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The Orthodox Church of Poland

World War I changed the map of Europe. The Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires disintegrated. And from the carnage emerged nation states whose peoples longed for self-determination: Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Created by the victorious Allies as an eastern bulwark to Bolshevik Russia, post-war Poland tried to emulate the position of the multiethnic Polish-Lithuanian state that had once dominated central Europe until its dismemberment by Austria, Prussia and Russia in the late 18th century.

Resurrected Poland absorbed huge tracts of land and included millions of ethnic Belarussians, Czechs, Germans, Jews, Russians, Rusyns and Ukrainians – a third of the new nation’s 30 million people. Up to five million of these new Polish citizens professed Orthodox Christianity, a faith long identified with Poland’s neighbor and foe, Russia.

Not without its share of controversy, the Orthodox patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow, by 1938, confirmed the autocephaly, or independence, of a newly organized Orthodox Church of Poland. The state, too, recognized the church.

But Poland’s increasingly nationalistic government suspected the loyalties of Poland’s Orthodox citizens and coerced them to embrace the Latin (Roman) Church. Despite the protestations from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Metropolitan of Lviv, Andrei Sheptytsky (died 1944), local governments shuttered Orthodox and Greek Catholic sanctuaries, turned some over to Latin Catholic authorities and razed others.

Hitler’s pact with Stalin in the autumn of 1939, which erased Poland from the map, suspended these acts of hostility. Not unlike the saga of the Polish nation, the chronicles of the Orthodox Church of Poland reveal the struggles of a faith community squeezed between the Latin West and the Russian East.

Origins of conflict. Endemic friction describes best the historical relationship between Poland and Russia. Though Poles and Russians stem from the same Slavic roots, the two developed radically different – and at times polar opposite – orientations.

With the Poles’ adoption of Christianity in its Latin Catholic form in 966, the Slavic Polish nation entered the orbit of the West. Ever since, the Poles have drawn inspiration from Western culture and its institutions, establishing centers of higher learning, parliaments and economic systems that created merchant classes. Long before the American or French revolutions instituted electoral governments, for example, the Polish nobility installed an elected executive, a “king” whose powers were held in check by aristocrats and bourgeoisie.

On the other hand the Rus’ (ancestors of modern Belarussians, Russians, Rusyns and Ukrainians) looked East to Byzantium, then the most advanced Mediterranean culture. Just two decades after the Poles accepted Latin Christianity, the Rus’ received the Christian faith in its Byzantine form and emulated the court and culture of the autocratic emperors in Constantinople.

Two centuries later, invading Mongols devastated the realms of the Rus’, cutting their contacts with the West. Rus’ leaders – clergy and laity – slowly gathered survivors around Moscow, whose grand dukes adopted an increasingly autocratic approach to governance.

The union of the Lithuanian and Polish states in the late 14th century and the subsequent adoption of Latin Catholicism as the state church did not adversely impact the spiritual lives of the commonwealth’s Rusyn Byzantine Christian subjects, who numbered as many as half the population. But their fortunes changed after the definitive break between the Latin and Rusyn churches in 1439. Just 14 years later, Rusyn Orthodox bishops created two distinct metropolia centered in Moscow and Kiev, then a major city in Poland. These churches formed the nuclei of the modern Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches.

As Catholic Poland expanded, the nobility attempted to tie their Orthodox peasants to the land. But many peasants fled, finding refuge in the Polish-Lithuanian hinterlands, the Ukraine. These peasants formed autonomous communities of nomadic horsemen, or Cossacks, who defied Polish law and eventually became staunch supporters of Russia and its tsar.

Those “Ruthenians” (from the medieval Latin name for Rusyn inhabitants of Poland) who remained there were harassed and forced to assimilate. The Polish nobility also heavily taxed the Orthodox clergy and laity and denied permission to bishops to build churches.

Orthodoxy is suppressed. The Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent wars associated with it, altered the confessional dynamics of central Europe, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Clashes ravaged the countryside. Disease and war devastated the Ruthenian population. Meanwhile, the Calvinist, Lutheran and other Reformed confessions grew, particularly among the Polish nobility.

The Jesuits, vanguards of the Catholic Reformation, worked among central Europe’s Catholic and Orthodox leaders to combat the spread of Protestantism. They promised Orthodox bishops that they could 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, Byzantine clergy would be granted the same civil rights and privileges extended to Latin clergy.

In 1596, the Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Kiev, Halych and all Rus’ gathered his suffragan bishops in the city of Brest, severed ties with the Orthodox churches of Constantinople and Moscow and accepted the primacy and authority of the Roman pontiff. The Union of Brest created the “Greek” Catholic Church and brought its members closer to the Polish-Lithuanian king, who actively supported the union to minimize the growing power of neighboring Russia, which remained resolutely Orthodox.

Many Ruthenians accepted the union, but some opposed it. A rebellion fomented in Kiev and in the Cossack-dominated steppes of the Ukraine. Violence forced the Greek Catholic metropolitan archbishop of Kiev to settle in Polish-held, pro-Catholic territory. The vacuum enabled the election of a rival Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Kiev.

Rebel leaders, seeking to unify Ruthenians, appealed to the tsar in Moscow, who hoped to reunite the lands of historic Rus’ under his authority. In 1654, the rebellion’s leaders signed a treaty with the Russian tsar that ironically marked the beginning of the end of the Orthodox Church in Poland.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth retained Ruthenian 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 heartland of the modern Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. By the 18th century, two-thirds of Poland’s Ruthenian Orthodox population (in what is now western Ukraine) had become Greek Catholic.

Imperial Russia’s increasing influence in Polish-Lithuanian affairs enabled those Ruthenians who somehow retained their Orthodox identity to regain legal protection after 1767. (By 1795, Russia and her Austrian and Prussian allies dismembered the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.)

A resurgent church. The Greek Catholic Church prospered in the areas of Poland 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. In this cosmopolitan city, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church flourished, ultimately nurturing the Ukrainian nationalist movement.

At first, Greek Catholics living in those areas of Poland annexed by imperial Russia 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 and turned over Greek Catholic parishes and monasteries to the Russian Orthodox Church, which became the tsar’s primary instrument of assimilation. The tsar closed Catholic schools while requiring state schools to teach the Orthodox catechism.

Perhaps the greatest symbol of the enmity between Catholic Poland and Orthodox Russia was the erection of a huge Orthodox cathedral – dedicated to the Russian military hero, St. Alexander Nevsky – in the heart of Warsaw.

At its dedication in 1912, the Orthodox archbishop of Warsaw reminded the congregation that the “creators of this cathedral had nothing hostile in their thoughts toward the unorthodoxy that surrounds us: Coercion is not in the nature of the Orthodox Church.”

In 1924, the government of the nascent Polish republic ordered the destruction of this “symbol of Russian oppression.” It took engineers two years to dismantle the edifice.

Postwar church. Stalin’s annexation of eastern Poland in 1939 reintegrated into the Moscow Patriarchate most of Poland’s Orthodox citizens, reducing their number to less than 300,000 people in Poland.

Following the Soviet takeover of Poland in 1948, the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church asserted their authority over the much-reduced Orthodox Church of Poland, substituting the decrees of the ecumenical patriarchate with decrees of their own. In 1951, Patriarch Alexei I of Moscow appointed a new metropolitan archbishop of Warsaw, none other than Archbishop Makary Oksaniuk of Lviv, who presided over the suppression – ordered by Stalin – of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1946.

Relations between Poland’s Orthodox Church and the country’s post-Communist democratic government have thawed since the government brokered the return of the important Monastery of the Annunciation in Supraśl to the Orthodox Church.

Founded in the late 15th century by a Polish nobleman, Supraśl’s Orthodox monks accepted the Union of Brest soon after its promulgation in 1596. The monastery eventually passed from the Greek Catholic Basilian Fathers to Russian Orthodox monks in the 19th century and finally to the Latin Catholic Salesian Fathers after World War I. Today, Supraśl is considered a preeminent Orthodox center of culture and learning.

Polish and Russian Orthodox links remain warm even as the Polish church – which now includes more than 800,000 members in seven eparchies – has increasingly become more integrated in Polish culture.

While most Orthodox Poles live in the country’s eastern and southeastern provinces – areas populated with Belarussian, Rusyn and Ukrainian minorities – the church is now using Polish in addition to Church Slavonic in the celebration of the sacraments.

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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