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Ruthenian Rite Catholics

In spite of change, Ruthenians have been successful in finding their voice in the Catholic Church.

Frequently when I am introduced to people as a Byzantine-Ruthenian Rite bishop, the question will subtly surface whether I am an Orthodox Christian or really a Catholic. This situation exists primarily because so many Roman Catholics in this country have not yet been made aware of the existence of rites of the Catholic Church other than their own.

And a pity it is! The existence of many rites in the Church is the best argument for its Catholicity; and in this day of ecumenical-consciousness the presence of minority rites on an equal basis in the Church is essential.

While Our Lord was very careful in determining the essentials for His Church, He was not specific with the accidental elements. He thus gave the Church that flexibility which would make it acceptable to every nation and culture until the end of time.

It is precisely this flexibility which has enabled Byzantine-Ruthenians to flourish in the United States. Misunderstandings and prejudices have been cleared or overcome, and have lessened with time. What remains is a colorful tale of a colorful people.

Very early in the history of the Church, both in the East and West, one rite gained prominence over others. This happened either because of the extensions of religious influence of one city over another, or because of the extension of political influence of one country over another.

Today the most prominent and widely-used Eastern Rite is the Byzantine – a system of Christan worship which developed in the city of Byzantium, (later renamed Constantinople, and now known as Istanbul).

The Byzantine Rite is often divided into categories by various national groups who use it with some variation. We have, then, the Greek, Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Ruthenian. Ukrainians and Ruthenians were commonly referred to as “Ruthenian Rite Catholics” until recent times.

“Ruthenian” is the official ecclesiastical term distinguishing certain bodies of Byzantine Catholics found in Eastern Galicia, Podcarpathia, Hungary and Bukovina, with colonies in North America and elsewhere. The Ruthenians, then, are Slavs, and their homeland was the original nucleus of Russia.

How is it that people of Slav ancestry use a system of worship that developed in the capital city of the Byzantine Empire?

About two hundred years before the unhappy schism which destroyed the unity of faith existing in the already geographically-divided Church, two Greek monks – Cyril and Methodius – answered the call of Ratislav, Prince of Moravia, for missionaries capable of teaching his people the truths of Christianity in their own language. They translated the Scriptures and some hymns into the Slavonic language and gave the distinctive Cyrillic script that the Soviets and other Slavs use to this day. The two saints were successful in their efforts, and the rite they had brought with them from Constantinople thus found its way into Slav territories.

When the Great Schism occurred between Rome and Constantinople in the 11th century, these Slav Christians dependent on the Church of Constantinople in so many ways – especially for priests and bishops – likewise drifted away from unity with the Church of Rome.

Five hundred years elapsed before meaningful steps were taken to remedy this breach. In 1596 seven bishops of the Old Kingdom of Poland formally united themselves with the Catholic Church. Three million Eastern Catholics now called Ukrainians returned to “the fold” in this Union of Brest.

Fifty years later, in 1646, another group of priests and people living in the Old Kingdom of Hungary came back to union with the Catholic Church. This Union of Uzhorod brought back the Eastern Catholics presently known as “Ruthenians.”

In the latter part of the nineteenth century these groups of Slav Catholics began to immigrate to the United States and Canada. They came in such large numbers that the Holy See appointed a bishop for them in 1907. As ethnic differences between Ukrainians and Ruthenians proved to be a hindrance to their unity, though, two separate Exarchates were established in 1924 – one for each group. These Exarchates eventually grew into the two present Metropolitan Provinces.

Slav Catholics brought with them to America their culture and customs, as well as their rite. One very important part of our faith is devotion to the Blessed Mother. Each year on October 1, the feast of the Protection or Patronage of the Mother of God is celebrated by the Slav Byzantine Church. It commemorates the miraculous intercession of the Mother of God to save the city of Constantinople.

As the faithful were gathered in the Church of Vlacherna, Mary appeared and joined them in prayer for the deliverance of the city. As a sign of her protection, she covered all present with her mantle. Her motherly concern gave the people new hope and courage – and the city was saved.

In the Byzantine Chapel of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the dominant mosaic panel sponsored by the Ruthenians symbolizes this miraculous event, as well as the love of all Eastern Catholics for the Mother of God.

Our history in the United States has indeed been laced with struggle for survival, and ridicule. But in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, we Byzantine Catholics are finally being recognized as co-equals in the Church of Jesus Christ in America.

Vatican II has conclusively proven that variety in the Church is not detrimental to unity. The official position of the Catholic Church is, and has been, that the traditions of each local Church or rite remain intact and unaltered, while adapting their way of life to the changing needs of time and place.

It is important that all Catholics understand this “universality” of our Church if we are to be successful in accomplishing the mission Jesus Christ assigned to us to preach the Good News until the end of time.

It is also important that we all also promote mutual understanding among the various rites of our common family. For, if our separated Orthodox brethren in the East see that the spiritual treasures of the East are respected by Western Christians, they will be encouraged to make that long journey towards the ideal of One Flock and One Shepherd.

Bishop Dolinay is currently stationed in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania. In spite of a very distinguished priestly career, the Bishop describes himself simply as “a parish priest who has done some newspaper work.”

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