A great multitude

I decided to hike up to the top of the Castle Hill on Sunday. I am hoping to make it a regular occurrence now that the snow has melted, and the sun is out. It was a beautiful day for a walk.

Most of L’viv must have agreed, because the streets were more crowded than I’d ever seen them. It seemed as if everyone was out walking between my house and the old town.

Surrounding the statue of the man who officially (if not really) set up the first printing press in L'viv, booksellers work in rain or shine. You can also find LPs, Soviet memorabilia and other interesting items. The people in the foreground are standing on top of the old wall that bounded the medieval town.

As I neared the town hall, I wondered if more people were out walking because the trams had stopped. The only vehicles allowed through the old town square are the trams that run from the stop across from our house up our street through the old town. Our street must have been a gate for the walled city. None of the parallel streets continue through where the wall used to be. So stopped trams mean no vehicular access to the other side of town. Not such a big deal in a city that thrives on walking, but still.

I hadn’t seen any trams coming in my direction, which meant I did not have to get out of the middle of the street. But one tram going the opposite direction was stopped in its tracks in the square. Another was stopped up ahead, where a huge crowd had blocked the intersection of my street and the street that runs between the original wall and a hill that’s a city park. Huge. I mean thousands.

As I stood behind the crowd for a moment, taking in the scene, I saw a group of black-head-dressed, black cassocked, red-stoled clergy walking in pairs down from the church on the other side of the park. Hmmm. Something religious. Hundreds of people followed them down the hill. Amid the crowds slowly drove a white truck, crowned with four huge speakers from which emanated male voices singing in four-part harmony. I slalomed through the crowd and continued my walked up to the top of the Castle Hill. I took my time, strolling around a park at the first level intrigued by the white life-sited sculptures of Christ carrying the cross in different positions. I saw “Station 8” and “Station 9.” Then walking around the bottom of the final hill before I headed up. Every time I came to the south side of the hill, I could hear the service continuing, clearly and pleasantly. It sounded as if it was in the Byzantine tradition. Men’s voices chanting in a particular way.

I lost the sound of the liturgy as I wandered down the hill to buy dinner at the market on the way home. That meant I had circled the old town and was approaching my apartment from the north, passing the Toronto restaurant and planning to walk through Ivan Franko Park. I was stopped as I approached the street that borders the park to the north. All of those people who had crowded the intersection two hours ago–and more–were walking up the street carrying votive candles in colorful glass bottles. In the middle of the crowds, every now and again a man would pass me carrying high the image of an icon on a stick. I saw one that looked as if it was meant to depict the Annunciation. I saw another that showed two saints whom I could not identify. The march was silent.

I could see the white van making its way toward my location. It stopped right in front of me. The people behind the van stopped, but others continued their walk, passing on either side of the vehicle. I stood behind a tree so as not to get in the way. There were elderly ladies in kerchiefs leaning on canes. There were toddlers being carried by dads and moms. There were lots of children, lots of multigenerational families walking together. Many carried candles. Some carried paper orders of service. All looked ahead to the Cathedral of St. George, where they must have been heading. The cathedral is the main Greek Catholic (Byzantine rite) church in town.

The preaching from the speakers began again. After a rousing message, the cleric led the faithful in the Lord’s Prayer. Everyone stopped still for that. Even the people who were waiting for the procession to pass. The speaker in the van then introduced a male quartet. I heard the voice referring to the “universitet.” So, I think quartet singing in the van must be the same one we have seen performing liturgical music at the Ukrainian Catholic University.

We saw this quartet singing with their professor for a service Feb. 14. Feb. 15 is the end of the Christmas season and the day the Christmas tree comes down.

When the van moved on, the people walking behind it took 20 more minutes to walk by. I crossed the street after they walked by, and before the police escort let the trailing backup of traffic through. I head home with my chicken.
As soon as I got home I talked to my husband. He had just come home from church.: “What do you celebrate on this day of the church calendar,” I asked him.

“Third Sunday of Lent. The Veneration of the Cross,” he said.

“Does some kind of procession take place on that day?” I asked. I described what I had seen.

He was not familiar with venerating the cross this way in the Orthodox Church.

My Ukrainian teacher solved the mystery. It only happens in L’viv, she says. Every year on the Third Sunday of Lent, the congregations from 16 Greek Catholic (Byzantine Rite) churches go from church to church on a journey that physically re-enacts the Stations of the Cross, or Way of the Cross. As those of you who are Catholic know, The Stations of the Cross is an accepted ritual series of events that occurred between Christ’s condemnation and burial. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ follows the “path” of this ritual. In L’viv, the procession starts at one church, stops at 14 different churches that serve each as a station of the cross, and then ends at St. George’s cathedral, the seat of the hierarch in charge or L’viv’s Catholic community. The Orthodox Church refers to the Passion in its services on the Third Sunday of Lent, and refers to forgiveness and encourages charity works; but the Stations of the Cross ritual is a Catholic one. It is traditionally performed on Good Friday; however, with the Greek Catholic Church here synthesizing aspects of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, this public adaptation of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is not completely surprising.

The ritual of the Stations of the Cross seems to have begun in the first century as a way of creating a meaningful pilgrimage for Christians who visited Jerusalem. Pilgrims were taken to different places in the city following the route Christ was said to have followed on the way to crucifixion and burial. Pilgrims would walk through the streets of Jerusalem stopping at certain places where something important had happened and reflect or meditate. Some of these important things can be found in the Bible. Some of them cannot. The number of stations over the years has ranged from seven to thirty. They settled on fourteen in the seventeenth century. The first description and illustration of the different stations where people stopped was published in German in 1521. Franciscan monks built paths that interpreted Jerusalem’s Stations of the Cross for people who could not make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Pope John Paul II performed the Stations of the Cross in the Colosseum in Rome and encouraged Catholics to see it as one way they could atone for what people had done to Christ. The procession L’viv this past Sunday was such an interpretation.

But everything religious here in Ukraine carries a subtext to two. This procession featured an anti-abortion theme, although you would not have known that if you did not understand the speeches. I saw none of the graphic images that accompany North American abortion protests.
More than that, the procession took place in a city where Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and let alone Protestants and other denominations, are competing for the hearts and minds of the entire population. It’s interesting to consider that, while the (Byzantine) Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine and Poland has been de-Latinized or “purified” lately (see Buzalka 2007), and depending on who you to talk to and where you are, this L’viv ritual may be a more political demonstration than it seems at first glance.
When you live around here, it’s almost impossible not to talk about politics OR religion.

Juraj Buzalka (2007). Nation and religion: the politics of commemoration in south-east Poland. Münster, Germany Lit Verlag.


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