Josyf Slipyj

On the night of February 9, 1963, a train made it’s way to Rome from the north of Italy. On board was a very important passenger whose presence was kept secret. When the train stopped at Orte, Italy, two senior clerics, representatives of the Vatican, boarded the train.  

Exactly 30 minutes later, the train arrived in Rome. The mysterious passenger was accompanied off the train by the two Vatican representatives. One of them drove the passenger to a nearby monastery while the other — Archbishop Loris Capovilla, personal secretary to Pope John XXIII — hurried to the Vatican, reaching it at midnight. Outside the pope’s bedroom he slipped a hand-written note under the door: “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 would not have lived much longer.’” 

Josyf Slipyj, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, had spent the previous 18 years of his life imprisoned in various Soviet Siberian gulags. His release was made possible by three men: Pope John XXIII in Rome, Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow and Norman Cousins, an influential American journalist who acted as an emissary between the pontiff and the premier. 

Slipyj was born Feb. 17, 1892, and studied at Lviv Greek Catholic Seminary in the Ukraine and Innsbruck University in Austria. He was ordained a priest on June 30, 1917. Academically talented, he was encouraged to continue graduate theological studies at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome as well as at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He returned to Lviv as a professor, eventually becoming its rector. On Dec. 22, 1939, Pope Pius XII approved Slipyj’s ordination as future successor to Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky. His ordination was kept low-key for fear of Soviet repression. The Ukraine was under Stalin’s control, and the Soviet leadership was hostile toward the minority Greek Catholic Church. 

On Nov. 1, 1944, the Soviet News Agency Tass legitimized Slipyj’s role as incumbent with this brief news report: “On November 1 of this year in the city of Lviv, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, head of the Greek Catholic Church in the Soviet Union, died at the age of 79. The funeral will take place on 5 November in the Church of Saint George at Lviv. Metropolitan Josyf Slipyj has assumed the administration of the Greek Catholic Church.” 

Almost immediately after assuming this new responsibility, Slipyj was encouraged by a Lviv representative of the Soviet government to seek official recognition and legalization of the Greek Catholic Church in the Ukraine. “I sent a delegation to Moscow to obtain from the Soviet government the legalization of our church,” Slipyj said. “In Moscow this delegation was accorded a very good reception: Stalin recognized our church, with my person as its primate.” The official recognition was also reported in the official Soviet newspaper, Pravda

However, less than six months later, Slipyj was arrested on April 11, 1945, and until January 1963 was held in various jails, prisons, and forced labor gulags. Slipyj vividly recalls the evening of his arrest. He had stepped onto the balcony of his official residence adjacent to the Cathedral of Saint George. There, he saw the plaza area begin to fill with large numbers of police and military. A Soviet colonel presented him with a warrant for his arrest and took him away. 

Slipyj immediately understood the seriousness of his situation because his arrest took place secretly and at night so his supporters could not protest the arrest. Later, he chronicled that evening: “They arrested me under cover of night, took me under cover of night to Kiev, without anyone knowing where I had disappeared to. The (Greek Catholic) faithful were ready to pledge a collection of a million rubles for my liberation. I was judged in secret and by night, behind locked doors, and. . .without my having a lawyer or defender.” 

Metropolitan Slipyj was charged with “Hitlerism” or collaboration with Germans, a charge he vehemently denied, saying: “This was leveled as an accusation against the Ukrainians by the Soviet regime, and, on the basis of this slander, even I was baselessly charged with ‘Hitlerism.’” Slipyj was convinced that the real reason for his arrest was simply his loyalty to Rome. “My Catholic faith is the reason for my being persecuted in the concentration camps,” he told friends and faithful. Initially he was sentenced to eight years of hard labor but his sentence was extended several times. 

His arrest and incarceration was just the first step in a complete repression of the Greek Catholic Church in the Ukraine. Many other priests were arrested and imprisoned and, on March 6, 1946, the Soviet authorities forcibly convened an assembly of 200 or so remaining priests. Calling it the Synod of Lviv, Soviet authorities forced them to officially revoke communion with Rome and rejoin the Russian Orthodox Church. 

After eight years, and with his sentence due to end in 1953, Slipyji was asked again to renounce his Catholic loyalties. “It was proposed to me that if I separated myself from the Holy Apostolic See, I would be offered the post of suffragan to the Patriarch of Moscow. This proposition was presented to me as extremely confidential.” After a categorical refusal, he was re-sentenced to hard exile in Siberian gulags where he would remain for another 10 years. 

By the early 1960s the cold war was at its height, with both President John Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev seeking various ways to ease volatile tensions. Pope John XXIII let it be known via private diplomatic messages that he was willing to act as an intermediary between the Soviet premier and the American president. Both leaders responded and worked via Pope John and the Vatican to communicate. The individual who personally carried messages back and forth between the three was prominent American journalist Norman Cousins, then editor of the Saturday Review. In his book, The Improbable Triumvirate: An Asterisk to the History of A Hopeful Year, 1962-1963, he told how the release of Archbishop Slipyj came about. 

It began in December of 1962 when Cousins was at the Vatican to hand deliver a message from President Kennedy to Pope John XXIII. While there, Cardinal Augustin Bea, an aide to the Pope, asked Cousins if he would go to Moscow and ask Premier Khrushchev if he would consent to the release of Archbishop Josyf Slipyj. “He has been imprisoned for 18 years,” Bea told Cousins. “There may be only a few more years left to him. The Holy Father would like the archbishop to live out those few years in peace at some seminary, where he would be among his own. There is no intention to exploit the archbishop’s release for propaganda purposes.” Cardinal Bea also asked Cousins to make known to the Soviet premier his concern for all religious believers in Russia, including the plight of Russian Jews. 

Cousins left for Moscow the next morning. It was easy for him to present the pope’s request because Khrushchev had great respect for the pontiff, telling Cousins, “He made a big contribution to world peace during the terrible time of the Cuban crisis.” Cousins was direct. He explained to the Soviet premier: “Over the years many attempts had been made to obtain the release from prison of Archbishop Slipyj of the Ukraine. Pope John was hopeful that something could now be done. . . .After eighteen years it was not unreasonable to ask whether the archbishop should not be given an opportunity to live his few remaining years as a free man.” 

Khrushchev said he was very familiar with the case but was concerned that, if Slipyj were to be released, he would be used for propaganda purposes, resulting in worsened relations between the Vatican and Moscow. Cousins went out of his way to reassure Khrushchev that this would not happen. “Pope John is not seeking the archbishop’s release for purposes of making propaganda against you,” he said. “All the pope wants is to give Archbishop Slipyji a chance to live out his life in some distant seminary. The pope is acting in good faith in seeking the archbishop’s release.” Khrushchev asked for time to consider the request. 

One month later in January 1963, Cousins received a telephone call from Anatoly Dobrynin, the Russian Ambassador to the United States, inviting Cousins to join him for lunch at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. “The Chairman sends his greetings,” Dobrynin began, “and has asked me to report to you on developments since your visit several weeks ago. He is most pleased to be able to say to you that he has responded affirmatively to the specific suggestion concerning Archbishop Slipyj. You will be pleased to know that the archbishop is well and that he will be released in accordance with the suggestion.” Dobrynin offered suggestions for the method of release which Cousins took back to the Vatican. A few weeks later, Slipyji was in Rome, a free man for the first time in 18 years. 

Although Pope John was anxious to meet with Slipyj, he kindly gave him a few days to rest and adjust to his new environment. When they first met, Slipyj, who had severely arthritic knees as a result of his harsh imprisonment conditions, slowly knelt in gratitude and respect before the pontiff. However, the pope hastened to have Sliypj rise and then led him to the private papal chapel. There, Slipyj handed the pope a map of the Soviet Union and pointed out locations of the various gulags where he had been imprisoned. From that time forward, it was reported that Pope John XXIII kept Sliypj’s map by his bedside, praying each evening for the many innocent individuals who were imprisoned in the gulags. On the map, he wrote: “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.” 

A few years earlier, in 1949, Pope Pius XII had secretly (in pectore) named Slipyj a cardinal. This was made public in 1965. In spite of the hardships endured in Siberian gulags, Slipyj lived into his ninety-second year, dying on Sept. 14, 1984. President Ronald Reagan, moved by the archbishop’s life, issued this press release expressing both pain over the death and pride in the life lived:  

“It is with a deep sense of loss that I acknowledge the death of Joseph Cardinal Slipyj and extend my condolences to Ukrainians throughout the world. When we remember Cardinal Slipyj’s 18 years in Soviet prison camps, when we reflect that he was condemned to the gulag because he refused to betray his Church, we see the power and strength of the human spirit brought clearly into focus.” TP 

REV. PARACHIN, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), writes from Tulsa, Okla.