Uniate Church

[Jacob Lassin]

In the Ukrainian area of Galicia and extending to parts of Belarus and Lithuania, an idiosyncratic religious communion emerged which aimed to straddle the Orthodox and Catholic worlds. This group known as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic or Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church or, most commonly in Russian sources, the Uniate Church was established after the Union of Brest (1569). The agreement struck at Brest allowed for the Uniate Church to establish its own leadership and hierarchy as well as keep liturgy in the vernacular language, Church Slavonic, and other Eastern Christian customs, such as priestly marriage. But this new Church also swore allegiance and fealty to the pope, bringing it under the dominion of Western Christianity and the rest of Europe (Weeks, 70). For centuries this region was dominated by Polish Catholic nobles who were the political elite over the mostly Orthodox peasantry. The “existence of the Uniates, a ‘third’ Christian faith in the confessional and geographic interstices between Orthodoxy to the East and Catholicism to the West, confused and violated the Russian state’s conception of the western border region” (Weeks, 72).

Russia did not maintain control over Western Ukraine or the other Uniate strongholds indefinitely. The Hapsburg Empire annexed Galicia, the region of Ukraine where most Uniate believers lived, during the first partition of Poland in 1772 (Bociurkiw 1996, 5). The Catholic monarchy of the Austrian Empire supported the Uniate Church, allowing it to thrive as a bulwark against Russian expansionism and nascent Russian national feelings among Orthodox peasants in the region who expressed animosity to the Catholic elite of the Austrian Empire. Over time and with the nurturing of the Austrian state, the Uniate Church’s influence and protection of Ukrainian culture and identity allowed for national awakening in Galicia and by the nineteenth century the cultural intelligentsia was almost entirely made up of the children of Uniate priests (Bociurkiw 1995, 133-4). It was this cultural elite which founded Ukrainian language schools and literary institutions as a means of projecting and defending a notion of Ukrainian national identity.

However, this moment of freedom and growth for the Uniate Church would not last. The second partition of Poland allowed the Russian Empire to take back Galicia and the majority of the Uniate population. Almost at once there was a Russian assault on the Uniate Church. Catherine the Great instituted a wide scale campaign to convert Uniates to Russian Orthodoxy and change Uniate priests into Russian Orthodox ones (Bociurkiw 1996, 5). Over Catherine’s reign there was a demolition of the Uniate Church infrastructure and hierarchy. Eparchies, the Eastern equivalent of dioceses, were shut down and churches were taken for the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate. Catherine’s main goal in these actions was to “eliminate the barrier to the integration of the Ukrainians and Belarusians with the Russians and to eliminate the Polish nobility’s influence over them (Ibid.).

The policies against the Eastern Catholic Church within Russia were quite an organized affair. As far back as 1828 the government set up a committee on the “Orthodoxization” of the Uniates with a former Uniate priest, Iosyf Semashko, leading the assault on the Uniate Church (Bociurkiw 1996, 5-6). By the mid-1830s there was a more organized attack on the Uniate Church and once the old stalwart Metropolitan Bulhak died, Semashko took control of the Greco-Uniate College, which was subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church. These events paved the way for a “reunion” between the Uniate and Russian Orthodox Churches. This reunion involved the signing of an “Act of Reunion” in 1839 and Nicholas I feted the event with the striking of commemorative medals and naming Semashko an archbishop (Bociurkiw 1996, 7).

This “reunion” of course did not mean the total destruction and end of the Uniate Church. In the Kholm eparchy, the most exposed to Polonization and Western Catholicism, the Russian Empire saw a breeding ground for insurrection against the state Church and Tsar. Following the failed Polish Uprising in 1863, the Russian government equated, often not incorrectly, the Kholm eparchy’s leadership with advocacy for Polish independence from the Russian Empire. This initiated a second push for the wholesale dismantling of the Uniate Church along with Russian colonization to the region to dilute the power of the Uniate Church and its Ukrainian national identity. The Russian government denied Uniate seminarians the opportunity to study in Warsaw and instead worked to coerce them to attend an Orthodox seminary in Kiev. Moreover, by the 1870s there was another aggressive movement towards further “reunion” and in 1874 the government required all parish priests and at least two parishioners to sign a document supporting a “return” to the Russian Orthodox Church, those who refused were deported to Russia without their families and their children were taken to be raised Orthodox, understandably, most priests complied (Bociurkiw 1996, 9-10).

Uniate believers had to practice secretly or not at all at the tail end of the nineteenth century. There was a modicum of respite for Uniates in the early twentieth century when political pressures and uprisings forced the Russian Empire to make some changes towards modernization and protecting personal freedoms. One of these was Nicholas II’s “toleration” edict, which allowed for the free practice of many of the religions present in the Empire. Uniatism was not one of these, but Catholicism was and “some 200,000 ‘reunited’ believers in the Kholm-Podlachia region opted for Roman Catholicism and, inevitably, Polonization” (Bociurkiw 1996, 10). This move allowed the Russian Empire to appease some believers who felt attachment to the pope and also to break some Ukrainian national sentiment which was tied to Uniate worship and belief which threatened Russian national cohesion.

As Europe became embroiled in World War I both Galician Uniates saw an opportunity to free their brethren under Russian control and unite all the Ukrainian lands. The Russian government meanwhile viewed this as a chance to attack the Galician Greek Catholic Church and with occupation of Galicia, Russia banned the public use of Ukrainian and shut down all Ukrainian cultural organizations except the Greek Catholic Church (Bociurkiw 1996, 14-15). Many of the remaining Uniate faithful and their clergy became Orthodox and in order many left when the Austro-Hungarian army recaptured Galicia, however, Austrian control over the region would again be short lived.

The end of World War I witnessed the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As delegates from around the world met in Paris to decide how to divide up the map, the Greek Catholic Church made an unequivocal push for Ukrainian statehood, however, the Great Powers did not see things their way and instead awarded Galicia wholesale to Poland (Bociurkiw 1996, 20-1). As the Russian Civil War raged in parts of Galicia were under Soviet control and in 1920 a Galician Soviet Socialist Republic was created, eliminating privileges for clergy and nationalizing Church lands. However, following a Soviet-Polish armistice a month later dissolved the Galicial Soviet Socialist Republic and the Treaty of Riga a year later solidified the Polish-Soviet border for the remainder of the interwar period (Ibid.).

For nearly the entirety of the interwar period the Soviet Union, the Russian Empire’s successor, remained largely unconcerned with Uniate affairs. Instead they became the domain of the newly formed Polish state. However, the Uniate believers received roughly the same level of treatment from Russia as they did from Poland. The Polish government and Catholic Church instituted Polonization of schools and Polish colonization of Western Ukraine (Bociurkiw 1996) . These tactics almost entirely mimicked those used by the Russian Empire when it controlled Galicia and the bulk of the Uniate population. The Uniate Church struggled through conflicts between “Easternerizers” those who fiercely opposed the imposition of priestly celibacy by the Vatican and “Latinizers” who wanted to make the Uniate Church more like the Roman Catholic Church (Ibid.). These tensions threatened to tear the Uniate Church apart, but for the most part the interwar period was one of expansion and strengthening for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

1939 stands as the year when the Soviet’s passive stance on Galicia ended. The negotiation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact, which paved the way for the Soviet invasion into Poland and other lands of Western Ukraine that had formerly been part of the Russian Empire, chief among them, Galicia. Once the Soviet Army took control of Western Ukraine, the persecution of the Uniate Church began almost at once (Corley, 322). This persecution let up some during Nazi occupation of the region during World War II but returned once the Soviets retook control of the area in 1944.

After the war, Stalin forced a sham synod of the Uniate Church in order to bring them back into line with the once again favored Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church greeted this as an opportunity to gain more congregants, but there was a vocal and ardent underground movement of priests, believers and later bishops, allowing it to survive (Corley, 322). Those priests and monks who were discovered to be “recalcitrant” and practicing the now absorbed Greek Catholic faith were sent to gulags. Only with Nikita Khrushchev’s pardons of those imprisoned and killed during the Thaw did the Uniate Church regain some footing (Bociurkiw 1995, 135). However, the Soviet state remained officially atheist and worked almost exclusively with the Russian Orthodox Church, the historical antagonist of the Uniates, when it came to matters of religious import, pushing Uniatism to the fringes of Soviet and even Ukrainian life.

It appears that the main reason for Soviet animosity towards the Uniate Church was the “symbiotic relationship that had developed since the nineteenth century between Greek Catholicism and intense national consciousness in Galicia” (Bociurkiw 1995, 136). One must remember that Galicia and other lands populated with Uniate Church members have been hotly contested throughout its history. The Soviet leadership was quite aware of this fact and did a great deal to deprive the region of any ability to reconnect to an independent past or culture which could potentially undermine Soviet rule. However, the Greek Catholic Church did have a strong core enabling the Church to survive through the Soviet period. This devoted nucleus consisted mostly of clergymen and congregants who continued to practice as Greek Catholics without official recognition from the state and without the support of the global Catholic Church hierarchy.

The new cultural relaxations of Gorbachev’s glasnost’ emboldened many Uniate clergymen and they began to reassert their rights to practice and worship openly. In addition they began to proudly tout their unique Ukrainian national identity. As the millennium of the Baptism of Rus’ approached in 1988 there was a push among some Ukrainian Greek Orthodox clergymen to come out of hiding and implore the pope to recognize them and to help restore their Church in Ukraine (Bociurkiw 1995, 136). This action raised the ire of both the Soviet state and the Russian Orthodox Patriarchy which both pushed to disqualify it from receiving official recognition as a religious organization after having denied that the group even existed for decades. Clergy began leaving the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate for the Uniate Church and at some of the first free local elections in Ukraine some openly pro-Ukraininan Greek Catholic politicians were elected (Bociurkiw 1995, 136-7). The change prompted Mikhail Gorbachev to strike a deal while visiting the Vatican in which the Ukrainian Catholics would receive recognition as long as the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Patriarchate could come to an agreement on the redistribution of lands and property taken by the Soviet government (Bociurkiw 1995, 137-8).

The collapse of the Soviet state and emergence for the first time ever of an independent Ukraine was in many ways the dream of the Uniate faithful. In addition there has been a flowering of Church life in the Uniate community, from the establishment of new eparchies to the opening of Ukrainian Catholic educational institutions. However, in Galicia, the Uniate Church must compete with the Orthodox Patriarchate for congregants and for the rights to property (Bociurkiw 1995, 139). No longer does the Uniate Church maintain a monopoly on Ukrainian spiritual life or national identity and is part of the cultural mosaic constituting life in post-Soviet Ukraine.



Works Cited

  • Bohdan Bociurkiw , “Politics and Religion in Ukraine: The Orthodox and the Greek Catholics,” in The Politics of Religion in Russia and the New States of Eurasia, ed. Michael Bourdeaux, 131-62 (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995).
  • —, The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Soviet State (1939-1950) (Toronto: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1996).
  • Felix Corley, Religion In The Soviet Union: An Archival Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1996).
  • Theodore R. Weeks, “Between Rome and Tsargrad: The Uniate Church in Imperial Russia,” in of Religion and Empire: Missions, Conversion, and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia,” ed. Robert P. Geraci and Michael Khodarkovsky (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).