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Two centuries later, invading Mongols devastated the realms of the Rus’, cutting their contacts with the West. Rus’ leaders – clergy and laity – slowly gathered survivors around Moscow, whose grand dukes adopted an increasingly autocratic approach to governance.

The union of the Lithuanian and Polish states in the late 14th century and the subsequent adoption of Latin Catholicism as the state church did not adversely impact the spiritual lives of the commonwealth’s Rusyn Byzantine Christian subjects, who numbered as many as half the population. But their fortunes changed after the definitive break between the Latin and Rusyn churches in 1439. Just 14 years later, Rusyn Orthodox bishops created two distinct metropolia centered in Moscow and Kiev, then a major city in Poland. These churches formed the nuclei of the modern Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches.

As Catholic Poland expanded, the nobility attempted to tie their Orthodox peasants to the land. But many peasants fled, finding refuge in the Polish-Lithuanian hinterlands, the Ukraine. These peasants formed autonomous communities of nomadic horsemen, or Cossacks, who defied Polish law and eventually became staunch supporters of Russia and its tsar.

Those “Ruthenians” (from the medieval Latin name for Rusyn inhabitants of Poland) who remained there were harassed and forced to assimilate. The Polish nobility also heavily taxed the Orthodox clergy and laity and denied permission to bishops to build churches.

Orthodoxy is suppressed. The Protestant Reformation, and the subsequent wars associated with it, altered the confessional dynamics of central Europe, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Clashes ravaged the countryside. Disease and war devastated the Ruthenian population. Meanwhile, the Calvinist, Lutheran and other Reformed confessions grew, particularly among the Polish nobility.

The Jesuits, vanguards of the Catholic Reformation, worked among central Europe’s Catholic and Orthodox leaders to combat the spread of Protestantism. They promised Orthodox bishops that they could 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, Byzantine clergy would be granted the same civil rights and privileges extended to Latin clergy.

In 1596, the Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Kiev, Halych and all Rus’ gathered his suffragan bishops in the city of Brest, severed ties with the Orthodox churches of Constantinople and Moscow and accepted the primacy and authority of the Roman pontiff. The Union of Brest created the “Greek” Catholic Church and brought its members closer to the Polish-Lithuanian king, who actively supported the union to minimize the growing power of neighboring Russia, which remained resolutely Orthodox.

Many Ruthenians accepted the union, but some opposed it. A rebellion fomented in Kiev and in the Cossack-dominated steppes of the Ukraine. Violence forced the Greek Catholic metropolitan archbishop of Kiev to settle in Polish-held, pro-Catholic territory. The vacuum enabled the election of a rival Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Kiev.

Rebel leaders, seeking to unify Ruthenians, appealed to the tsar in Moscow, who hoped to reunite the lands of historic Rus’ under his authority. In 1654, the rebellion’s leaders signed a treaty with the Russian tsar that ironically marked the beginning of the end of the Orthodox Church in Poland.

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Tags: Ukraine Russia Russian Orthodox Church Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Carpatho-Rusyn