Wednesday 10 February 2016

Church Snatching in the Borderlands

Time and again, we hear certain voices claiming that the Greek-Catholics ("Uniates") "devastated" three Russian eparchies in western Ukraine after the fall of communism in the 1990s. Coincidentally, these eparchies were only founded with the Soviet takeover of the area at the end of the Second World War. 

Historically, western Ukraine had been part of Kyivan Rus', the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Kingdom of Poland, the Austrian Empire (when it took on the name Eastern Galicia) and, finally, the Second Polish Republic. It has also been a prosperous independent principality in the eleventh century (Halych) and was briefly an independent state (the Western Ukrainian National Republic) at the end of the First World War. Aside from a brief Russian occupation at the outset of both world wars, it had never in its history been ruled by Moscow, and the Russian Orthodox Church had no historical presence there. From 1945 it simply became the religion of the occupying power.

At the end of the Eighteenth Century, the Tsarist Empire began suppressing the Uniate churches in the territories it acquired in the partition of Poland.  These lands were liberated from the Russian yoke in 1915, with the occupation of the Austrian and German armies. Immediately, the issue of the many former Uniate churches came to the fore.

In preparing an article about the Chełm/Kholm region, I came across the following report from the Apostolic Nuncio in Vienna, Rafaele Scapinelli di Leguino, dated 8 October 1915: 

"It would simply be an act of justice, and therefore a duty, to ask that all the properties which, in the space of 142 years since the first partition of Poland, were taken from the Greek-Uniate Church by the Russian Government and given to the schismatic church [Russian Orthodox], be returned to their rightful owner."

"It is clear that the violence and persecution of a despotic power with which, on more than one occasion under Catherine II, Nicholas I and Alexander II, the Greek-Uniate Church in Russia was destroyed, cannot be considered as a proper claim to the acquisition of these properties from the Uniate Church to the schismatic one. From the very beginning, the bad faith of the new possessor was so evident as not to permit a legal settlement. The schismatic church entered into possession of the properties of the Greek-Uniates without any juridical claim, but solely by violence and fraud."

A rare example of Alexei's appeal to UGCC
A similar argument might be used when the Russian Empire, in it's Soviet incarnation, extended its occupation to western Ukraine and transferred the remaining "Uniate" churches to the Russian Orthodox Church, with the kind assistance of the NKVD and its local collaborators. This event is known historically as the 1946 Pseudo-Synod of Lviv, and was preceded by a printed appeal to the Uniate clergy by the newly-created Soviet Patriarch. The appeal would not appear in the official journal of the patriarchate, and was never officially acknowledged.

In response to this proselytism and to the arrest of the entire Greek-Catholic episcopate, Venerable Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical letter entitled Orientales omens Ecclesias, in which he stated: "Who does not know that Patriarch Alexius I, recently elected by the dissident bishops of Russia, openly exalts and preaches defection from the Catholic Church in a letter lately addressed to the Ruthenian Church, a letter which contributes much to the persecution?"