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Those “Ruthenians” (from the medieval Latin for Rusyn inhabitants of Poland) who remained were harassed, subjected to ethnic assimilation campaigns sponsored by the Polish government, which also heavily taxed the Orthodox clergy and laity and denied bishops permission to build churches.

Union and division.The Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent wars associated with it, altered the confessional dynamics of central Europe, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Constant clashes ravaged the countryside. Disease and war devastated the Ruthenian population, which declined precipitously. Meanwhile, the Calvinist, Lutheran and Unitarian churches grew, particularly among the Ruthenians’ Polish landlords.

The Jesuits, vanguards of the Catholic Reformation, worked among central Europe’s Orthodox leaders to combat the spread of Protestantism. They promised the Orthodox that they would retain their Byzantine liturgical rites, customs and privileges (including a married clergy and the method of electing bishops) in exchange for their loyalty to the papacy. In addition, their clergy would be granted the same civil rights and privileges extended to Roman Catholic clergy — important considerations in realms governed by Catholic dynasties.

In 1596, Orthodox Metropolitan Mikhail Rohoza of Kiev, Halych and all Rus’ gathered his suffragan bishops in the city of Brest. There, they severed ties with the Orthodox ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople and the Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow and accepted the primacy and authority of the Roman pontiff, thus establishing the Greek Catholic Church (“Greek” referred to the Byzantine heritage of the Ruthenians). This move brought the church closer to its contemporary Polish-Lithuanian rulers, who actively supported the union among their Ruthenian subjects in an attempt to minimize the growing power of neighboring Moscow, whose subjects remained staunchly Orthodox.

Many Ruthenians accepted the union, but rebellion fomented in Kiev and in the Cossack-dominated steppes of Ukraine. Josaphat, Archbishop of Polotsk, was murdered by a mob in 1623 for his zealous support of the union. Hostilities forced Metropolitan Mikhail and his successors to settle in friendlier, pro-Catholic territory, thus creating a void in church leadership rapidly filled by the election of a rival Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Kiev.

The crises posed by foreign domination, discrimination, economic hardship and the Union of Brest fueled the Khmelnitsky Uprising (1648-54). Led by a Jesuit-educated Cossack nobleman, Bohdan Khmelnitsky, the uprising sought to unify the Ruthenian peoples in an independent Ukraine. But this independent Ukraine soon began to collapse even as Khmelnitsky entered Kiev in triumph. Reluctantly, he sought aid from Moscow’s tsar, who hoped to reunite the lands of historic Rus’ under his authority. In 1654, Khmelnitsky and representatives of Tsar Alexei signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav.

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