The motherland of the Ruthenian Catholic Church is now in extreme western Ukraine southwest of the Carpathian mountains. The area was known variously in the past as Carpatho-Ukraine, Carpatho-Ruthenia, Carpatho-Russia, Subcarpathia, and now as Transcarpathia. Although the ecclesiastical term "Ruthenian" was formerly used more broadly to include Ukrainians, Belarusans and Slovaks as well, by the 21st Century was used by church authorities in a narrower sense to denote this specific Greek Catholic Church. In terms of ethnicity, Ruthenian Catholics prefer to be called Rusyns. They are closely related to the Ukrainians and speak a dialect of the same language. The traditional Rusyn homeland extends beyond Transcarpathia into northeast Slovakia and the Lemko region of extreme southeast Poland.
The history of the Roman Church in Russia and Poland during the nineteenth century was written with tears and blood; it is a fact that for seventy-five years it underwent a systematic, cruel and bloody persecution, and was not free during the remaining twenty-five years. At the third and final division of the old Kingdom of Poland, which took place in the latter part of the eighteenth century, Russia obtained the largest portion of that country in regard to both territory and population. Despite the solemn promises made by Catherine II that the religion of the Poles would be respected and protected she made use of all available means to de-Christianize first the Catholics of the Ruthenian Rite in communion with the Holy See, and then the Catholics of the Latin rite. She caused the separation from Rome of eight millions of Greek Catholics and united them to the Russian Church.
During the reign of Paul I (1796), the Catholics enjoyed a certain peace but no freedom, as the State would interfere in all their affairs even in those of a purely ecclesiastical character. Nevertheless, relations with the Holy See were resumed, and the Episcopal Sees suppressed by Catherine II some new ones were even created. Paul I was assassinated in 1801, and Alexander I ascended to the throne and during the 25 years of his reign he persecuted his Catholic subjects with the madness and refined cruelty of Catherine. He destroyed the Hierarchy, suppressed the Religious Orders, closed the seminaries, confiscated church property and tormented the conscience of clergy and people alike. This policy was continued under Nicholas I amd the Polish revolution of 1830 brought even an increase of persecution. Russia then determined that as long as it could not annihilate the Polish people it would destroy its national feelings, its ambitions, its individuality, in other words, it would make them Russians.
The protests and supplications of the Holy Father remained unheeded, until 1845 when, on the occasion of the visit to Rome of Nicholas I, Gregory XVI. reproached him with energy for his injustice and cruelty toward his Catholic subjects. The Emperor promised to remedy abuses, and went as far as signing an agreement to that effect. Like many other promises and guarantees given by Russia to the Church, it was never kept.
Alexander II followed the example of his father, although at the beginning of his reign he stayed somewhat the persecution. This was done for political motives, and in order to obtain the support of the Catholics in the Crimean War. The revolution initiated by the Polish radical party in order to force the government to respect its liberties ended as disastrously as the one of 1830. The atrocities which were committed horrified the whole world; France, Austria and England sent a united protest, asking for amnesty and a change of politics. Russia, knowing that other powers would not sustain those demands with their arms, ignored them and the persecutions continued.
The study of the Russian language became obligatory at the University of Warsaw and in all the schools of Poland. The monasteries were suppressed in Poland as well as in Russia, and the flourishing schools which they maintained were closed or turned over to Russian lay professors and teachers, and numerous priests were deported to Siberia and treated as criminals. Among them was Bishop Felinski, who remained twenty years in Siberia to expiate the crime of being the Catholic Bishop of Warsaw. The priests who were not deported were under the most strict and tyrannical supervision of the police. They were allowed to teach Catechism in the schools, but in the Russian language, and in the presence of a government official.
At the New Year.s reception of 1866 as Pope Pius IX was expressing his sadness at the treatment of his children in Poland and Russia, the Russian Ambassador grossly insulted him by accusing him of inciting the Polish revolutionists. He made use of such vile language that the Pope was obliged to order him out, and naturally the incident was the pretext for an increase of persecution, which lasted until 1880.
In that year Alexander II expressed his wish to renew diplomatic relations with Rome and to amend the anti-Catholic laws. But he was assassinated before he could carry out his designs, and it is Alexander III. who had the honor of introducing the reforms of 1822. The appointment of Bishops for the vacant sees of Russia and Poland was permitted, the seminaries were again placed under Episcopal direction, and the most humiliating rules imposed upon the Clergy.
One must not believe, however, that the Catholics were granted all their rights and that the Bishops became absolutely free in the administration of their dioceses. Thus, in 1885, the Bishop of Wilna was sentenced to Siberia for having reprimanded some members of his clergy without having procured the previous authorization of the civil authorities. Pope Leo XIII. obtained that he be allowed to leave the empire.
The Government wanted the Russian language to be used in the instructions given to the people as well as in all public prayers and services not strictly liturgical, but Rome never yielded on that point, much less to the request of the Czar that all boys issued from mixed marriages be brought up in the Schismatic Church. In order to counterbalance to some extent the influence of Austria in the Balkan States, the Czar thought it prudent to maintain good relations between the empire and the Holy See and did not urge his demands, but it is not until the beginning of the 20th century after its disastrous war against Japan.
When the Imperial Government found itself in danger that religious liberty was granted. As soon as the decree was promulgated entire populations which the Government had declared converted to the National Church, returned to the Catholic Faith. Within a few months 400,000 Ruthenians abandoned the Church Orthodox, as it is ironically called.
For many years the Imperial family of Russia has exercised a tyrannical domination over the Church; it finds itself now abandoned by all and has lost its prestige. In considering those facts one remembers that many other persecutors of the Church besides the Romanoffs have ended in disaster and humiliation. They reap what they have sowed. If, as Washington said, every injustice committed by a Government against a weaker one is a link of the chain with which another stronger than himself will fetter him, the chain that the Imperial Government of Russia has forged for itself is a long and strong one.
Is it complete ? We do not know. But whether the Romanoffs return to power, or a permanent Republicis established, the Church in Russia and Poland will not suffer as it has in the last century; on the contrary, there are many signs showing that complete freedom having been restored to it, the Russian Catholic Church will soon be in a flourishing condition and resume its missionary activities, interrupted by centuries of enslavement and persecution. A Russian of the Ruthenian rite has already been raised to the Episcopacy and hundreds of Russians are becoming Ruthenian Catholics. Let us hope that within a few vears Holy Russia will be Catholic Russia.
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