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Uniate Church in Poland-Lithuania
Ukraine and Belarus

The Uniate Church was established in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (which included Ukraine and Belarus) in 1596 at the Union of Brest. Alternately called the Greek Catholic, or the Uniate Church in Belarus, the Uniate church became a unique religious body within Roman Catholic and Orthodox practice. The Uniate Church, in accepting the papal authority in Rome, became an instrument promoting Polish dominance in the region. The very name Greek Catholic indicates the combination of sources.

The Greek Catholic church was the result of the only considerable success in this line which has ever been achieved by either. It was brought about by a compromise offered by Pope Clement VIII to the Orthodox dioceses of Galicia at the end of the 16th century. This compromise may be summarized broadly as having made the church Roman in doctrine, but left it Eastern in practice. The services of the Greek Catholic church are practically identical with those of the Russian Orthodox church, the Old Slavonic being the church language. Anointing with oil is a feature of the service on great feast days, as is also the distribution to noncommunicants of the antidoron, or blessed bread, in memory of the agape or primitive lovefeast. For this purpose five small loaves are blessed at vespers, symbolizing the five loaves which Jesus blessed and with which he fed five thousand people. The services, when well rendered, are very beautiful and impressive. No musical instrument is permitted, but the service is entirely choral and antiphonal throughout.

The terms of the compromise required acknowledgement of the supremacy of the Pope and acceptance of the filioque clause in the creed, but permitted the retention of the Eastern arrangement of the church with the great screen in front of the altar; the three-barred cross, the lowest bar oblique; the use of leavened bread in the mass; the communion in both kinds to the laity; the liturgy in the language of the people; the administration of confirmation by the priest immediately after baptism; the Eastern calendar; and the married clergy. On these terms the union took place, hence the term United Greek Catholics, or Uniates.

The gulf which existed between them and the Roman Catholics had its cause in those characteristics which they have in common with Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, namely the married clergy and the use of the vernacular in the services of the church. The married priest was an offense to the Roman Catholic celibate who had no adequate explanation of this apparent lack of consistency on the part of the Holy See. The terms of union permit the use of the language of the people, of which the Old Slavonic was the accepted church form among the Slavs.

Between the Uhro-Rusins and the Ukrainians there are numerous minor differences of custom, the most important of which is probably the variation in the use of the language; the Ukrainian using a reformed, phonetic spelling, while the UhroRusins cling to the earlier etymological forms. Lack of political sympathy between these two branches of the faith is also a cause of divergence, and as a consequence they organize separate churches whenever numbers permit.

The historical pattern of tolerance eventually gave way to oppressive acts against Orthodox faithful by royal authorities. Catholic and Uniate activists joined in the tyranny. Orthodox Church buildings and monasteries in Belarus were taken over by Uniate and Catholic factions. During the two centuries 1596-1796, much of the Belarusian nobility and the merchant class became enculturated into the ways of Poland. Some 80 percent of the peasantry (four-fifths of the population) practiced the faith within the Belarusian speaking Uniate Church. Uniate clergy however, often spoke better Polish and Latin than the Belarusian of their parishioners.

During the reign of Russia's Alexander I (1801-1825) and Nicholas I (1825-1855, the "Iron Tzar"), Belarus (or "western Russia" as the Russians called it) became the target of Moscow's Russification policies, seeking to free it of Polish domination. In 1839, forcible conversion of the Uniate Church in Belarus to Orthodoxy occurred. This affected nearly three-quarters of the population. The name Belarus was banned. Some Uniates went underground.

The Uniate Church, a branch of which existed in Belarus from 1596 to 1839 and had some three-quarters of the Belarusian population as members when it was abolished, is reputed to have used Belorussian in its liturgy and pastoral work. When the church was reestablished in Belarus in the early 1990s, its adherents advertised it as a "national" church. The modest growth of the Uniate Church was accompanied by heated public debates of both a theological and a political character. Because the original allegiance of the Uniate Church was clearly to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the reestablished church is viewed by some in the Orthodox Church in Belarus with suspicion, as being a vehicle of both Warsaw and the Vatican.

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Page last modified: 23-09-2012 19:55:02 ZULU