|The Old Country|
To understand who we are and where we have come as a Church in the past seventy-five years, it is first necessary to explore who our ancestors were and where they came from as a people. Thus, the journey of faith must start in the homeland of the founders, “the Old Country,” central Europe.
The founders of Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Province literally came from the heart of Europe. If a map of the European continent could be envisioned as a picture with the tip of Norway as the top frame, the isle of Crete as the bottom frame, the coast of Ireland as the left side frame and the Ural Mountains as the right side frame, then the homeland of our ancestors, the area known variously as the Carpathian Rus’, the Subcarpathian Rus’, Transcarpathia, Carpatho-Ruthenia, Carpatho-Russia and Carpatho-Ukraine-- would be in the exact center of the picture.
The most striking feature of the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland is its mountainous terrain. Located just south of the crests of the Carpathian Mountains, the land, which averages 2,000 feet in elevation, is covered with forests and lined with narrow, arable valleys. The rugged landscape obviously restricted the choices of livelihoods of the people dwelling in the region. Given the rugged topography, industrialization never took place. Instead, the people of this region, who for the most part lived in small, scattered villages numbering no more than a few hundred residents, scratched out a minimal, subsistence-level existence as shepherds, loggers or small-scale farmers.
Living in the center of Europe had profound consequences on the development of the Carpatho-Rusyn people. By straddling the border between the East and the West, the Carpatho-Rusyn people were strongly influenced by a complex set of cultural, political and religious forces from both areas.
The area of central Europe was initially settled by tribal peoples from territories immediately to the north and east beyond the Carpathian Mountains in what is the present day Ukraine. Thus, the very name of the Carpatho-Rusyn people is of eastern origin. It is derived from the word “Rus,” which is the name given to the early Slavic peoples who migrated to and eventually inhabited this area of the European continent.
The language of the Carpatho-Rusyn people also reflected its eastward orientation. The language is an East-Slavic dialect and is written in the Cyrillic alphabet which was developed by St. Cyril, the missionary monk, who with his brother, Methodius, brought Christianity to the Slavs in the ninth century. Thus, the Carpatho-Rusyn language is grammatically and etymologically related to other East-Slavic languages--Russian, Byelorussian and, in particular, Ukrainian.
More importantly than ethnic name and language, the religious life of the Carpatho-Rusyn people had its basis in the East. Like the other East Slavs, the Carpatho-Rusyns received Christianity from the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. Two Byzantine Greek missionaries, the brothers Cyril and Methodius -- “The Apostles to the Slavs”-- introduced Christianity and the new Slavonic alphabet to the state called Greater Moravia, the area of the present day Czech Republic and western Slovakia in about the year 860. From there, the followers of these Byzantine missionaries moved eastward to eventually convert the Carpatho-Rusyn people.
The eastern ethnic, linguistic and religious origins and inclinations of the Carpatho-Rusyn people, however, were counterbalanced by strong influences from Western Europe. The Carpatho-Rusyn people did not have a separate province, kingdom or nation-state of their own. Rather, they lived as a national or ethnic minority falling under the sway of the prevailing political power of the day.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the first organized state structures to reach the Carpathian Mountain borderland regions and to exercise political influence over the Carpatho-Rusyn people was the loosely knit political federation of the Kievan Rus’, an Orthodox state based in the territory of the kingdom of Galicia. When this monarchy ceased to exist, the Carpatho-Rusyns fell under the domination of the kingdom of Hungary. The influence of the Hungarian kingdom, later known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, over the Carpatho-Rusyn people would ultimately last for a period of five hundred years.
Living as part of a country which was officially Roman Catholic had a lasting socioeconomic and cultural impact on the Carpatho-Rusyns. By the late 16th and 17th centuries, the steady increase of feudal duties owed to the Hungarian lords reduced the Carpatho-Rusyn people to the status of mere serfs, individuals legally bound to the land and subject to the whims of the landlord for goods and services. In addition, the conquest, first of the center of Byzantine Orthodoxy --the City of Constantinople, and later, large portions of the territory of the Hungarian kingdom, by the Islamic Ottoman Turks lead to an increasing political and religious isolation of the Carpatho-Rusyn people and their only effective leadership, the clergy.
The desire to alter their unfavorable socioeconomic status, combined with varying forms of pressure and encouragement from the Hungarian government and the Roman Catholic establishment lead some of the Carpatho-Rusyn clergy to accept the idea of reunion with the Catholic Church. As a result, in 1646, sixty-three priests met in the City of Užhorod and swore allegiance to the Catholic Church.
Under this declaration of religious unity, known as the Union of Užhorod, the temporal and spiritual primacy of the Holy Father was recognized by the Carpatho-Rusyn religious leaders. However, the Church in the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland was not forced to take on the Latin rite. Rather, the Church was permitted to retain its distinctive ecclesiastical traditions: the Byzantine liturgy; married clergy; and observance of the “old” Julian calendar. In 1772, the Catholic Church in the Carpatho-Rusyn homeland was officially referred to by the term Greek Catholic, meaning a Catholic of the Greek, or Byzantine, rite.
At first, the official acts of reunion were not universally accepted by the entire Carpatho-Rusyn populace. But gradually over time, the Union of Užhorod took hold; so much so that by the mid-eighteenth century, Greek Catholicism had become the traditional religion of most Carpatho-Rusyns.
The Greek Catholic faith not only provided a spiritual dimension for the lives of the Carpatho-Rusyn people, but also a social focus as well. The whole cycle of life in the small Carpatho-Rusyn villages was governed first and foremost by the demands of the Church. The traditional life style of the Carpatho-Rusyn peasant, determined by the rhythms of the agricultural seasons, was intertwined with numerous religious observances and obligations, including a mandatory day of rest on Sunday, the fasts and feasts of the Church calendar, baptisms, weddings and funerals, all in accordance with traditional Church dictates. Thus, for the Carpatho-Rusyn people, participation in the activities surrounding the Church was as natural as the daily pursuit of the necessities of life itself.
In addition, adherence to their Greek Catholic faith provided the Carpatho-Rusyn people with a cultural identity. The Carpatho-Rusyns' close relationship with their Church became a kind of cultural attribute which was used to distinguish them from other nationalities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
As they ventured forth from their family, friends and loved ones in the Old Country, it would be this religious and cultural identity as Greek Catholics which the founders of our Metropolitan Province would seek to preserve and continue in America.