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The Ruthenian Catholic Churches

The motherland of Ruthenian Catholics 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, it is now 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.

In the late 9th century, most of this area came under the control of Catholic Hungary, which much later promoted Catholic missionary work among its Orthodox population, including the Rusyns. This activity culminated in the reception of 63 of their priests into the Catholic Church on April 24, 1646, at the town of Užhorod. The Union of Užhorod affected the Orthodox population of an area which roughly corresponds to today’s eastern Slovakia. In 1664 a union took place at Mukačevo which involved the Orthodox in today’s Transcarpathia in Ukraine and the Hungarian diocese of Hajdúdorog. A third union, which affected the Orthodox in today’s county of Maramures in Romania to the east of Mukačevo, took place in about 1713. Thus within 100 years after the 1646 Union of Užhorod, the Orthodox Church virtually ceased to exist in the region.

Early on there were jurisdictional conflicts over who would control the Ruthenian Catholic Church in this area. In spite of the desire of the Ruthenian Catholics to have their own ecclesiastical organization, for more than a century the Ruthenian bishop of Mukačevo was only the ritual vicar of the Latin bishop of Eger, and Ruthenian priests served as assistants in Latin parishes. The dispute was resolved in 1771 by Pope Clement XIV who, at the request of Empress Maria-Theresa, erected the Ruthenian eparchy of Mukačevo and made it a suffragan of the Primate of Hungary. A seminary for Ruthenian Catholics was set up at Užhorod in 1778.

After World War I, Transcarpathia became part of the new republic of Czechoslovakia. There were Byzantine Catholic dioceses at Mukačevo and Prešov. Although in the 1920s a group of these Ruthenian Catholics returned to the Orthodox Church [see Orthodox Church in the Czech and Slovak Republics], Rusyn ethnic identity remained closely tied to the Ruthenian Catholic Church.



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