When Ukraine's Orthodox church revealed a month ago that it planned to canonize a former Catholic priest, the announcement provoked heated reactions from the country's Greek Catholic community.

The priest in question, Protopresbyter Gabriel Kostelnyk (1886-1948), helped liquidate his Church with Soviet backing after switching to Orthodoxy following World War II.

"One can interpret this priest's conduct and intentions in various ways -- but he isn't popular or well regarded among Catholics," Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Kiev-Halych, the Greek Catholic leader, told Our Sunday Visitor. "Canonizing such a controversial figure wouldn't be wise, especially in present circumstances, and will merely cause unnecessary tensions."

Speaking at a September press conference, Orthodox Archbishop Avgustin of Lviv said documentation for the priest's canonization was nevertheless being collected by his church, which belongs to the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate, and would be passed to its governing Holy Synod for approval in 2009.

"According to our canonization procedures, a martyr had truly to suffer for Christ or the Church, not to die by chance. Moreover, he shouldn't be a heretic or a schismatic," Archbishop Avgustin told Russia's Interfax news agency.

"As for the righteous, evidence of their sanctity of life and authority is necessary. Kostelnyk is somewhere in the middle between a martyr and a righteous. The main task now is to explain some of Father Gabriel's complex theological formulas and examine his position on a number of questions."

Cardinal Husar is adamant this will not be a good idea.

While Father Kostelnyk enjoyed some respect as an "intelligent and educated" philosopher, writer and poet, the cardinal said, he had no claim to "sanctity of life."

"There's no need to make a devil out of him," said Cardinal Husar, whose Greek Catholic followers combine the Eastern liturgy with loyalty to Rome. "But to proclaim him a saint would clearly make cooperation and coexistence harder, at the very time when Catholics and Orthodox are seeking reconciliation and trying to get closer."

Dissenting view

Born in Serbia, Kostelnyk became a professor at Lviv's Greek Catholic seminary and theology academy after ordination in 1913, but later became critical of the Vatican's policy toward Greek Catholics and backed calls for his Church to loosen its Latin links.

The priest's dissenting views made him a target for recruitment by the Soviet NKVD police; and when Soviet forces reoccupied western Ukraine in 1944, he formed a "Pioneer Group" with two clergy to arrange the Greek Catholic church's merger with Russian Orthodoxy.

Plans to liquidate the church, which was seen as a Westernizing force, had been drawn up several years earlier. They were personally revived by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in a March 1945 document, "Instruction 55."

A fortnight later, the Church's leader, Archbishop Iosif Slipyi, and his Lviv auxiliary, Bishop Mykyta Budka, were arrested and taken to Kiev, along with Bishop Gregorz Khomyshyn of Ivano-Frankivsk, and two bishops from neighboring Poland, Jozafat Kocylovsky and Gregorz Lakota, who were handed over and sent with them.

Police opened fire when senior priests and religious order leaders tried to meet in Lviv's St. Jura cathedral to work out how to respond. Ukraine's Greek Catholic seminaries were closed, and their students drafted into the Soviet Army, while a Russian Orthodox delegation arrived from Moscow and began to take possession of Greek Catholic places of worship.

Father Kostelnyk and his Pioneer Group colleagues finally declared the Church's liquidation at a February 1946 Soviet-approved synod meeting. "We made a great mistake in failing to appreciate the benefits of Soviet reality and Russia's true mission," the group declared in a message to Ukraine's Soviet regime, which lauded the "incomparable Stalin" and "courageous and wonderful Red Army."

"We the undersigned, representing our three dioceses, are resolved to tear our Church from the anarchy which overwhelms it and lead it into a union with the Orthodox faith."

Father Kostelnyk, now an Orthodox priest, traveled to Moscow to celebrate the news with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei I and Soviet officials. Later, however, he complained that the Soviet regime and Moscow Patriarchate had reneged on promises to reopen the Lviv seminary and academy.

He began drinking heavily, and was warned he was "saying too much." His end came Sept. 30, 1948, when, returning from the western city's Transfiguration cathedral, he was shot dead outside his Lviv apartment.

The assailant, Vasili Pankov, surrounded by an angry crowd, allegedly shot himself and was said by the Soviet authorities to be a member of the anti-communist Ukrainian Resistance Army.

But Father Kostelnyk's Soviet bodyguards had been mysteriously withdrawn earlier the same day. Many Ukrainians believed the murder had been ordered by Stalin to eliminate a figure who had now become "inconvenient."

Political motives

A senior Ukrainian Catholic priest, Father Serge Keleher, thinks moves to declare Kostelnyk a saint reflect long-running Russian Orthodox efforts to show the 1946 synod was "free and canonical," rather than manipulated by the Soviet regime. But they could also be politically motivated, he fears, to embarrass Ukraine's already shaky pro-Western government. Archbishop Avgustin is known to be bitter about the Orthodox Church's "reverses of fortune" in western Ukraine, Father Keleher says, as churches and parishes once controlled by it reverted to Greek Catholicism. Canonizing Father Kostelnyk would strengthen Orthodox claims of persecution.

"This is yet another attempt to promote the Orthodox understanding of events, strongly implying that the Greek Catholic Church has no business to exist," he told OSV. "Greek Catholics have constantly cited documentary evidence that these claims are nonsense. The present Greek Catholic church is the same one that the Soviets attempted to dissolve, when Father Kostelnyk acted under intense secret police duress and coercion."

Some Ukrainians think Father Kostelnyk's role extended further.

Most Greek Catholic priests were sent to prisons and labor camps, where many died, after the 1946 synod, including Archbishop Slipyi. Meanwhile, with half of the Church's 2,272 parishes closed, those who survived underground did so only through great risks and sacrifices.

Although more than 1,000 clergy were later pressured to sign the reunion declaration, most did so after being broken by interrogation and harassment, in which Father Kostelnyk himself took an active part.

Cardinal Husar remembers, as a child, seeing Kostelnyk "trying to convince people" in speeches and homilies of the rightness of the Church's liquidation. At the very least, he believes his claim to martyr status would "need proving."

"Perhaps the Moscow Patriarchate wants to present him as a model, but it should realize the reactions will damage the Orthodox Church itself," he told OSV. "Raising him to the altar would make no difference to the average Catholic. But it would cause serious tensions between faithful members of each church."

Father Keleher agrees.

"It's not impossible that what moved the Soviets to kill him was that the Ukrainian nationalist underground had a plan to spirit him to the West, where he could have spoken freely and testified to what had really happened during the crucial period of the Church's suppression," he said. "This implies he may indeed have been martyred, strange as that may seem, if he was killed for the 'crime' of advocating and promoting Christianity. But Protopresbyter Kostelnyk was a complicated personality. It would take a minor miracle to offer any serious possibility of understanding him."

The grim fate of Father Kostelnyk, by contrast, was not unique. Another Pioneer Group member, Father Michal Melnyk, who was made an Orthodox bishop, was also murdered after helping Greek Catholic priests to avoid arrest. So was Jaroslav Galan, a collaborator who had penned one of the first major press attacks on the Greek Catholic Church.

For now, the Orthodox Church looks set to pursue its controversial plan. In September, a wreath was laid on Father Kostelnyk's grave in Lviv's Lychakiv cemetery by Ukraine's Orthodox Metropolitan, Volodymyr Sabadan, to mark the 60th anniversary of his death. After decades of dispute and bitterness, it seems, Greek Catholics will have to brace themselves for more.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.