When Poland was restored as an independent nation in the wake of World War I, a large number of Orthodox Christians were included within its boundaries. According to the 1931 census, there were over 3.5 million Orthodox in the country, or 11.8% of the population. Most of these were ethnic Belarusans and Ukrainians in eastern Poland who had been under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Soon after the nation’s independence, Orthodox bishop Jerzy Jaroszewski of Warsaw and others in the hierarchy began to promote autocephaly for their church. The Polish government also supported the project. It was opposed, however, by a pro-Russian faction in the church leadership, who insisted on maintaining the historical links with Moscow. In spite of these divisions, a local church council proclaimed the church’s autocephaly in 1922. In response, Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow granted a certain level of autonomy to the Polish Church and raised Bishop Jerzy to the rank of Metropolitan, but refused to grant autocephaly.
The controversy turned violent in 1923 when Metropolitan Jerzy was assassinated by a Russian monk who opposed his policies. But the movement towards independence continued to gain strength. The Poles then turned to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which granted autocephaly to the Polish Orthodox Church on November 13, 1924, headed by Metropolitan Dionizy Waledynski, the successor of Metropolitan Jerzy. In 1927 Constantinople also granted the Metropolitan of Warsaw the title of “Beatitude.” The Moscow Patriarchate, however, protested these actions as interference in its affairs and continued to refuse to recognize the Polish church’s autocephalous status.
During the interwar period there was some tension within the Polish Orthodox Church between its ethnic Russian bishops and the faithful, who were mostly Ukrainian, Belarusan and Ruthenian. In view of the rising nationalistic feelings in the region, efforts to invigorate the Polish Church inevitably led to tensions between these groups, especially regarding the language to be used in church administration and the liturgy. During this period there were five dioceses, two seminaries (at Vilnius and Krzemieniec) with 500 students, a Faculty of Orthodox Theology at Warsaw with 150 students, 1,624 parishes, and 16 monasteries.
In the 1930s there were also conflicts between Catholics and Orthodox in Poland, mostly over former Catholic churches that had been turned over to the Orthodox during the period of Russian domination. In eastern Poland local Catholics seized a large number of churches claimed by both groups and many were destroyed in the process. Metropolitan Dionizy formally protested these anti-Orthodox incidents, and Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky expressed his support for Dionizy in a pastoral letter to his faithful. In November 1938 the Polish government issued a decree defining the structure of the country’s Orthodox Church and its relationship to the state authorities. According to its terms, the Orthodox clergy now enjoyed the same rights as the clergy of other religions recognized by the government.
When Eastern Poland was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, most Polish Orthodox again found themselves in the Soviet Union and reincorporated into the Moscow Patriarchate. Thus at the end of World War II, the Polish Orthodox Church was one tenth of its size in 1938.
In 1948, following the communist takeover of Poland, Metropolitan Dionizy was deposed because of alleged cooperation with the Nazis, and the government ordered the Orthodox Church to submit to the Moscow Patriarchate. Later in that year, at the request of the Polish Orthodox bishops, the Moscow Patriarchate simultaneously declared Constantinople’s 1924 proclamation of autocephaly null and void, and issued its own declaration of autocephaly. Nevertheless, the office of Metropolitan of Warsaw remained vacant until 1951, when the Polish Orthodox bishops asked the Russian Orthodox Church to name a new Metropolitan. Moscow appointed Archbishop Makary Oksaniuk of Lviv, Ukraine, who had presided over the dissolution of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in 1946-1947. Since that time, the Polish Orthodox Church has continued to have a friendly relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate, and its autocephaly is recognized by all the Orthodox churches.
The large Suprasl monastery complex was at the center of a dispute between the Orthodox and Catholic churches in Poland in the 1990s. Founded in the late 15th century, the monastery changed hands between Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Greek Catholics several times. In 1944 a section of it was given to the Orthodox, and in September 1993 the Polish Council of Ministers decided to return the entire complex to the Orthodox Church. Transfer of the property was delayed because of protests from both the Roman and Greek Catholic churches, but took place nevertheless in 1996. There are now 11 Orthodox monasteries in Poland, six for men and five for women.
In recent years, the Polish Orthodox Church has become more integrated into Polish culture, and now uses Polish in the liturgy more frequently. Four church periodicals are published, and the church is becoming increasingly involved in charitable works, sponsoring old age homes and centers for social care. The church now has six geographical dioceses in Poland in addition to one military diocese. There are seven bishops and a total of 263 parishes served by 330 priests. The Polish Orthodox Church also has a bishop in Brazil where there are five parishes and several missions. It also has one parish in Sardinia.
The Polish Orthodox Church sponsors a Chair of Orthodox Theology at the University in Bialystok and an Orthodox theology section at the Christian Theological Academy in Warsaw. Both these schools are state operated. The church also maintains its own seminary in Warsaw, a School of Orthodox Iconography in Bielsk Podlaski, and a School of Orthodox Conductors and Choir Directors in Hajnówka.
Head: Metropolitan Sawa (born 1938, elected 1998)
Title: Metropolitan of Warsaw and All Poland
Residence: Warsaw, Poland