For this reason, “concern about the eternal happiness of the flock entrusted to our care” forced the members of the synod, according to their letter to tsar Nicholas I,
to fall to the feet of your imperial majesty and humbly beg you, mighty monarch, to ensure the fate of the Uniates by allowing them to become members of their ancestral Orthodox All-Russian Church.
The tsar, obviously, gave his gracious consent, and even ordered a special medal to be issued with the inscription: “Separated by force, united by love.” How much suffering and how many tears this imperial “love” cost to the Belarusans, no one has properly written till now. The suppression of the Uniate Church was not a religious, but a political act. Its perpetrators cared little about the “eternal happiness of the flock entrusted to their care.” What they realised was that so long as Belarusans remained Uniates, the policy of Russification was doomed to failure.
The Belarusan Uniate Church was destroyed, but the idea of the Union survived. We find it in the writings of the leader of the anti-Russian uprising in 1863–1864 Kastus Kalinouski, in the poems of “father of Belarusan national revival” Francišak Bahuševic (1840–1900). It was popular among the leaders of the new Belarusan national movement in the early 20th century.
Attempts at Revival
During the period between the two world wars Belarus was partitioned between the Soviet Union and Poland. It was in the part of Belarus under Polish rule that there appeared the first signs of the revival of the Belarusan Uniate Church. There was considerable interest in its revival among certain Belarusan Catholic priests of the Roman rite, in particular Kanstantyn Stepovic (well known Belarusan poet, writing under the pen-name Kazimier Svajak, 1890–1926), Jazep Hermanovic (poet Vincuk Advažny, 1890–1978), Kazimier Kulak, Jazep Rešac, Uladzislau Talocka and others. Belarusan Catholic paper, Krynica (The Source) in early 1920’s had a regular feature entitled “Kutok ab Unii” (Union corner), the chief contributors being Fathers Stankievic and Stepovic. But circumstances were not favourable for its development.
The Greek Catholics of Belarus lacked their own ecclesiastical organisation. Their few parishes were under jurisdiction of local Polish Roman-rite bishops who at best were not interested in development of the Greek Catholic rite. On the whole the Polish authorities, both civil and ecclesiastical, were hostile to Belarusan Catholics of any rite, seeing in them a serious obstacle to their policy of Polonisation. The attitude of the Holy See did not help. The administration of the Greek Catholic affairs in the territory of the former Russian Empire in 1925–1934 was entrusted to the Papal Commission “Pro Russia”. Its head, French Jesuit Bishop Michel d’Herbigny, saw Belarus only as a bridgehead for further expansion eastwards. No wonder that the activities of the Commission were regarded with suspicion and distrust, although for different reasons, by Belarusans and Poles alike. The attitude of the Commission is well illustrated in the report of a conversation held on 3 December 1930 in Rome between the counsellor of the Polish Embassy to the Holy See Stanislaw Janikowski and the counsellor of the Comission, Bishop Peter Bucys, Superior General of the Congregation of Marian Fathers. To Janikowski’s question as to what a Commission calling itself “Pro Russia” was doing in the Eastern provinces of the Polish state, whose inhabitants were Belarusans and Ukrainians, the Bishop answered that the name was chosen for convenience to keep it short. Then he added:
But then White Russians and Little Russians (19th century Russian names for Belarusans and Ukrainians – A. N.) are also Russians. The (Russian) emperors of old recognised this in their titles (Les empereurs d’autrfois le reconnaissaient dans la nomenclature de leur titres).
Again, in a Memorandum to the Holy See of 17 March 1932 Cardinal Augustus Hlond, primate of Poland, wrote that “one could not understand why it (i.e. Commission – A. N.) should be in charge of the Union work among Ukrainians and Belarusans in Poland, who have nothing to do with Russia”. D’Herbigny in his comments wrote that the name Pro Russia really meant Pro Russia Ecclesiae Unienda (For the Union of Russia with the Church), thus showing that he did not understand Hlond’s objections. Then he continued:
It is thus quite natural that, especially in present circumstances, it (i.e. Commission – A. N.) should have its institutions, and exercise part of its activities, outside Russia, i.e. in Poland, as well as in Estonia, Manchuria etc...
One of these institutions was a Jesuit foundation of Byzantine rite in Albertyn in Western Belarus, founded in 1925. Its pro-Russian character made Belarusans treat it with great reserve. One of the Jesuits, Antoni Dambrouski, a Belarusan by birth, in a letter to a Belarusan priest in the USA Jan Tarasevic, on 7 May 1931 complained that among their novices Belarusans were the least numerous. Gradually, however, there was a change of attitude towards Belarusans. It was particularily noticeable after Antoni Niemancevic (1893–1942), a Belarusan priest who in 1929 joined the Jesuits in Albertyn, finished his novitiate. In 1932 he started a Belarusan language monthly Da zlucennia (For the Union).
Another institution inspired by the “Pro Russia” Commission was the Byzantine rite diocese for Russians in Harbin in Manchuria, founded in 1928. At its head the Holy See appointed Fabijan Abrantovic, a Belarusan priest of the Congregation of Marian Fathers, without, however, giving him episcopal orders. He was joined later by other priests of the same Congregation, among them Father Jazep Hermanovic (1890–1978), a well known Belarusan poet. It is on the occasion of his departure that the Belarusan Catholic paper Chryscijanskaja dumka (Christian Thought) on 15 June 1932 expressed the feelings of all Belarusans:
Father J. H. is leaving for the missions in a faraway country at a time when there is much missionary work to be done in Belarus, which has been neglected for centuries.
Officially they were sent by order of the Holy See, but it is still unclear who inspired it. Incidentally all priests sent to Manchuria were later arrested and spent time in Soviet prisons and concentration camps. Some of them died there, others survived, but none of them was allowed to return to Belarus.
In 1934 the “Pro Russia” Commission had practically all its powers, including the direction of work of the Greek Catholic Church in Belarus, taken away from it. D’Herbigny was forced to resign, and spent the rest of his life in total obscurity. Unfortunately the consequences of its activities remained for many years.
One thing on which both the Polish authorities and the “Pro Russia” Commission agreeed was to prevent the only person who could have a decisive influence on the development of the Greek Catholic Church in Belarus, the great Ukrainian Metropolitan Andry Sheptytsky, Archbishop of Lviv, from having anything to do with it. Belarusans treated Sheptytsky with great respect, and looked to him for help in time of need. And he did what he could within the limits of his powers. Thus he used to give ecclesiastical approval (the “Imprimatur”) for Belarusan religious publications, when such approval was refused by local Polish bishops. He also helped Belarusan candidates for the priesthood, among them Father Leo Haroshka (1911–1977), one of the most outstanding Belarusan Greek Catholic priests in the post-war period.
The Second World War broke out on 1 September 1939. On 17 September Western Belarus (and Western Ukraine), which hitherto formed part of the Polish state, was occupied by Soviet Union. For Belarus this meant that for the first time in modern history its whole territory was united within one state, albeit a communist and godless one. In this new and unstable political situation Metropolitan Sheptytski in October 1939 established four Greek Catholic ecclesiastical cirumscriptions, or exarchates. At the head of each exarchate stood an exarch, endowed with episcopal authority, but governing his territory in the name of the person who appointed him. At first the Pope Pius XII refused to recognise the action of Sheptytsky, but later gave in, making the exarchs depending directly on the Holy See.
One of the exarchates, established by Sheptytsky, was that of Belarus, and its first exarch was Father Antoni Niemancevic. In 1942 he was arrested by the Germans, and died in undisclosed circumstances in a concentration camp.
The importance of the Greek Catholic exrachate, even if it was short-lived, was in the fact, that for the first time the Belarusan Greek Catholic faithful received their own ecclesiastical circumscription, and were no longer subject to the local Roman rite bishops.
Church in Exile
After the Second World War the whole of Belarus became part of the Soviet Union in the form of the Belarusan Soviet Republic. The Soviet Communist authorities were hostile towards all forms of religion, but it was the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church that was the object of their particular hate. The history of their ruthless destruction in 1946 of the Ukrainian Uniate Church with her 4 million faithful is well known. Thus there seemed little hope for the survival for the weak and impoverished Uniate Church in Belarus. However, a small group of priests and faithful in exile refused to believe that their Church was finished. Thanks to their efforts and endurance the Belarusan Uniate Church survived in the Western World.
Thus Fathers Michal Maskalik and Uladzimier Salaviej worked in Germany among Belarusan refugees. In 1946 Father Leu Haroška established Belarusan Catholic Mission in Paris. Apart from his pastoral activities, in 1947 he started publishing the journal Božym šlacham (On God’s Highway) which appeared until 1980 (published after 1960 in London). It was generally acclaimed for the excelence of its content and presentation. Father Haroška was also the author of several works of religious character. In Chicago Belarusan Benedictines from St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle founded the parish of Christ the Saviour which became the focal point of Belarusan religious, social and intellectual life. They published the bulletin Da zlucennia (For the Union).
From 1959 onwards the parish priest was Father Uladzimier Tarasevic (1922–1996) who in 1983 was consecrated bishop. One of the parishioners, Vaclau Panucevic, was the author of several historical works, including ones on the Union of Brest and St Josaphat, as well as being editor of the journal Bielaruskaja Carkva (Belarusan Church). But by far the largest centre has been the Belarusan Catholic Mission in London which in 1997 marked 50 years of its existence. It was founded in 1947 by Father Caslau Sipovic, M.I.C. (1914–1981). The focal point of the Mission is small but beautiful church of SS Peter and Paul, where the Divine Liturgy and other offices in Belarusan are sung every day. At one time there were seven priests working in London, among them Father Jazep Hermanovich, who died in 1978 at the age of 88, after 75 years of priesthood. He was well-known writer and poet, author of several books, among them memoirs from the Soviet concentration camps, where he spent six years. In London he took over from Father Haroška the editorship of Božym šlacham.
Bishop Bucys in a letter from Rome to Kanstancyja Skirmunt in Pinsk, on 30 November 1930 wrote that one of the difficulties facing Belarusan people was the fact that their existence was not recognised, while no one doubted the existence of Russian people («narodowi bialoruskiemu nie przyznaje sie nawet istnienia, podczas kiedy nikt nie watpi o istnieniu narodu rosyjskiego”). As far as the Catholic Church is concerned full recognition came only in 1960, when, after the break of nearly 150 years, Pope John XXIII gave Belarusans their first bishop in the person of Father Caslau Sipovic. Thus it happened that a Belarusan Greek Catholic Bishop took part in the Second Vatican Council.
Belarusan Greek Catholics take particular pride in the Francis Skaryna Belarusan Library in London. Although it is now a separate institution, it was founded in 1969 (officially opened in 1971) on the initiative of Bishop Caslau Sipovic and the other priests of the London Mission. It is the only institution of its kind in the West, with a šunique collection of printed and archive material on Belarus from the 16th century to our days. Also in London the project of translating Byzantine liturgical texts from Greek and Church Slavonic into Belarusan was begun some 20 years ago, and is now nearing its completion. Together with the texts, thanks to the initiative of a great friend of Belarus, Mr Guy Picarda, work is in progress in recovering and publishing old traditional Belarusan liturgical chants which were all but lost after the suppression by Russians of the Uniate Church in 1839. Also in London, thanks to the initiative of the Greek Catholic Church, in 1989 the Belarusan Radiation Relief Appeal was launched to help Belarusan victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. Some 15 shipments of medical supplies were sent to Belarusan hospitals, and since 1991 hundreds of Belarusan children from radiation affected zones have spent summer vacations in the United Kingdom.
The latest project, started in 1992, has been the assistance to young Greek Catholics from Belarus to obtain a theological education. At the present time there are four students resident at, and supported by, the Mission in London, participating in its religious life and studying at the Catholic Missionary Institute for a degree of Bachelor in Sacred Theology. Unfortunately financial constraints do not allow the number of students to be increased.
Separated geographically from their native country, the Belarusan Greek Catholics in diaspora, although few in number, have made a valid contribution to the life of the Belarusan Greek Catholic Church, of which they consider themselves an integral part.
(1990 to our days)
The final years of the Soviet Union saw growing disillusionment with the official materialistic ideology, especially among the young generation. Many of them started to look for their roots, trying to find their national identity, which had been practically destroyed by the efforts of the authorities to create a new ‘Soviet man’. The discovery of national identity saved many young people from demoralisation and nihilism. However many felt that the national idea was not sufficient, it needed a spiritual basis. As the got to know their history, they began to discover about the Greek Catholic Church and her role in preserving Belarusan national identity and developing spiritual values. This was the beginning of the rebirth of the Greek Catholic Church. It was not imposed from “above”, but came from “below”, from people themselves.
The present writer witnessed this rebirth when he came to Belarus in 1990. And it was he who had the singular privilege on 11 March 1990 to be the first Belarusan Greek Catholic priest since 1839 to celebrate the Liturgy in the Belarusan capital Miensk. On 6 August 1990 young Belarusan Uniates held in Miensk their first official function which was widely reported in the press. From that time on the Belarusan Uniate Church began to act openly, despite the hostility of the then still-Soviet authorities.
In 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus became independent. One of the consequences of independence was freedom of religion. Not all religious bodies, however, were able in equal degree to profit from this freedom. The Orthodox Church which had found a comfortable way of coexistence with the Communist Regime and had fully developed hierarchical structure, was the first to profit from the new situation. The Roman Catholic church did so to a lesser extent, thanks to the fact that the Vatican, taking advantage of the liberal atmosphere in the last years of the Soviet rule, succeeded in establishing in Belarus a Catholic hierarchy. But the Greek Catholics were left with nothing.
The Orthodox Church in Belarus is an integral part of the Russian Church, and exerts a considerable influence. Its attitude towards the Uniates ranges from openly hostile to dismissive as a “political intrigue.” The attitude of Roman Catholics towards their Greek Catholic brethren is in general not much better, although for different reasons. In certain Catholic circles it was feared that the emergence of the Greek Catholic Church would make their life more difficult vis-a-vis the Orthodox, and constitute an obstacle to ecumenical dialogue. It appears that the Vatican shared this view.
Starting with 1990 Belarusan Greek Catholics wrote several letters to the Holy Father, asking him to establish the Greek Catholic church, by giving her a proper canonical form. Here are the extracts from one such letter to the Holy Father, written on 24 June 1993 by Belarusan Greek Catholic priests:
In the last three years, the Belarusan Greek Catholic faithful and priests have written several times to Your Holiness, asking to restore officially their Church and give her a necessary canonical form. Unfortunately they have received no answer. Many faithful are at a loss to understand the reason for this persistent silence. One gets the impression that the Holy Church does not want them, there is no place for them there.
Three years is a long period of time in the life of a man, especially a young one. We are deeply concerned that some faithful may become bitter and disillusioned, and lose their newly acquired faith with great harm to their souls.
We live in times of ecumenism. We are all in favour of cooperation, understanding and mutual respect among Christians of various denominations, as a prerequisite to drawing closer together and eventually restoring unity, for which Our Lord Jesus Christ prayed. There is however a danger of imperfectly understood ecumenism, when souls are being sacrificed for a superficial appearance of unity.
In 1960 Belarusan Greek Catholics received their first Bishop since 1839 in the person of Father Caslau Sipovic. At that time there was no question of the Uniate Church in Belarus. The elevation to the episcopal dignity of Caslau Sipovic... was thus an act of both justice and faith in the future restoration of the Greek Catholic Church in Belarus... Now Belarus is a free and independent country, where freedom of religion is guaranteed for all citizens. The only group who do not enjoy this freedom are Belarusan Greek Catholics, not because there are difficulties on the part of the authorities, but because they insist on remaining faithful to the Holy Catholic Church...
In three years’ time we shall mark four hundred years since the Union of Bierascie. Perhaps it is good to remember that Bierascie is a Belarusan city. Belarus may be proud of her sons who did so much in the cause of the Union... It would be sad if the anniversary of the Union of Bierascie were celebrated everywhere except in the country in which it took place.
Holy Father, we humbly ask you again: for the love of Our Lord and God Jesus Christ, whom we all serve, to restore Greek Catholic Church in Belarus, giving her the necessary canonical form and her own pastor who, in union with you, could direct the flock entrusted to him for their good and for the glory of God one in Trinity.
There was no official reply to this letter, but early in 1994 it was announced that the Greek Catholic communities in Belarus would depend directly on the Oriental Congregation, which, on its part, appointed as its delegate a Polish priest who was born, and is resident outside Belarus, and who hitherto had nothing to do with that country.
More disappointment awaited Belarusans in connection with the 400th anniversary of the Union of Bierascie. On 12 November 1995 the Holy Father issued a special Apostolic Letter to mark this occasion. It was directed exclusively to the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and Belarus was not mentioned even once. Naturaly Belarusans, – and not only Greek Catholics, – were dismayed. The Belarusan Committee for celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Union of Bierascie, which incidentally was composed entirely of lay people, in their letter of 3 September 1996 to the Holy Father, wrote:
It is unfortunate that Belarusans are totally and incomprehensibly ignored in all official celebrations of the 400th anniversary. Not a single Belarusan priest was invited to the solemn Jubilee Mass, which took place last July in the Vatican. The Apostolic Letter On the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Bierascie Union, of November 12, 1995, turned out to be especially hurtful to us. In this Letter neither Belarusan Uniate Church, with four hundred years of her holy and tragic history, nor even the country where the Union took place, were mentioned, though it is known that Belarus was the country where the Uniate Church was born.
The authors wonder whether “respect for the traditions of each (church) and for necessary autonomy” as proclaimed in the Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen applies to Belarus.
Despite these disappointments Belarusan Greek Catholics remain faithful to their Church remembering the words of St Paul that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Cf. Rom 8:35). In the absence of reliable statistics it is difficult to estimates their exact number vary. There are some fifteen communities, and more in the course of formation. The lack of places of worship makes it necessary to celebrate the Liturgy in rented apartments or public halls. Shortage of funds and the unfriendly attitude of the authorities make it impossible to build their own churches. Recently some communities have acquired buildings (usualy detached dwelling houses) and try to adapt them for their religious purposes. There is also a beginning of monastic life with a Studite monastery in Polacak. Incidentally the monks with the help of the local Greek Catholic community succeeded in building their own small but beautiful church in traditional Belarusan style.
In August 1990 there appeared in Miensk the first issue of the journal Unija (The Union). It was published by the Association “Unija”, formed by young Belarusan Greek Catholics, mainly from Miensk. The first issue was produced in an atmosphere of conspiracy, printed abroad and smuggled to Belarus across the border. It, and the subsequent issues, became an event in the religious life of Belarus because of the high intellectual quality of their articles and attractive artistic form. It is a pity that financial difficulties prevent this journal from appearing regularily. The other journal, Carkva (The Church), which has been appearing since 1995, may be considered to be official voice of the Belarusan Uniate Church. The monastery in Polacak has started a series of prayer and other devotional books. Mention should be made also of the Božym šlacham Publishers in London, who have produced several liturgical texts, church calendars etc. Their most recent important publication was “Chants of the Divine Liturgy”, in which all texts are in Belarusan and the music either traditional Belarusan liturgical chants or works by Belarusan composers.
The greatest difficulty is the shortage of priests. The few priests are overworked and live in conditions bordering on poverty. There is no lack of priestly vocations, but, in the absence of their own bishop, young candidates for priesthood are put in a humiliating position by being forced to find a bishop outside Belarus, willing to accept them for ordinsation and then let them go to work in Belarus. Many feel discouraged and disillusioned. The obvious solution would be to establish in Belarus a proper Greek Catholic canonical ecclesiastical circumscription, perhaps by reviving the Exarchate which was established by Metropolitan Sheptytsky. But this the highest Church authorities seem reluctant to do.
The message of salvation of Jesus Christ which His Church is called to proclaim is universal. For her all people are equal, there is “neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28). But it also means that it is not the Church’s business to make a Greek out of a Jew or vice versa. The Church in a given concrete situation should respect each person’s individuality, including ethnic and national identity. Unfortunately in Belarus the Church all too often has been used as a political tool for suppressing and destroying the national identity of Belarusans, their language and culture. The Belarusan Greek Catholic Church has been alone in, without compromising the universal message of salvation, identifying herself with the people among whom she was called to proclaim this message, sharing with them their joys and sorrows. In other words she has been fully Christian and Catholic, and fully Belarusan. That is why the idea of the Union cannot be suppressed. It lives in the hearts of all those who combine faithfulness to Christ’s command “That all may be one” (Jn 17:21) with love of, and respect for, their own national customs and traditions, and of their ancient and beautiful rite, their way to praise God.