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The Hungarian Greek Catholic Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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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, Byzantine in tradition and in full communion with the church of Rome. While each ethnic group maintains its own proud history and traditions, they together have forged a dynamic church authentically Hungarian, Byzantine and Catholic.

Origins. According to early medieval chroniclers, Byzantine missionaries working among the Slavs in the ninth century first encountered nomadic Magyar tribes as they began to settle in the Carpathian Basin. A number of Magyar chiefs, to secure their hold on the land, traveled to the then center of power, Constantinople. There, they established an alliance with the Byzantine emperor and were baptized and received into the Byzantine church.

Sarolt, the daughter of one such clan leader, married the heir of the Árpáds, the chief Magyar family. Their son would later embrace Latin Christianity, take the name Stephen and, after receiving his crown from the pope in the year 1000, forge a united Magyar realm closely allied with the Latin West.

Stephen did not favor the Byzantine church of his mother, but it nevertheless flourished. Several important medieval relics, including the Holy Crown of Hungary, the coronation robe and a renowned reliquary of the true cross, demonstrate the influence of Byzantium. While the crown is largely a Byzantine work, the robe and reliquary are attributed to Magyar artisans living in Hungary’s Byzantine monasteries.

Though the churches of the Byzantine East and the Latin West parted company after the Great Schism in 1054, Hungary’s Byzantine Orthodox Christians, Magyars and Slavs, remained attached to their form of the faith.

The realm’s Orthodox, however, were later decimated by the Mongols, an Asiatic nomadic tribe who invaded Hungary in the middle 13th century and destroyed the kingdom’s towns, villages and monasteries. Historians believe half of Hungary’s people were killed in the onslaught; the Mongols carried off many of the survivors.

Turks and Flux. Eventually, Hungary recovered from the Mongol invasions. Its kings gathered up the survivors, consolidated their power and established a sprawling Central European nation anchored firmly in the traditions of the Latin West.

Even as Hungary expanded, it confronted a new enemy. The Ottomans, a Turkish Muslim tribe originally from Central Asia, conquered Byzantine territory in Asia and Europe as they migrated west. In 1453, they took Constantinople; from there the Ottoman sultans subdued the Balkans with its Albanian, Bulgar, Greek, Jewish and Slavic peoples. As they pushed deeper into Central Europe, they repeatedly clashed with the forces of the Hungarian king.

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Tags: Church history Communism/Communist Hungary Multiculturalism Hungarian Greek Catholic