Saturday, 31 March 2012

VII Ukraine: 988 and All That

Citizens of the EU, thankfully, can visit Ukraine for up to three months without a visa, so the border formalities were pretty straightforward. Dropping me in Krakovets on the other side, my escort wouldn’t accept the 5 euro note i’d promised him, so i gave him a little prayer card with a Nativity scene instead. After changing some money into greven, the local currency, i was hoping to visit a Church, but an aging little wagon pulled up and a posse of teenagers in regulation black leather jackets started asking what business i had in these here parts. First one then another more senior fellow, possibly the local sheriff, arrived. I was able to explain about the pilgrimage in Russian,* and they were soon pretty relaxed about the idea, but it was decided that in fact i should be on the next coach out of Krakovets, bound for Lvov (Lviv to most of its Ukrainian-speaking inhabitants). The younger guys dutifully took me via the nearest Church in their car, though it was closed, then to the bus stop. Before departure we had time to visit another Church, with a very beautiful Iconostasis, on which was inscribed the words; “Z Nami Bog” (similar to the Russian), meaning “God is with us”. Having been seen onto the bus, i decided not to get out before Lviv because, after all, the folks there in Krakovets might get wind of it if i encountered police in other places. Or to put it another way - i didn’t offer much resistance to the idea of being driven 75 kilometres and saving myself at least 3 days walk! Before grabbing forty winks on the bus, as we passed a Church i noticed a lady near my seat make the sign of the cross, and marvelled at encountering such overt piety, given the aggressively atheist history of this country.

   Lviv appeared to have had a makeover since my previous visit a few years before; it was suggested to me that this was because of the European football championships, due to take place in the summer of 2012. It really is a ‘metropolis mirabilis’, in the premier league of beautiful cities which lay hidden from western view behind the Iron Curtain for so many years. After arrival i had a late lunch, and was hoping to find Mass, but could only manage to arrive during the homily of a Byzantine-rite (aka Ukrainian Greek-) Catholic service. Then a little sheepishly i made my way to the house where i had stayed on my previous visit, belonging to a Catholic order called Miles Jesu (Soldiers of Jesus). I’d been in touch by email, but they weren’t expecting me until two or three days later; the only thing that salved my conscience on this score was that for some time i had been making regular contributions to them from my bank account. I was given a delightful welcome, had a great bowl of porridge and a nice conversation (mostly in English) with one of the guys, and was shown to my very comfortable quarters.

   The next morning, Monday the 28th of March, dedicated to St Hesychius of Jerusalem, i strolled to the Latin Cathedral in the Old Town, dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mass was celebrated an hour later than i’d expected, so i took the opportunity to pray before a large crucifix for the intentions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and not least also for the intercession of the Servant of God Pope John Paul II, for a favourable outcome to the visit i was hoping to make afterwards to the Russian consulate**. Once there i had only a short wait on the street outside before being ushered in, by a fellow who seemed perfectly unfazed by the idea of my applying for a visa – more or less as i’d expected, having obtained them here before. After another brief interval i had an interview with a friendly young consular official, to whom i showed a handy Bristol Evening Post article about the walk. The procedure was explained to me; he gave me a card of a travel agency in the city centre, through whom i needed to apply for an invitation, so off i went. The lady there was a little bit curt, and it wasn’t going to be very cheap, but soon we struck a deal, and i agreed to call in again with my passport on Thursday morning. Tuesday and Wednesday were spent in happy holiday mode, taking snaps of beautiful Lviv landmarks like St George’s Cathedral in the spring sunshine, and re-acquainting myself with Miles Jesu people, some of whom work at the orphanage-school in Bortniki, about 80km to the south.

*Ukrainian is the mother tongue of most people in this extreme western part of Ukraine, but virtually everyone knows Russian, the proximity between the two languages being analogous perhaps to that of Dutch and German. Also notable is the fact that Ukrainian would claim to be the closer of the two to the ancient language spoken by those who called themselves Rus’, with their capital at Kiev, from the 10th to the 13th centuries.  
**At an event connected with the World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005 i heard a young Russian lady give an account of arranging the paperwork for her group of Russian pilgrims. When all seemed lost, and the correct visas looked like they’d never be forthcoming, she had an inspiration to visit a Church and pray for the intercession of Pope John Paul II – feeling absolutely confident that this would have the desired effect. Sure enough, when she went back to the relevant authorities the visas were ready for collection.

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