Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sui Juris Churches V: The Russian Greek Catholic Church

(on sui juris churches in general)

Liturgical Family: Byzantine

Primary Liturgical Language: Church Slavonic

Juridical Status: Apostolic Exarchate

Approximate Population: Less than 10,000.

Brief History: The Russian Greek Catholic Church is almost more of a suggestion of a church than what we would normally think of as a church. It has very little formal structure. It is not sharply distinguished from its Russian Orthodox counterpart. It is tiny and scattered, and nobody knows for sure how many Russian Catholics there are. It is like a wisp or a shadow of a cloud curling across the Russian landscape, certainly there but difficult to see and define.

There was never any sharp, formal rupture between the Russian Orthodox Church and Rome; it was a gradual divergence, with Moscow gravitating toward Constantinople. In the fifteenth century, Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev and a number of other Russian delegates attended the Council of Florence and united with Rome. They attempted to put this union in effect, but failed, partly through the opposition of the Czar. It is rumored that there were scattered groups who had followed Isidore, and they continued to exist, Starokatoliki, a sort of scattered set of Catholics in hiding. Their existence is not even certain, although there are indications of secret Catholicism here and there, and their relation to the Russian Catholic Church as it exists today may be no more than folklore. It is, nonetheless, part of the folk history.

Whether there is a connection with these Starokatoliki or not, the modern Russian Greek Catholic Church arose in the nineteenth century due to the philosopher, Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov. A man of many ideas, one of his ideas was that someone might be Russian Orthodox and Catholic simultaneously. His ideas in this respect influenced a Russian Orthodox priest, Fr. Nicholas Tolstoy, who eventually became Catholic. (Solovyov himself would become Catholic through Fr. Tolstoy.) Tolstoy was incardinated with the Melkite Catholic Church in 1893, having studied Middle Eastern Christianity for some time. On his return to Russia, a small community began gathering around him, including a few priests. These Catholic groups continued for some time despite being illegal, in part due to the influence of certain high members in the Russian court, most notably Prince Peter Volokonsky and Princess Elisabeth Volokonsky. In 1908 Fr. Alexander Zerchaninov was named Administrator for the Mission to the Russian Catholics. He was given a clear directive by the Vatican Secretariat of State: the practice of the Russian Catholics was to be exactly like that of the Russian Orthodox, without any latinization. This would be confirmed by Pius X in the famous phrase, which is the general principle on which Russian Catholic liturgy works: nec plus, nec minus, nec aliter (not more, not less, not other).

The tiny community, viewing themselves as Russian Orthodox in communion with Rome, were often harassed by the police, first under the Czars and then under the Communists. Fr. Nicholas Tolstoy would eventually be shot in 1938. One of the notable heroes of the group was Leonid Feodorov. Feodorov had originally studied to be a Russian Orthodox priest, but had converted to Catholicism; his original intent was to join the Latin Rite, but as he studied, he came to the conclusion that he should remain an Eastern Catholic, and received the permission of the pope to transfer to the Russian Catholic Church. He would eventually return to Saint Petersburg, where he was arrested and sent to Siberia. However, in the aftermath of the February Revolution, the provisional government of Russia freed all political prisoners and the Russian Catholic community began to come out into public view; Feodorov was named the Exarch of the Russian Catholic Church. However, in 1922, systematic religious persecution began; the Russian Catholic Church was suppressed, and a number of priests, including Feodorov were brought to court. Feodorov was sentenced to prison, and then to the Solovki prison camp. After serving his sentence, he continued to teach and say Mass, and would die a few years after, in 1935. He was beatified by John Paul II in 2001. His successor, who died in prison, would also be beatified.

Scattered incidents would continue (an illegal monastery here, an uncovered secret church there), showing that the Russian Catholic Church continued in secret. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the Russian Catholic Church has slowly become more visible. The church has no hierarchy of its own (it technically has two exarchates, but they are currently vacant), and consists of some communities scattered through Russia and the Russian diaspora. It is remarkable, however, for its tenacity; having no clear form, often invisible, it nevertheless occasionally pops up again, showing that it continues to endure.

Notable Monuments: Saint Michael's Chapel in New York, which has a remarkably rich history for a little chapel.

Notable Saints: While I know of none with full canonization on the universal calendar, there are a few beatified martyrs (mostly under the Communist regime), like Blessed Leonid, some of whom may well end up on the general calendar at some point. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish them out, however; Russian Catholics tend to treat all Russians who are Catholic as Russian Catholics, which, of course, makes considerable sense given their history, so that Ruthenian Catholic and Latin Catholic martyrs will often tend to be classified as Russian Catholic by Russian Catholics themselves. The Russian Catholic calendar, of course, is more or less the same calendar as that of the Russian Orthodox, and includes a number of Russian Orthodox saints.

Extent of Official Jurisdiction: Some parishes scattered around the world, under the patronage of bishops of other particular churches.

Online Sources and Resources:


  1. Anton Usher10:39 PM

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write about our Church, as part of this series.
    Anton, deacon

  2. Deacon Thomas Stadnik9:52 AM

    This is a nice summary.


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