Saint Thomas Aquinas

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Catholics In Russia: The Forgotten Part I

 I am reading an interesting book by Fr. Christopher Lawrence Zugger titled, 'The Forgotten." It is a work which focuses on the life of the Catholic faith in the time of Lenin through Stalin in Russia. There is little written on the Catholic Church in Russia, most of the religious history leans more towards the Eastern Orthodox. What is much neglected is the significance of Catholicism in Russia and the neighboring Eastern lands. Most people think that Russia has been almost exclusively "Eastern Orthodox" from the first centuries that Christianity took hold under Vladimir around 988. (Catholicism existed in limited form in Kiev before this time) The book however starts out with a brief history of the Catholic faith in Russia which refutes this widely spread myth. As you should know, history is rarely easy to sum up in a brief fashion.


The first part of the book covers briefly the presence of the Catholic faith in Russia, and how it only gradually drifted away to align itself with the later schismatic See of Constantinople, as that See drifted slowly away from its union with Rome. In fact, the first Christian faith which Vladimir brought to Russia was Catholic, and it remained so for quite some time. The author first covers Russian history and Catholicism, and the two interpretations of history that are commonly held today regarding Christianity and Russia. The first interpretation is the widely claimed stance which claims Kiev was the center of the Russian state, in which the entire Russian Church founded itself upon Vladimir's conversion in 988. This union was compromised by the Mongol invasions of the 13th century which led to various nationalities. The formation of the Greek Catholic Church was a result of this later division which allowed Jesuit missionaries to infiltrate the Russian Orthodox Church, and Moscow became the new Kiev as a result of these invasions. Thus the third Rome theory later arose, since Rome had supposedly apostatized, and Constantinople fell in 1453. The Russian Orthodox Church sees itself as representing the original Christian faith in Russia, always resisting the later infiltrating Catholics from the West. This however is not an accurate representation of what happened.

The author puts forth another more accurate image of the history of Russian Christianity. First, a single Kievan empire never existed, and was always a loose conglomeration of principalities. Nationalism did not exist at such an early time. In 988, when Vladimir converted to Christianity, it converted to Byzantine Christianity united with Rome, which however oriented Russia, Ukraine, and Belarussia towards Eastern Christianity in Constantinople. In 988 the Christian Church was united and universal. Furthermore Latin Catholicism had existed in Ukraine since the early centuries of the Church, and only became oriented later towards Constantinople. It must also be understood that 1054 did not mark an immediate break between the East and West as many falsely proclaim. The rupture was a slow one, and varied geographically. The two Patriarchs, that of Russia, and the Pope of Rome only gradually drifted apart to form two separate Churches. Kievan contact with the Latin West continued for at least a couple of centuries since local Poles, Lithuanians and Germans held to the Latin Catholic faith. Later, as atrocities such as the Fourth Crusade brought further division with Constantinople, the Eastern Slavs eventually grew apathetic to Catholicism. This division grew deeper in the 14th century and the Russian Church aligned itself with Constantinople even further. Dialogue however continued for a time all the way into the the 15th century. In 1441 the Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev attempted to mend relations with Rome, however his sentiments were not shared by many in power, and he was forced to flee Kiev. Since that time there has been a severe split. In 1588 the Russians declared that Moscow was now the third Rome since Constantinople was now under the rule of Islam. Finally, in 1596, several bishops who had been part of the separated Orthodox Church declared a reunion with Rome, and the ancient Slavic Churches became known as the Uniate Churches of the East.

Problems however were compounded over the years as secular invasions from Poland, including Teutonic Knights sought to impose Latin Catholicism upon the Eastern Rites, as if it were superior. Russia of course did not take these types of incursions well and anti-Latin attitudes became inflamed. This eventually led to Orthodox persecution of the Eastern and Latin Catholic Churches in Russia. There is much more in the details, but this gives you an idea of how complicated history can get. To say that the Eastern Churches have never shared an idea of union with Rome is untrue. As I continue to read through this book I will post some comments on it. The next chapter covers the persecutions against the Catholic Church in Russia before the Bolshevik revolution.

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