Years of Imprisonment Could Not Break Slipyj’s Indomitable Fidelity

by Giampaolo Mattei


This article describes the faith and strength of Josyf Slipyj, Metropolitan of Lviv for Ukrainians, despite the trials he faced during eighteen years of imprisonment in the concentration camps of the Soviet Union. Giampaolo Mattei also chronicles the historic embrace shared by Pope John XXIII and Slipyj after the Pope’s successful intervention for his freedom.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, February 14, 2001

A tall man, whose white beard frames an austere face marked by suffering, walks with proud slowness in the corridors of the Apostolic Palace. It is the evening of 10 February 1963. Suddenly the man quickens his step, despite the deep pain in his legs. He kneels and kisses the feet of another man who could not wait to meet him in his study and, moved, went to greet him with open arms. This is the chronicle of the historic embrace of John XXIII and Josyf Slipyj, Metropolitan of Lviv for Ukrainians, just freed through the Pope's intervention, after 18 years of imprisonment in the concentration camps of the Soviet Union. Pope John had created Slipyj a Cardinal in pectore on 28 March 1960.

Archbishop Loris Capovilla, John XXIII's secretary and the sole witness to that meeting, recalls: "It was the Church of the catacombs kneeling before the Vicar of Christ: the Church of witness, not of words; the Church of history, not of fleeting news reports. Still on his knees, Metropolitan Slipyj spoke words branded on my memory, expressing ardent faith, unbreakable union with the Apostolic See of Rome, determination to live and to do everything possible for his people".

The collapse of the Soviet Union allows us today to look at the witness of Slipyj and of many other Christians with even more objective historical data. No one can say that only hagiography recounts what the martyrs of the 20th century experienced. The true authors of the biographies of the Christians who witnessed to their faith even with blood are, paradoxically, their very torturers. In the case of Slipyj, we even have to say "thank you" to the relentless agents of the notorious KGB. "Thank you" for having taken note and recorded Slipyj's every word and those of his shameful accusers in the trials and interrogations. "Thank you" for having confiscated and photographed the "evidence" used to condemn him. This material makes it possible to understand what really happened.

Scholars have in fact been able to gain access to the judicial proceedings of the trial against Slipyj contained in files n. 68069 and n. 63258. In the first file the KGB collected the documents relative to the first arrest, which took place on 11 April 1945 at St George's Cathedral. They form seven volumes and end with the sentence of 3 June 1946 to eight years of forced labour. The second file contains 11 volumes with the proceedings of the second arrest, which took place on 19 June 1958 after the Metropolitan had already been exiled to Siberia. The sentence of 17 June 1959 was to seven years of forced labour.

On 12 January 1963, after 18 years of imprisonment, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR decided to grant freedom to this "unshakeable opponent", but condemned him to exile. He was forbidden to return to Lviv. But in Moscow, before leaving for Rome, he was able to confer episcopal ordination on the Redemptorist Vasyl Velychkovsky. Mons., now Cardinal, Johannes Willebrands was present. And it was Mons. Willebrands who accompanied Slipyj on his train ride to Rome through Poland and Czechoslovakia as far as Vienna, where they stayed for two days at the Nunciature. Then, after a pause in Venice to pray before Our Lady in St Mark's, they left again by train, arriving at the Orte station, about 80 kilometres from Rome, at 10.15 p.m. on 9 February 1963. Waiting for him at Orte were Mons. Capovilla and Mons. Igino Cardinale, the Secretariat of State's Chief of Protocol.

In the name of the Pope, the then-Mons. Capovilla presented Slipyj with a ring and pectoral cross. Slipyj then went by car to St Nilus' Abbey in Grottaferrata. That same evening, Mons. Capovilla wrote a note to the Pope and slid it under his bedroom door, informing him that Slipyj had arrived and that everything had gone well.

The long-awaited meeting took place the next day. It was 10 February 1963: on the same day three years before, the blessed martyr Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac had died; he too was particularly dear to Pope John. A significant coincidence of dates links these heroic Pastors who resisted every violent or subtle attempt by the communists to break the Church's unity and the inseparable bond with the Successor of Peter.

When Pope John saw that Slipyj had knelt and was kissing his feet, he hastened to make him rise, quoting the phrase: "O felix hora quando Iesus vocat de lacrymis ad gaudium spiritus" (O happy hour when Jesus calls us from tears to the joy of the spirit), taken from the Imitation of Christ. The Metropolitan replied with a verse from Isaiah: "How beautiful are the feet of him who announces salvation". And he added: "Holiness, I thank you for having delivered me from the pit". After a moment, he said again, quoting Daniel: "My God sent his angel and shut the lions' mouths, and they have not hurt me".

Pope John led him into his private chapel to recite the Magnificat together before the picture of the Holy Family of Veronese's school. Then they had a long conversation in the study. The Pope asked about the other ecclesiastics in concentration camps. "There were Catholics and Orthodox with me there and I was like their Bishop", Slipyj said, presenting a map of the USSR on which all the Gulag camps were marked: some of them he had experienced personally. The Pope kept that map among his most treasured possessions until his death. He wrote on it these words: "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".

The next day L'Osservatore Romano published three photographs of the audience, while also reporting the emotion felt by the whole world over the Metropolitan's release. For years every attempt had been made to end that unjust condemnation.

Josyf Slipyj died in Rome in 1984 at the age of 92. His disgraceful sentences were annulled by the Ukrainian Republic in 1991. Since 1992 his mortal remains have lain in the crypt of St George's Cathedral in Lviv, beside those of his predecessor and teacher Andriy Sheptytsky.

© L'Osservatore Romano

This item 3535 digitally provided courtesy of