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Hungary’s Greek Catholics

The history of the Greek Catholic Church in Hungary is a history of survival – sometimes against great odds.

According to Byzantine chronicles, missionaries met Hungarian tribes in the course of their wanderings throughout Central Europe and, in the middle of the 10th century, baptized a number of Hungarian noblemen in Constantinople.

Hungary’s first king, the fervent Saint Stephen (997-1037) received his crown from Pope Sylvester II. Crowned on Christmas Eve of the year 1000, Stephen eventually founded 10 Latin dioceses; two of them, Esztergom and Kalocsa, developed into metropolitan archdioceses. Although Byzantine eparchies were not established, monasteries following the Byzantine tradition flourished. The 11th-century coronation robe, for example, used for the kings of Hungary and now exhibited in the National Museum in Budapest, is the handiwork of Byzantine nuns living in the Hungarian realm at that time.

Hungary’s Byzantine Christians were almost completely destroyed during the Mongol invasion of 1241 to 1242. Byzantine Christian Vlachs and Ruthenians migrated to the border regions of the country (Subcarpathia, Transylvania and northern Hungary), replacing the native population.

Following the Great Schism of 1054, Hungary’s Byzantine Christians retained full communion with the Church of Constantinople, not with the Church of Rome. Attempts to heal the schism failed until the Council of Brest in 1596 achieved the union of Orthodox churches under the Polish-Lithuanian crown with the Church of Rome. Subsequent local councils succeeded in re-establishing full communion between the Orthodox churches and the Church of Rome in present-day Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine.

Beginning in the late 18th century, Hungarian Greek Catholics began their quest to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in their native tongue – most did not understand the Church Slavonic used by the Greek Catholic Slavs, who also lived in the Hungarian domains of the Austrian Empire.

This quest was finally achieved two centuries later: on 19 November 1965, Bishop Miklós Dudás of Hajdúdorog celebrated the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in Hungarian in Rome during Vatican II. The celebration of this liturgy is considered the ceremonial conclusion of the long struggle for a Hungarian liturgy.

In 1873 the Emperor Francis Joseph I founded a Hungarian Greek Catholic vicariate in Hajdúdorog. This vicariate was elevated to an eparchy with Pope Saint Pius X’s bull, Christifideles Graeci, on 8 June 1912. The Pope assigned 162 parishes into the new eparchy and established Old Greek as the language of the liturgy. He also appointed the Archbishop of Esztergom as the eparchial Metropolitan Archbishop.

István Miklóssy became the first bishop of the new eparchy. Instead of settling in Hajdúdorog, however, he settled in the country town of Debrecen. On 23 February 1913 a mail bomb, sent by anti-Hungarian nationalists, exploded and killed the vicar, the secretary and the eparchy’s lawyer. Bishop Miklóssy was spared and moved to Nyíregyháza, another town in eastern Hungary. Since then this town has been the center of the Eparchy of Hajdúdorog.

After World War I, territories of the Hungarian state, including the Greek Catholic eparchies of Eperjes and Munkács, became a part of Czechoslovakia. Only 21 parishes remained in Hungary. In June 1924, Pope Pius XI founded an exarchate to include these parishes; the Apostolic Exarchate of Miskolc still exists today.

Bishop Miklós Dudás, O.S.B.M., succeeded Bishop Miklóssy in 1939. The 37-year-old Bishop Dudás began to develop the eparchy with great enthusiasm; he founded a People’s College in Hajdúdorog and in 1942 he opened a Greek Catholic Teachers Training Institute. He recruited Basilian religious to teach at the college. He founded a Greek Catholic students’ hostel in Nyíregyháza as well as 30 new parishes.

In 1950 Bishop Dudás established the Greek Catholic Theological Seminary within the walls of his own episcopal palace, thus encouraging the formation of seminarians in the Greek Catholic tradition.

Following World War II, a great number of Greek Catholics moved to the industrial regions of the country, thereby isolating themselves from their villages, families and distinct Greek Catholic traditions. At Bishop Dudás’ request, the Holy See temporarily extended the Bishop’s authority – heretofore confined to eastern Hungary – to all Greek Catholics living in the country. The Bishop’s successful reign ended with his death in 1972.

In 1975 Pope Paul VI appointed Father Imre Timkó as bishop, and selected Father Szilárd Keresztes as his auxiliary.

Bishop Timkó considered the renewal of the eparchy one of his most important tasks. Orientalium Ecclesiarum, decreed by Vatican II, invited the Eastern Catholic churches to return to their Eastern traditions. Accordingly, Bishop Timkó urged the study of Eastern theology, iconography and liturgy. He modernized both the eparchy center and the seminary with aid offered by West European Catholics and Greek Catholics living in the United States and Canada.

In 1980, Pope John Paul II extended the authority of the Bishop of Hajdúdorog to the entire territory of Hungary, with the exception of the exarchate. Bishop Timkó organized a general vicariate in Budapest for Greek Catholics living in the diaspora and appointed Bishop Szilárd Keresztes with its direction. Bishop Imre Timkó died unexpectedly in 1988.

After World War II, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania fell under the power of the Soviet Union. In a few years the Communists established atheist dictatorships in these countries, beginning in Ukraine in 1946. Churches were officially incorporated into the Orthodox Church. In 1948 the Greek Catholic Church was eliminated in Romania. The Greek Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia was also liquidated in 1950, but restored in 1968.

Luckily, the Greek Catholic Church in Hungary survived. More than 250,000 Greek Catholics, however, shared the fate of the nation’s 6.6 million Latin Catholics – terror and threats. In 1948, 3,148 church schools were nationalized in Hungary; among them were 134 Greek Catholic schools.

On Christmas Eve of that year conditions for the churches of Hungary worsened: József Cardinal Mindszenty, Archbishop of Esztergom, was taken from his palace and thrown into prison. The following year, religious life was prohibited in the country; 2,500 monks and 10,000 nuns were forced out of their monasteries and thrown into the streets. The state went a step further and established the State Office for Church Affairs (SOCA) in 1951, with the intention of obtaining total control and supervision of all churches in Hungary – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – by limiting religious life, winning over clergymen and laity and eliminating resistance. Youth programs were prohibited and religious activities were confined within church walls. Censorship was also introduced. All major construction work and the filling of higher posts had to be authorized by SOCA.

The year 1989 was a turning point for Hungary. The Communist autocracies in Eastern Europe had collapsed. Without a successor, the State Office for Church Affairs ceased to exist. Again people could freely exercise their faith. The Greek Catholic Church was legalized in Ukraine and in 1990 Pope John Paul II nominated Greek Catholic bishops in Romania.

Following the death of Bishop Timkó in 1988, Pope John Paul II named Bishop Szilárd Keresztes as his successor. Greek Catholic bishops and priests of the neighboring countries were received in Hungary with a fraternal welcome. The Eparchy of Hajdúdorog collected vestments, liturgical books and equipment for Greek Catholics in Subcarpathia and Romania. In 1990, for the first time in the history of the seminary at Nyíregyháza, 10 foreign seminarians enrolled.

The Greek Catholic Church in Hungary continued to flourish. In Hajdúdorog first a Greek Catholic elementary school and then a secondary school were established. The eparchy again published the Greek Catholic Review, which the Communists had suppressed.

A great event for the church in Hungary occurred when Pope John Paul II visited in 1991. The Pontiff celebrated the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in Máriapócs, the historic place of pilgrimage for Hungarian Greek Catholics.

Another important step occurred in 1992, when an agreement was signed with the Teachers Training College in Nyíregyháza; the training of laity as catechists could now begin. A corresponding department in the seminary was also established. The seminary, supported in part by CNEWA, has undergone great development; academic work is directed by teachers who studied abroad, mainly in Rome. Consequently, the theological faculty was qualified as an affiliate of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome in 1995. The seminary library continues to grow each year and the construction of a new building is in the works. Thanks to its central location, Bishop Szilárd Keresztes has expressed a desire to involve the seminary in the spiritual and intellectual revival of the Eastern Catholic churches of central and Eastern Europe.

True to his word, Bishop Keresztes acted as host in 1997 for the first meeting of European Eastern Catholic Bishops. Led by Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches, 40 Greek Catholic bishops and 66 leading officials from 20 countries participated in the meeting. In 1998, the principals of the Eastern Catholic seminaries in Europe attended a refresher course in Nyíregyháza.

There has been further advancement in the Greek Catholic Church in Hungary. The number of clergymen, for example, has increased in the last 50 years: While in 1945 the number of Greek Catholic priests was as low as 202, it has grown steadily over the years to 233. More than 90 percent of the Greek Catholic clergymen living in Hungary have families, several with four or more children. These clergymen and their wives participate monthly in a recollection program and attend an annual retreat in Máriapócs.

The number of seminarians has also increased. In addition, Hungarian seminarians from neighboring countries opt to study in Nyíregyháza. More than 100 students attend regular and correspondence courses for religious teachers. The number of monks and nuns, however, has decreased since 1950.

The number of parishes in Hungary has increased as well, from 126 in 1945 to 167 today. During the last decade alone, 25 Greek Catholic churches have been erected.

The core of this church’s spiritual life is the Divine Liturgy and its Greek Catholic rites and traditions. Patronal feasts and the spiritual exercises conducted during Lent represent major events in the parishes. Parish-organized pilgrimages, mainly to Máriapócs, on 15 August (the Feast of the Dormition) and on 8 September (the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary), draw tens of thousands of people who pray and sing together in one voice.

On viewing its turbulent history, it is clear that the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church has experienced great development. We trust that God will continue to help us in fostering our liturgy and spirituality, giving witness to the unity of the Catholic Church for future generations.

Dr. Janka György is head of the Department of Church History at the Greek Catholic Theological Institute at Nyíregyháza.

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