Current Issue
Autumn, 2015
Volume 41, Number 3
24 November 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita

Archbishop Leo, head of the Orthodox Church of Finland, speaks during the opening of an ice church in Juuka, Finland, on 24 January 2015. (photo: Timo Hartikainen/AFP/Getty Images)

Thoughts of Finland conjure up images of fir trees blanketed with snow, crisp cold Arctic air, fresh water lakes, lingonberry preserves and reindeer. Golden icons, clouds of incense, beeswax candles and polyphonic chants do not figure in these musings. Yet, the world of Byzantium exists even in this land of Scandinavian simplicity.

The Orthodox Church of Finland includes an estimated 62,000 Finns, about 1 percent of the population. The church, however, plays a disproportionate role in modern Finland. The Finnish constitution establishes the Orthodox Church as a national church. The government collects taxes for the church while the Orthodox clergy (together with their Evangelical Lutheran peers) preside at affairs of state. In recent decades, the church has been energized by an increase of converts, an influx of Orthodox Greek, Romanian and Russian immigrants and renewed public interest in iconography, Orthodox theology and monastic spirituality.

Firmly rooted in the culture of the Byzantine East, the Orthodox Church of Finland is no stranger to the ethos of the West. Similar to the nation’s dominant Lutheran Church, Orthodox leaders emphasize the frequent reception of the Eucharist, encourage lay leadership and utilize the Gregorian calendar even for the celebration of Easter.

Once tied to the Russian Empire, a nascent Finnish state severed its ties with the abdication of the tsar in 1917, and the turmoil that followed. In 1921, Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow and All Russia granted autonomy to Finland’s Orthodox Christians as well. Despite the protestations of the Moscow patriarchate, the ecumenical patriarchate declared the Orthodox Church of Finland an autonomous church under Constantinople in 1923.

While some Orthodox parishes could be found scattered throughout the new country, the center of the Orthodox Church of Finland remained in its eastern province of Karelia.

The Winter War (1939-40) between Finland and the Soviet Union, and the subsequent Soviet annexation of Karelia, however, soon changed that. About 90 percent of the parishes and properties of the church were lost, including its historic seminary and monasteries in Lake Ladoga. Rather than submit to Soviet oppression, Orthodox Karelian families, monks, priests, seminarians and sisters fled for the security of central Finland.

The Finnish government quickly resettled the refugees. Throughout the 1950’s, new parishes were founded, churches built, a seminary set up and eparchies erected. Monks reestablished the historic Valamo monastery in central Finland and, shortly thereafter, a convent for women religious was built nearby. Today, the centers receive hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and visitors each year and host an ever-growing number of academic workshops and spiritual retreats. Icon conservation studios also flourish.

In 1988, the Orthodox Church of Finland closed its independent seminary and moved its students to the state-run University of Joensuu, where an Orthodox theological faculty was established. Cantors, catechists and seminarians live in a separate residence near the campus, where they focus on liturgy and spirituality and study with other students at the university, which also offers degree programs for seminarians in the Lutheran tradition.

While the Orthodox Church of Finland includes some 150 churches and chapels scattered across Finland, its influence reaches far beyond Scandinavia. Orthodox Finns support the apostolic endeavors of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria in Kenya and Uganda. They participate in international ecumenical forums with the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church. And they have partnered with their Russian colleagues, providing moral support and financial assistance to reconstitute the original Valamo Monastery in Russian Karelia.

Though small, the Orthodox Church of Finland is unique in the Orthodox world, fusing in a creative way the contributions of Orthodox and non-Orthodox clergy and laity — regardless of gender — and in fostering ecumenism in an atmosphere of mutual trust.

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19 November 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita

Serbian Orthodox worshipers hold candles outside the Cathedral of St. Sava as part of an Easter celebration in Belgrade. (photo: Alexa Stankovic/AFP/Getty Images)

The 20th century in Europe closed the same way it opened — war in the Balkan Peninsula. The world witnessed snipers terrorize Sarajevo, soldiers torch churches and mosques, refugees frozen with fear and bulldozers uncover mass graves. “Balkan” is now synonymous with disintegration and bloodshed.

The Balkans, a complex web of mountains and valleys, plains and streams, lies at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. More than a quarter of those who inhabit the peninsula — Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Croats, Macedonian Slavs, Montenegrins, Serbs and Slovenians — descend from Central European Slavic tribes who migrated south in the seventh century. These tribes have evolved into a number of nationalities, their distinctiveness buttressed by the natural barriers of the peninsula, proximity to more powerful neighbors and a variety of religious expressions. Not unlike the narratives of other Balkan states, Serbia’s saga is one of chronic crisis and conflict. The Orthodox Church of Serbia, which has played a leading role in the development of a distinct Serbian identity, has served as a cultural repository and a bastion of faith when the Serbian nation had appeared imperiled.

Orthodoxy is the predominant faith of the Bulgarians, Greeks, Macedonian Slavs, Montenegrins, Romanians and Serbs. But the individual national Orthodox churches in each of these nations failed to prevent their governments from warring with one another in the first decades of the 20th century. Eager to reclaim what they perceived as their patrimony after centuries of Ottoman Turkish occupation, these nations created rival alliances with more powerful nations, which often had conflicting economic and political agendas. These alliances unsettled the peoples of the peninsula, especially during the world wars.

The Serbian Orthodox Decani Monastery in Kosovo dates to the 14th century. (photo: Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images)

The emergence in 1918 of Yugoslavia, a united Southern Slav kingdom of Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Slovenes and Serbs — though the Serbs culturally and politically dominated the state — facilitated the unification of assorted Orthodox eparchies into a cohesive unit, which the Ottomans had dispersed with their suppression of a Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate of Pec in 1766.

The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, “first among equals” in the Orthodox communion, granted the Serbian Orthodox Church its independence in 1920, raising it to the rank of patriarchate with its seat in the capital of Belgrade.

In 1941, the Nazis dismembered Yugoslavia, dividing the nation among its Albanian, Bulgarian and Hungarian allies. Serbia — the target of the Nazis’ wrath — ceased to exist.

Today, the Orthodox Church of Serbia commemorates the lives, and deaths, of more than 800,000 people, martyrs who died for their identity as Serbs and their loyalty to the Orthodox faith. Many of these “New Martyrs,” which include bishops, priests, monks, nuns and lay people, were murdered in concentration camps.

Click here to read more.

Tags: Eastern Churches Serbian Orthodox Church Serbia Serbian Orthodox Orthodox Church of Serbia

17 November 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita

Byzantine traditions remain strong among Greek Catholics in the former Yugoslavia. Fresco from the church of St. Clement, Ohrid, Macedonia. (photo: Sean Sprague)

Yugoslavia, the “land of the Southern Slavs,” was the fruit of an intellectual concept born in Europe in the 19th century. Members of the intelligentsia speculated that a union of the Balkans’ Southern Slavs — Catholic Croats and Slovenes, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbs — would free them from the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, which had competed for control of the Balkan Peninsula for centuries.

In December 1918, after the collapse of the two empires, an uneasy union was achieved, and the king of Serbia proclaimed its head. The Yugoslav experiment proved defective as rival groups jostled one another for supremacy, particularly after the death in 1980 of its longtime strongman, Josip Tito.

The Yugoslav state collapsed in 1991 and its former constituents turned on one another in a bloodletting that did not abate until the new millennium. Bosniaks, Croats, Kosovar Albanians and Serbs were all complicit in mass murder, ethnic cleansing, rape and other acts of wanton violence.

Lost in the confusion were Yugoslav minorities — Greek Catholics, Jews and Protestants. The Greek Catholics of Yugoslavia were particularly vulnerable; perceived by both Croat and Serb extremists as neither Catholic nor Orthodox, they included six distinct groups: Macedonians and Serbs who accepted papal authority and followed the rites of the Orthodox tradition; Greek Catholic Croats from the village of Žumberak; Greek Catholic Rusyns who left the Carpathians in the 18th century; Ukrainian Greek Catholics who left Galicia at the turn of the 20th century; and Romanian Greek Catholics living in the Serbian province of Vojvodina.

After the Yugoslav kingdom was created in 1918, the Holy See extended the jurisdiction of the Eparchy of Križevci, (erected in 1777) to embrace all Yugoslavian Greek Catholics. Since the disintegration of the Southern Slav state, the Holy See has regrouped them into three separate jurisdictions: The Eparchy of Križevci, near the Croatian capital city of Zagreb, includes about 18,260 people living in Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2001, the Holy See established an exarchate for Greek Catholics living in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Led by the Latin bishop of Skopje, it includes some 11,300 faithful. In 2003, the Holy See set up an exarchate for Greek Catholics in Serbia and Montenegro and includes about 22,000 members, most of whom are ethnic Rusyns living in the Serbian region of Vojvodina.

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12 November 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita

Slovak Greek Catholic parishioners worshiping inside the church in
Ladomirová, Slovakia. (photo: Andrej Ban)

What divides the Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches of Central and Eastern Europe usually reflects the complex history and geopolitical realities of the continent more than any particular theological nuances, even papal primacy.

The Slovak Greek Catholic Church is a sui iuris (or self-governing) community in Slovakia — Byzantine in character and Catholic in faith — raised to the rank of a metropolitan church by Pope Benedict XVI in January 2008. It includes some 211,000 Greek Catholics from a number of ethnic groups living in the landlocked country, including Carpatho-Rusyns, Hungarians, Roma, Slovaks and Ukrainians.

Led by Metropolitan Archbishop Jan Babjak of Presov, the dynamic Jesuit has bolstered ties between the Slovak church and her daughter church in Canada, where some 2,500 Slovak Greek Catholics form the Eparchy of Sts. Cyril and Methodius.

Additionally, the metropolitan archbishop — installed in 2002 — has deepened ties to Greek Catholics in other worldwide jurisdictions. These include the Metropolitan Archeparchy of Pittsburgh and its three dependent eparchies in the United States; the Apostolic Exarchate for Byzantine Catholics in the Czech Republic; and the Eparchy of Mukacevo, now in Subcarpathian Ukraine, or Transcarpathia.

Girls wearing traditional dress participate in an Easter celebration in Jakubany, a village in northern Slovakia. (photo: Father Damian Saraka)

In the celebration of the sacraments, Slovak Greek Catholic parish communities use Slovak and its Latin alphabet as well as Church Slavonic and its Cyrillic alphabet. And its territory is restricted to parish communities in the Slovak Republic.

Yet the church’s origins and development are synonymous with the various Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic churches of Central Europe. Together, the ancestors of these Catholics received the Christian faith from Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the late ninth century. And they professed their full communion with the bishop of Rome in the chapel of the castle of Uzhorod in April 1646, centuries after the Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) churches had drifted apart.

According to the Slovak Republic’s 2011 census, only 0.6 percent of the population of nearly 5.5 million identify as Carpatho-Rusyn, proof of the decline of a Carpatho-Rusyn identity among Slovakia’s Greek Catholics. Nevertheless, sustaining solidarity among other jurisdictions of Carpatho-Rusyn origin — Greek Catholic and Orthodox — remains a concern of the Slovak Greek Catholic leadership.

Reviving parishes of all ethnic communities; forming a new generation of priests, religious and lay leaders; instilling proper catechesis, especially among the urbanized youth; and restoring parish churches and other parish facilities take precedence for this new yet ancient church.

Read a full account of the Slovak Greek Catholic Churches here.

10 November 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita

Orthodox believers hold an icon of Saints Cyril and Methodius during a service in
Mikulcice, Czech Republic. (photo: Vova Pomortzeff/Alamy)

The fortunes of the Orthodox Church in the Czech Republic and Slovakia mirror those of these Central European states, which once formed a united Czechoslovakia. Both the church and state were born after the collapse of the multiethnic empire of Austria-Hungary in 1918. Both were controlled by Nazi occupiers during World War II and then by the Soviets, who commandeered leadership after the war. Both were revived after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and have since been affected by the dissolution of Czechoslovakia — the so-called Velvet Divorce — in 1993.

Though a relatively young community, and numbering only about 100,000 people, the Orthodox Church in the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia and the independent republic of Slovakia dates back more than a thousand years.

In Europe’s Middle Ages, Latin missionaries worked among the Slavic peoples of the principality of Great Moravia — which covered much of the territory of the contemporary states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These missionaries (most of whom were Germanic) introduced the Latin rites of the Roman church in the ninth century and advocated closer ties with Moravia’s Germanic enemies. To counter these efforts, Moravia’s reigning prince, Rastislav, petitioned the emperor in the great Byzantine city of Constantinople to provide Slav-speaking missionaries to work among the prince’s subjects.

In 862, the emperor sent two Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius, who devised an alphabet for the Slavonic vernacular, translated Scripture and the liturgies of the church into Slavonic (it remains unclear whether these liturgies were Byzantine or Latin in rite), and transcribed the first Slavic code of civil law. Despite support from the papacy, the brothers’ work generated hostility among the Latin Germanic bishops. They later drove Cyril and Methodius from Moravia, engineered Rastislav’s removal and, in 886, banished their followers.

Greater Moravia collapsed after 893. Its successor state, the Latin Catholic Kingdom of Bohemia, retained its Slavic “Czech” identity despite profound antagonisms and influences from neighboring Germanic principalities — a state of affairs that survived until the decades following World War II.

Orthodox Easter night service in front of the Dormition Church at the Olsany Cemetery in Prague, Czech Republic. (photo: Vova Pomortzeff/Alamy)

With the breakup of the Hapsburg realm of Austria-Hungary in 1918, and the birth of the Czechoslovak state, a group of Latin Catholic priests called for the use of the vernacular in the celebration of the Mass, optional clerical celibacy and the reception of the Eucharist under both species. Influenced by the work of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Jan Hus and Martin Luther, these priests eventually formed the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, a national church that grew quickly, especially in the Czech heartland of Bohemia.

While this church retained elements of its Catholic heritage, some priests were sympathetic to the 15th-century Hussite scholar and diplomat, Peter Payne, and his interest in Orthodoxy. Heeding appeals from the Serbian Orthodox patriarchate, one priest, Father Matej Pavlik, was received into the Orthodox Church and consecrated a bishop in 1921.

Taking the name Gorazd, the new bishop erected two eparchies, one in the Bohemian capital of Prague and another in the Slovak town of Mukacevo, the historical center of Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholics. While he was bishop, a large number of these Greek Catholics accepted Orthodoxy after the Holy See imposed restrictions (for example, barring the use of married priests) on their parish communities in North America.

A prolific writer and a zealous pastor, Bishop Gorazd established parishes for all of the diverse ethnic communities that made up the Orthodox Church of Czechoslovakia, including Bohemian Czechs, Carpatho-Rusyns, Russian exiles, Serbs and Slovaks.

Today, this Orthodox Church is strongest in Slovakia, especially in the Carpatho-Rusyn areas of the northeast near Poland and Ukraine, numbering some 50,000 people. In the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia, the church is weak. This reflects the status of religious identity in the modern Czech Republic — a majority of Czechs identify themselves as atheists. Most Orthodox Christians who fill the churches in both republics are guest workers from Greece, Russia and Ukraine and may include up to 500,000 people.

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5 November 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita

Parishioners process for the feast of the Virgin Mary in Kondolpoga, northern Russia.
(photo: Sean Sprague)

Almost 25 years since the unraveling of the Soviet Union, the concerns that once plagued its Communist leaders — apathy, corruption, crime, cynicism, depopulation and underemployment, as well as the deterioration of industry — continue to scourge its political and spiritual heirs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, having consolidated his hold on Russia’s central government, has enlisted the assistance of the Orthodox Church to address some of these issues. This alliance of church and state — which except for a violent gap of some 70 years dates to the origins of the Russian state — has been cemented as Russian patriotism surges in defiance of sanctions imposed by the West for Putin’s involvement in Ukraine. So intimate is this link between state and church, it is difficult to determine which came first.

Russians, Belarussians, Rusyns and Ukrainians claim descent from the Eastern Slavs of Central Europe and the Varangians of Scandinavia. Collectively known as the Rus’, these peoples intermarried and, from their center in Kiev (now the capital of Ukraine) on the banks of the Dnieper River, they asserted control of the trade routes from the Baltic to the Black seas, establishing Kievan Rus’ as a regional force by the ninth century.

A Russian Orthodox believer marks Epiphany by bathing in the icy water of Saint Petersburg’s Neva River. (photo: Alexander Koryakov/Kommersant/Getty Images)

The rapid development of Byzantine Christianity among the Rus’ — which Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev pursued with vigor throughout his reign — coincided with the rise of the Kievan state. Vladimir and his successors consolidated their authority and augmented their dominion. They built important churches; promulgated the first code of law of the Eastern Slavs; supported monasticism, theological learning and the arts. Using Bulgaria’s church as a model, Yaroslav the Wise (978-1054) achieved some independence from Constantinople for the church of Kiev, overseeing the installation of a metropolitan archbishop in 1037.

Eventually, Rus’ natives dominated the episcopacy, whose sees were centered in various regional centers governed by the family of the grand prince, such as Chernigov, Novgorod and Smolensk.

Very little remains from this period. The Mongols, a nomadic people from central Asia, swept through the dominions of the Rus’ in the early 13th century, burning and sacking its cities, including Kiev. They killed much of the population and enslaved most of the rest.

The Mongol invasions merely accelerated the demise of Kievan Rus’, which began to disintegrate when the family of the grand prince challenged his authority. Without a communications network, rival cities — Novgorod, Vladimir and Suzdal in the northeast, Polotsk and Smolensk in the northwest, Halych in the southwest and even nearby Chernigov — grew more autonomous, fracturing the unity of Kievan Rus’, making it susceptible to invasion and subjugation. For over two centuries these communities lived as vassals under the Mongols.

With the decline of princes, church leaders quickly filled their roles, patronizing the building of churches and monasteries far removed from the centers of Mongol power. The Rus’ of Kiev sought refuge in the north, migrating in succession to Rostov, Suzdal and, finally, Vladimir. The effective leader of all the Rus’, the metropolitan archbishop of Kiev, left the devastated city for Vladimir in 1300. Eventually, Rostov, Suzdal and Vladimir all fell under the influence of Moscow, a minor principality led by ambitious princes. Just eight years after the move to Vladimir, the metropolitan archbishop of Kiev-Vladimir moved his court to the city of Moscow. Bolstered by a “golden ring” of fortified monasteries and towns, Moscow grew wealthy.

Click here to read more about church and state in Moscow, and the forging of a modern Russian alliance.

Tags: Russia Russian Orthodox Church Eastern Churches

3 November 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita

A Greek Catholic priest hears confession at Protection of the Virgin Mary Church
in Nyíracsád, Hungary. (photo: Balazs Gardi)

For centuries, Hungary dominated the culture, geography and socioeconomic life of Central Europe. Its defeat in World War I, however, cost the nation three-quarters of its territory, all of its coastline, a third of its population and much of its diverse demography. Today, Hungary is a landlocked and largely homogeneous country — a shadow of its former self.

In Hungary’s rural northeast — near its borders with Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania — one small community of faith offers a glimpse of Hungary’s multiethnic past. Sheltered by the Carpathian Mountains, some 290,000 people — ethnic Hungarians (Magyars), Gypsies (Roma), Romanians, Rusyns and Slovaks — make up the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church.

While each of these ethnic groups maintains its own proud history and traditions, they together have forged a dynamic church authentically Hungarian, Byzantine and Catholic.

Hungary’s Greek Catholics were spared the persecutions suffered by Greek Catholics in Romania and Ukraine during the Soviet-dominated era. Though religious communities were closed, priests and religious dispersed, schools shuttered, catechesis limited and non-liturgical activities monitored, the church survived. In 1950, Bishop Miklós Dudás, O.S.B.M., established a seminary within the walls of his residence in the town of Nyíregyháza. While youth programs and sodalities were prohibited, parish pilgrimages to Máriapócs, a little Greek Catholic village famous for its miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, continued with great enthusiasm.

Crucifix in front of the Protection of the Virgin Marcy Church in Nyíracsád, Hungary. (photo: Balazs Gardi)

With the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Hungary’s Greek Catholic Church surged to fill the void left after a half-century of despotic rule. Led by Bishop Szilárd Keresztes, Hungary’s Greek Catholic community collected icons, liturgical books, vestments and other sacramentals. These the bishop immediately offered to the once banned Greek Catholic churches in Romania and Ukraine.

Because of its central location, Bishop Keresztes suggested that his seminary — dedicated to St. Athanasius — should play a key role in the revival of Europe’s Greek Catholic churches. In 1990, he opened it to Romanians, Rusyns, Slovaks and Ukrainians interested in the priesthood. To improve the quality of the education offered there, the bishop invited an impressive number of foreign educated professors. As a result, the theological faculty became an affiliate of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome in 1995.

Formation of lay catechists also figured prominently in the life of the church and in 1992 the bishop signed an agreement with the Teachers Training College in Nyíregyháza and set up a corresponding department at the seminary for the formation of teachers.

The Hungarian Greek Catholic Church, which Pope Francis reorganized in March as a metropolitan church led by an archbishop, shares in the socioeconomic challenges affecting the country. Even as birthrates continue to fall, driving down the number of men and women entering priesthood and religious, the demands placed upon the church grow. Increasingly, Greek Catholic priests are working to diffuse tensions between Hungary’s growing Roma minority and ethnic Magyars. And the depopulation of Hungary’s eastern rural villages, the traditional center of the Greek Catholic Church, is affecting family and parish life.

Read a full account of the Hungarian Greek Catholic Church here.

29 October 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita

Easter is celebrated in the Italo-Albanian Catholic village of Piana degli Albanesi, Sicily.
(photo: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)

Not all Italian Catholics are Roman Catholics.

In the south of Italy, in the regions of Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria and Puglia, the island of Sicily, and even just outside the walls of Rome, there are Italians who follow the Christian rites and traditions of the Byzantine East.

These “Italo-Greeks” or “Italo-Albanians” form a small Catholic church that comprises two eparchies and a monastery, numbering fewer than 65,000 faithful. Although small, “the history of this 1,500-year-old church — with its highs and lows — offers insights into possible models for church unity between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East,” writes Chorbishop John D. Faris in his short history of the church.

To read the full account of this fascinating story of survival, click here.

27 October 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita

Orthodox icons seen in Larnaca, Cyprus. (photo: Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images)

By virtue of its dominant Hellenic culture, many consider Cyprus a part of Europe. Yet this eastern Mediterranean island of 1.2 million people — divided into Greek- and Turkish-speaking zones — also figures in the annals of Asian history. Cyprus lies just 45 miles south of Turkey, 63 miles west of Syria and 120 miles northwest of Israel.

The history of Cyprus is riddled with conflict. But one constant factor has maintained the isle’s Hellenic identity into the modern era: the Orthodox Church. This faith community constitutes about 90 percent of the island’s population and has served as a cultural repository and a bastion of faith even as rival Asian and European powers conquered Cyprus.

From its origins in Roman Palestine, Christianity quickly took root among the many Greek-speaking populations of the Roman Empire.

Largely through the evangelical efforts of Sts. Paul and Barnabas, who as described in the Acts of the Apostles first brought the faith to Cyprus, these Greek-speaking Christians formed urban communities that evolved into important Christian centers. Rather than rejecting their Hellenic culture, these churches embraced it, providing philosophical and theological vocabularies that later helped define the teachings of Jesus among the empire’s elite.

Cypriot Christian Orthodox devotees carry a bier depicting Christ’s preparation for burial during a Good Friday procession, at the Ayios Georgios Exorinos Church in the Cypriot Turkish controlled North on 18 April 2014 in Famagusta, Cyprus. (photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images)

The church of Cyprus, while linked to the churches of Antioch and Constantinople, flourished and became largely independent. In 488, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor, Zeno, confirmed this independence and granted the church’s metropolitan archbishop certain privileges that remain to the present day.

While Cyprus was taken in the seventh century by invading Arab Muslims, for nearly 300 years Cyprus was governed jointly by Byzantine and Muslim Arab governors — an arrangement rare in the history of international law. In 988, however, the Byzantines asserted complete control and Christian life in Byzantine Cyprus flourished. Judging by the sophisticated architecture of the era’s churches and the quality of the art, Cyprus maintained close ties to Constantinople and its workshops.

These ties were ruptured, however, when soldiers of the Third Crusade, led by King Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, suddenly took the island in 1191, imprisoning the Byzantine governor. The Latins reduced the power of the island’s Greek-speaking Orthodox hierarchy, exiled the archbishop and expropriated church property. Resistance was dealt with ruthlessly. Latin Catholic missionaries flooded Cyprus and founded monasteries and reordered Byzantine churches for Latin Catholic use.

When Cyprus fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1570, the island’s Greek-speaking communities (who were considered neither Catholics by the Latins nor Orthodox by mainland Greek Orthodox clerics) greeted the Turks as deliverers. The sultan of the Ottoman Turks — who had taken Constantinople in 1453 and assumed the mantle of its emperors — banished the Latin hierarchy of Cyprus, recognized its long suffering Orthodox community, reconstituted its hierarchy and appointed the metropolitan archbishop as head of the Greek-speaking community, or millet. This reinforced the role of the Orthodox Church as custodian of Cyprus’s Hellenic culture, warden of the isle’s Byzantine identity and spiritual guardian of its Christians. But charging the Orthodox hierarchy of Cyprus with responsibility for governing its own people proved to be a double-edged sword.

Click here to read more.

22 October 2015
Michael J.L. La Civita

A Romanian Orthodox priest leads a religious service in Piata Universitatii Square, downtown Bucharest. (photo: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)

The modern southeastern European nation of Romania lies where the Latin, Greek and Slavic cultures collide. Diversity once marked the composition of the people living there. Large communities of Armenians, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Jews, Roma, Slavs, Turks and Rumani (ethnic Romanians) lived together — sometimes peacefully, sometimes not. Today, Romania is more homogeneous. About 83 percent of the population of 21 million is ethnic Romanian. Smaller communities of ethnic minorities remain, particularly in the central region of Transylvania.

The Orthodox Church of Romania is the largest religious community in the country — numbering more than 82 percent of the people — and the second-largest Orthodox Church in the world. Unlike other Orthodox churches, the Orthodox Church of Romania functions within a Latin culture and utilizes a Romance language in the celebration of the sacraments — legacies of the country’s Roman past. But Romanian, despite its Latin roots and syntax, includes words from Byzantine Greek and Church Slavonic, reflecting the early Romanians’ relationship with the Byzantines and Bulgarians respectively.

At the end of the 14th century, two Romanian principalities, Wallachia and Moldavia, emerged south and east of the Carpathian Mountains. Though Catholic communities existed in both states, especially among the prosperous German and Hungarian middle class burghers, the Orthodox Church — the faith of the Rumani majority — functioned as an arm of the princely families who governed the states. Monasteries opened and eparchies, erected. By the middle of the 14th century, the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople recognized a metropolitan archbishop of Ungro-Wallachia and half a century later a metropolitan archbishop of Moldavia.

Pastor Stefan Anghel celebrates with Romanian Orthodox believers the birth of John the Baptist on 7 January 2014 in Offenbach/Main, Germany. (photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

After the collapse of Byzantium and the Ottoman Turks’ capture of the capital, Constantinople, in 1453, Wallachia and Moldavia became vassal states of the Ottomans. Nevertheless, the Rumani principalities and its Orthodox churches thrived. Formidable monasteries and elaborate churches were constructed and adorned with frescoes — even on the exterior walls — revealing Byzantine, Renaissance and Turkish influences. Monasteries and eparchies established printing houses to publish liturgical books and theological works. Jewelers fashioned gilded reliquaries encrusted with mother of pearl and gems.

Rumani princes, bishops and abbots supported the impoverished ecumenical patriarchate in Ottoman Constantinople, restoring churches and endowing monasteries. Large monastic estates provided regular income to the ecumenical patriarchate and Mount Athos, a Byzantine monastic oasis that remains to this day.

While most of the Orthodox community in Wallachia and Moldavia spoke Rumaneste (Romanian), the church officially used Church Slavonic in the celebration of the sacraments until a local synod approved the use of the Romanian vernacular in 1568. Until 1863, the Orthodox Church used the Cyrillic alphabet to write Romanian liturgical texts, which was also common in civil society.

Despite centuries of challenges — ranging from oppression to collaboration in the modern era — the Orthodox Church of Romania has prospered. Parish life is vibrant; seminaries and monasteries are full; theological studies thrive and interchurch relations, especially with the Catholic Church, advanced significantly. Although immediately after the collapse of their Communist government in 1989 most elements of Romanian society seemed to have suffered posttraumatic stress disorder, the Orthodox Church was well poised to step in and assert leadership. Intellectually, pastorally and spiritually dynamic, it remains the most respected institution in contemporary Romanian society.

Click here to read more.

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