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Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Loss to the Catholic Church of the American Carpatho-Ruthenian Greek Catholics

Fr John Salter, in Chrysostom for Pascha 2012, writes:

In that wonderfully romantic Grimms' Fairy Tale world of the mountains of Carpatho-Ruthenia which lies between Slovakia and Ukraine, and which was evangelized by SS. Cyril and Methodios from the Church of Contantinople - and blessed by Pope Hadrian before the Great Schism of 1054 - live the Carpathian Rusyns, or Carpatho-Ruthenians. After the Great Schism, the Carpatho-Ruthenians found themselves in the Orthodox camp. There was a movement towards healing the East/West schism when the Ukrainian Metropolitan Michael Rogoza of Kiev and the bishops of Vladimir, Pinsk, Kholm Lutsk and Polotsk met in the city of Brest-Litovsk in what was then Lithuania in 1595 and petitioned the Holy See (the approach, be it noted, being from the Orthodox side) to be received into communion with the Pope. Only two bishops - those of Lviv and Peremyshl declined the union, although now there is an Eastern Catholic Archbishop of Peremyshl today. The union took place in 1596.

So much for the reunion of some bishops. On 24th April 1646 it was the turn of the priests and some laity in Carpatho-Ruthenia to follow the example of the Ukrainian bishops; and the union was sealed in the Castle of St. George in Uzhorod. Thus was brought to birth the “Uniate” Church, which the Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria-Hungary would designate the "Greek Catholic Church" - Greek not in its language (that was Old Slavonic), but in its liturgy of Constantinople or Byzantium; Greek in its art – particularly the Icon - and in its theology and its discipline – married clergy; but “Catholic” in that it was in communion with the Pope of Rome.

The newly united Church led a relatively peaceful existence. The clergy were often married men and created clerical dynasties, whereby their sons would often succeed to their fathers' parishes, in much the same way that the Church of England clergy did so. Sometimes they were molested by the Cossacks; and there were a number of martyrs, but no great conflicts. But then in the 1870s there was the first emigration of Carpatho-Ruthenians to North America; and it was in the land of the free that the Eastern Catholics came up against the hostility, not of the Orthodox, but of their own  co-religionists – the Latin Catholics, who, ignorant of the Eastern Catholic tradition and discipline, were shocked by their services and even more so by their married priests.

It was not long before these Eastern Catholics fell foul of the Latin Archbishop of Minneapolis – John Ireland. Just as Cardinal Spellman had had a confrontation with the Melkite Patriarch Maxim IV Saigh shortly before the Second Vatican Council over the Melkites using the vernacular (quite what language he expected the Melkites to use was never clear!), so Ireland had his own conflict.  Archbishop Ireland was following the two encyclicals issued by the Popes – Ea Semper of 1905, followed by Pius XI's Cum Data Fuerit. Both documents forbade the services in the United States of
America of married priests – all right east of the Danube, but not west of the Atlantic! Married priests and their wives and children must return to Eastern Europe. Not surprisingly, this caused outrage among those who wanted to preserve their identity. A priest in Bridgeport, Fr. Orestes Chornock, was elected Bishop of a new Independent Greek Catholic Church and was consecrated a bishop by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Another priest who protested was Father Alexis Toth, who, as an Eastern Catholic priest and a widower, newly arrived in the United States, went to pay his respects to the local Archbishop of the Latin Rite, namely the aforementioned Archbishop John Ireland. Ireland, like many Irish-Americans before him and since, had been eager to "Americanize" incoming immigrant Catholics, and was decidedly hostile to so-called “Ethnic Parishes”, such as Father Toth's. In an interview with Toth, Ireland threw Toth's Letters of Orders on his desk, protesting his presence in his city and saying he did not regard Toth or his bishop to be truly Catholic, despite the Union of Brest and of Uzhorod and of many Papal encyclicals on the Eastern Catholic Churches. Toth had had enough.

Yet he looked not to Constantinople, but to Moscow. Pope Pius XI excommunicated six Eastern Catholic priests on 29th October 1936. Father Orestes Chornock was one of the excommunicated, but was consecrated a bishop on 18th September 1938 by the Ecumenical Patriarch. Father Alexis Toth and others created the nucleus of what is now the Orthodox Church of America. He is regarded as a saint by that Church. Seemingly, the schism no longer causes hard feelings in Rome, as some of their
bishops in the American Orthodox-Catholic dialogue were received in audience by Pope John-Paul II in the Vatican, even though his predecessors had excommunicated their forebears. One of the bishops at that audience was Bishop Nicholas Smisko. He was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Orestes Chornock. The group was also received at the Phanar in Constantinople by the Ecumenical Patriarch.

It is a sad tale of the complete misunderstanding of the Latin hierarchy and, in this case, the Popes, who issued those encyclicals, whereas generally the Popes had been very understanding of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Nevertheless, according to Russian Orthodox statistics, the further demands by Latin bishops for celibacy resulted in 20,000 leaving in the first wave of converts to Orthodoxy, to be followed by a
further 80,000 after the publication of the encyclical Ea Semper by Pope Pius XI in 1907. It swelled the Russian Orthodox missionary diocese by 100,000. Bishop Alexis Toth continued his work of converting the “Uniates” to Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church of America owes its numbers to his work. He was canonized or “glorified” by the Russian Orthodox Church in North America as “Saint Alexis of Wilkes-Barre”, on 29th May 1994. Visitors to the Orthodox monastery in South Canaan,
Pennsylvania, will see his shrine there.

The question of celibacy will not go away; but respecting the traditions of Eastern Catholic Churches can enrich the entire Church and ease the path towards union with the Orthodox Churches. His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III of the Melkites has warned that the Catholic Church's lack of respect for the identity and practices of its Eastern Churches makes the Orthodox lose all respect for the goodwill of the Church of Rome.

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