Central Europe’s Carpatho-Rusyns have been engulfed in a violent whirl of ethnic antagonism for centuries. Subjugated as serfs, these Eastern Slavs worked the soil, kept the livestock or cut the timber of their Austrian, Hungarian or Polish masters. Such conditions, coupled with forced assimilation, hardly favored the development of a distinct Rusyn identity. Nevertheless, such an identity did grow, thanks to their distinctive Slavic dialect, their Byzantine Christian faith and their unique plainchant, or prostopinije.
A unified church, gathering them all under one mantle, does not exist. Carpatho-Rusyns — who have also been called Ruthenians — make up four distinct churches that share the same origins, traditions and rites and yet remain independent of each other.
On Friday, the man who shepherds the mother church of this distinct Catholic Eastern church visited CNEWA’s New York offices. Bishop Milan Šášik is a 59-year-old Vincentian who has guided the Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic Eparchy of Mukacevo in southwestern Ukraine since 2002, first as its apostolic administrator and, since 2010, as its eparch.
Though the church was erected as an eparchy in 1771, and is directly dependent on the Holy See, Bishop Milan told us that he has had to rebuild it from scratch with little or no outside resources. In 1946, the Soviets declared his church illegal and drove it underground, shuttering churches, imprisoning clergy, religious and lay leaders and murdering many of its spiritual leaders, including one of Bishop Milan’s predecessors, Blessed Bishop Theodore Romzha.
In nine years, the bishop has renewed 420 parish communities, building 165 new churches. He has opened more than 40 centers for catechesis and ordained 142 priests, 90 percent of whom are married. Most parish priests are self-sufficient, somehow living and rearing their families on a salary of $150 a month or less.
While grateful for the support this eparchy receives from generous Catholics in Europe and North America, the bishop spoke glowingly of the generosity of his own people. Their sacrifices, he said, have enabled him to accomplish much of this work. To learn more about the Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic Church, click here. To read about its sister Orthodox church, which was founded in Pennsylvania in the late 1930’s, click here.