Overview of Christian History in Ukraine

Author: LOR



The following article has been compiled from texts written by Prof. Oleh Turiy of the Institute of Church History of Lviv, Ukraine; Bishop Michel Hrynchyshyn, C.SS.R., Apostolic Exarch for Byzantine-rite Ukrainian faithful in France and Apostolic Administrator for those residing in Germany; and Giampaolo Mattei of L'Osservatore Romano.

Ukraine has a long Christian tradition, dating from the 10th century. Today there are over 22,000 religious communities in Ukraine from about 80 different Christian denominations, as well as other religions. But the atheist policy of the Soviets has left its mark: many Ukrainians today are unchurched because of the great spiritual void which the Bolshevik regime left in Eastern Europe.

The conversion of Ukraine and tensions between East and West

In 988 Prince Volodymyr the Great established Christianity in its Byzantine-Slavic rite as the national religion of his country, Kievan-Rus. This happened before the Great Church Schism of 1054 divided Christian East from West. The Kievan Church inherited the traditions of the Byzantine East and was part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Yet this Church also remained in full communion with the Latin West and its patriarch, the Pope of Rome.

Though Constantinople and Rome had their disputes, the Kievan hierarchy tried to work for Christian unity. Representatives from Rus participated in the Western Councils of Lyon (1245) and Constance (1418). Isidore, the Metropolitan of Kiev, was himself one of the creators of the Union of Florence (1439).

While the Kievan metropolia was working towards reunion, a new metropolia arose north of Kiev, in Moscow. The Church of Moscow refused to accept the Union of Florence and separated from the ancient metropolia in Kiev, announcing its autocephaly (self-governing status) in 1448. In 1589, with Greek Orthodoxy and Constantinople subject to Turkish domination, the Church of Moscow became a patriarchate.

Union with Rome and East/West divisions in Ukraine

The Kievan Church was challenged by the Protestant Reformation and the renewed Catholicism of that period and was also suffering a serious internal crisis. The Synod decided to pass under the jurisdiction of the see of Rome, re-establishing full communion of the Church in Ukraine with the Successor of Peter in 1595. The traditional Eastern rite of the Kievan Church was preserved and its ethnic, cultural and ecclesial existence was guaranteed, This was confirmed at the Council of Brest in 1596, which is the beginning of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as an institution.

Some hierarchs and faithful of the Kievan Church, however, insisted on remaining under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Torn by internal division, the Central and Eastern sections of Ukraine passed under the control of the ruler of Moscow in 1654. Soon the Orthodox Kievan Metropolia was under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate (1696). As the Tsarist Empire grew, it repressed the Greek Catholics and forced "conversions" to Russian Orthodoxy (1772, 1795, 1839, 1876). The Pratulin Martyrs died as a result of these repressions.

Orthodox clergy and laity in Ukraine were dissatisfied with the close connections of the Russian Orthodox Church with Russian national interests. "Ukrainophile" movements began and after the Russian Revolution in 1917 a movement began to gain autocephalous status for Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Attempts to proclaim autocephaly in the 1920s and 1940s were, however, repressed by the Soviet powers.

All of Ukraine had been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the time of the Council of Brest, and western Ukraine remained so. The Church played a leading role in preserving the cultural and religious independence of the Ukrainian population there. As the Western Ukrainian lands later passed into Austrian control, the imperial government of the Hapsburgs supported and protected the Greek Catholic hierarchy.

Ukraine in the 20th century

The 20th century was difficult and painful. After the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Western Ukraine was absorbed by Poland. This situation lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War, when there was a rapid succession of various undesirable regimes in the country.

The invasion by Russian forces at the beginning of the war was followed by the German occupation from 1941 to 1944. Towards the end of the war, Ukraine became definitively part of the Soviet Union.

Believers began to be cruelly persecuted. In 1946 the Greek Catholic Church was suppressed. Christians were declared illegal. God was banished; he no longer existed. The same was said of God's law and the moral order.

Three generations were raised in a climate of moral confusion devoid of the principles of divine law. This inevitably led to a morally sick society.

"Free love" was proclaimed. The family was threatened. Divorce and the habit of contracting new marriages became the rule. The Soviet Union was the first State to legalize abortion.

During this difficult period, the Greek Catholic Church in Halychyna was graced by the exemplary leadership of Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky (1901-1944). He was the spiritual leader during two world wars and seven changes of political regime, including Nazi and Soviet. His tireless pastoral work, his defense of the rights of his people, his charitable and ecumenical efforts made the Church an influential social institution in Western Ukraine.

The legacy of totalitarianism

It is the tragedy of the 20th Century, the epoch of terror and violence, which has most affected the development of religious life in contemporary Ukraine. Approximately 17 million people are estimated to have died a violent death in Ukraine in that century.

The war on religion was the ideology of the Communist regime and no effort was spared. Church buildings were ruined, burnt down, profaned; priests and faithful, Orthodox, Catholic and representatives of other religions were shot, arrested and deported to the Siberian gulag; church communities were persecuted, confined to underground activities or entirely destroyed. Both the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church at the beginning of the 1930s and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in 1946 in Halychyna and in 1949 in Transcarpathia were liquidated. The Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches survived in only a handful of carefully monitored churches.

Even the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church (which functioned as a state church) were limited and it furthermore suffered from infiltration by Soviet security organs. There was a progressive spiritual vacuum and a deepening demoralization of society.

Moral disintegration and religious pluralism

Nevertheless, in the 1980s, the suppression of Churches ceased. The formerly forbidden Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church emerged from the underground and communities of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church were created in 1989. The declaration of Ukrainian independence in 1991 created a new context for the activities of all the churches in this territory. Thus, official religious freedom in Ukraine opened the way for religious pluralism. However, in Ukrainian society today, there are still many social and moral evils.

The Church in Ukraine is only now rising from the ashes of the Soviet regime as efforts are being made to be morally reborn by the entire European continent and breathe with Christianity's two lungs. Having regained its freedom and independence at the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century, Ukraine is trying to become a democratic State with a new constitution, free elections and the indispensable instruments of government. The task is not an easy one, since at the time of the Soviet regime's collapse there were no ministries or governmental substructures in Ukraine, as compared with those in other satellite States of the Soviet Union.

Hope is more powerful than death

Like the grain of wheat that must die in order to bear much fruit, so the blood of martyrs that has soaked Ukrainian soil will be fruitful, giving a universal and ecumenical witness. Many lay people, priests and religious courageously persevered to the end, remaining always faithful to Christ and his Church and paying with their lives for this fidelity. The Catholic Church in Ukraine looks to the future with hope and with a new evangelization, working to heal the wounds of the past and deepening the spirituality of the people.

Between May and June 2000, many Ukrainian faithful were accompanied on pilgrimage to Rome by Archbishop Marian Jaworski of Lviv for Latins to pray at the tombs of the Apostles. Archbishop Jaworski explained, "Everything seemed to be leading to the death of this Church [after it was deprived of its Pastor, Metropolitan Eugeniusz Baziak, who was forced to leave the see in 1946], of the once numerous clergy (over 1,000), only 11 remained in 1990. And suddenly from that remnant, against all human hope, Jesus Christ, the Lord of History, makes the structures of this Church rise again through the Successor of Peter, John Paul II".

In 1991 a Pastor was appointed for the Archdiocese of Lviv in Ukraine, and since then the faithful have regained their former churches or rebuilt them, the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are celebrated. Everyone who could not publicly receive First Communion and Confirmation, especially children and young people, now solemnly approach the sacraments, civil unions are sacramentally validated, women religious devote themselves to catechesis, priestly vocations are on the rise and a major seminary has been opened for their formation. Ukrainians are now looking forward to embracing Pope John Paul II when he makes his long-awaited visit to Ukraine scheduled for 23-27 June.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 June 2001, page 5

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