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Early History
of the

Byzantine Catholic Church



After Jesus Christ gave the mandate to teach all nations, the impetus for the conversion of the civilized world and eventually all mankind became the goal of the followers of the Carpenter of Nazareth. The growth of the young church naturally centered around the greater Metropolises of the Roman Empire. Each local Church maintained local color and characteristics while maintaining the basic Christian teaching. This was the beginning of the various Rites. Pressure, exerted by the Government and the official pagan religion gave to the Church apologists and martyrs who made the young religion firmly rooted and gave the heroes around which local liturgical observances developed. No doubt the preeminence of Rome was due to the fact of the teaching and martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul. This city became the center of Western Christendom and of the Roman Rite (Latin).

After Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the East at Byzantium, creating his new City of Constantinople, a great Christian center developed there eventually to rival Rome itself. The language, art, culture and history of this great center helped develop what is called the Byzantine Rite. The Great Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. was held on the outskirts of this great Metropolis. This and other early Eastern Councils guided the new religion and defined more clearly the role of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Holy Spirit in the working of salvation.



With most of the civilized world in the orbit of the Church, eventually contacts with the uncivilized pagans were made and the great zeal of missionaries bore fruit. By the sixth century, Christianity reached Britain and Ireland through the missionary activities of St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 605 A.D.) and St. Patrick (d. 461 A.D.), among the Franks (French) under St. Columban (d. 615 A.D.), the Germans under St. Boniface (d. 55 A.D.), Scandinavians under St. Ansgar (d. 865 A.D.).



In the year 863 A.D. Rastislav, King of the Slavs, in what is present-day Czechoslovakia and Hungary, asked for missionaries from Constantinople. Two Greek brothers were sent, namely, Cyril and Methodius who brought with them the liturgical books of the great Church of Constantinople in the Slavonic language. When question arose about the use of the vernacular in the Liturgy, Cyril and Methodius went to Rome where they defended the use of Slavonic in the Liturgy and had its use approved by Pope Adrian II in 869 A.D. These Slavs were the first to embrace Christianity in the Byzantine or Greek Rite. Within the orbit of the missionary activity of Cyril and Methodius, there resided a people who called themselves Rusins. These people adopted Christianity in the Greek or Byzantine Rite. The word Rusin was translated into Latin as Ruthenian, hence the nomenclature of Ruthenian Rite, or Byzantine-Ruthenian Rite. Neighboring tribes and Slavs were soon to follow suit.

In 989 A. D. Prince St. Vladimir adopted the Christian religion from his center in Kiev and with him the whole Russian State. This great neighboring Slav nation developed its own unique style of Christianity. Later they were to follow within the orbit of Eastern Orthodoxy. Because of their great proximity geographically and ethnically, many features of their Church influenced the growth of Eastern Catholicism as practiced by the Ruthenians.



The apostolic endeavors of Cyril and Methodius seemed to have been brought to naught by the invasion in the tenth century of a nomadic Asiatic tribe called the Magyars (Hungarians). Completely devastating this area, they destroyed all semblance of Slavic Christianity. The Christians took refuge in the high Carpathian Mountains where they were free to practice their Slavic Christianity without much hindrance. Others who sought protection of Germanic princes adopted the Latin form of Christianity. Archaeology may prove what vestiges there may be left of this primitive form of Slavic Christianity established by Cyril and Methodius in this area, for it is known that there were seven Episcopal Sees of the Greek Rite before the invasion of the Hungarians. It is interesting to note that the eventual conversion of the Hungarian nation through St. Stephen, their first King, whose crown is of Greek origin and whose coronation robes bear Slavonic inscriptions, later adopted Roman Rite Christianity. Due to the political domination of the Hungarians which lasted for more than one thousand years, the spread of Eastern Catholicism in these European nations was much hindered and if not thoroughly destroyed.



Due to the Eastern Schism (c.d. 1054) the estrangement of two great Churches of Christianity took place, namely, Constantinople representing the Eastern and Rome representing the Western form. The importance was not to be felt for centuries. Gradually, the sons of Cyril and Methodius inadvertently found themselves in schism from the Church that gave them permission to use the Slavic language in the Liturgy. This was remedied by a declaration of "union" with the Holy See of Rome in 1646 at the Fort Castle of Uzhorod in the Carpathian Mountains at the northeast section of Hungary where the majority of Ruthenians lived. At this meeting a formal declaration of loyalty to the Holy See was given with the understanding that the rights and privileges and usage of the Eastern or Greek Rite was respected. There was never any formal cleavage or act of separation by these people, just a simple estrangement through the course of history that was rectified by this formal act of loyalty. The Byzantine Rite faithful of Poland (Ukrainians) preceded those of Austria-Hungary in Brest-Litovsk in 1596 in declaring also their loyalty to the Holy See. Because of this union with Rome and the unique characteristics of being Catholic and following the Greek Rite, these Ruthenians were dubbed by the Empress Maria Teresa as "Greek Catholics". Since that time, they were called Greek Rite Catholics or Byzantine Rite Catholics. Sometimes, the adjective Slavonic or Ruthenian was placed in the middle to better describe their usage. Oftentimes simply Ruthenian Rite is used.



In popular language, the Ruthenian Rite is often called the Byzantine or Greek Rite because of its Greek origin, although nowadays only a minority of those who use it are Greek by race or speech. The Byzantine Rite is, after the Roman Rite, the most widely used liturgy in Christendom, and is employed in almost identical form by over one hundred million Eastern Orthodox Christians and by about eight million Eastern Catholic Christians. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, great numbers of Byzantine Rite Catholics came to America seeking a better life style and less repressive restrictions. Although national differences were not that pronounced, many Slav Christians settled in various industrial and urban centers in the Eastern coastal states. Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks, Croatians and others of Central European backgrounds gradually formed their own communities and houses of worship. Because of the similarities and expression of worship both of their non-English tongue and strange liturgical practices coupled with the fact that they were permitted by their Byzantine tradition to have married clergy, they were often met with misunderstanding and hostility by the then existing Roman Rite hierarchy.

Their numbers increased so much by the beginning of the twentieth century that it dictated they must have their own Shepherd. The Holy See sent to this country in 1907 the Most Reverend Soter Ortynsky. During his short tenure, he tried to solidify the Byzantine Rite in America. However, in 1924 separate jurisdictions for both Ruthenians and Ukrainians were established. The Most Reverend Basil Tkach was appointed as Bishop for the Ruthenians and the Most Reverend Constantine Bohachevsky for the Ukrainians. Since that time the Ruthenians have developed their Church in America, adopting many practical solutions to their new-found environment. In 1963, two separate dioceses were created for the Ruthenians with centers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Passaic, New Jersey. In 1969, a Metropolitan Province was established, raising the diocese of Pittsburgh to a Metropolitan status and establishing the diocese of Parma, Ohio from its Western borders. The Ruthenians have assimilated into many strata of American society and have contributed to the melting pot which is America. They were leaders in introducing on a grand scale the vernacular (English) into liturgical services and propagating their understanding among their Latin Rite brethren an understanding of the "Eastern Rites". Smaller groups of Byzantine and Eastern Rite Catholics made their way to America and gradually most have received their own jurisdictions. The Ruthenian Rite of all of them, however, embraces more of a diversified segment of national groups, namely, Rusins, Slovaks, Croatians and Hungarians. With intermarriages they have included within their gamut many of the American milieu and one can easily find English, Irish, Italian, Spanish, etc., names in church listings. All these then are true sons and daughters of Cyril and Methodius, who, although bringing the message of Christianity to the Slavs, have kept alive the principle of using a living language in worship. It is this idea that the Second Vatican Council promoted on a grand scale within the Universal Catholic Church. And with Saints Cyril and Methodius, we can defend this beautiful tradition with the words of the psalmist: "Let every creature that has breath, praise the Lord!".

Carpathian Mountains

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