October 31, 2005

Byzantine Catholic Church in Russia

Christ the Teacher icon; modern RussianThe history of the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church goes back to the philosopher, Vladimir Soloviev (1853 - 1900). He presented the concept of universality in the form of Church Unity. Prior to Soloviev's time, there existed only isolated and unorganized groups of Christians who were in communion with the Church of Rome. As we know, the official and oldest Christian church in Russia was, and is, the Orthodox Church, introduced at Kiev Rus', now in Ukraine, in 988.

Soloviev believed that the Russian Orthodox Church had never officially separated from Rome. Thus, one could practice the Orthodox tradition and still be in communion with Rome. Soloviev, himself, was received into communion with the Church of Rome as a Russian Byzantine Catholic on February 18, 1896. The celebrant was Fr.Nicholas Tolstoy, the first Russian Byzantine Catholic priest. This was a truly profound act, given the time in which it occurred.

Soloviev's ideals and confirmation brought about considerable debate among the intelligentsia as well as the peasant classes. Many sought full communion with Rome by joining the Roman Catholic Church. This was quickly problematic as they longed for the richer spiritual traditions of the Orthodox Church and the Divine Liturgy instead of the Mass.

Fr. Nicholas Tolstoy, a Russian Orthodox priest, was received into communion with Rome in 1893. Upon his return to Moscow, he started a community of Melkite Catholics. The idea caught on and more congregations appeared in St. Petersburg and Moscow. These groups of Catholics enjoyed the protection of Prince Peter and Princess Elizabeth Volkonsky. Fr. Tolstoy's congregation was supported, to a great degree, by the family of Vladimir and Anna Abrikosov who established a chapel in their home.

On May 22, 1908, the following decree was issued by the Vatican:

Therefore His Holiness commands the aforementioned priest Zerchaninov to observe the laws of the Greek-Slavonic Rite faithfully and in all their integrity, without any admixture from the Latin Rite or any other Rite; he must also see that his subjects, clergy and all other Catholics, do the same.

Fr. Zerchaninov was assigned the post of Administrator of the Mission to the Russian Catholics. This decree occurred during the time of Pope Pius X (1903-1914).

In response to the concern regarding liturgy, Pope Pius X stated that Russian Catholics should comply with the synodal practices, but with the Latin response nec plus, nec minus, nec aliter, which is to say, no more, no less, no different. This practice continues today. The Divine Liturgy was first celebrated, publicly, on April 29, 1909. This was the observance of Pascha (Easter) according to the old (Julian) calendar. Three priests concelebrated and were accompanied by a new choir. To mark the occasion, the fathers sent a telegram of Paschal greeting to Tsar Nicholas II; On this radiant day of Pascha, the Russian Old Ritualists in communion with the Holy See address their prayers to God for the prosperity of Your Imperial Majesty and His Highness the Grand Duke and Heir.

This was a particularly bold move. At the time, it was illegal to practice the Byzantine Catholic faith in Russia. The Decree of Religious Tolerance (1905) had done little to change this. It was the presence of Old Ritualists; raskolniks or dissenters; among the Catholics which protected these communities. Still, there were occasions when Byzantine Catholic priests were arrested and their worship services disrupted by police. Nonetheless, the Russian Catholics stood firm to Soloviev's belief, that one could celebrate in the Orthodox tradition while being in communion with Rome, and to his dream of Church Unity; unity of faith.

You might be wondering what became of the couple who set up the chapel in their Moscow home. On May 18, 1917, Vladimir Abrikosov was ordained a priest. He and his wife, Anna, took vows of chastity and entered monastic life. Anna put together a community of women, using the guidelines of the Dominican Third Order, and became known as Mother Catherine.

The Catholic Church continued to grow in Russia, thanks in no small part to Soloviev's influence. The Metropolitan Andrew Sheptitsky (1865-1944), of the Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church, was very interested in promoting the growth of the Russian Catholic Church and supported the training and ordination of many young priests. The desire to enter into full communion with the Church of Rome spread from Russia to Ukraine and Georgia.

The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, March 12, 1917, and the revolution and civil war which followed, meant general upheaval to Russian society and religion. However, the Provisional Government (est. March 14, 1917) granted religious rights to all, thus allowing Russian Catholics to continue to establish their parishes and Church hierarchy. Metropolitan Andrew, who had been under house arrest in Russia, was freed by the Provisional Government in time for the first public, Catholic, Paschal observance in St. Petersburg in 1917. The Metropolitan called the first council of the Russian Catholic Church, May 29-31, 1917, during Bright Week, the week following Pascha or Easter. The council agreed on a series of 68 canons (laws) by which to oversee the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church. The Church's first Exarch, Fr. Leonid Feodorov, was appointed.

For a short period of time the Church was able to worship and grow in relative peace. This soon changed as the whole of Russian society experienced the affects of the October Revolution (1917) and the onset of civil war and Communist oppression of all religion began. Exarch Leonid was arrested and tried, along with numerous other clergy, in January of 1923. The Exarch was imprisoned for ten years in the horrible Solovky camp. Solovky was formerly a monastery and situated on the White Sea in northern Russia. He was accompanied by Russian Catholic clergy, the Georgian Byzantine Catholic exarch and Fr. Shio Batmanishvili. and bishops and clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church. Regardless of persecution, Leonid continued is mission of Church Unity while in prison.

For a time, the Bolsheviks allowed this combined group of Catholic and Orthodox prisoners to celebrate the Liturgy in the St. Germanus Chapel, within the old monastery walls. In 1928, the Roman Catholic Bishop, Boleslaw Slaskans, was allowed to visit the prison at Soplovky. While there, he ordained young men to the Russian Byzantine Catholic diaconate and priesthood. The ministry and faith of both the Byzantine Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches flourished in the gulags.

When Exarch Leonid completed his ten year sentence at Solovky, he was released and immediately convicted under Soviet law and enemy of the state. Leonid was exiled and not allowed to visit any of the major cities of Russia. He lived out his final years in the small village of Viatka and passed from this world on March 7, 1935. Countless Russian Catholic clergy died in prison, were executed or fled to the West along with their Orthodox brethren. The brother of Metropolitan Andrew, Fr. Kliment Sheptitsky, became the next Exarch. He has, since, been recognized by Israel for his ministry to Ukrainian Jews during Nazi occupation. Exarch Kliment died in a Soviet gulag in 1951.

The Moscow couple, who had established a Russian Catholic chapel in their home, met with a similar fate. Vladimir Abrikosov, now a priest, was arrested on August 17, 1922. He was sentenced to death, but was exiled from Russia, instead. For a time, he lived in Rome and, later, settled in Paris. Fr. Abrikosov's wife, Mother Catherine and several of her nuns, were arrested in 1923. While in prison, Catherine died of cancer and the harsh conditions of the gulag. The few sisters (nuns) of Mother Catherine's order, who survived the gulag, returned to Moscow to organize the Russian Catholic catacomb community.

Executions of Catholic and Orthodox clergy abounded during the early years of the Soviet Union. In 1937, Russian Catholic clergy and faithful together with Georgian and Armenian Byzantine Catholics, and Roman Catholic clergy and faithful were put to death alongside countless Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish clergy. This event was possibly the largest mass execution, to date. It occurred at the gulags of Sandormoch and Leningrad.

Despite the mass executions and imprisonments, a number of Russian Catholics, along with their Orthodox brothers, managed to escape the Soviet Union. They scattered throughout the world, establishing new centers of the Russian Byzantine Catholic tradition. These centers include, but are not limited to, Istanbul (old Constantinople, capital of Byzantium), Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, London, New York, San Francisco and Montreal. The Los Angeles community founded the Pontifical Russian College, in 1927, to train the next generations of Russian Catholic clergy.        

Exarch Kliment (d. 1951) was succeeded by Bishop Andrei Katkov, in 1958. Bishop Andrei served at Exarch of the Russian Catholic Church until his passing in 1995. Perhaps the most significant event of his term occurred in 1969. Bishop Andrei was invited to be a guest of Alexei I, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia (Russian Orthodox Church), in Moscow. The Bishop was shown every honor and courtesy that would be given a Bishop of the Orthodox Church. On December 16, 1969, Patriarch Alexei II and the Sacred Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, proclaimed their desire to allow the Catholic faithful to receive Holy Communion in Russian Orthodox Churches. This was a landmark act toward Church unity. Unfortunately, the decree was rescinded several years later.

On November 21, 1964, as a decree of the Second Vatican Council, Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism) was handed down. The decree begins, The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. In the spirit of Vladimir Soloviev almost a century prior, Rome officially promotes the ideals of Church unity. Each rite, including the Russian Byzantine, are autonomous, yet one with Rome. Each is given equal dignity and status. The various methods of worship are considered to enhance the rich history of Christianity and are not to be compromised. In fact, Rome strongly urges all Catholics to attend the services of their sister Catholic Churches and receive the Sacraments. Today, there are numerous Byzantine Catholic parishes and eparchies in the U.S., Canada and the world.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567