Greek Catholic villagers gather to celebrate Theophany, the commemoration of Jesus’ baptism, in Jakubany, Slovakia. (photo: Father Damian Saraka)
The blessing of eggs, ham, bread and cheese remains an important ritual at Easter. (photo: Father Damian Saraka)
What divides the Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches of Central and Eastern Europe usually reflects the complex history and geopolitical realities of the continent more than any particular theological nuances, even papal primacy.
The Slovak Greek Catholic Church is a sui iuris (or self-governing) community in Slovakia — Byzantine in character and Catholic in faith — raised to the rank of a metropolitan church by Pope Benedict XVI in January 2008. It includes some 217,000 Greek Catholics from a number of ethnic groups living in the landlocked country, including Carpatho-Rusyns, Hungarians, Roma, Slovaks and Ukrainians.
Led by Metropolitan Archbishop Jan Babjak of Presov, the dynamic Jesuit has bolstered ties between the Slovak church and her daughter church in Canada, where some 2,500 Slovak Greek Catholics form the Eparchy of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.
Additionally, the metropolitan archbishop — installed in 2002 — has deepened ties to Greek Catholics in other worldwide jurisdictions. These include the Metropolitan Archeparchy of Pittsburgh and its three dependent eparchies in the United States; the Apostolic Exarchate for Byzantine Catholics in the Czech Republic; and the Eparchy of Mukacevo, now in Subcarpathian Ukraine, or Transcarpathia.
In the celebration of the sacraments, Slovak Greek Catholic parish communities use Slovak and its Latin alphabet as well as Church Slavonic and its Cyrillic alphabet. And its territory is restricted to parish communities in the Slovak Republic.
Yet the churchs origins and development are synonymous with the various Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic churches of Central Europe. Together, the ancestors of these Catholics received the Christian faith from Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the late ninth century. And they professed their full communion with the bishop of Rome in the chapel of the castle of Uzhorod in April 1646, centuries after the Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) churches had drifted apart.
Modern developments. The House of Hapsburg governed a multiethnic empire in Central Europe from the 13th to early 20th centuries. Hapsburg emperors and empresses protected the interests of Catholics of the Byzantine tradition, who were received into full communion with Rome after the Catholic Reformation in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Most were from ethnic groups today identified as Carpatho-Rusyn, Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak and Ukrainian.
Despite their unia, these Catholics were held in suspicion by the Hapsburgs, who believed them to be susceptible to the machinations of agents of the Russian tsars.
As self-proclaimed protectors of Orthodox Christians worldwide, the tsars sponsored a return to Orthodoxy campaign among the empires Greek Catholics to weaken the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian realm.
After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, many Greek Catholic Carpatho-Rusyns and Slovaks found themselves living in the newly established nation of Czechoslovakia. These Greek Catholics were centered primarily in the Slovak eparchies of Mukacevo and Presov.
While the Russian tsar also lost his throne, his pro-Orthodox movement among Greek Catholics gathered steam in Czechoslovakia, particularly after the Holy See imposed restrictions — for example, barring the use of married priests — on Greek Catholic communities in North America.
The founding bishop of the Orthodox Church of Czechoslovakia, Gorazd, responded to the confusion and erected an Orthodox eparchy in Mukacevo — the historical center of Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholics — and received thousands of Greek Catholic families into the Orthodox Church. The Nazis, however, snuffed out the church during World War II.
At the end of the war, the Soviet Union annexed Mukacevo and attached it to the Ukraine. Shortly after, the regions surviving Greek Catholics were absorbed by the Orthodox Church of Russia following a Soviet-sponsored synod that forced the Greek Catholic Church in the Ukraine to sever ties with Rome and restore communion with the Orthodox Church. By January 1950, the pastoral needs of Czechoslovakias surviving Greek Catholics were attended to by the Eparchy of Presov.
But disaster soon struck. In April 1950 — after Czech Communists consolidated their power in a coup détat — a Greek Catholic synod in Czechoslovakia met and declared their independence from the Holy See. Bishop Paul Gojdic, O.S.B.M., and his auxiliary, Bishop Vasil Hopko, refused to attend the synod and were imprisoned. In addition, the Communist authorities turned over Greek Catholic property to the Orthodox Church, forcing some 360,000 Slovak Greek Catholics to worship as Orthodox Christians. Bishop Paul died in prison in 1960. His successor, Bishop Vasil, was released from prison in 1968 and died in 1976. Both men were beatified later by Pope John Paul II.
In 1968, during the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dubcek, former Greek Catholic parishes of the Orthodox Church of Czechoslovakia were permitted to vote to remain Orthodox or return to Catholicism.
Of the 292 participating parishes, 205 voted to return to full communion with Rome. These Greek Catholic parishes, unlike other reforms of the Prague Spring, survived the Soviet invasion later that year in August. Their properties, however, remained in the hands of the Orthodox Church until 1993.
Today. The dissolution of the Communist government in 1989 (the Velvet Revolution) and the 1993 separation of the Czech and Slovak republics (the Velvet Divorce) compelled the Holy See to create separate eparchial structures for Greek Catholics living in the two nations. In 1997, Pope John Paul II created the Apostolic Exarchate of Kosice, taking territory from the Eparchy of Presov. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI reorganized the Slovak Greek Catholic Church further; he raised it to the status of a metropolitan church, sui iuris. He also elevated the Eparchy of Presov to a metropolitan see, changed the status of the Apostolic Exarchate of Kosice to that of an eparchy and created a new eparchy in the Slovak capital of Bratislava.
According to the Slovak Republics 2011 census, only 0.6 percent of the population of nearly 5.5 million identify as Carpatho-Rusyn, proof of the decline of a Carpatho-Rusyn identity among Slovakias Greek Catholics. Nevertheless, sustaining solidarity among other jurisdictions of Carpatho-Rusyn origin, Greek Catholic and Orthodox, remains a concern of the Slovak Greek Catholic leadership.
Reviving parishes of all ethnic communities; forming a new generation of priests, religious and lay leaders; instilling proper catechesis, especially among the urbanized youth; and restoring parish churches and other parish facilities take precedence for this new yet ancient church.
Michael La Civita, CNEWA’s vice president for communications, has written extensively on the Eastern churches.