of the Eastern churches

The Orthodox Church of Poland

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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World War I changed the map of Europe. The Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires disintegrated. And from the carnage emerged nation states whose peoples longed for self-determination: Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Created by the victorious Allies as an eastern bulwark to Bolshevik Russia, post-war Poland tried to emulate the position of the multiethnic Polish-Lithuanian state that had once dominated central Europe until its dismemberment by Austria, Prussia and Russia in the late 18th century.

Resurrected Poland absorbed huge tracts of land and included millions of ethnic Belarussians, Czechs, Germans, Jews, Russians, Rusyns and Ukrainians – a third of the new nation’s 30 million people. Up to five million of these new Polish citizens professed Orthodox Christianity, a faith long identified with Poland’s neighbor and foe, Russia.

Not without its share of controversy, the Orthodox patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow, by 1938, confirmed the autocephaly, or independence, of a newly organized Orthodox Church of Poland. The state, too, recognized the church.

But Poland’s increasingly nationalistic government suspected the loyalties of Poland’s Orthodox citizens and coerced them to embrace the Latin (Roman) Church. Despite the protestations from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Metropolitan of Lviv, Andrei Sheptytsky (died 1944), local governments shuttered Orthodox and Greek Catholic sanctuaries, turned some over to Latin Catholic authorities and razed others.

Hitler’s pact with Stalin in the autumn of 1939, which erased Poland from the map, suspended these acts of hostility. Not unlike the saga of the Polish nation, the chronicles of the Orthodox Church of Poland reveal the struggles of a faith community squeezed between the Latin West and the Russian East.

Origins of conflict. Endemic friction describes best the historical relationship between Poland and Russia. Though Poles and Russians stem from the same Slavic roots, the two developed radically different – and at times polar opposite – orientations.

With the Poles’ adoption of Christianity in its Latin Catholic form in 966, the Slavic Polish nation entered the orbit of the West. Ever since, the Poles have drawn inspiration from Western culture and its institutions, establishing centers of higher learning, parliaments and economic systems that created merchant classes. Long before the American or French revolutions instituted electoral governments, for example, the Polish nobility installed an elected executive, a “king” whose powers were held in check by aristocrats and bourgeoisie.

On the other hand the Rus’ (ancestors of modern Belarussians, Russians, Rusyns and Ukrainians) looked East to Byzantium, then the most advanced Mediterranean culture. Just two decades after the Poles accepted Latin Christianity, the Rus’ received the Christian faith in its Byzantine form and emulated the court and culture of the autocratic emperors in Constantinople.

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