The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church returned from exile Saturday to a joyous welcome from thousands of faithful of the church that was persecuted and forced underground for five decades under Soviet rule.

Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, 77, was greeted by a cheering, tearful crowd as he stepped off a charter flight from Rome and knelt and kissed the ground at Lvov airport, his first time on Ukrainian soil since leaving as a seminarian 52 years ago."Surely that which our eyes see today, all this we are experiencing so mightily today, this is a miracle of God's greatness, his power and grace," Lubachivsky told the crowd that greeted him. "God has liberated his people."

Among those at the airport were Archbishop Voloeymir Sterniuk, who emerged from underground in the Ukraine in 1989 and has been in charge of the church locally in Lubachivsky's absence, and Monsignor Francesco Colasuonno, the Vatican's papal nuncio or diplomatic representative in Moscow since the Holy See and the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations in May 1990.

Thousands more members of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, officially legal less than a year under glasnost and still struggling to reclaim its churches, lined the entire 15-minute route from the airport to the Cathedral of St. Georges.

The returning cardinal was to celebrate his first Mass in the Ukraine at St. Georges Sunday, which is Palm Sunday for the Ukrainian Catholics, who follow the Julian calender.

"This trip represents the end of 46 years of persecution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the USSR," an official church statement said.

Lubachivsky's predecessor as archbishop-major of Lvov, Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, was arrested in 1945 along with hundreds of Ukrainian bishops and priests and hundreds of thousands of the faithful in Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's drive to subjugate the Ukrainians.

The Soviet government "united" the Ukrainian Catholic Church with the state-controlled Russian Orthodox Church in 1946. Although the Soviet Union was officially atheist, Stalin, apparently deciding he could not eliminate the Russian Orthodox Church, opted for controlling it - approving compliant bishops and overseeing its literature.

The official church took over Ukrainian churches.

Slipyj spent 17 years in Soviet labor camps and was released and exiled in 1963 to Rome, where he died Sept 7, 1984, without fulfilling his dream of returning to lead his church in the Ukraine.