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A brief history of the Greek Catholic church

After the baptism of Vladimir the Great in 988 in the Dnipro River that flows through Kiev, the city was for centuries the leading center of Christianity in the East. Vladimir, later canonized, was the first Russian ruler to embrace Christianity.

As Moscow grew in influence in the late Middle Ages, however, the church centered on Kiev found itself squeezed between a Polish king who wanted to make them into Latin-rite Christians, and a Russian church that wanted the upper hand within Orthodoxy.

In 1596, a majority of the bishops of the Kiev church voted to enter into communion with Rome. The agreement is called the Union of Brest for the city in Belarusia in which it was signed. These Eastern believers maintained their ancient liturgical and theological traditions.

The word uniate is sometimes used to describe this church, but members regard it as pejorative, since it was coined by Orthodox commentators and is often used in a dismissive fashion. The official term is “Greek Catholic,” introduced by the Austrian empress Maria-Teresa in 1774.

At the beginning of World War II, some Greek Catholics welcomed the German army as liberators from the Soviets. This has led to accusations of collaboration against some Greek Catholics. Such accusations are hotly denied by church spokespersons.

In 1945, Josef Stalin decided on a policy of forced unification into a single Orthodox church in Soviet territory. Many Greek Catholic clergy and bishops were arrested and sent off to labor camps. In 1946, a synod arranged by Soviet authorities voted to dissolve the Union of Brest, and Greek Catholic churches were handed over to the Orthodox. For more than 40 years, hundreds of thousands of Greek Catholics lived an underground existence, known as the “church of the catacombs.”

In 1989, the Greek Catholic church gained legal existence, generating enormous property disputes in the Western Ukraine over control of churches and other property. Today, however, those disputes are largely resolved.

There are 32 Greek Catholic bishops today, led by Cardinal Lubomyr Husar. Greek Catholics routinely refer to Husar as their patriarch, although this title has not been recognized by Rome. There are some 5.5 million Greek Catholic believers, with 3,240 parishes, 78 monasteries, and 1,976 priests.

There is one metropolitanate, or archdiocese, in the United States, with headquarters in Philadelphia. It has three dependent eparchies, or dioceses, in Parma, Ohio; Chicago; and Stamford, Conn. During the years of Soviet repression, the United States and Canada were major centers for the Greek Catholic diaspora. Today Americans hold several leadership positions in the church. Husar himself is an American citizen.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001