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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Slovakia’s Greek Catholics

An update on the Greek Catholic faithful of this post-Communist country.

Like many Eastern European towns, Presov, Slovakia, is dominated by its main square lined with trees and bordered with gaily painted 18th-century buildings. With its diverse population of Slovaks, Hungarians, Romani (Gypsies), Ruthenians (Carpatho-Rusyns) and Ukrainians, Presov remains a backwater. But perhaps because it is a university town, the city is surprisingly lively and cheerful with a proud cultural history.

Certainly the Greek Catholics of Presov [the term “Greek Catholic” was coined in the 18th century by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria] have reason for cheer these days. The ordination of the Rev. Jan Hirka as bishop in February 1990 has given them a public ecclesiastical leader for the first time in over 40 years.

Like Ukraine’s Greek Catholics, Slovakia’s Greek Catholics were forcibly united with the Orthodox Church two years after the communists’ came to power in 1948. Bishops Paul Gojdic and Basil Hopko were imprisoned as were many priests; others were banished to western Slovakia.

Suddenly the Orthodox Church, which in 1950 had only 18 churches in eastern Slovakia, found itself possessing many buildings but few priests; the Orthodox had to train new clergy in special six-week courses. Most Greek Catholics, however, attended Roman Catholic liturgies.

In 1968 Alexander Dubcek, first secretary of the Communist Party, instituted a number of reforms. Parishes were ordered to vote whether to remain Orthodox or become part of the restored Greek Catholic Church. Soon after the Warsaw Pact’s troops ended the Prague Spring in late 1968, many parishes were forced to hold two services to accommodate both Greek Catholics and Orthodox.

In October 1992 Bishop Hirka was finally able to move into his official residence, situated on the southern end of Presov’s main square, just down the street from the Greek Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Speaking late last year in a simple but handsome reception room at his official residence, the bishop noted that the former occupants totally wrecked the residence when they had to return it in 1991.

“With the help of our laity, it was restored between May and October 1992. The Orthodox Church has been told to return 52 churches to us, but until now we haven’t asked for the rectories, which of course also belonged to us. And our people bore the burden of this restoration.”

During our conversation, Bishop Hirka again and again praised the faith and fortitude of the laity. In a country known for its religious strength, the Greek Catholics of eastern Slovakia are regarded as particularly devout.

Throughout its history, the fate of the Greek Catholic Church has been linked to the political fortunes of eastern Slovakia. Some historians claim that eastern Slovakia’s Christians always remained loyal to the pope, says Mikulas Hucko, former secretary to Bishop Hirka. Others believe the Greek Catholic Church dates back to the Act of Union in 1646 in the city of Uzhgorod (now in western Ukraine). Several Ukrainian Catholic eparchies (dioceses) also claim Uzhgorod as the site of their union with the bishop of Rome.

Like their Ukrainian counterparts, the Greek Catholics of Slovakia are liturgically and spiritually Orthodox, yet loyal to the pope. Married clergy, celibate monks and bishops, veneration of icons and the use of Church Slavonic in the liturgy illustrate this church’s Orthodox heritage.

After the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, there were about 310,000 Greek Catholics in Czechoslovakia, a multi-ethnic republic made up of Czechs, Bohemians, Moravians and Slovaks. Now, there are about 250,000 Greek Catholics in newly independent Slovakia. There are also several thousand in what is now the Czech Republic; a result of the postwar resettlement of poor eastern Slovaks whose villages had been destroyed in the war. Many were resettled by the communists in the German-speaking border region of Sudetenland, whose German-speaking population was forcibly expelled after the war.

Bishop Hirka, a short, cherubic man whose face readily creases into a smile, sees many benefits in the suffering endured by his people under communism:

“God allowed people to be tempted but not abandoned. The laity suffered a lot,but because of them the church is still alive…that’s why it’s in good shape today.

“I worked as an electrician under the communists. During that time and my time in prison, I learned much from ordinary people and that’s why as a bishop I’m now able to give them advice…I appreciate their wisdom.”

He cited an experience while administrator of the eparchy, a post he filled before becoming bishop. Encouraged to cooperate with the Orthodox, he asked the laity what to do. They advised him to accept the clergy as people but not to accept Orthodoxy as his religion.

“Inside ordinary people,” said Bishop Hirka, “are faith and wisdom and truth. I tried to make communists see that they were trying to manufacture the truth when in fact the truth is to be found inside ordinary people. It can’t be made.”

In 1990, the Slovak National Parliament enacted a law that all former Greek Catholic churches were to be restored. Often churches had been used by both Greek Catholics and Orthodox; thus restitution was to be negotiated.

“Wrangling over issues of church property,” says Mikulas Hucko, “reflects badly on Christianity and has laid the church open to charges in the media of greed. Such things confuse people. Communist policy sowed the seeds of this discord and that diabolical policy is now bearing fruit.”

Restitution continues, with the Orthodox Church now promised compensation for returning churches to the Greek Catholics. However, a few churches have been handed over minus their icons or pews; or, as with the bishop’s residence, damaged or defaced.

A cause for cheer is the seminary, which is next door to Bishop Hirka’s residence. After 1968 only one seminary, for both Greek and Roman Catholics, was permitted in Slovakia. Often the number of Greek Catholic seminarians was limited to four per year. Now there is a need for young priests who are able to do pastoral work. Many of the 167 priests currently engaged in pastoral work are elderly; eight are over 80.

There are 105 seminarians enrolled in the Presov seminary and Bishop Hirka anticipates that within three years the number will suffice to meet the demand for priests. In addition, 220 lay people are studying theology at the seminary in order to teach in school.

Bishop Hirka listed making pilgrimages among the duties of a priest, which indicates how important such rites are among Greek Catholics. The most popular pilgrimage, held in August near the village of Lutina, attracts some 100,000 faithful a year.

Another popular site is the village of Limanova where on 1 August 1989 two girls aged 10 and 12 claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. She warned them against materialism and consumerism. Since the first apparition the girls, both of whom have passed a battery of psychological tests, continue to have the same vision on the first Sunday of each month. Their case, which is under scrutiny by church officials, has attracted much attention and is said to have brought converts to the church.

Without minimizing the girls’ experience, Mikulas Hucko cautions against relying on visions rather than holy scripture. But he agrees that materialism and an indifference to church matters are some of the biggest tests now facing the church. New Age groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other proselytizers are active, filling a need, Hucko fears, not being met by the church. And with Slovakia’s separation from the Czechs have come greater economic and political uncertainty. How newly independent Slovakia will handle its problems is not yet clear.

Bishop Hirka, a self-confessed optimist, said that he is confident the laity will continue to help one another survive; and he hopes they avoid becoming slaves to secularism or materialism. However materialism may be a much more slippery and multiheaded adversary than communism.

Jacqueline Ruyak frequently travels to Slovakia.

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