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Slovakia’s Greek Catholics

text and photos by Jacqueline Ruyak

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Like many Eastern European towns, Presov, Slovakia, is dominated by its main square lined with trees and bordered with gaily painted 18th-century buildings. With its diverse population of Slovaks, Hungarians, Romani (Gypsies), Ruthenians (Carpatho-Rusyns) and Ukrainians, Presov remains a backwater. But perhaps because it is a university town, the city is surprisingly lively and cheerful with a proud cultural history.

Certainly the Greek Catholics of Presov [the term “Greek Catholic” was coined in the 18th century by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria] have reason for cheer these days. The ordination of the Rev. Jan Hirka as bishop in February 1990 has given them a public ecclesiastical leader for the first time in over 40 years.

Like Ukraine’s Greek Catholics, Slovakia’s Greek Catholics were forcibly united with the Orthodox Church two years after the communists’ came to power in 1948. Bishops Paul Gojdic and Basil Hopko were imprisoned as were many priests; others were banished to western Slovakia.

Suddenly the Orthodox Church, which in 1950 had only 18 churches in eastern Slovakia, found itself possessing many buildings but few priests; the Orthodox had to train new clergy in special six-week courses. Most Greek Catholics, however, attended Roman Catholic liturgies.

In 1968 Alexander Dubcek, first secretary of the Communist Party, instituted a number of reforms. Parishes were ordered to vote whether to remain Orthodox or become part of the restored Greek Catholic Church. Soon after the Warsaw Pact’s troops ended the Prague Spring in late 1968, many parishes were forced to hold two services to accommodate both Greek Catholics and Orthodox.

In October 1992 Bishop Hirka was finally able to move into his official residence, situated on the southern end of Presov’s main square, just down the street from the Greek Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Speaking late last year in a simple but handsome reception room at his official residence, the bishop noted that the former occupants totally wrecked the residence when they had to return it in 1991.

“With the help of our laity, it was restored between May and October 1992. The Orthodox Church has been told to return 52 churches to us, but until now we haven’t asked for the rectories, which of course also belonged to us. And our people bore the burden of this restoration.”

During our conversation, Bishop Hirka again and again praised the faith and fortitude of the laity. In a country known for its religious strength, the Greek Catholics of eastern Slovakia are regarded as particularly devout.

Throughout its history, the fate of the Greek Catholic Church has been linked to the political fortunes of eastern Slovakia. Some historians claim that eastern Slovakia’s Christians always remained loyal to the pope, says Mikulas Hucko, former secretary to Bishop Hirka. Others believe the Greek Catholic Church dates back to the Act of Union in 1646 in the city of Uzhgorod (now in western Ukraine). Several Ukrainian Catholic eparchies (dioceses) also claim Uzhgorod as the site of their union with the bishop of Rome.

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Tags: Church history Communism/Communist Slovakia