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The Hungarian Greek Catholic Church

For centuries, Hungary dominated the culture, geography and socioeconomic life of Central Europe. Its defeat in World War I, however, cost the nation three- quarters of its territory, all of its coastline, a third of its population and much of its diverse demography. Today, Hungary is a landlocked and largely homogeneous country — a shadow of its former self.

In Hungary’s rural northeast — near its borders with Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania — one small community of faith offers a glimpse of Hungary’s multiethnic past. Sheltered by the Carpathian Mountains, some 290,000 people — ethnic Hungarians (Magyars), Gypsies (Roma), Romanians, Rusyns and Slovaks — make up the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church, Byzantine in tradition and in full communion with the church of Rome. While each ethnic group maintains its own proud history and traditions, they together have forged a dynamic church authentically Hungarian, Byzantine and Catholic.

Origins. According to early medieval chroniclers, Byzantine missionaries working among the Slavs in the ninth century first encountered nomadic Magyar tribes as they began to settle in the Carpathian Basin. A number of Magyar chiefs, to secure their hold on the land, traveled to the then center of power, Constantinople. There, they established an alliance with the Byzantine emperor and were baptized and received into the Byzantine church.

Sarolt, the daughter of one such clan leader, married the heir of the Árpáds, the chief Magyar family. Their son would later embrace Latin Christianity, take the name Stephen and, after receiving his crown from the pope in the year 1000, forge a united Magyar realm closely allied with the Latin West.

Stephen did not favor the Byzantine church of his mother, but it nevertheless flourished. Several important medieval relics, including the Holy Crown of Hungary, the coronation robe and a renowned reliquary of the true cross, demonstrate the influence of Byzantium. While the crown is largely a Byzantine work, the robe and reliquary are attributed to Magyar artisans living in Hungary’s Byzantine monasteries.

Though the churches of the Byzantine East and the Latin West parted company after the Great Schism in 1054, Hungary’s Byzantine Orthodox Christians, Magyars and Slavs, remained attached to their form of the faith.

The realm’s Orthodox, however, were later decimated by the Mongols, an Asiatic nomadic tribe who invaded Hungary in the middle 13th century and destroyed the kingdom’s towns, villages and monasteries. Historians believe half of Hungary’s people were killed in the onslaught; the Mongols carried off many of the survivors.

Turks and Flux. Eventually, Hungary recovered from the Mongol invasions. Its kings gathered up the survivors, consolidated their power and established a sprawling Central European nation anchored firmly in the traditions of the Latin West.

Even as Hungary expanded, it confronted a new enemy. The Ottomans, a Turkish Muslim tribe originally from Central Asia, conquered Byzantine territory in Asia and Europe as they migrated west. In 1453, they took Constantinople; from there the Ottoman sultans subdued the Balkans with its Albanian, Bulgar, Greek, Jewish and Slavic peoples. As they pushed deeper into Central Europe, they repeatedly clashed with the forces of the Hungarian king.

Orthodox Christian Serbs, fleeing the Turks, found refuge in the Hungarian province of Vajdaság, now the autonomous Serbian province of Vojvodina. In exchange for cultural and religious freedom, the Serbs formed a guard to defend Hungary’s borders. Nevertheless, the Turks advanced deeper into Hungary. Thousands of Serbs fled north of the capital of Buda, establishing Szentendre, a Serbian community that remains rooted in its Slavic heritage and Orthodox faith.

The decline of royal authority, due to the rise of the landed gentry who had embraced the Reformation, crippled Hungary. In 1541, Ottoman forces crushed the Hungarians in battle and captured Buda. In the confusion that followed, Hungary was divided into three parts, Royal Hungary — seized by the Austrian Hapsburgs — Ottoman Hungary and Transylvania, which became an autonomous principality under the suzerainty of the Ottomans.

The Orthodox faith of Transylvania’s Romanian serfs, who made up the majority of the population, was held in contempt by the Hungarian nobility, most of whom had become Lutherans or Calvinists. Denied financial support and legal personality, the Orthodox Church in Transylvania declined. As the Ottomans retreated from Central Europe, the Catholic Hapsburgs rushed into the vacuum, absorbing Hungarian lands. Tightening their grip, the Hapsburgs introduced the Jesuits in the late 17th century to re-Catholicize the Hungarian realm.

Hungarian Greek Catholics. Following the Ottomans’ loss of Buda and central Hungary in 1686, Greek Catholic Slavs — Rusyns and Slovaks — emerged from the protection of the dense forests of the Carpathians and settled in Hungary’s plains. These Greek Catholics, under the protection of the bishop of Mukacevo, had entered into full communion with the Roman church only a generation earlier.

As with their coreligionists in Transylvania, Hungary’s Orthodox hierarchy (most of whom were Rusyns) had received assurances from the Jesuits that, in exchange for their loyalty to the papacy, the Orthodox would retain their liturgical rites, customs and privileges, including a married clergy and the method of electing bishops.

In addition, their clergy would be granted the same civil rights and privileges extended to Roman Catholic clergy — important considerations in the Catholic Hapsburg realm.

Until Pope Clement XIV erected the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Mukacevo in 1771, these Rusyn Greek Catholic bishops functioned as vicars of the Hungarian Roman Catholic bishops of Eger. And Rusyn Greek Catholic priests, often married, were subordinated to Hungarian Roman Catholic pastors.

The Jesuits reached out to the Hungarian Protestant community as well. In the 18th century, a significant number entered the Catholic Church, choosing not the Roman but the Greek Catholic Church. These new Hungarian Greek Catholics were placed under the pastoral care of the Rusyn Greek Catholic hierarchy, who employed Church Slavonic in the celebration of the sacraments. This prompted many of these former Protestants to lobby for the use of Hungarian in the Divine Liturgy, which was met with resistance among church authorities.

Nevertheless, the first Hungarian translation of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was published, privately, in 1795.

The 19th century, particularly after the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, ushered in the Romantic Era. This cultural and intellectual movement sparked a rise of nationalism throughout Asia and Europe, impacting Hungarians, Romanians and Rusyns.

This stirring of ethnic consciousness prompted the publication of language primers, the documentation of ancient folk songs and hymns, the creation of lyric poems and stories and the rise of competing national aspirations. In this era — which also inspired the Hungarian revolt against Hapsburg rule and the subsequent creation of the Duel Monarchy of Austro-Hungary — scholars published Greek Catholic liturgical books in Hungarian. Church authorities did not approve their use.

Perhaps to placate Hungarian nationalists, the Austro-Hungarian emperor founded a Hungarian Greek Catholic vicariate in Hajdúdorog in 1873.

To celebrate the 900th anniversary of St. Stephen’s coronation as king, thousands of Hungarian pilgrims, Greek and Roman Catholic, visited Rome. Greek Catholics petitioned Pope Leo XIII to sanction the liturgical use of Hungarian and to raise the vicariate to an eparchy.

In June 1912, Pope Pius X elevated the vicariate to an eparchy and assigned to it 162 Hungarian-speaking parishes. But, he decided that Greek should be the liturgical language of the church. He instructed the clergy to learn it within three years. World War I intervened, however, and the papal directive was not enforced. After the war’s conclusion and the dismemberment of both the Dual Monarchy and the Hungarian realm, the remaining liturgical books were published in Hungarian and met no opposition.

Today. Originally, the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Hajdúdorog embraced only Hungarian-speaking parishes in eastern Hungary and the capital of Budapest.

In 1924, the Holy See established an exarchate in Miskolc for the Hungarian Rusyn-speaking Greek Catholic parishes that once formed a part of the Eparchy of Presov. (After World War I, Presov had become a part of the newly formed Czechoslovakia.) The distinct Rusyn identity of these parishes, however, faded. They increasingly became integrated into Hungarian culture and replaced Church Slavonic with Hungarian. Interestingly, Presov had been the center of a Hungarian assimilation movement within the Greek Catholic Rusyn community from the 19th century.

Since World War II, the Apostolic Exarchate of Miskolc has been administered by the bishop of Hajdúdorog, whose authority now extends to all Greek Catholics living in Hungary.

Under communism, Hungary’s Greek Catholics were spared the persecutions suffered by Greek Catholics in Romania and Ukraine. Though religious communities were closed, priests and religious dispersed, 134 schools shuttered, catechesis limited and nonliturgical activities monitored, the church survived. In 1950, Bishop Miklós Dudás, O.S.B.M., established a seminary within the walls of his residence in the town of Nyíregyháza. While youth programs and sodalities were prohibited, parish pilgrimages to Máriapócs, a little Greek Catholic village famous for its miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, continued with great enthusiasm.

With the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Hungary’s Greek Catholic Church surged to fill the void left after a half-century of despotic rule in Central and Eastern Europe. Led by Bishop Szilárd Keresztes, the Eparchy of Hajdúdorog collected icons, liturgical books, vestments and other sacramentals, which he immediately offered to the once banned Greek Catholic churches in Romania and Ukraine.

Because of its central location, Bishop Keresztes suggested the eparchial seminary — which is dedicated to St. Athanasius — should play a key role in the revival of Europe’s Greek Catholic churches. In 1990, he opened it to Romanians, Rusyns, Slovaks and Ukrainians interested in the priesthood. To improve the quality of the education offered there, the bishop invited an impressive number of foreign educated professors. As a result, the theological faculty became an affiliate of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome in 1995.

Formation of lay catechists also figured prominently in the life of the church soon after the collapse of communism. In 1992, the bishop signed an agreement with the Teachers Training College in Nyíregyháza and set up a corresponding department at the seminary for the formation of teachers.

The Hungarian Greek Catholic Church shares in the socioeconomic challenges affecting the country. Even as birthrates continue to fall, driving down the number of men and women entering priesthood and religious, the demands placed upon the church grow.

Increasingly, Greek Catholic priests are working to diffuse tensions between Hungary’s growing Roma minority and ethnic Magyars. And the depopulation of Hungary’s eastern rural villages, the traditional center of the Greek Catholic Church, is affecting family and parish life. Yet, Bishop Keresztes, now retired, remains optimistic.

“Young people will be the future church. They are looking for religious life, even if they are doubters or critics and do not accept everything about that life,” he said in these pages in 2007.

“Today,” he said, “we have to accept that the church is criticized, sometimes with reason, but despite this we have to show people the beauty of our Christian values.”

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s Assistant Secretary for Communications.

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