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The Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic Churches

For more than a millennium, Central Europe’s Carpatho-Rusyns have been engulfed in a violent whirl of Magyar, Germanic and Slavic antagonism. Always subjugated, Rusyn peasants toiled the soil, kept the livestock or cut the timber of their Hungarian, Austrian or Polish masters. Such conditions, coupled with centuries of serfdom and forced assimilation, hardly favored the development of a distinct Rusyn identity. Nevertheless, among the Rusyns such an identity did develop, sowed by their distinct Slavic language, nurtured by their Byzantine Christianity — which they received from Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the late ninth century — and reinforced by their full communion, or unia, with the church of Rome.

Today, fewer than 900,000 Rusyn Greek Catholics are scattered throughout Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, North America, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine. A unified church, gathering them all under one mantle, does not exist. Rusyn Greek Catholics — also called Ruthenians — make up three distinct churches that, while sharing the same origins, traditions and culture, remain independent of each other.

• In the United States, the Metropolitan Byzantine Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, with its three dependent eparchies of Parma, Passaic and Phoenix, is a particular or sui iuris church. It includes about 93,000 members.
• The Eparchy of Mukacevo in Subcarpathian Ukraine, which numbers about 375,000 people, is dependent directly on the Holy See.
• The Apostolic Exarchate for Byzantine Catholics in the Czech Republic is also dependent on the Holy See and counts 178,000 members.

Rusyn Greek Catholics also belong to various jurisdictions of the Greek Catholic churches of Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia. Complicating matters further, substantial numbers of Rusyns, all formerly Greek Catholic, have created communities within various Orthodox churches in North America, Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics. However, with the exception of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church — an eparchy formed in Pittsburgh in 1939 under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople — their Rusyn identity has largely eroded.

Origins. As the churches of the East and the church of Rome parted company — particularly after the Great Schism in 1054 — Rusyn peasants scattered throughout the Carpathian Mountains of Central Europe remained attached to their Orthodox Byzantine Christian faith.

Though they shared the same customs and rites as their northeastern neighbors (modern Ukrainians), Rusyns adapted these rites, making them their own. Fortified by the monks of St. Nicholas Monastery, an ancient foundation located near Mukacevo (a town in modern Ukraine), Rusyns built their unique wooden churches, wrote their icons and sang their plainchant, or prostopinije, all contributing to the creation of a distinctive Subcarpathian Rusyn Orthodox church.

Though held in contempt by the Hungarian ruling class, Rusyn bishops served as both secular and spiritual shepherds. Bishops came from the local community and were elected by a council of monks from St. Nicholas Monastery.

Cataclysmic events in the 16th and early 17th centuries — the Protestant Reformation, the Ottoman Turkish invasion of Central Europe, the decline of the Hungarian kingdom and the rise of the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty — altered the fortunes of the Rusyns and the confessional dynamics of the region.

In April 1646, in the chapel of the castle in the city of Užhorod, 63 Rusyn Orthodox priests entered into full communion with Rome. Supported by his priests’ profession in Užhorod and fueled by the zeal of the monks of St. Nicholas Monastery, Parfenii Petrovych, Orthodox bishop of Mukacevo, led his entire church into full communion with Rome less than 20 years later.

Until Pope Clement XIV erected the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Mukacevo in 1771, however, Rusyn Greek Catholic bishops functioned as vicars of the Hungarian Roman Catholic bishops of Eger. And Rusyn priests — most of whom were married — were subordinate to Hungarian Roman Catholic pastors. In 1780, the seat of the Rusyn Greek Catholic bishop, while retaining its ancient name, moved from Mukacevo to nearby Užhorod, where a seminary had been established a few years earlier.

Rusyn awakening. The 19th century, particularly after the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, ushered in an intellectual movement that sparked the rise of national movements throughout Europe, including one among the Rusyns.

Led largely by Rusyn Greek Catholic priests from the eparchies of Mukacevo and Prešov (erected in 1818), this stirring of Rusyn consciousness inspired the publication of the first Rusyn-language primer, the documentation of ancient folk songs and hymns and the creation of lyric poems and stories. Works such as “The Song of the Evil Landlord” and “Life of a Rusyn” give some understanding of the lives of the Rusyns under their Hungarian rulers. With the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1867, a rejuvenated Hungarian government unleashed an aggressive campaign to wipe out a national movement among its Rusyn citizens — ironically, the same sort of movement that had inspired a Hungarian uprising against Austrian Hapsburg rule less than 20 years earlier.

Though most Rusyn Greek Catholic leaders opposed this campaign of assimilation, several bishops (particularly those in Prešov) went along with it, suppressing the use of Rusyn in schools and asserting a Hungarian identity.

Distressed by this assimilation policy, the self-appointed “Godfather of all Slavs,” Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, encouraged Greek Catholic Rusyns to return to Orthodoxy, which he claimed would uphold Rusyn traditions. The move also destabilized the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia’s rival.

This “back to the old faith” movement outlived the Dual Monarchy, Hungarian sovereignty of the Rusyn Subcarpathian homeland and the tsar. It reached a climax in the 1920’s, when tens of thousands of Greek Catholic Rusyns — citizens of the newly created Czechoslovakia — embraced Orthodoxy.

Emigration. Beginning in the late 19th century, an estimated 200,000 Rusyns immigrated to the United States, settling in the industrialized areas of Connecticut, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Lured by employment agents of the mines and mills, they quarried coal and forged steel, enriching their employers and building a nation. And though working conditions were wretched, many Rusyn immigrants believed they lacked nothing except a church in which they could worship God in keeping with the traditions of their ancestors.

Fueled by faith and freed from the oppression choking the old country, Rusyn immigrants banded together. They formed associations and, from the collected dues, donations and interest-free personal loans, they built their churches, modest reminders of home.

The Greek Catholic Union, a fraternal organization founded in 1892 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, provided economic, legal and moral support to many emerging Rusyn Greek Catholic parishes. Contrary to the usual Roman Catholic practice in the United States, however, the Rusyn laity, with the backing of the Greek Catholic Union, not only built but owned their churches. And the priests who celebrated the sacred mysteries, while sent by their bishops, were solicited, retained and supported by the trustees of the parish. Also contrary to usual U.S. Roman Catholic practice, most of these priests were, in keeping with the norms of the Greek Catholic tradition, married.

Crisis and schism. Wounded by cries of “Americanism” and “Modernism” hurled by critics in Europe — and unfamiliar with Greek Catholic traditions — some U.S. Roman Catholic bishops (who had oversight of Greek Catholic parishes) denied married or widowed priests the faculties necessary to carry out their ministries.

Father Alexis Toth (1853-1909), the son of a Greek Catholic priest, a former seminary professor and a widower from the Rusyn Greek Catholic Eparchy of Prešov, sought the jurisdiction of a Russian Orthodox bishop in San Francisco. He did so after Roman Catholic Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul denied him the faculties to guide a Rusyn Greek Catholic parish in Minneapolis.

In 1891, the parish embraced Orthodoxy, launching a pro-Orthodox movement among American Rusyn Greek Catholics. By the time of Father Toth’s death, more than 25,000 Rusyn Greek Catholics in the United States entered the Russian Orthodox Church. Ironically, their acceptance of Russian Orthodoxy subsequently contributed to the loss of their Rusyn traditions and the acceptance of a more dominant Russian identity.

This movement prompted the U.S. Greek Catholic community (which in addition to Rusyns included Croats, Hungarians, Slovaks and Ukrainians) to petition the Holy See for a Greek Catholic bishop, which, they hoped, would be able to represent their church with equanimity and defend their rights and prerogatives.

Bishop Soter Ortynsky’s arrival in the United States in August 1907 coincided with the publication of “Ea Semper.” This apostolic letter delineated the new bishop’s duties (an auxiliary to Roman Catholic bishops) and modified several Greek Catholic customs and practices, calling for withholding confirmation from infants at baptism (the sacrament was to be conferred on persons of suitable age by bishops, not priests, as in the Roman Catholic tradition) and stipulating that married priests were not to be ordained in the United States or sent from abroad.

Sensing the erosion of their Greek Catholic identity, Rusyn-Americans protested the appointment. Bolstered by their fraternal societies, Rusyn-Americans also identified the bishop as an advocate of the apostolic letter, a friend of the Ukrainian nationalist movement and, therefore, their foe.

Following the bishop’s death in 1916, the Holy See established two separate Greek Catholic administrations (in 1924 these were elevated to apostolic exarchates). One was erected in Philadelphia for Ukrainians and a second in Pittsburgh for Greek Catholic Rusyns, Croatians, Hungarians and Slovaks. By 1929, there were some 150 Rusyn Greek Catholic parishes throughout the United States, embracing almost 300,000 members.

The calm that followed the erection of the exarchates, however, did not last. In 1929, a new decree from the Holy See, “Cum Data Fuerit,” enforced not only clerical celibacy, but called for the legal transfer of all church properties to the respective Greek Catholic bishops. The decree shook the entire Greek Catholic community, regardless of ethnic background.

The desire of Rusyn-Americans to maintain their Eastern Christian faith, or stara vira (old faith), and the privileges and rites associated with it, would eventually split the community. Though the Rusyn Greek Catholic Exarch of Pittsburgh, Bishop Basil Takach, requested that Rome reconsider its stand on the ordination of married clergy in the United States, some 37 Rusyn Greek Catholic parishes rebelled and eventually sought union with the Orthodox ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople. Today, 75 parishes and missions, numbering more than 50,000 people, make up the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church.

New World stability. Despite these bewildering conflicts, the Rusyn Greek Catholic Church in the United States flourished. Perhaps in response to its earlier ethnic trials, its bishops encouraged an “American” character after World War II.

This Americanization of the Rusyn Greek Catholic Church, however, tended toward Latinization. An abbreviated Divine Liturgy was now recited in English; use of the church’s lovely plainchant in Church Slavonic all but disappeared. And in many churches, the iconostasis, or wall of icons separating sanctuary and nave, was reduced, simplified or removed; side altars with Byzantine-style images, resembling the ordering of Roman Catholic sanctuaries, were erected in their place. Nevertheless, participation in church activities was highly enthusiastic and vocations to the priesthood and religious life increased.

In 1963, Pope Paul VI divided the Apostolic Exarchate of Pittsburgh into two eparchial sees. One eparchy was established in Pittsburgh and a second in Passaic, New Jersey. A third was created in 1969 in Parma, Ohio. That same year, Paul VI established the Eparchy of Pittsburgh as a metropolitan see, with Passaic and Parma as suffragan sees. In 1981, Pope John Paul II created a third eparchy in Van Nuys, California, which has since moved to Phoenix.

European revival. After World War I, communities that made up the Rusyn Greek Catholic eparchies of Mukacevo and Prešov were incorporated into the newly created republic of Czechoslovakia. But trouble surfaced in 1939 when Hitler dismembered the republic, absorbed Czech lands and created a fascist Slovak puppet state that ruthlessly suppressed ethnic minorities, including the Rusyn Greek Catholics of Mukacevo and Prešov.

At the conclusion of World War II, the Soviets annexed parts of the Subcarpathian basin — including Mukacevo and neighboring Užhorod — and incorporated these Rusyn areas into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Prešov remained in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia.

The Soviets ruthlessly persecuted the Rusyn Greek Catholic Church. They shut the doors of the seminary in Užhorod in 1946, murdered Bishop Theodore Romža of Mukacevo a year later and forced Rusyn Greek Catholics into the Orthodox Church in 1949.

The Soviets and their allies squashed any lingering remains of a Rusyn Greek Catholic identity, driving such sentiments underground. The church, nevertheless, survived. The Greek Catholic Eparchy of Prešov in Czechoslovakia was restored after the liberal government reforms of 1968; however, the Rusyn Greek Catholic eparchy assumed a Slovak identity, which it retains to this day.

In Soviet Ukraine, the Eparchy of Mukacevo resurfaced in 1989, but its Rusyn identity was questioned and tried. In 1993, the Holy See reaffirmed the eparchy’s unique relationship to the Holy See, declining to incorporate it into the much larger Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

In 1996, Pope John Paul II erected an exarchate for Greek Catholics in the Czech Republic, officially classifying it as a “Ruthenian” jurisdiction. The exarchate was created, not only to care for the pastoral needs of Greek Catholic Rusyns and Slovaks living in the Czech Republic, but to regularize the orders of married Latin priests ordained secretly during the Communist era.

While a unified church may not yet exist, European and North American Rusyn Greek Catholics work together, assisting one another with financial and personnel support. This support is not limited to Greek Catholics alone. Guided by the ecumenical movement and encouraged by the foundation of nonpartisan societies dedicated to the study of Carpatho-Rusyn genealogy, history, literature and religion, relations among Rusyns of all faiths press forward. On the occasion of the centennial anniversary of the printing of the first official compilation and manual of the prostopinije (late June 2006), the then apostolic administrator of the Greek Catholic Eparchy of Mukacevo, Bishop Milan Sasik, C.M., invited all eparchies rooted in the church of Mukacevo, Greek Catholic and Orthodox, to a conference in Užhorod.

“Our liturgical plainchant tradition identifies us, unites us and distinguishes us as one church in the Byzantine tradition,” he said. “The testimony of this common usage is an important reason to celebrate together.”

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

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