Union of Brest (1596)

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UNION OF BREST (1596). The Union of Brest (Berestia) constituted the adherence of a major part of the hierarchy and part of the clergy and faithful of the Kyiv metropolitan see to the Church of Rome and its dogmas on condition of retaining its rites and elements of autonomy. In the late sixteenth century the Orthodox Church in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth consisted of a Kyiv metropolitan subordinate to the patriarch of Constantinople and seven bishops who had vast dioceses with millions of faithful. The subject of discrimination and of proselytization by Catholics and Protestants, the church was losing elements of its essential protectors, the Orthodox magnates and princes, to other creeds.

The arrival of Jesuits into the commonwealth in the 1560s revived discussion of church union, last attempted at Florence in 1439, prior to the fall of Constantinople. At the Florentine Union the Orthodox Church had accepted Roman dogmas on purgatory, the filioque (the procession of the Holy Spirit through the Son), the primacy of Peter's see, and the legitimacy of the form of Latin Communion but retained its ecclesiastical structure and rituals. The Florentine Union failed largely because it did not bring promised Western Christian support for beleaguered Byzantium. Temporarily accepted in the Ukrainian and Belarusian lands of the kingdom of Poland and the grand duchy of Lithuania but rejected in the Muscovite state, it resulted in the division of the Kyiv metropolitan see, with a separate metropolitan created in Moscow and the Russian church breaking away from the patriarchate of Constantinople. The calls of the Jesuits Piotr Skarga (15361612), Benedykt Herbest (c. 15311598), and Antonio Possevino (15331611) to make up Catholic losses to the Reformation by converting Eastern Christians found more favorable resonance at the court with the election of Sigismund III Vasa (ruled 15871632) as Polish king in 1587. At the same time the Orthodox bishops found themselves increasingly challenged by their laity (above all by newly forming urban brotherhoods) and by the interventions of the mother church, especially after the trip of Patriarch Jeremiah II (c. 15301595) through Ukraine and Belarus on his way to Moscow in 15881589, where he healed the breach with the Russian church and declared the Moscow see a patriarchate.

Religious ferment also followed the introduction of printing of Eastern Christian religious books (including the Ostrih Bible in 15801581) and the formation of an Orthodox academy under the patronage of the Volhynian magnate Prince Kostiantyn Ostrozky (15261608), who was open to the idea of ecumenical discussions among the churches. In the 1590s the Orthodox bishops met at a number of reform synods and, led by Bishops Ipatii Potii of Volodymyr (15411613) and Kyrylo Terletsky of Lutsk (d. 1607), conceived a plan for strengthening the church and the role of the hierarchy within it through union with Rome. All hierarchs signed a letter to Pope Clement VIII (reigned 15921605) empowering the two bishops to negotiate for them in Rome.

After the bishops' profession of faith, the papal bull Magnus Dominus of 23 December 1595 declared the acceptance of the bishops and their flock, and the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem of 23 February 1596 guaranteed the terms. In return for accepting the Catholic interpretation of the filioque and purgatory and the primacy of the pope, the rites and traditions of the Ruthenian Kyivan Church, including the Slavonic liturgical language, married clergy, and local election of bishops and metropolitan, were permitted. Rome undertook to become an advocate for the Eastern Church to attain equality with the Western Church in the commonwealth, including admission of the Ukrainian-Belarusian bishops into the senate. While in practice the Union of Brest was a union of a local church with the see of Rome, post-Tridentine Rome's understanding of it was as a reception of a lost and sinful flock into the church, with a beneficent church permitting certain local customs.

The bishops from the first faced opposition to the union. Two of their ranks had earlier withdrawn their support when it became clear that Prince Ostrozky was opposed to any negotiations that did not include the patriarch of Constantinople and other Eastern churches. The Eastern patriarchs expressed their opposition, as did the urban brotherhoods and many monastic communities. Thus the council called to Brest in October 1596 soon split into two factions, one supporting and one opposing the union. The king's confirmation of the union and the presence of Roman Catholic bishops as papal emissaries did not intimidate the opposition, and the two opposing councils (synods) anathematized each other. Conflict between those who accepted the union, or Uniates, and those Orthodox who rejected it went on for generations, but through periods of advance (the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century) and regress (the mid-seventeenth century and late eighteenth century) the union remained an enduring element in East European church affairs and created the largest Eastern Christian community in union with Rome.

See also Khmelnytsky Uprising ; Orthodoxy, Russian ; Reformations in Eastern Europe: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox ; Ukraine ; Uniates .


Gudziak, Borys A. Crisis and Reform: The Kyivan Metropolitanate, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Genesis of the Union of Brest. Cambridge, Mass., 1998.

Halecki, Oscar. From Florence to Brest (14391596). Hamden, Conn., 1968.

Ševčenko, Ihor. Ukraine between East and West: Essays on Cultural History to the Early Eighteenth Century. Edmonton and Toronto, 1996.

Wlasowsky, Ivan. Outline History of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Vol. 1, The Baptism of Ukraine to the Union of Berestye, 9881596. Bound Brook, N.J., 1956.

Frank E. Sysyn

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Union of Brest (1596)