the "important moral and social changes" in the Soviet Union "that have led to the recognition of the right to religious freedom" and allowed the Ukrainian Church to "emerge from the catacombs," a reference to the earliest Christians in Rome who, while under persecution, worshiped and buried their dead in labyrinthine caverns outside the city.
Free again to minister publicly, the Ukrainian Church is fighting to recover properties and congregation members lost to the Russian Orthodox Church, which broke with Rome in the 11th century and was itself only grudgingly tolerated by decades of Soviet leaders.
The Ukrainians walked out of a meeting with Orthodox leaders on the issue in March, but the pope urged them today to try again to heal the division. "This reconciliation is one of the first jobs of the Church today," the pope told the Ukrainians.
Cardinal Lubachivsky echoed the pope's call for reconciliation, but that prospect has encountered grass-roots resistance among many Ukrainians who insist that the Orthodox leadership first turn over Ukrainian Church buildings and other property seized years ago by the state. Many of those properties, ranging from churches and schools to orphanages and seminaries, are still technically owned by the state but have been controlled for decades by the Orthodox Church.
Vatican observers said today that the appeals from the pope and Lubachivsky may mute such antagonisms, but no new talks are scheduled.