Monday, April 27, 2015

Sui Juris Churches VII: The Ruthenian Catholic Church

(on sui juris churches in general)

Liturgical Family: Byzantine

Primary Liturgical Languages: Church Slavonic and English

Juridical Status: Mixed, but usually classified as Metropolitan Archiepiscopal

Approximate Population (to Nearest 10,000): 650,000.

Brief History: All the particular churches of the Byzantine rite have their little peculiarities arising from their history. The primary peculiarity of the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church is that it does not have a unified structure. In the United States, in which 'Ruthenian Catholic' and 'Byzantine Catholic' are sometimes practically synonymous, the Ruthenians are very well organized and have a Metropolitan Archbishop. But the (much larger) European part of the church is not within his jurisdiction but directly subject to Rome; the juridical status of the Ruthenian Catholic Church in the Ukraine is eparchial, and in the Czech Republic it is an exarchate, and these parts function independently.

The word 'Ruthenian' is related to the word 'Russian'; it generally indicates the population living in Transcarpathia or 'Little Russia'. Like many of the regions of Central Europe, this region has at times been 'Eastern' and at times been 'Western'; the significant factor in this was the rise of Catholic realms like Hungary and Poland. As Hungarian and Polish influence expanded, the Catholic kingdoms began to secure possession of areas of Europe that had previously been Orthodox. This led to a greater interaction between Orthodox and Catholic, and an increase in the likelihood that previously Orthodox clergy would become Catholic. The Ruthenian Catholic Church, in the proper sense, arose through a series of important unions that came about as a result of this interaction.

The Union of Brest occurred in 1595 and united a large number of Ukrainian and Belorussian clergy living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to Rome. The Union of Uzhhorod in 1646 would follow Brest's lead for clergy living in the Kingdom of Hungary. Another union occurred in 1664 at Mukachevo. All of these were granted the right to continue in their prior rituals and rites, as long as they made certain doctrinal affirmations. For instance, one of the major contentions between East and West had long been the addition of the Filioque to the Nicene Creed; the Ruthenians were not required to add it as long as they affirmed that the doctrine expressed by the phrase was in fact true. They were also granted a relative degree of autonomy after 1771. These Ruthenian 'Uniate' churches, as they were called then, would serve as the direct root for four current particular churches: the Ukrainian and the Belarusian, who are primarily from the Brest line of the Union, and the Slovakian and Ruthenian, who are primarily from the Uzhhorod and Mukachevo lines.

A further complication arose prior to this division, due to the importance of coal mining to nineteenth-century industry; it led to the arrival in North America in the 1870s of many Ruthenian immigrants. The exposure was something of a shock to North American Catholics, who were, of course, Latin rite. It is because of this influx that 'Byzantine Catholic' usually suggests 'Ruthenian Catholic' to North Americans. Tensions began to develop; a number of Ruthenians found the problems severe enough that they became Orthodox, forming one of the seed crystals of the modern Orthodox Church in America. One of these departing priests, Alexis Toth, was canonized a saint by the Orthodox. The problem was severe enough that Pius X in 1907 appointed a bishop for Ruthenians in America (who, again, would at this period include groups who are today part of the Ukrainian and Belorussian churches). This did not resolve all problems, however; there were also tensions among Ruthenians from different parts of Europe. Rome decided to split the Ruthenians into two in 1916, in part because of tensions in America, so that there was now a Ruthenian and a Ukrainian community; the bishop for the exarchate (missionary territory) in the United States for Ruthenians from the Kingdom of Hungary was Basil Takach, and he is considered the first bishop of the modern form of the Ruthenian Catholic Church. Tensions were not easily alleviated, however, and were especially aggravated by the fact that the Latins enforced clerical celibacy, while the Ruthenians allowed priests to marry.

Thus we see the beginnings of the curious juridical structure of the Ruthenians, one arising through a complicated series of contingent historical events; the Ruthenian church in America was forced into greater juridical union due to continual tensions with the Latin bishops, a factor that was lacking for Ruthenians still in Europe. In addition, the Ruthenian church in America began to diverge in other ways; it began petitioning Rome in the 1950s, for instance, to use English as its primary liturgical language. The American exarchate became two eparchies in 1963. In 1969 the American church was raised to Metropolitan status, with Stephen Kocisko as its first Metropolitan Archbishop.

The European Ruthenians, in the meantime, began suffering under an intense persecution by the government of the Soviet Union. The seminary at Uzhhorod was forcibly closed in 1946; Blessed Theodore Romzha was poisoned in 1947; many others died. When the Communist regime fell in 1990, the two branches, American and European, were finally able to begin interacting again. This is the reason why the European branch, although much larger, is nonetheless less juridically developed than the American branch, and also why the two branches function mostly independently. In addition, there has always been a small but significant movement in the European branch, especially associated with the Eparchy of Mukachevo, that has thought that, for historical reasons, they would make a better 'fit' if united to the Ukrainian Catholic Church. What will become of this disjunction it is difficult to say at this point. Perhaps there will in the future be an Eastern and a Western Ruthenian Catholic Church, or perhaps the European branch will be united to the Ukrainian Catholic Church, or perhaps the two branches will reknit themselves together as they have been actively attempting to do in the past couple of decades. Currently all indications suggest that reknitting is the future, though; at the very least, the interaction has been fruitful as the Byzantine Catholic church in America has helped their European brothers and sisters to rebuild after being underground so long.

In 1996, an apostolic exarchate was established for the Czech Republic. One reason for this was to handle the peculiar situation of a large number of Latin rite priests who had been secretly ordained even though married under the Communist regime; rather than simply force them to act as permanent deacons, and rather than forcing the Latin rite bishops to adapt to a sudden influx of married priests, John Paul II decided to join them with Ruthenian communities already there, which made for a fairly sizable community.

The Ruthenian Catholic Church, therefore, gets its unity not from a particular hierarchical structure but from a shared sense of history, and a shared heritage arising from the Ruthenian Unions. And perhaps also from a shared project. The rebuilding of the European community, whose church property has only slowly been returned and whose recovery from decades of brutal oppression has been piecemeal, is a common task for all Ruthenians.

Notable Monuments: Holy Cross Greek Catholic Cathedral in Uzhhorod, Ukraine.

Notable Saints: Cyril and Methodius; Holy Martyr Josaphat Kuntsevych (November 25). In addition, there are a large number of Ruthenian beatified who were martyrs under the Soviet Union, like Theodore Romzha and Pavel Peter Gojdič, at least some of whom may eventually find a place on the universal calendar. (As Byzantines, the Ruthenians also use a Byzantine calendar, and thus have a number of Orthodox saints on their calendar.)

Notable Religious Institutes: Since many of the original participants in the Ruthenian Unions were Basilian, there has always been a strong Basilian presence in the Ruthenian Catholic Church.

Extent of Official Jurisdiction: The eparchy (diocese) of Mukacheve in the Ukraine, an apostolic exarchate (missionary territory) in the Czech Republic, and a Metropolitan church in the United States consisting of four eparchies. (Sphere of influence always extends beyond the official jurisdiction due to members of the church living outside of any official jurisdiction of the church.)

Online Sources and Resources:


  1. This is a nice series. It puts me in mind of a project for my students...possibly with an organizing, interactive map tool. Maybe a few other graphic representations. Do you have any objections if I rip off/link to you should the day come?

  2. branemrys7:16 AM

    Not at all.


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