From June 6-9, representatives of the Russian Greek Catholic Church (RGCC) met for a historic congress in San Felice del Benaco. One of the aims of the congress was to request a bishop to lead its 30,000 members worldwide.
As the smallest of the sui iuris Eastern churches in communion with Rome, the RGCC’s faithful have been entrusted to the care of local Latin ordinaries rather than having their own specific hierarchy. While some Latin bishops have been supportive of the RGCC’s survival, others have been less so. If the RGCC is to have a future, both in its native Russia and in the diaspora, having its own hierarch is imperative.
The history of the RGCC dates back to the late 19th century. Despite Greek Catholicism being illegal throughout the Russian Empire, individual Russian churchmen and intellectuals, including the eccentric and controversial Vladimir Soloviev, began pushing for Russian Orthodox Christians to unite themselves to Rome. Soloviev, for example, posited a novel theory that Rome and Moscow had never truly broken communion after the Great Schism (typically dated to 1054 A.D.). Following Tsar Nicholas II’s edict of religious toleration in 1905, it became possible for more Russian Orthodox to join the Catholic Church.
Eventually, in 1908, Pope St. Pius X, through the Vatican Secretary of State, decreed that the Russian Catholics should retain their liturgical and spiritual patrimony in full, without any alteration or admixture with another rite. What this meant is that Russian Catholic communities could use both the so-called Synodal form of the Byzantine Rite as had been approved for the Russian Orthodox Church by its leadership and the so-called Old Rite that had been suppressed violently in the mid-17th century. Those holding to the Old Rite, known as Old Believers, had been persecuted by the Russian state for centuries because they resisted reforms to the liturgy. Several Old Believer communities entered into communion with the Catholic Church during this period of time.
Unfortunately, after the Soviet Revolution in 1917, the nascent RGCC found itself persecuted violently. While some RGCC communities managed to survive in the diaspora, as the decades moved on, little attention was given to the needs of the RGCC, partially as part of a larger policy of appeasement by the Vatican toward the Soviet Russian state. Even after 1989, the remnants of the RGCC in Russia found it difficult to gain support from the Vatican, leaving them to largely fend for themselves without much opportunity for growth.
Although the Soviet state is no more, ecumenical concerns at the Vatican have continued to keep the RGCC marginalized. The present Russian Orthodox Church maintains the position that all Greek Catholics, including those living in Ukraine and Belarus, should return to the Orthodox fold. The Russian Orthodox Church has also been critical of any Catholic proselytism of Orthodox Christians and has pressured Vatican officials to curtail any expansion of Greek Catholicism into lands like Ukraine and Russia. For the Orthodox, Greek Catholicism is a threat to their ecclesiastical hegemony.
Whether Rome follows through in supporting the resolutions and requests of the RGCC remains to be seen. In addition to asking for a bishop, the RGCC wishes for the process of Russian Orthodox entering the Catholic Church to be simplified, and for former Russian Orthodox becoming Catholic not to be absorbed automatically into the Latin Church.
It is telling that the clergy meeting in June took the opportunity to consecrate the RGCC to Our Lady of Fatima, for it will only be by her prayers and protection that the RGCC will continue to thrive and survive. Prayers should also be offered that the RGCC will serve as a bridge to lead the Russian Orthodox back into communion with Rome.