Discovering an Eastern Church

Historian Explains History and Significance of the Ukrainian Church

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By Ann Schneible

ROME, MAY 24, 2012 ( Following the recent ad limina visit of bishops from the Eastern Catholic Churches of the United States, ZENIT asked a historian to shed light on the history and culture of the Ukrainian Church, the largest Eastern Church in the US.

A native of Canada, Father Athanasius McVay is a Ukrainian-Greek Catholic priest and historian who lives and works in Rome. He is a fellow of the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada, and specializes in the Holy See’s diplomacy and the Eastern Catholic Churches in the 19thand 20thcenturies. Speaking with ZENIT, Father McVay shed some light on the origins and historical development of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council, Father McVay clarified, the Church does not speak of «rites» but of «Churches» when referring to the many different Churches that are in unity with Rome. «These Churches,» he told ZENIT, «are all in full ecclesiastical communion with the Roman Pontiff» who, as Bishop of Rome, «has a unique and dual headship: he is head of the particular Latin Church (which, according to the conciliar teaching is not superior but equal to the other particular Churches) and he is head of the Universal Church which is present in each of the particular Churches.»

Coming to know the Ukrainian Catholic Liturgy

«Being an ancient ritual,» Father McVay said, «the Ukrainian Rite (which is a form of the Byzantine Rite) has many more similarities to the liturgical culture of gestures found in the traditional Latin Rite (Extraordinary Form).»

The basic structure of the Eucharistic Liturgy – the readings, the offertory, the Eucharistic prayer, and so on – is the same as the Latin Mass, but the forms of these ceremonies in the Ukrainian Byzantine liturgy are very different. For instance, «the principal parts,» in the Ukrainian Liturgy, «are interspersed with long litanies, with the response kyrie eleison, or Grant this, O Lord. The Dominus vobiscum blessing is similar to the Latin Pontifical Mass form: ‘peace be with all’ except that, turning to the faithful, the priest blesses them with the sign of the cross instead of opening his hands.»

In the Ukrainian Liturgy, moreover, «the vestments have a completely different cut: the chasuble (felonion) is cut in front, not at the sides. The stole is joined in the center and the cincture is made of vestment material. Instead of a maniple there are two cuffs, one for each wrist. The alb, he continued, is called stycharion and can also be of a colored, silk or brocade material like the vestments. When celebrating pontifically the bishops wears a sakkos (like a pontifical dalmatic) instead of a felonion with an omophorion over top (a pallium like vestment). His miter is shaped like a crown and his crozier has two serpents intertwined around a cross. He blesses pontifically with two hands instead of three times with one hand, as in the Latin Rite.

A history in brief

The Ukrainian Church, explained Father McVay, is one of the Churches originating from Kyivan Rus’, an ancient state that was Christianized by St. Vladimir the Great in the year 988. Although the Church of Rus’ was under the supervision of the Patriarch of Constantinople, it nonetheless maintained ties with Rome and the West for centuries following the great Schism of 1054. Northern Rus’ would eventually sever its union with the Roman Pontiff. In the late 1500s, however, the region of southern Rus’ (present-day Ukraine) would become reconciled with Rome. From that time forward, the Kyivan Church – now known as the Ukrainian Church – was divided in two: the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Many liturgical changes followed the division. «With this rift,» said Father McVay, «ritual novelties crept into the liturgical practices of both sides. Ukrainian Orthodox adopted many Russian customs and Ukrainian Catholics imitated the rituals of the Latin liturgy. The Second Vatican Council sanctioned the movement, which was already being encouraged by the Apostolic See, to remove these hybrid rituals of late introduction.»

An era of persecution

For their fidelity to Rome, Ukrainian Catholics would face persecution and martyrdom. «As the Russian Empire expanded westward,» Father McVay said, «Ukrainian Uniates, [those who were united with Rome], were forced, often at gunpoint, to embrace Orthodoxy. Our church paid with many martyrs for its fidelity to Church unity and to the Successor of Blessed Peter.»

Much of the persecution, however, would come at the hands of the state. «The Ukrainian Catholic Church,» Father McVay continued, «suffered a century of persecution and martyrdom at the hands of the civil powers of various governments. In 1945 the bishops were arrested by the Communists and, at Stalin’s orders, were deported convicted and interned in prison camps. All died at the hands of their jailers except for two who were subsequently deported to the west.»

«Pope John Paul II beatified these bishops, together with clergy, religious and laity who gave their lives in witness for the Faith and the unity willed by Christ for His Church, cum et sub Petro.»

Immigration to the United States and Canada

In the second half of the 19th century, central and Eastern Europeans abolished serfdom and peasants were permitted to leave the country for the first time, the priest explained. Advances in public health and sanitary conditions caused a population boom and resulted in a lack of available farmland. Galicia was the poorest province of Austria-Hungary and Ukrainians … sought a better life in the new world.

«Ukrainian immigration to the USA began in the 1870s and followed to Canada 20 years later,” he told ZENIT. “Americans and Canadians sent agents to Austria to recruit laborers for factory and farming jobs. Later professionals also immigrated. Bishops were appointed for the United States (1907) and Canada (1912). With the growth of the Churches, in the 1940s and 50s the two exarcates (missionary dioceses) were made into ecclesiastical provinces and divided into metropolitan sees (Philadelphia for the US, Winnipeg for Canada) and several suffragan eparchies (dioceses): (in the US, Stamford, Connecticut; Chicago, lllinois; Parma, Ohio; in Canada: Edmonton, Alberta; Toronto, Ontario; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; New Westminster, British Columbia.”

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