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The Carpatho-Rusyn Greek Catholic Churches

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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For more than a millennium, Central Europe’s Carpatho-Rusyns have been engulfed in a violent whirl of Magyar, Germanic and Slavic antagonism. Always subjugated, Rusyn peasants toiled the soil, kept the livestock or cut the timber of their Hungarian, Austrian or Polish masters. Such conditions, coupled with centuries of serfdom and forced assimilation, hardly favored the development of a distinct Rusyn identity. Nevertheless, among the Rusyns such an identity did develop, sowed by their distinct Slavic language, nurtured by their Byzantine Christianity — which they received from Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the late ninth century — and reinforced by their full communion, or unia, with the church of Rome.

Today, fewer than 900,000 Rusyn Greek Catholics are scattered throughout Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, North America, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine. A unified church, gathering them all under one mantle, does not exist. Rusyn Greek Catholics — also called Ruthenians — make up three distinct churches that, while sharing the same origins, traditions and culture, remain independent of each other.

• In the United States, the Metropolitan Byzantine Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, with its three dependent eparchies of Parma, Passaic and Phoenix, is a particular or sui iuris church. It includes about 93,000 members.
• The Eparchy of Mukacevo in Subcarpathian Ukraine, which numbers about 375,000 people, is dependent directly on the Holy See.
• The Apostolic Exarchate for Byzantine Catholics in the Czech Republic is also dependent on the Holy See and counts 178,000 members.

Rusyn Greek Catholics also belong to various jurisdictions of the Greek Catholic churches of Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia. Complicating matters further, substantial numbers of Rusyns, all formerly Greek Catholic, have created communities within various Orthodox churches in North America, Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics. However, with the exception of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church — an eparchy formed in Pittsburgh in 1939 under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople — their Rusyn identity has largely eroded.

Origins. As the churches of the East and the church of Rome parted company — particularly after the Great Schism in 1054 — Rusyn peasants scattered throughout the Carpathian Mountains of Central Europe remained attached to their Orthodox Byzantine Christian faith.

Though they shared the same customs and rites as their northeastern neighbors (modern Ukrainians), Rusyns adapted these rites, making them their own. Fortified by the monks of St. Nicholas Monastery, an ancient foundation located near Mukacevo (a town in modern Ukraine), Rusyns built their unique wooden churches, wrote their icons and sang their plainchant, or prostopinije, all contributing to the creation of a distinctive Subcarpathian Rusyn Orthodox church.

Though held in contempt by the Hungarian ruling class, Rusyn bishops served as both secular and spiritual shepherds. Bishops came from the local community and were elected by a council of monks from St. Nicholas Monastery.

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Tags: Church history Immigration Carpatho-Rusyn Central Europe