Catholics and Orthodox. The dynastic union of Lithuania and Poland in the late 14th century, and the adoption of Roman Catholicism as the state religion, did not adversely impact the spiritual lives of the commonwealth’s Rusyns. This changed, however, with the definitive schism between the Roman and Rusyn churches in 1441. That year, Metropolitan Isidore of Moscow, Kiev and all the Rus’ pronounced the restoration of full communion between the Catholic and Orthodox churches at a liturgy in Moscow. Isidore was subsequently deposed and imprisoned for his “apostasy of Orthodoxy.”
As Catholic Poland expanded, its nobility bound Orthodox Rusyn peasants to the land. Many fled to the southeast, finding refuge in the hinterlands, or “Ukraine.” These refugees formed autonomous communities of nomadic horsemen, known as Cossacks, who often defied Polish law and eventually became staunch supporters of Moscow and its tsar.
Those Rusyns (or Ruthenians, from the medieval Latin for Rusyn inhabitants of Poland) who remained in the commonwealth were harassed and subjected to ethnic assimilation campaigns of the Polish government, which also heavily taxed the Orthodox clergy and laity and denied bishops permission to build churches.
Union and division. The Protestant Reformation, and the wars associated with it, altered the confessional dynamics of Central Europe, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Constant clashes ravaged the countryside. Disease and war devastated the population. Meanwhile, Calvinist, Lutheran and Unitarian congregations grew, particularly among the Ruthenians’ Polish landlords.
The Jesuits, vanguards of the Catholic Reformation, worked among Central Europe’s Orthodox leaders to combat the spread of Protestantism. They promised the Orthodox they would retain their Byzantine liturgical rites, customs and privileges (including a married clergy and the method of electing bishops) in exchange for their loyalty to the papacy. In addition, Orthodox clergy would be granted the same civil rights and privileges extended to Roman Catholic clergy.
In 1596, the Orthodox Metropolitan Mikhail Rohoza of Kiev, Halych and all Rus’ severed ties with the Orthodox ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople and the Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow and, in the city of Brest, accepted the primacy and authority of the Roman pontiff, thus establishing the Greek Catholic Church (“Greek” referred to the Byzantine heritage of the Ruthenians). This move brought the Kievan metropolia closer to its contemporary Polish-Lithuanian rulers, who actively supported the union with Rome among their Ruthenian subjects. This was done to minimize the growing power of neighboring Moscow, whose subjects remained staunchly Orthodox.
Many Ruthenians accepted the union, but rebellion fomented in Kiev and in the Cossack-dominated areas of the Ukraine. Hostilities forced Metropolitan Mikhail and his successors to settle in friendlier, pro-Catholic territory, thus creating a void in church leadership filled by the election of a rival Orthodox metropolitan archbishop of Kiev in 1620.
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