Every second Saturday of the month, 4 pm - Divine Liturgy in English of Sunday - Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, Duke Street, London W1K 5BQ. Followed by refreshments.
Next Liturgy: Saturday 14th July - 3pm Great Vespers, 4pm Divine Liturgy for Sunday

To purchase The Divine Liturgy: an Anthology for Worship (in English), order from the Sheptytsky Institute here, or the St Basil's Bookstore here.

To purchase the Divine Praises, the Divine Office of the Byzantine-Slav rite (in English), order from the Eparchy of Parma here.

The new catechism in English, Christ our Pascha, is available from the Eparchy of the Holy Family and the Society. Please email johnchrysostom@btinternet.com for details.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Ceslaus Sipovitch-The First Belarussian Catholic Bishop in the 20th Century 1914 - 1981

Ceslaus Sipovitch - The First Belarussian Catholic Bishop in the 20th Century 1914 - 1981
by Archpriest Alexander Nadson, The Belarussian Catholic Mission of Byzantine Rite in England, Marian House, Holden Avenue, London

Book Review by Fr John Salter

Neither Bishop Ceslaus Sipovitch nor Archpriest Alexander Nadson will need any introduction to older members of the Society of St. John Chrsysostom for Bishop Ceslaus was Vice-President of the Society and Father Alexander was once Chairman.

Archpriest Alexander Nadson has ministered to the spiritual and material needs of the Belarussian Catholics and Orthodox for nearly half a century in the United Kingdom from his headquarters at Marian House in North London. He is, since the death of Bishop Ceslaus Sipovitch, the Apostolic Visitor for Belarussian Catholics outside the territorial boundaries of Belarussia. He has initiated humanitarian aid in the United Kingdom for those Belarussian children who are still suffering from the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and its fallout.

His friend and bishop and the subject of this fascinating biography, Bishop Ceslaus Sipovitch, was born into a farming family on 8th December 1914 in the small village of Dziedzinka in the north-western corner of Belarus, at a time when it was part of the Russian Empire. After World War I and the Russian Revolution the Belarussians found themselves divided between the Soviets and the Poles. Greek Catholics were not welcomed by either side.

Most Belarussians were Orthodox (70%) and about 25% were Roman Catholics. The majority of Latin Catholics lived in the western territories and found themselves after 1920 under Polish rule. The Tzarist government in 1839 suppressed the so-called Uniates or Greek Catholics (there was nothing ‘Greek’ about them except their Rite – the Byzantine). They had to become Russian Orthodox , but some managed to change to the Latin Rite, but others had to opt for Orthodoxy. Ceslaus’s parents were Catholics of the Latin Rite, but they may have been forced to take up the Latin Rite and leave the Greek Catholic community after 1839, or, at least their parents may have had to do so.

Ceslaus was educated by the Marian Fathers, but owing to the extreme nationalism of the Poles, intolerant of any non-Polish groups, the Belarussian language was forbidden even in the playground, and most sermons were preached in Polish. The Marian Fathers were weakened by the accusations of ultra nationalist Poles that they were in some ways a threat to Polish national unity. The Marian Belarussian Fathers were also weakened by the departure of some of its members for missionary work among the exiled Russians in Harbin, Manchuria.

Father Nadson writes:

‘They were victims of the then fashionable policy of the “conversion of Russia”. According to its proponents, after the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union (of which they did not doubt), the Russian Orthodox Church would be weak and demoralised. This would present a unique opportunity for the Catholic Church to extend her frontiers eastwards right to the heart of Russia. The most prominent exponent of this idea was Bishop Michel d’Herbigny, a learned French Jesuit, Rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, who knew how to gain the confidence of Pope Pius XI. In 1925 a special Commission “Pro Russia” was established , first as part of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, and from 1930 as an independent department of the Vatican, directly responsible to the Pope. Like a new Napoleon, d’Herbigny was preparing the spiritual conquest of Russia by amassing his troops on the borders of the Soviet Union. One such bridgehead was the Jesuit House in Albertyn in Western Belarus, which was then under Polish rule. At the same time affairs of the Eastern (Byzantine) rite in Western Belarus were placed under the jurisdiction of the Commission “Pro Russia”. This fact dismayed many Belarussians who saw their hopes for a revival of the Greek Catholic Church dashed. It also antagonised the Poles who considered Belarus to be their “sphere of influence” and who did not take kindly to the idea of Belarussians being ‘russified’ by…the Vatican’.

Father Nadson points out that ‘the Commission “Pro Russia” had no interest in, or understanding of, the particular spiritual needs of Belarussians, and regarded them only as useful tools for the “conversion” of Russia. This was the feeling of many Belarussian priests who were concerned about the religious state of their own people. One of them, Kazimier Kulak, wrote on 15th December 1931: … “For the Union action to succeed it is essential that those who are supposed to benefit from this action, i.e. Belarussians and Ukrainians, have confidence in it. In the meantime this confidence is diminishing every day, and not because of the fear of polonisation and latinisation on the part of the Poles, but of russification from…Rome! A group of well-known Belarussian priests - 5 or 7 persons - were thinking of adopting the Eastern rite, joining one of the religious congregations - Basilians or Marians, and starting together the work for the Union in our country. However, if there is no action Pro Alborussia, but only Pro Russia, then why bother? To be sent to convert the Chinese, while our own people are perishing under the onslaught of sects and atheism ?”

It was against this sort of ecclesiastical ospoliticking that Ceslaus Sipovitch was ordained in the Latin Rite, and being the sort of man he was and the milieu in which he found himself, he saw the need to break down the centuries old prejudices and misunderstandings between the Greek Catholics on the one side and the Latin Catholics and Orthodox on the other, and to try and build relationships that were founded on mutual trust, respect and tolerance, and he felt it his vocation to act as an ambassador of Belarussia and her faithful in the Church and in the world. In London he cared as much for the small Belarussian Orthodox as for his own flock. The writer remembers when the Byelorussian Orthodox under their Synod in Exile established at St. Silas-with-All Saints, Pentonville, North London, a worshipping base from scratch, under the late Archpriest John Perkarski, it was Bishop Ceslaus Sipovitch who arranged for his choir master, Mr Guy Picarda, to start the ball rolling musically for the Orthodox. Also, the writer recalls taking Bishop Ceslaus to preach at one of the great Anglo-Catholic shrines in Manchester, St. Benedict’, Hardwick, and their being met by the local Byelorussian Orthodox priest who had come to pay his respects to a much loved “Uniate” bishop.

Although Ceslaus was ordained into the Latin Rite in the Roman Church he made up his mind to change to the Slav-Byzantine Rite on the Latin feast of Our Lady of the Snows, 5th August 1938. The decision was made during a Retreat, which Ceslaus offered for the following intentions “1. That all, especially the Eastern and Roman Catholics, may become one Church; 2. That God may help me to do his will, and to give light and understanding and strength to work in the Eastern rite”. On the last day of the Retreat he made the following note : “ I thanks all my holy patrons for the help, given to me during these eight days. Quite deliberately and putting aside all doubts I have decided to embrace the Eastern rite if this is what Jesus will demand of me tomorrow.” That was a brave thing to do in Poland at that time.

Father Alexander has given a full account of the difficulties facing the Ruthenian Uniates, i.e. those Greek Catholics of Belarussia and the Ukraine, who found themselves under Polish rule during the Second Republic.

Bishop Ceslaus Sipovitch’s life was no bed of roses, yet he became the first Belarussian Catholic Bishop of the 20th century, and he could have said like St. Paul: “By God’s grace I am what I am, nor has His grace been given to me in vain” (1 Corinthians 15.10)

The whole book may be read online here.

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