Monday, May 04, 2015

Sui Juris Churches IX: The Belarusian Greek Catholic Church

(on sui juris churches in general)

Liturgical Family: Byzantine

Primary Liturgical Languages: Church Slavonic and Belarusian

Juridical Status: Parishes organized into deaneries under the guidance of an apostolic visitor from Rome.

Approximate Population: A bit under 10,000.

Brief History: The Belarusian Greek Catholic Church, the third of the particular churches tracing themselves to the Ruthenian Unions, is the embers of a church. It is a tiny remnant of what was once a thriving community, one that had seemed to near the point of vanishing. But there is evidence that there is still a living fire locked away in those embers.

Belarusians (sometimes Belorussians) were the lion's share of the bishops and priests joining the Catholic Church at the Union of Brest in the 1590s; and although later unions brought in many Ukrainians and others, the united Ruthenian church was still primarily Belarusian. And it thrived; on the verge of the eighteenth century, four out of every five Belarusians were Greek Catholics. It would not last long.

At the Partition of Poland, Belarus passed into the hands of the Russian Empire, which, of course, was officially Russian Orthodox. A number of Byzantine Rite Catholics here and there broke communion with Rome in order to unite with the Russian Orthodox. After the November Uprising of 1830-1831, however, the Russian Empire began to crack down very hard on Byzantine Rite Catholics throughout its acquired territories, and the crack-down was especially fierce and effective in Belarus, where the power of the Catholic nobility was broken completely. In 1839 the bishops of the Catholic Church in Belarus held a synod became Orthodox, shifting over a million Catholics to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Nonetheless, a remarkable number of Belarusian Catholics continued to exist. A number of them fled to the Austrian Empire, which at that time had a policy of supporting Byzantine Rite Catholics. In Belarus itself, Catholicism went underground and began to be practiced in secret. In 1905, Catholicism became legal again. A couple hundred thousand Belarusians converted to Catholicism in a very short period. But even though Catholicism was legal, Byzantine Rite Catholicism was not, so the Belarusians who returned to the Catholic Church did so as Latin Rite, not Byzantine Rite, Catholics.

After the First World War, West Belarus became part of largely Catholic Poland; about thirty thousand Belarusians became Catholic, again in a very short time. In 1931 they were thriving well enough that Rome sent them an Apostolic Visitor to help them organize, and an exarch was appointed for Belarusian Greek Catholics in 1940. Things seemed to be building. It would not last long.

For in 1939 the Soviet Union began annexing West Belarus. The Apostolic Exarch appointed by Rome would be arrested and die in a concentration camp. The Soviets began to suppress all Byzantine Rite Catholicism. The Iron Curtain fell and little more than rumors about the status of Belarusian Greek Catholicism managed to get through it. It was generally assumed to be largely strangled to death.

In the Belarusian diaspora, however, little indicators of the continued existence of Byzantine Rite Belarusian Catholicism occasionally arose. There were only a few scattered communities, but led by people like Father Alexander Nadman, they were very active, forming schools, starting periodicals, translating liturgical texts. Interest in Belarusian Greek Catholicism always remained quite high among Belarusian emigrants, even those who were Latin Rite Catholics or even Orthodox, because a fair amount of their heritage, before the encroachment of Russia, had been Greek Catholic. Often interest is all it was, but it meant that there was room in the Belarusian diaspora for a considerable amount of activity on the part of Byzantine Rite Catholics, however small that community might be. The community outside Belarus began to thrive, and in 1960 an Apostolic Visitor was appointed for all Belarusian Greek Catholics outside of Belarus.

As conditions began to ease in the 1980s and Belarusian Greek Catholics abroad journeyed to Belarus to bring humanitarian aid of various kinds, they discovered, somewhat to their surprise that there were still Belarusian Greek Catholics in Belarus, not merely holdovers from before the Soviet domination, but small, definite pockets of sustained and sustainable Belarusian Greek Catholic communities passing down their traditions and heritage to their children. And, what is more, there was the same interest in Byzantine Rite Catholicism in Belarus itself, and for the same reasons, that there was in the diaspora. And in 1990, Belarusian Greek Catholic parishes again began to be formed.

It is difficult to say how things will go from here. Given the history of the church, one almost fears to hope too much. And there are certainly obstacles -- Belarusians are famously understated and quiet about religious matters, and most of the interest in Belarusian Greek Catholicism is historical and cultural, not religious. The legal situation has also been somewhat difficult. Religious organizations have to be legally registered, and the church itself has no legal status in Belarus -- it is technically headquartered in Rome and headed by a non-Belarusian bishop (its Apostolic Visitor). This has caused immense problems for people trying to establish monasteries and small religious communities, and in 2003 the head of a monastery was charged with illegally running an unregistered monastery, a problem that arose because there is no way to register it given the situation of the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church and the size of the community. Not even all parishes have been able to get legal recognition. And on the other side, it has no bishops of its own and Rome has been slow to assist the church in developing a more coherent form. But the interest is undeniably there, and the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church has slowly been growing.

Notable Saints: Andrew Bobola (May 16); Euphrosyne of Polotsk (May 23); Josaphat Kuntsevych (November 25). There are also many martyrs under the Russian Empire, like the Thirteen Blessed Pratulin Martyrs, or the Communists, who may one day be raised to the general calendar. As a Byzantine Rite church, Belarusian Greek Catholics have a number of Orthodox saints on their calendars.

Extent of Official Jurisdiction: About twenty or so parishes in Belarus.

Online Sources and Resources:

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