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Eastern Rite Churches

The Orthodox Church in Poland

by Peter K. Gessner

Polish government statistics report that those who profess the Orthodox faith in Poland number 550,000. The Orthodox Church itself puts the number of the faithful at over 800,000.

Historically, the Orthodox lived in the eastern provinces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and were ethnically primarily of Belarusian and Ukrainian. During the Period of Partitions (1795-1918) the Tsarist government of Russia favored the Orthodox Church in its program of Russification of the Polish lands under its control. A symbol of this was its erection of a large Orthodox cathedral in the very center of Warsaw, the capital of the previously independent nation and a city whose Christian population was predominately Roman Catholic. Soon after Poland regained its independence in 1918, the cathedral was demolished, an indication of the difficulties under which the Orthodox Church labored, particularly as its episcopate (bishops) came under the, by then Soviet-dominated, Moscow patriarchate. In this context both the leaders of the Church and the Polish government of the day, favored the Church becoming autocephalous, that is, independent. Steps to achieve this end were undertaken in 1921 and buy 1924-25 that the autocephalous Church became formally established. It retains that status to this day.

Following the 1944 shift in Poland's frontiers and the annexation of a large portion of what had been Eastern Poland by the Soviet Union, the number of the faithful shrunk from the 3.8 million noted by Poland's 1931 census to the current much smaller number.

Poland's Greek-Catholic (Uniate) Church

One of the larger religious groups in Poland, numbering over 110,000 faithful according to official Polish statistics, are the members of the Uniate Church (Greek-Catholics). This faith is primarily practiced in Poland by members of three minority communities: the Ukrainian, Lemko (Ruthenian) and Belarusian communities. In Poland, the origins of the faith date back to 1596 and the Union of Brest. Prior to that date, some 40% of the Christians in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were Orthodox. They inhabited primarily the eastern area of the Commonwealth - Lithuania and Red Ruthenia - and owed their allegiance to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Following the fall of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to the Muslims, and the creation by Tsar Feodor in concert with the Patriarch Jeremiah of Constantinople of a Patriarchate of Moscow, the religious allegiance of the Orthodox took on a strong political coloring. This was viewed with some alarm by Poland's Roman Catholic King, Sigismund III, his Jesuit advisors and Poland's Orthodox bishops. Negotiations led to the 1596 Act of Union, whereby the exchange for the acceptance of the Pope instead of the Patriarch as their spiritual leader, the Orthodox, henceforth known as Greek-Catholics (Uniates), kept their Slavonic liturgy, the marriage of priests and communion with both bread and wine.

Though the Uniate Bishops had expected to bring over to the Catholic faith their entire flocks, in fact a large proportion of the congregations chose to remain Orthodox and today, Polish official statistics indicate that the Orthodox outnumber the Uniates in Poland by a factor of 5 to 1. Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian and, later, the Soviet state continued to view Uniatism as unacceptable.. Consequently, when formerly Polish lands became incorporated into their state, as during the period of partitions (1795-1918) and subsequently as Poland's borders were shifted in 1921 and again in 1944, efforts were mounted in the Russian/Soviet areas of control to suppress the Uniate Church. These efforts proved most successful in what is today Belarus where the Church effectively ceased to exist. During the interwar period, efforts to revive the Belarusian Uniate Church led to the creation of some 10 parishes among Poland's Belarusian population. With the further shift of Poland's frontiers in 1944, only one such congregation exists today. It is St. Nikita Byzantine-Slavonic Catholic Church in the parish of Kostomloty and Sanktuarium which is situated in Dobratycze near the border with Byelorussia. The liturgy is celebrated in Old Slavonic, the lingua sacra of the Byelorussian Byzantine Catholic Church.

On the other hand, the Uniates who found themselves under Austro-Hungarian rule (i.e. in Galicia) when Poland was partitioned in 1795, experienced a much greater degree of tolerance. That tolerance continued when these lands reverted to Poland for the interwar period of 1918-1939. Though in 1944, a major portion of the land inhabited by these people was incorporated into the Soviet Socialist Ukrainian Republic, where the Church was outlawed, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, a more tolerant attitude towards the Uniates developed in the Ukraine. Today the descendants of the Uniates who at one time inhabited Austro-Hungarian Galicia number some 4 to 5 million souls. Most of them are to be found in Ukraine. However, of the Uniates who live in Poland, the vast majority are also descended from that same Galician population.


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