UZHHOROD, Ukraine — There are communities in Christendom that disappear from sight but flower again, like perennials from spring ground when the weather gets warmer.
God’s truth never dies in these places, just hides to survive.
In the southwestern corner of Ukraine, there’s a wedge of beautiful, mountainous territory the size of Connecticut known as Transcarpathia, or Subcarpathian Rus.
Officially, it is Ukraine’s Zakarpattia Oblast, geographically cut off from the rest of the country by the Carpathian Mountains.
A marvelous Catholic community is centered here, in Uzhhorod, the regional capital and site of a historic Church milestone: In 1646, the Union of Uzhhorod brought most of the region’s Orthodox Church into communion with the Holy See, much as the Union of Brest did, further north, in 1596.
A Hive of Activity
The truest test of Church dynamism might be called the “Friday in August” challenge: What’s going on in a parish community on a random hot summer afternoon at the end of a work week?
Holy Cross Cathedral in Uzhhorod, locally known as the “Ruthenian Church,” passes with flying colors.
Art students from Lviv sit high on wooden scaffolding, restoring paintings on walls by the altar, while faithful in the pews intone the Rosary.
A busy religious sister from the Order of St. Basil the Great fixes fresh flowers while directing workmen ferrying construction materials.
A helpful security guard offers to show foreign visitors the crypt where Blessed Theodore Romzha’s remains were found. Blessed Theodore was a young Ruthenian bishop murdered by the communists. Beatified in 2001 by Pope St. John Paul II, he is now entombed in a side chapel.
Everyone apologizes that the bishop isn’t available. Bishop Milan Sasik, who has led the Eparchy (Diocese) of Mukachevo since 2010, is a notoriously energetic leader.
But he’s away, leading 400 pilgrims in a seven-bus caravan to see holy sites in Austria.
This dynamic community was thought to be on the proverbial “dustbin of history,” but has surged back since the communist empire collapsed.
Faith held them together, supporting a transnational ethnic identity whose very existence was denied in some quarters: The Rusyn people, more commonly known as Ruthenians in the United States, have survived against significant odds.
When the Union of Uzhhorod was signed, the region was dominated by the Rusyns, a Slavic people living, typically, in small, rural villages on the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains.
For centuries, Transcarpathia formed part of the Kingdom of Hungary.
Twentieth-century turmoil upended the Rusyn people and these lands: After World War I, which Hungary lost, Rusyn-Americans advocated for Ruthenian independence. President Woodrow Wilson said national autonomy within a new state, Czechoslovakia, was the only option.
As consolation, in 1920, a Carpathian-born Pittsburgh lawyer, Gregory Zhatkovich, was appointed governor of the province of Carpathian Ruthenia, controlled by Czechoslovakia and removed from Hungary.
In 1945, the Soviet army swept in and occupied it, transferring the region to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic. The Rusyn community wound up divided between numerous countries: Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Serbia and Romania.
Many emigrated to the United States from 1880 to 1924, bringing their Church, which they renamed the Byzantine Catholic Church of America in 1956, to avoid confusion inspired by the term “Greek Catholic,” used in the homeland to refer to the Byzantine tradition, not the country of Greece.
Even in the United States, the Greek-Catholic community suffered: Mainstream Catholics, unnerved by the presence of married priests (a tradition inherited from the Church’s Orthodox roots, approved by the Vatican in the 17th-century agreement) and a foreign-looking liturgy, pressured the Holy See to limit Ruthenian clergy in America to celibate and widowed priests.
In anger, many parishes realigned themselves with the Orthodox.
Back in Eastern Europe, a brutal Soviet campaign to eradicate the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church forced the faithful underground: The leadership was persecuted, churches closed, and property was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Even after Ukraine became independent in 1991, bias against Ruthenians persisted. Ukraine, for example, still won’t acknowledge Rusyns as a national minority; thus, they aren’t counted separately in census data. The Greek Catholic Church estimates there are 350,000 in the Zakarpattia oblast.
In contrast, in neighboring Slovakia, signs in towns on the Slovak-Ukraine border are written in Slovakian and Rusyn, which uses the Cyrillic alphabet.
But attempts old and new to repress this community have largely failed, as a result of identity with a Church that unifies people across national borders.
For 200 years, Greek-Catholic priests have been the leading “national awakeners” and proponents of a unique Rusyn national identity.
The Greek Catholic Church in Transcarpathia was preserved by four essential assets: Grandparents and parents who transmitted the culture at home, martyrs, capable leadership that inspired a crop of new priestly recruits and external supporters contributing financial and moral resources.
A standing-room-only Divine Liturgy in a Byzantine rite is a feast for the senses.
At Holy Cross Cathedral, a sparkling chandelier sways above the congregation, illuminating a towering iconostasis, from which golden light cascades. Much of the liturgy is sung; young and old seem to know the words.
As a young priest wearing a glimmering blue-and-gold phelonion leads the congregation with the help of a deacon, a steady queue of believers line up to venerate an icon prominently displayed toward the front of the nave.
At the very end, the 800 or so congregants sing Bozhe Velykyi, a Ukrainian independence anthem sung with emotion.
Father Nazar Vynnytskyi, the 26-year-old celebrant, explained later to the Register that it’s a “prayer for Ukraine” sung every Sunday at the end of Mass since independence in 1991.
According to the young priest, about 3,000 parishioners are at church on Sundays, attending one of six liturgies celebrated in Ukrainian, Hungarian and Slavonic. Weekdays, four Masses are offered each day. The diocese represents about 25% of the region’s people.
Culture Preserved at Home
Father Vynnytskyi learned to speak Rusyn “with my wife and parents, at home. Everything about our culture was preserved in our homes, passed from our grandparents.”
Father Vynnytskyi was ordained three years ago, in an Uzhhorod seminary that opened in 1995.
“We have 70 students now. Five years ago, we had 120. In the Pittsburgh seminary, maybe six seminarians are being prepared,” said the priest.
Pittsburgh is the location of the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy, which traces its origin to 1924, when the Holy See created two Greek-Catholic excharcates (missionary dioceses) in the U.S. — one for Ukrainians and the other for people of Carpatho-Rusyn, Hungarian, Slovak and Croatian descent. The Byzantine Catholic Seminary, established in 1950, is also in Pittsburgh.
According to Father Vynnytskyi, the two main issues facing the Ruthenian community relate to property not popularity: “We have had a big problem with the Orthodox Church, which still occupies our churches, especially in villages. It is impossible to get them back.”
The second problem has been the lengthy process of restoring the Baroque cathedral — built originally by a Jesuit community in 1646 — and the big complex around it, including offices and the bishop’s residence.
During the Soviet period, the cathedral was used as an Orthodox church, and the bishop’s residence was a state university library. Some books still remain in the residence, recovered from the state only in 2009.
Scores of parishioners pray before a glass casket built into an altar, the place where Blessed Theodore Romzha has been laid to rest, delicately concealed under a burgundy stole.
At age 33, he was ordained a bishop, as the Soviet army was approaching the Carpathian Mountains. A month later, the entire region was occupied.
According to Vatican documentation, because the bishop refused to cooperate with Soviet authorities to liquidate the Greek Catholic Church and renounce Rome, they “decided to destroy him.”
Since the Soviets had confiscated his car, the bishop used a horse and buggy to visit villages and offer the Divine Liturgy. Returning from one of those trips, in November 1947, a military vehicle ran into his carriage.
The Vatican report continues, “When the soldiers saw that he didn’t die in the accident, they beat him and his companions into unconsciousness. [W]hen Bishop Theodore was beginning to recover, he was poisoned in the Mukachevo hospital by workers cooperating with the security services.”
The bishop was buried in Holy Cross Cathedral’s crypt. The tombs were desecrated when the Orthodox had to give the cathedral back to the Greek Catholics, and his body was lost.
Based on the vestments he wore, his body was identified in 1998 and sent to Budapest, Hungary, for an autopsy that concluded he had been poisoned to death.
In June 2001, Pope St. John Paul II presided over an outdoor Byzantine-rite Divine Liturgy in Lviv, Ukraine, to beatify 28 martyrs, including Bishop Romzha.
An American authority on the Ruthenian community is Byzantine-Catholic Father Christopher Zugger, whose book Finding a Hidden Church traces the suppression, then revival, of the Transcarpathian faith community. He spoke to the Register by phone from his home in New Mexico.
“The fact that this Church exists is really a miracle,” he said. “It was looked down on by so many, as a peasant Church, and was persecuted.”
According to Father Zugger, there are about 1 million Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholics in the world and approximately 300,000 in the United States.
“Our Church, known as Greek Catholic in Europe and Byzantine Catholic here, has no single, worldwide hierarchical structure. We aren’t a patriarchal Church. We feel unified to each other as sons and daughters of the 1646 union, so we have more of a self-unity. It is pretty impressive. Whenever there is a major event, there are usually bishops and priests from several different countries,” he said.
“We report to the Oriental Congregation in the Holy See, led by Cardinal [Leonardo] Sandri,” he added.
Father Zugger has visited Transcarpathia several times, witnessing — and documenting — the revival of the Church. “Bishop Milan is really dedicated to the eparchy and the revival of the Church. Americans who go over there call him the ‘Energizer Bunny.’”
Even after Ukraine achieved independence, explained Father Zugger, the Greek-Catholic faithful faced challenges.
For example, for a few years, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church thought the Ruthenian Church should become part of its hierarchical structure.
“Of course, our clergy and people didn’t want that. It was settled in a big meeting in Rome, in 1993,” Father Zugger said. “The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, certainly under Major Archbishop Sviatoslav, doesn’t seem to be pushing that anymore.”
Father Zugger confirmed that the Byzantine Catholic Church has been financially supportive of the Transcarpathian Church’s needs — from donations to supporting seminarians and new church construction to renovation of the bishop’s residence — through organizations such as the Mission Society of the Mother of God of Boronyavo.
“A lot of seminarians come from poor families, and many came to faith alone — their parents were atheists, although they might have had grandparents who were faithful. But a large number of those men had mystical experiences of God, and they must be educated,” explained the priest.
Father Zugger says that Ruthenian-Greek Catholics worry about the current Ukrainian crisis. Transcarpathia has a large Hungarian community with a “strong desire for an autonomous district within the oblast,” but the Church is not involved in that.
He added, “The situation is very sensitive, but the Ruthenian-Greek Catholic community is solid. After all, it is through God’s help that it is still there.”
Victor Gaetan covers international issues for the Register.
He is also a correspondent for Foreign Affairs magazine.