- From the Orthodox Church
- The Melkite Catholic Church
- The Ukrainian Catholic Church
- The Ruthenian Catholic Church
- The Romanian Catholic Church
- The Greek Catholic Church
- The Bulgarian Catholic Church
- The Slovak Catholic Church
- The Hungarian Catholic Church
- Greek Catholics in Former Yugoslavia
From the Orthodox Church
These Eastern Catholic churches adhere to the Byzantine liturgical, spiritual and
theological traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, from which they derive. Because of
the Greek origin of that tradition, most of these churches prefer to call themselves
’’Greek Catholic’’ which was their legal name in the Austrian Empire, the Ottoman
Empire, and other states of Eastern Europe.
The Melkite Catholic Church
The word ‘Melkite’ comes from the Syriac and Arabic words for ’King,’ and was originally
used to refer to those within the ancient Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and
Jerusalem who accepted the Christological faith professed by the Byzantine Emperor
after the Council of Chalcedon (451). Today, however, the term more often refers
to Byzantine Catholics associated with those three Patriarchates.
Jesuits, Capuchins and Carmelites began missionary activity in the Orthodox Patriarchate
of Antioch in the mid-17th century. While there were some conversions,
the missionaries were primarily concerned with forming a pro-Catholic party within
the Patriarchate itself. By the early 18th century, the Antiochene church
had become polarized, with the pro-Catholic party centered in Damascus and the anti-Catholic
party in its rival city, Aleppo.
Patriarch Athanasios III Debbas, who died on August 5, 1724, had designated as his
successor a Cypriot monk named Sylvester: His candidacy was supported by the Aleppo
party and the Patriarch of Constantinople. But on September 20, 1724, the Damascus
party elected as Patriarch a strongly pro-Catholic man who took the name Cyril VI.
A week later, the Patriarch of Constantinople ordained Sylvester as Patriarch of
Antioch. The Ottoman government recognized Sylvester, while Cyril was deposed and
excommunicated by Constantinople and compelled to seek refuge in Lebanon. Pope Benedict
XIII recognized Cyril’s election as Patriarch of Antioch in 1729. Thus the schism
was formalized, and the Catholic segment of the patriarchate eventually became known
as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
In the beginning this new Catholic community was limited to what is now Syria and
Lebanon. But Melkite Catholics later began to immigrate to Palestine, where Melkite
communities had long existed, and especially to Egypt after that country rebelled
against the Turkish control. In view of the new demographic situation, the Melkite
Catholic Patriarch was given the additional titles of patriarch of Jerusalem and
Alexandria in 1838.
In 1848 the Ottoman government formally recognized the Melkite Catholic Church,
and the Patriarchate itself moved to Damascus from Holy Saviour monastery near Sidon,
The Ukrainian Catholic Church
The Ukrainians received the Christian faith from the Byzantines, and their church
was originally linked to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. By the 14th
century most Ukrainians were under the political control of Catholic Lithuania.
Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev attended the Council of Florence and agreed to the
1439 act of union between Catholics and Orthodox. Although many Ukranians within
Lithuania initially accepted this union, within a few decades they had rejected
In 1569, when Lithuania and Poland united to form a single commonwealth, most of
Ukraine passed to Poland. By this time Protestantism was expanding rapidly in the
Ukrainian lands, and the Jesuits had begun to work for a local union between Catholics
and Orthodox as a way of reducing Protestant influence. Soon many Orthodox also
began to view such a union favorably as a way of improving the situation of the
Ukrainian clergy and of preserving their Byzantine traditions at a time when Latin
Polish Catholicism was expanding.
These developments culminated in a synod of Orthodox bishops at Brest in 1595-1596
which proclaimed a union between Rome and the Metropolitan province of Kiev. This
event sparked a violent conflict between those who accepted the union and those
who opposed it. The dioceses of the far western province of Galicia, which lie at
the heart of what is now the Ukrainian Catholic Church, adhered to the union
much later (Przemysl in 1692 and Lviv in 1700). By the 18th century,
two-thirds of the Orthodox in western Ukraine had become Greek Catholic.
But as Orthodox Russia expanded its control into Ukraine, the union was gradually
suppressed. In 1839, Tsar Nicholas I abolished it in all areas under Russian control
with the exception of the eparchy of Kholm (in Polish territory), which was itself
integrated into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1875. Thus by the end of the 19th
century Greek Catholicism had virtually disappeared from the empire.
But the Ukrainian Catholic Church survived in Galicia, which had come under Austrian
rule in 1772 and passed to Poland at the end of World War I. The Church flourished
under the energetic leadership of Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky, who was Archbishop
of Lviv from 1900 to 1944. The situation changed dramatically, however, at the beginning
of World War II, when most of Galicia was annexed by the Soviet Union.
The Soviet administration acted decisively to liquidate the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
In April 1945 all its bishops were arrested, and the following year they were sentenced
to long terms of forced labor. In March 1946 a ’’synod’’ was held at Lviv which
officially dissolved the union and integrated the Ukrainian Catholic Church into
the Russian Orthodox Church. Those who resisted were arrested.
In 1989, Ukranian Catholic communities were given the right to register with the
government. With the support of the local authorities, Ukrainian Catholics gradually
began to take possession of their former churches. All this marked the beginning
of a strong Ukrainian Catholic resurgence in the region. As this was happening,
the Moscow Patriarchate protested that violence had been used in repossessing some
churches, and that Ukrainian Catholics were attempting to expand at the expense
of the Orthodox. While many property disputes are still unresolved, for the
most part a peaceful modus vivendi had been worked out by the mid-1990s.
The Ruthenian Catholic Church
The motherland of the Ruthenian Catholic Church is now in extreme western Ukraine
southwest of the Carpathian Mountains. The area was known variously in the past
as Carpatho-Ukraine, Carpatho-Ruthenia, Carpatho-Russia, Subcarpathia, and now as
Transcarpathia. Although the ecclesial term “Ruthenian’’ was formerly used more
broadly to include Ukrainians, Belarusians and Slovaks as well, it is now used by
church authorities in a narrower sense to denote this specific Greek Catholic Church.
In terms of ethnicity, Ruthenian Catholics prefer to be called Rusyns. They are
closely related to the Ukrainians and speak a dialect of the same language. The
traditional Rusyn homeland extends beyond Transcarpathia into northeast Slovakia
and the Lemko region of extreme southeast Poland.
In the late 9th century, most of this area came under the control of
Catholic Hungary, which much later promoted Catholic missionary work among its Orthodox
population, including the Rusyns. This activity culminated in the reception of 63
of their priests into the Catholic Church 1646, at the town of Uzhorod. The union
of Uzhorod affected the Orthodox population of an area which roughly corresponds
to today’s eastern Slovakia. In 1664 a union took place at Mukacevo which involved
the Orthodox in today’s Transcarparthia in Ukraine and the Hungarian diocese of
Hajdudorog. A third union, which affected the Orthodox in today’s county of Maramures
in Romania to the east of Mukacevo, took place in about 1713. Thus within 100years
after the 1646 Union of Uzhorod, the Orthodox Church ceased to exist in the region.
After World War I, Transcarpathia became part of the new republic of Czechoslovakia.
There were two Byzantine dioceses at Mukacevo and Presov.
At the end of World Was II, Transcarpathia, including Uzhorod and Mukacevo, was
annexed to the Soviet Union as part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Presov, however, remained in Czechoslovakia. The Soviet authorities soon initiated
a vicious persecution of the Ruthenian Church in the newly acquired region.
The collapse of communism throughout the region had a dramatic effect on Ruthenian
Catholics. The first changes took place in Poland in the mid-1980’s, where Lemko
organizations began to surface and press for recognition of their rights and distinct
status. In Czechoslovakia, the Rusyn minority began to press for recognition within
the predominantly Slovak Greek Catholic diocese of Presov. And finally, in the Tran Carpathian
heartland, on 16 January 1991 the Holy See confirmed a bishop and two auxiliaries
who had been functioning underground for the Ruthenian Catholic eparchy of Mukacevo.
The Romanian Catholic Church
Transylvania, presently one of the three major regions of Romania along with Wallachia
and Moldavia, became part of Hungary in the early 11th century. Although
the principality was also home to large numbers of Hungarians and Germans, who were
mostly Latin Catholics, Orthodox Romanians made up the majority of the population.
Soon after the province was taken by the Turks in the 16th century, Calvinism
became widespread among the Hungarians, and Lutheranism among the Germans.
In 1687, the Hapsburg Austrian Emperor Leopold I drove the Turks from Transylvania
and annexed it to his empire. It was his policy to encourage the Orthodox within
his realm to become Greek Catholic. For this purpose the Jesuits came to work as
missionaries among the Transylvanian Romanians in 1693. This led to a union with
Rome in 1698. But in 1744, the Orthodox monk Visarion led a popular uprising that
sparked a widespread movement back to Orthodoxy. In spite of government efforts
to enforce the union with Rome, resistance was so strong that Empress Maria Theresa
reluctantly allowed the appointment of a bishop for the Romanian Orthodox in Transylvania
It proved difficult for the new Greek Catholic community to obtain in practice the
religious and civil rights that had been guaranteed it when the union was consummated.
In 1853 Pope Pius IX established a separate metropolitan province for the Greek
Catholics in Transylvania. The diocese of Fagaras-Alba Julia was made metropolitan
see, with three suffragan dioceses.
At the end of World War I, Transylvania was united to Romania, and for the first
time Greek Catholics found themselves in a predominantly Orthodox state.
The establishment of a communist government in Romania after World War II proved
disastrous for the Romanian Greek Catholic Church. In December 1948, the government
passed legislation which dissolved the Greek Catholic Church and gave over most
of its property to the Orthodox Church. On March 14, 1990, Pope John Paul II reestablished
the hierarchy of the church by appointing bishops for all five dioceses.
The Greek Catholic Church
The Ottoman Sultan Mohammad II removed his non-Latin Catholic subjects from the
civil authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1829. The formation of Byzantine
Catholic communities in the empire was now possible.
A Latin priest Fr. John Marangos, began missionary work among the Greek Orthodox
in Constantinople in 1856 and eventually formed a very small group of Byzantine
Catholics. He died in 1878, and was succeeded by Fr. Polycarp Anastasiadis.
In 1895 the French Assumptionist Fathers began work in Constantinople where they
founded a seminary and two small parishes.
On 11 June 1911 Pope Pius X created an Apostolic Exarchate for the Byzantine rite
Catholics in Turkey and named Fr. Isaias Papadopoulos as its first bishop. He was
succeeded in 1920 by Bishop George Calabassy. His task was to oversee the immigration
of the entire Byzantine Catholic community of Constantinople to Athens. This was
part of a general exchange of population that took place between Greece and Turkey
in the 1920’s. In view of this new situation, the Holy See erected a separate Apostolic
Exarchate in Athens for Byzantine Catholics in Greece in 1923.
The community remains very small. In Greece, most of the faithful live in Athens,
while in Turkey one small parish exists in Istanbul.
The Bulgarian Catholic Church
In the 19th century, when a struggle to obtain ecclesiastical independence
from the Ecumenical Patriarchate was gaining momentum, some influential Bulgarian
Orthodox in Constantinople began to consider union with Rome as a solution to their
problem. They thought that as Catholics they would be able to retrieve their national
ecclesiastical traditions which they felt Constantinople had denied them.
In 1861 they sent a delegation, headed by the elderly Archimandrite Joseph Sokolsky,
to Rome to negotiate with the Holy See. These talks were successful: Pope Pius IX
himself ordained Sokolsky a bishop on April 8, 1861, and named him Archbishop for
Bulgarian Catholics of the Byzantine rite. But after his return to Constantinople,
Sokolsky disappeared under very mysterious circumstances, was forced to travel to
Odessa on a Russian ship, and spent the remaining 18 years of his life in the Monastery
of the Caves at Kiev.
Most of those who remained Byzantine Catholic lived in villages in Macedonia and
Thrace. Therefore the Holy See created a new ecclesiastical organization for them.
Apostolic Vicariates were established in Thessalonika for Macedonia and in Adrianople
for Thrace, while an Apostolic Administration with the title of Archbishop remained
in Constantinople. The community suffered grievously during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913,
and the few surviving members fled to the new Bulgarian kingdom for safety. Given
the new situation, Bulgarian Byzantine Catholics were reorganized in 1926 and a
new Apostolic Exarchate was established in Sofia.
Unlike most other Byzantine Catholic Churches in Eastern Europe, this church was
not officially suppressed during the communist regime in Bulgaria, although it functioned
with many restrictions.
The Slovak Catholic Church
The religious history of Greek Catholics in Slovakia is closely related to that
of the Ruthenians. Indeed, for centuries their histories were intertwined, since
the 1646 Union of Uzhorod was virtually unanimously accepted in the territory that
is now eastern Slovakia.
At the end of World War I, most Byzantine Catholic Ruthenians and Slovaks were included
within the territory of the new Czechoslovakia Republic.
At the end of World War II, Transcarpathia was annexed by the Soviet Union. The
diocese of Presov then included all Byzantine Catholics in Czechoslovakia.
In April 1950, soon after the communist take-over of Czechoslovakia, a “synod”
was convoked at Presov at which five priests and a member of laymen signed a document
declaring that the union with Rome was dissolved and asking to be received into
the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.
This situation persisted until 1968 when, former Byzantine Catholic parishes were
allowed to return to Catholicism if they so desired. Of 292 parishes involved, 205
voted to return to communion with Rome.
The Hungarian Catholic Church
Most of the members of this church are descended from the Byzantine Christians of
several nationalities who settled in Hungary over the centuries and eventually became
Haungarian-speaking. It was in the 15th and 16th centuries,
due to widespread population shifts caused by the Turkish invasions, that communities
of Byzantines Serbs, Ruthenians, Slovaks and Greeks moved into the area. Most of
them eventually became Catholic but retained their Byzantine heritage. In the 18th
century a number of Hungarian Protestants became Catholic and chose the Byzantine
rite, again adding to the number of Byzantine Catholics in Hungary. They were placed
under the jurisdiction of non-Hungarian Byzantine bishops.
In 1900 a large group of Hungarian Byzantine Catholic pilgrims presented Pope Leo
XIII with a petition requesting that a separate Byzantine diocese be established
in the country, with the right to use Hungarian in the liturgy. Finally in 1912
Pope Pius X erected the diocese of Hajdúdorog for Hungarian Byzantine Catholics.
But he made Greek the obligatory liturgical language. World War I intervened, however,
and the requirement to use Greek was never enforced. The use of Hungarian gained
ground and, willy-nilly, by the 1930’s, all the main liturgical texts had been translated.
The diocese of Hajdúdorog originally covered only areas of the country in which
Byzantine Catholics were concentrated. In 1980 its jurisdiction was extended to
all Byzantine rite Catholics in Hungary.
Greek Catholics in Former Yugoslavia
The first Greek Catholics in what would later be Yugoslavia were Serbians living
in Hungarian-controlled Croatia in the early 17th century. After a period
of tension with the local Latin bishops, the Serbs in Croatia were given their own
diocesan bishop by Pius VI in 1777, with his see at Kricevci, near Zagreb. At first
he was made suffragan to the primate of Hungary, and later (1853) to the Latin Archbishop
The diocese of Kricevi was extended to embrace all the Byzantine Catholics in Yugoslavia
when the country was founded after World War I. The diocese included five distinct
groups: some ethnic Serbs in Croatia, Ruthenians who had emigrated from Slovakia
around 1750, Ukrainians who emigrated from Galicia in about 1900, Slavic Macedonians
in the south of the country who became Catholic through missionary activity in the
19th century, and a few Romanians.
Although they belong to the diocese of Kricevci, the Byzantine Catholics in the
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia come under the jurisdiction of the Latin bishop
of Skopje as their Apostolic Visitator.