Vatican Diplomacy after the Cuban Missile Crisis: New Light on the Release of Josyf Slipyj

By Schelkens, Karim | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Vatican Diplomacy after the Cuban Missile Crisis: New Light on the Release of Josyf Slipyj


Schelkens, Karim, The Catholic Historical Review


The author, drawing on original documentation from several archives, examines the February 1963 release of Josyf Slipyj, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop, by the Soviet government. Slipyj's liberation is explored against the complex background of the Second Vatican Council and the emergence of Catholic ecumenism, as well as the diplomatic and political aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The significant roles of Pope John XXIII; Belgian friar Felix A. Morlion, O.P.; U.S. journalist Norman Cousins; and Dutch monsignor Johannes Willebrands-who all played a part in Slipyj's release-are described.

Keywords: Cousins, Norman; Cuban Missile Crisis; Slipyj, Josyf, Cardinal; U.S.-Holy See relations; Willebrands, Johannes, Cardinal

For contemporary church historians the situation of the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-twentieth century is a particularly interesting, yet highly complex, subject of study. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the process of aggiornamento set major changes in motion for the Church.1 A major concern was the rising tension between the two major political powers that emerged in the post-World War II world: the United States and the Soviet Union. Historians and political scientists alike have underscored the importance of Pope John XXIII in establishing a "détente" after the repeated condemnations of communism uttered by his predecessor, Pope Pius XII.2 The extraordinary capacity of John XXIIFs humane and conciliatory attitude became most tangible in his remarkable encyclical letter, Pacem in Terris, of April 11, 1963. The encyclical was promulgated at a time when anticommunist sentiments were a strong presence within the gatherings of "his" ecumenical council; it is a document that can be seen as a worthy testament to the pope's peacekeeping efforts.3 This article will tend- once again- to confirm the pivotal role of John XXIH, but will by no means describe the full scope of his geopolitical impact. A detailed analysis of the way in which the Vatican repositioned itself within the overall context of the cold war also falls outside the scope of this article.4

Rather, based on original documentation from several archives, the focus will be on a significant event of the era: the release by the Soviet government of Josyf Slipyj, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop, in late January 1963 (see figure 1). Given that it took place not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 22-29, 1962, when U.S.Soviet tensions were still high, the archbishop's release was momentous indeed.5 In a bipolar world marked by the arms race and vivid memories of the casualties of World War II, political tensions reached a fearful climax in the Cuba crisis. In that context, the interaction of protagonists such as U.S. Catholic president John F. Kennedy,6 Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Pope John XXIII, who all contributed to Slipyj's release from exile, should be acknowledged as a surprising act of confidence and goodwill from all sides.7 The accounts of Slipyj's release after almost eighteen years of Siberian exile have rarely referenced archival material. The intention here is not to offer a simple repetition or a synthetic overview of the existing literature; rather, a reassessment of this event will be presented from a church historiographer's perspective. In doing so, several lacunae will be filled in. In addition, the often underestimated, if not unknown, role played by individuals such as Félix A. Morlion, O. E, and Johannes Willebrands (then a monsignor, later cardinal; see figure 1) will be highlighted.8 In this account, details of the contacts between Vatican officials and politicians on both sides of the ideological divide, as they took place in the days before and after Slipyj's release from Moscow, will be presented. On the basis of unpublished materials found in the Vatican Secret Archives, the personal files of Willebrands and Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens,9 and the private diaries of Ukrainian bishops, new light can be shed on the relationships among the protagonists. …

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