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The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church

Historians frequently employ words like “reborn” and “renascent” to describe the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. While such adjectives may describe correctly the situation of the church in Ukraine since it resurfaced from the catacombs of the Soviet Union, they fail to describe the circumstances for the entire church, which has flourished in the Americas, Oceania and Western Europe for up to a century. No longer the faith community of an isolated central European people, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is a worldwide body bonded by tradition and perseverance.

Origins. Modern Ukrainians share the same origins as Belarussians, Carpatho-Rusyns and Russians, all of whom regard the realm of the Kievan Rus’ as their own. In the ninth century, the Varangians — a Scandinavian tribe known for their ferocity and piracy — swept into central Europe, settling among and intermarrying with the Eastern Slavic natives. Collectively called the Rus’, they established towns along the Dnieper, Dniester and Don rivers, asserted control of the trade routes from the Baltic to the Black seas and developed uneasy commercial relations with Constantinople, the capital of the Christian Eastern Roman Empire, commonly known as Byzantium.

One such town, Kiev, became dominant and its leader took on the title of velikiy kniaz, or grand prince. The grand prince controlled the city and its surroundings, while Rusyn relatives scattered from Novgorod (a city near modern St. Petersburg) to Halych (now a town in southwestern Ukraine) swore him allegiance.

Christianity is adopted. According to the 12th-century Rus’ Chronicles, Grand Prince Vladimir I (956-1015), eager to abandon the polytheistic beliefs of his people, sent out emissaries to learn about Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But Christianity as practiced in Byzantium had the edge: The regent Olga (879-969), Vladimir’s grandmother, had embraced Christianity while in Constantinople. But Olga had failed to instruct her son or her people in the Byzantine Christian faith.

Another likely source for Vladimir’s interest in Byzantine Christianity was the work of two missionary brothers, Cyril and Methodius. Charged by the patriarch of Constantinople to work among the Slavs of Moravia (862), the brothers created a Slavonic alphabet, translated scriptural works into Slavonic and introduced a Slavonic liturgy based on the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. While the disciples of Sts. Cyril and Methodius were later banished from Moravia, they established Byzantine Christianity among the Southern Slavs and Bulgars of the Bulgarian kingdom. Buttressed by this church, the Bulgarian state developed into a powerful empire that rivaled Byzantium and Kiev.

Ultimately, it may have been Vladimir’s interest in an alliance with Byzantium that led to his baptism in the Byzantine tradition. Yet the Rus’ Chronicles credit the Divine Liturgy, as celebrated in Constantinople’s Church of Haghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), as the inspiration for Vladimir’s acceptance in 988 of Byzantine Christianity: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth,” the annals record the emissaries as saying, “surely God dwells with the Greeks [as the Byzantines were known].”

Golden age of Kievan Rus’. The rapid development of Byzantine Christianity among the Rus’ — which Vladimir pursued with vigor — coincided with the rise of the Kievan Rus’ state. Vladimir and his successors promulgated the first code of law of the Eastern Slavs, built churches, sponsored monasteries and supported theological learning and the arts. Using the Bulgarian Church as a model, Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise (978-1054) achieved some ecclesial independence from Constantinople, overseeing the installation of a “Metropolitan Archbishop of Kiev and all the Rus’” in 1037. Eventually, Rusyn natives dominated the episcopacy, whose sees were located in various regional centers governed by the family of the grand prince.

The ascendancy of Kievan Rus’ was short- lived, however. Rival Rus’ cities resented Kiev’s control of trade and sought increased autonomy. In the far north, Novgorod and Pskov declared independence from Kiev in 1136, creating a republic. In the northeast, Vladimir and Suzdal grew in economic and political independence. The northern cities of Polotsk and Smolensk asserted their autonomy as did Halych in the southwest, where Vladimir’s descendants created an independent principality.

The inhabitants of these communities would eventually form the nucleus of four peoples: Ukrainians in the south, Carpatho-Rusyns in the southwest, Belarussians in the northwest and Russians in the north and northeast.

Kievan Rus’ collapses. The dismemberment of Kievan Rus’ opened it to invasion from nearby rivals — Teutonic knights, Hungarians, Lithuanians and Poles — all of whom relished Rusyn wealth. The most devastating invasion came from the East. The Mongols, a nomadic people from Central Asia, swept through the dominion of the Rus’ in the 13th century, burning and sacking its cities, including Kiev in 1240. They ravaged the realm, killed much of the population and enslaved those who survived. Kiev never recovered. For more than 200 years, Rusyn princes were mere vassals to the Mongol warlords.

Despite its destruction, Kiev’s cultural and religious legacy survived, including a few important churches. Modeled after the grand churches in Constantinople, these structures, especially those dedicated to Haghia Sophia in Kiev and Novgorod, reinterpreted traditional Byzantine architectural forms, adapting them to suit the less temperate climate. The mosaics and frescoes that cover the walls, while following Byzantine iconographic rubrics, attest to the high level of sophistication and artistic skill in Kievan Rus’, inspiring generations of iconographers, painters and architects.

With the decline of princes, bishops and archimandrites quickly filled their roles, patronizing the building of churches, monasteries and schools in areas far from the reach of Mongol power. The Mongols did not interfere with the life of the church.

Many Rusyn survivors sought refuge in the northeast, migrating to the urban centers of Rostov, Suzdal, Vladimir and, finally, Moscow. The effective leader of all the Rus’, Maxim, Metropolitan Archbishop of Kiev and all the Rus’, left the depopulated city of Kiev for Vladimir in 1299. His successor, Peter, moved the primary Rusyn episcopal see to Moscow 26 years later, thus beginning the diverging histories of Ukraine and Russia.

Rise and fall of Galicia. The princes of Halych and Volhynia, whose dominions bordered Roman Catholic Hungary and Poland to the west and north, forged a united state from the remnants of Kievan Rus’, eventually absorbing Kiev, too. For more than a century, Halych-Volhynia (more commonly known today as Galicia) rivaled the Kievan state at its height in size and wealth, even as its leaders paid homage to their Mongol overlords.

One such prince, Daniel (died 1264), opened Galicia to Armenian, Baltic, German, Hungarian, Jewish and Lithuanian merchants, who formed self-contained communities throughout the realm. He strengthened alliances with neighboring Catholic powers and even enlisted the aid of the papacy in his quest to strengthen his anti-Mongol coalition. Though the churches of Constantinople and Rome had been out of communion for nearly two centuries, Rusyns remained in communion with both.

In 1253, Galician Grand Prince Daniel was crowned king by a representative of the pope, though the Rusyn Church remained under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople. Three years later, King Daniel founded the city of Lviv, naming it for his son and successor, Lev, who in 1272 made Lviv his capital. In recognition of Galicia’s ascendancy, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople in 1303 erected a metropolitan archiepiscopal see in Lviv, filling the void created by Maxim’s departure of Kiev for Vladimir four years earlier. Galicia’s dominance also proved short-lived. By the middle of the 14th century, the Lithuanians carved it up, taking Kiev as booty in 1321. Though long past its prime, the allure of Kiev remained. This “mother of all Rusyn cities” continued as the spiritual center of Rusyn Christianity. By the 15th century, the metropolitan archbishop of Halych left Lviv for Kiev, where he assumed a new title, “Metropolitan of Kiev, Halych and all Rus’.”

Catholics and Orthodox. The unification of the Lithuanian and Polish states in the late 14th century, and the subsequent adoption of Roman Catholicism as the state church of this united commonwealth, did not adversely impact the spiritual lives of Rusyns until the definitive break between the Rusyn and Roman churches in 1439. That year, Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev, Moscow and all the Rus’, the Rusyn representative at the Council of Florence, endorsed the council’s decree restoring full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. An ally of the Byzantine Emperor John VIII, who had championed the council to win Catholic support for his dying empire, Isidore returned to Moscow and was subsequently imprisoned for his “apostasy of Orthodoxy.”

In 1453, the year Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, Rusyn bishops of the Orthodox Church separated formally into two distinct metropolia (which remained in full communion), Moscow and Kiev, nuclei of the modern Russian and Ukrainian churches.

As Catholic Poland expanded, its nobility bound Orthodox Rusyn peasants to the land. Many fled to the southeast, finding refuge in the hinterlands, or “Ukraine.” These Cossacks formed autonomous communities of nomadic horsemen, often defying Polish law, and eventually became staunch supporters of Moscow and its tsar.

Those “Ruthenians” (from the medieval Latin for Rusyn inhabitants of Poland) who remained were harassed, subjected to ethnic assimilation campaigns sponsored by the Polish government, which also heavily taxed the Orthodox clergy and laity and denied bishops permission to build churches.

Union and division.The Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent wars associated with it, altered the confessional dynamics of central Europe, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Constant clashes ravaged the countryside. Disease and war devastated the Ruthenian population, which declined precipitously. Meanwhile, the Calvinist, Lutheran and Unitarian churches grew, particularly among the Ruthenians’ Polish landlords.

The Jesuits, vanguards of the Catholic Reformation, worked among central Europe’s Orthodox leaders to combat the spread of Protestantism. They promised the Orthodox that they would retain their Byzantine liturgical rites, customs and privileges (including a married clergy and the method of electing bishops) in exchange for their loyalty to the papacy. In addition, their clergy would be granted the same civil rights and privileges extended to Roman Catholic clergy — important considerations in realms governed by Catholic dynasties.

In 1596, Orthodox Metropolitan Mikhail Rohoza of Kiev, Halych and all Rus’ gathered his suffragan bishops in the city of Brest. There, they severed ties with the Orthodox ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople and the Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow and accepted the primacy and authority of the Roman pontiff, thus establishing the Greek Catholic Church (“Greek” referred to the Byzantine heritage of the Ruthenians). This move brought the church closer to its contemporary Polish-Lithuanian rulers, who actively supported the union among their Ruthenian subjects in an attempt to minimize the growing power of neighboring Moscow, whose subjects remained staunchly Orthodox.

Many Ruthenians accepted the union, but rebellion fomented in Kiev and in the Cossack-dominated steppes of Ukraine. Josaphat, Archbishop of Polotsk, was murdered by a mob in 1623 for his zealous support of the union. Hostilities forced Metropolitan Mikhail and his successors to settle in friendlier, pro-Catholic territory, thus creating a void in church leadership rapidly filled by the election of a rival Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Kiev.

The crises posed by foreign domination, discrimination, economic hardship and the Union of Brest fueled the Khmelnitsky Uprising (1648-54). Led by a Jesuit-educated Cossack nobleman, Bohdan Khmelnitsky, the uprising sought to unify the Ruthenian peoples in an independent Ukraine. But this independent Ukraine soon began to collapse even as Khmelnitsky entered Kiev in triumph. Reluctantly, he sought aid from Moscow’s tsar, who hoped to reunite the lands of historic Rus’ under his authority. In 1654, Khmelnitsky and representatives of Tsar Alexei signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav.

While the treaty marks the end of the rebellion, it also marks the beginning of Ukraine’s divide. Poland retained Ukrainian lands west of the Dnieper River. To wipe out any potential Russian influence among the Ruthenian populace, the Poles suppressed the Orthodox Church and advanced the interests of the Greek Catholic Church, which grew especially in Galicia, the heart of the modern Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. By the 18th century, two-thirds of the Ruthenian Orthodox population in what is now western Ukraine had become Greek Catholic. The Russian tsar, meanwhile, absorbed territories east of the Dnieper, including Kiev, advancing his own interests with the aid of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Development of Ukrainian identity. The partition of Poland in the late 18th century divided Ukraine even further. Greek Catholics living in areas absorbed by Russia at first were tolerated by the tsar. This ended when Greek Catholics supported a Polish uprising. By 1839, the “autocrat of all the Rus’” abolished the church in areas under his rule with the exception of the Eparchy of Kholm. And by 1875, this eparchy too was absorbed into the Russian Orthodox Church.

Greek Catholicism survived in those Ukrainian areas absorbed by Austria. In 1803, the pope moved the seat of the Greek Catholic metropolitan of Kiev, Halych and all Rus’ to the Galician city of Lviv (Lemberg in German). In this lovely central European city, filled with architectural gems of the Mannerist, Baroque and Rococo periods, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church prospered, ultimately birthing the Ukrainian nationalist movement.

20th-century trials. The man at the center of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church at its height, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky (1901-44), lived to see its near death. Committed to church renewal, ecumenism, the arts, learning and a vociferous opponent of the Nazis and Communists, Metropolitan Andrei shepherded his church through war and occupation. And despite travel difficulties imposed by a world often at war, he visited Ukrainian Greek Catholic communities in Canada and the United States, urging them to remain committed to the faith and culture of their ancestors.

As Soviet troops rolled through Nazi-occupied Galicia (which after World War I had returned to a reconstituted Poland), Stalin ordered the liquidation of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which he saw rightly as the leading proponent of the Ukrainian independence movement and a virulent opponent of the Soviet system.

In April 1945, Soviet troops arrested every Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishop and member of the intelligentsia and sent them to the Gulag labor camps. Some 11 months later, Soviet authorities rounded up 216 priests and, at gun point, forced them to sever ties with Rome and request communion with the Russian Orthodox Church.

“Male and female religious, lay faithful and hundreds of priests who refused to convert, often with their wives and children, were arrested and sent to labor camps, where they endured horrific hardships,” wrote a historian of the period, Matthew Matuszak.

“Parishes where the pastor had been arrested were to become the backbone of the underground. The faithful sang outside closed churches or worshiped at churches not registered with the regime. Priests who had avoided arrest tried to make pastoral visits to these underground communities. Nuns maintained contact between the priests and the laity, arranging secret religious services and catechizing children.”

For more than 40 years, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church existed only in North and South America and Oceania. Though expelled from the Soviet Union in 1963, Cardinal Josef Slipiy, from his home in Rome, secretly guided his underground church in Soviet Ukraine even as he traveled the world strengthening ties to the emigrant church. But back in the old country, Mr. Matuszak said in these pages, “the church was the most extensive network of civil opposition in the Soviet Union.”

Church life restored. Glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of openness in the Soviet Union, and the union’s ultimate unraveling in the late 1980’s, emboldened this underground community. Huge outdoor liturgies were celebrated in public parks. Demonstrations included scores of young religious dressed in full habit and thousands of young families bearing icons and flags emblazoned with a yellow trident on a field of light blue — the symbol of an independent Ukraine.

On 1 December 1989, the government permitted Greek Catholic communities to register. Emboldened by their success, Greek Catholics began to take possession of their former churches, sometimes with force. The dispossession of the Russian Orthodox Church from western Ukraine, which had once provided the Moscow Patriarchate with most of its vocations, marks the beginning of deteriorating relations between the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches.

With Ukrainian independence in 1991, up to five million Greek Catholics have reemerged as a political force in the nation of 47 million people. This was particularly evident during the constitutional crisis in late 2004, when tens of thousands of Greek Catholics poured into Kiev to protest the rigging of the presidential election.

In August 2005, the major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, returned the metropolitan archiepiscopal see to Kiev, reinforcing Ukraine’s independence from Poland and Russia. Pope John Paul II blessed the move and restored the title of “Major Archbishop of Kiev and Halych.”

According to church statistics released in 2006, Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church had 2,845 parishes in 11 jurisdictions, 2,163 priests, 526 religious sisters and 610 seminarians in 4 seminaries. In September 1994, the Lviv Theological Academy reopened after Stalin had shuttered its doors 60 years earlier. Founded in 1929 by Metropolitan Andrei, the academy in June 2002 became Ukrainian Catholic University, the first Catholic university on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Nearly a quarter of those who belong to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church live outside Ukraine: There are 200,000 in Europe, 162,000 in Brazil, 150,000 in Argentina, 103,000 in the United States, 86,000 in Canada and 34,000 in Australia. And though some of these Ukrainians have never set foot on the land of their ancestors, they still stuff cabbage, decorate Easter eggs, embroider linens, write icons and celebrate Christianity as did their ancestors in ancient Rus’.

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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