The Catholic Church, as the Universal Church of Christ, is a mansion with many rooms, some of which have been closed off throughout the centuries due to the outbreak of heresy, schism, or the invasion of alien religions and ideologies. The East, one of the historic fonts of Christendom, began breaking from the Catholic fold during the first millennium, with 1054—the so-called Great Schism—marking a low point in East/West relations. Truth be told, reconciliation efforts between the See of Rome and various Eastern churches continued for centuries with the Council of Florence representing a high point. That was not to last. In 1453, with the Turkish invasion of Constantinople, Eastern Christendom was firmly under Islamic rule. Russia alone would be the last substantial Christian imperial power in the East, albeit one out of communion with the Catholic Church.
Russia, like its neighbors Ukraine and Belarus, traces its Christianization back to 988 A.D. with the baptism of St. Vladimir the Great in the ancient principality of Kyivan-Rus’. Largely isolated from the controversies that had placed Rome and Constantinople at odds, by the close of the 15th century most of the bishops in these lands had opted to join the other Eastern Orthodox churches in their rejection of Rome. However, in 1596 at the Union of Brest and 50 years later at the Union of Uzhorod, the churches that are today known as the Ukrainian and Ruthenian Greek Catholic churches rejoined the Catholic Church. (The term “Greek Catholic” was introduced under the Austro-Hungarian Empire not to denote ethnicity, but rather the historic Greek origins of the Eastern Slavic peoples’ Christian patrimony.)
The Russian Orthodox Church, and the imperial power behind it, opposed these reunion efforts from the beginning. Through military force, many newly reunited Catholics (referred to derisively as “Uniates”) were brought back to Russian Orthodoxy by force. At the same time, Greek Catholics in the region saw a rapid deterioration in their culture due to poor educational opportunities and living conditions. This began to change in the 18th and 19th centuries as Greek Catholics learned to embrace their unique spiritual, theological, and liturgical heritage and efforts were made to correct Latin misapprehensions concerning the “legitimacy” of their Eastern brethren.
Historically rooted disciplinary and ritualistic differences between Latin and Greek Catholics led to suspicions on both sides. For instance, per the reunion agreements approved by Rome in 1596 and 1646, Greek Catholics continued to ordain married men to the priesthood (though not to the episcopate); celebrate all of their feasts, including Easter (Pascha) according to the Julian Calendar; retained the Church Slavonic language for their liturgy; and celebrated according to the Byzantine Rite exclusively. Furthermore, Greek Catholics did not have to expressly affirm the doctrine of Purgatory according to Latin theological understanding and had the option of keeping the filioque (“and from the Son”) out of their recension of the Creed. In order to quell suspicions that they were not “true Catholics,” many Greek Catholics adopted a number of Latin practices over the centuries, including hybridizing the Byzantine Rite with the Latin.
At the very time that Greek Catholics enjoying the protection of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were experiencing ecclesiastical renewal leading into the 20th century, some native Russian Orthodox began questioning their church’s breach with Rome. In 1439, at the aforementioned Council of Florence, Metropolitan Isidore of Kyiv, along with several other Russian bishops, signed the Act of Union with Rome and returned to their respective jurisdictions to promote the union. However, when Isidore traveled to Moscow in 1441 to inform Tsar Basil II of the union, the Tsar—primarily for nationalistic and political reasons—had Isidore arrested, deposed, and replaced by Metropolitan Jonah, an anti-unionist Russian bishop. Isidore eventually escaped captivity and died a cardinal in the West. However, those Russians who chose to the follow the union with Rome were quickly persecuted and conversion to the Catholic Faith among Russians was sparse for centuries.
Even so, a learned and eccentric Russian philosopher and theologian, Vladimir Soloviev, introduced the theory into 19th/20th century Russian intellectual life that Rome and the Russian Orthodox Church never formally broke communion and that the schism between the two was de facto rather than de jure. Soloviev’s thinking, along with growing dissatisfaction with Russian state control over the Russian Orthodox Church, prompted some members of the Russian intelligentsia to convert to Catholicism. The desire soon spread to all strata of Russian society though, up until the 1890s, the only option these Russians had was to become Latin Catholics. Not until the conversion of the Russian Orthodox priest Fr. Nicholas Tolstoy in 1893 did Russian Catholics have a Byzantine-rite cleric to administer the sacraments to them. The seeds for the emergence of the Russian Greek Catholic Church (RGCC) had been firmly planted.
Following Russia’s 1905 Decree on Religious Toleration, the RGCC was in a position to expand and hold public liturgies. In 1908, Pope St. Pius X appointed a special administrator for Russian Greek Catholics with the following instructions from the Vatican Secretary of State: “Therefore His Holiness commands the [administrator] to observe the laws of the Greek [Byzantine]-Slavonic Rite faithfully and in all their integrity, without any admixture from the Latin Rite or any other Rite; he must also see that his subjects, clergy and all other Catholics, do the same.” Later, when an inquiry was made to Pius X whether the Russian Catholics should hold to their ritual heritage or adopt Latin practices, the Saint replied: “nec plus, nec minus, nec aliter” (no more, no less, no different). In other words, Pius X desired that the RGCC should be a true particular Catholic Church with its roots firmly planted in the soil the Russians had brought over from the Byzantines. To be Catholic did not exclusively mean to be Latin.
While the years following 1905 were years of growth, they were not without harassment. Many Russians still drank deep from the waters of nationalism, believing that Russian nationality and Russian Orthodoxy go hand-in-hand (a problem which persists to this day). A monastic community was established for Russian Catholics and groups of Old Believers—Russian Christians who broke from the mainline Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century over liturgical reforms—united themselves to the RGCC. Many of these Old Believers (also sometimes referred to as Old Ritualists) had gone centuries without many of the sacraments due to the elimination of any sympathetic bishops by the Russian state. As part of the Russian Catholic community, not only did these Christians now have access to the grace of the sacraments, but they were allowed to preserve their form of the Byzantine Rite as it had existed in Russia up until the 1660s.
Meanwhile, as Catholicism continued to slowly spread in Russia, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Metropolitan Andrei Skeptytsky, had his own hopes of bringing Eastern Orthodox Christians over to Catholicism. During the course of World War I, Metropolitan Andrei was held under arrest in Russia, only to be freed by the provisional Russian government following the 1917 Russian Revolution. Metropolitan Andrei convened the RGCC’s first sobor (council) in 1917 which, among other things, drew up a list of canons to govern Russian Catholics and appoint its first exarch, Fr. Leonid Feodorov. (An exarch, who is typically a bishop, is given administrative and jurisdictional powers over an area larger than a regular diocese. It remains a matter of dispute whether Metropolitan Andrei secretly consecrated Exarch Leonid bishop or not during the former’s stay in Russia.)
Just as the Soviet takeover of Russia spelled disaster for the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian Catholic Church began to experience its own passion at the hands of communism. Exarch Leonoid, along with other Russian Greek and Latin Catholic clergy, was arrested, tried, and sentenced to harsh imprisonment at the Solovky prison camp in northern Russia. While Leonid and his fellow Catholics did all they could to keep the Faith alive during this period, the brutal treatment administered by the camp guards left Leonid’s health in tatters. He reposed in the Lord in 1935, not long after his release. Exarch Leonid would prove to be only one of countless martyrs for the Faith under communism.
Russian Catholic priests, religious, and laity continued to be harassed, arrested, tortured, and outright murdered by the Soviets throughout the 1930s. With the death of Exarch Leonid, Fr. Clement Sheptytsky, the brother of Metropolitan Andrei, became the RGCC’s exarch until his death in a Soviet prison camp 1951. With an increasing number of Russian Catholics fleeing their native soil, it quickly became imperative that they should have their own bishop appointed to keep the RGCC alive. In 1936, Alexander Evreinov was appointed bishop for the RGCC during the reign of Pope Pius XI, before being succeeded in 1958 by Andrei Katkov, the last bishop up to this date for the RGCC. He retired in 1977 due to ill health.
The failure of the Vatican to appoint a new hierarch for the RGCC following Bishop Andrei’s retirement in 1977 is no accident. The RGCC, like its sister churches in Belarus and Ukraine, had to survive in the catacombs and diaspora during the dark decades of communism with limited support from the Vatican. In the lead-up to the Second Vatican Council, Roman ecumenists hoping to curry favor with the Eastern Orthodox, marginalized the plight of the Greek Catholic churches. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, for instance, had been forcibly liquidated in 1946 by the communist authorities acting in concert with the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader, Metropolitan (later Cardinal and Patriarch) Joseph Slipyj, who had been locked away in a Soviet camp along with his fellow bishops.
Following the Council and running up to the present day, the policy of the Vatican toward the Orthodox world, particularly Russia, has been one of détente or, more accurately, capitulation. Though Pope John Paul II beatified Exarch Leonid and many other Greek Catholic confessors under communism, he did little to help the revival of the RGCC in Russia. To this day, Greek Catholicism is anathema to the Russian Orthodox and its existence is often used by the Russians as an excuse to delay ecumenical talks with Rome.
In 2017, a congress of Russian Greek Catholics was held in Italy to ask Pope Francis for the appointment of a hierarch for the RGCC along with other provisions to support the growth of Greek Catholicism in Russia. These requests have, not surprisingly, gone unheeded. May the prayers of Our Lady of Fatima and the holy martyrs of the RGCC usher new life into Russian Catholicism so that the Faith may continue to spread throughout the world.