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The Ukrainian Catholic Church

The Ukrainians received the Christian faith from the Byzantines, and their church was originally linked to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. By the 14th century most Ukrainians were under the political control of Catholic Lithuania. Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev attended the Council of Florence and agreed to the 1439 act of union between Catholics and Orthodox. Although many Ukrainians within Lithuania initially accepted this union, within a few decades they had rejected it.

In 1569, when Lithuania and Poland united to form a single commonwealth, most of Ukraine passed to Poland. By this time Protestantism was expanding rapidly in the Ukrainian lands, and the Jesuits had begun to work for a local union between Catholics and Orthodox as a way of reducing Protestant influence. Soon many Orthodox also began to view such a union favorably as a way of improving the situation of the Ukrainian clergy and of preserving their Byzantine traditions at a time when Latin Polish Catholicism was expanding.

These developments culminated in a synod of Orthodox bishops at Brest in 1595-1596 which proclaimed a union between Rome and the Metropolitan province of Kiev. This event sparked a violent conflict between those who accepted the union and those who opposed it. The dioceses of the far western province of Galicia, which lie at the heart of what is now the Ukrainian Catholic Church, adhered to the union much later (Przemysl in 1692 and Lviv in 1700). By the 18th century, two-thirds of the Orthodox in western Ukraine had become Greek Catholic.

But as Orthodox Russia expanded its control into Ukraine, the union was gradually suppressed. In 1839, Tsar Nicholas I abolished it in all areas under Russian rule with the exception of the eparchy of Kholm (in Polish territory), which was itself integrated into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1875. Thus by the end of the 19th century Greek Catholicism had virtually disappeared from the empire.

But the Ukrainian Catholic Church survived in Galicia, which had come under Austrian rule in 1772 and passed to Poland at the end of World War I. The church flourished under the energetic leadership of Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky, who was Archbishop of Lviv from 1900 to 1944. The situation changed dramatically, however, at the beginning of World War II, when most of Galicia was annexed by the Soviet Union.

The new Soviet administration acted decisively to liquidate the Ukrainian Catholic Church. In April 1945 all its bishops were arrested, and the following year they were sentenced to long terms of forced labor. In March 1946 a "synod" was held at Lviv which officially dissolved the union and integrated the Ukrainian Catholic Church into the Russian Orthodox Church. Those who resisted were arrested, including over 1,400 priests and 800 nuns. Metropolitan Joseph Slipyj, the head of the church, was sent to prison in Siberia. He was released in 1963 and exiled to Rome. In the same year he was given the title Major Archbishop of Lviv of the Ukrainians. He was made a cardinal in 1965 and died in 1984.



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