Byzantine Christianity

views updated



Within Byzantine Christianity, there are 15 autocephalous Orthodox Churches, i.e., autonomous self-governing churches that are in communion with each other, but with internal self-government, including the right to choose its own leaders (a patriarch or a metropolitan) and to resolve internal problems. These include the four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, the ten autochepalous Orthodox Churches of Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, the Czech and Slovak Republics. Of these ten, five are also patriarchates: Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia. The status of the Orthodox Church of America is anomalousin 1970 it was granted autochepalous status by the Moscow Patriarchate. However, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has refused to recognize it, arguing that the Moscow Patriarchate had no right to grant autochepaly to any church on a unilateral basis. In practice, other Orthodox Churches have recognized the de facto autochepaly of the Orthodox Church of America. The nationalism that accompanied the fall of the Soviet Union resulted in the formation of new national churches that have claimed independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. These include: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Autochepalous Orthodox Church, the Belarusan Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Macedonian Orthodox Church. The autochepaly of these Orthodox churches have not been resolved.

Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople . In the Christian East, Byzantine Christianity is the most important in regard both to the number of Christians belonging to it and to its widespread diffusion. It was the official religion of the ancient Byzantine Empire, based at Constantinople (Byzantium), which spread its influence not only throughout all of the Eastern base of the Mediterranean but also to the countries of the lower Danube and Balkan Peninsula and up into all of the Slavic countries. Through immigration, Byzantine Christianity has been brought to all parts of Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and North and South America, counting both Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics of various races and languages.

Once Constantine had built his "New Rome" along the shores of the Bosphorus, Byzantium grew from a small suffragan See of Heraclea in Thrace into the mighty ecclesiastical center for the patriarchate, which jurisdictionally coincided with the limits of the Byzantine Empire. In the Councils of Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451) the See of Constantinople was recognized, because it was the "New Rome," as having first place of honor after the venerable See of Rome. In particular, Constantinople grew in prominence and prestige in the Christian East, especially after the Council of Chalcedon (451) declared it to be the New Rome, second to See of Rome in power, dignity and honor.

The expansion of Byzantine Christianity was intimately connected with the political ambitions of the Byzantine emperors, eager always to spread their influence throughout the Balkan and Russian lands, to Syria, the Holy Land, Egypt, and even the coasts of Italy. As Constantinople grew in power, other independent ecclesiastical centers, such as Antioch and Alexandria, diminished. In time, especially through heresies and the ravages of the Arab conquests, Alexandria and Antioch were reduced to nothing, and Constantinople stood indisputably as the supreme head of all the Orthodox Churches. This paved the way for one liturgical rite and one language (Greek) within the vast confines of the Byzantine Empire and left the non-Byzantine liturgical rites, such as the Antiochene (Syrian) and Alexandrian (Coptic), to develop only among the Oriental Orthodox Christians who modified the content and substituted their own national languages.

Outside the territorial limits of the Byzantine empire, the liturgical rite of Constantinople spread to other embryonic nations while allowing other liturgical languages. Thus Byzantine influence penetrated to the Iberian area, Georgia in the Caucasus, in the 4th century. From the 9th to the 11th century missionaries were sent from Constantinople into the Slavic countries, with Old Slavonic being used as the liturgical language in place of Greek. Later Romania with its roots among the soldiers and colonists of Trajan translated the liturgical rite into its national tongue. Western Syrians, no longer speaking Greek, used their own Syriac language from the 11th to the 17th century and then adopted Arabic. The Russian Church followed the same principle of vernacular liturgical languages in its missions.

At the time of the rupture of relations with See of Rome in the 11th century, the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate extended over all Byzantine churches in northern Africa, Asia Minor, the Balkan States, through all the Eastern Slavic countries as far as the Baltic Sea. In the 11th century more than 600 episcopal sees looked to the See of Constantinople for spiritual leadership. The unfortunate sequence of events that led to the estrangement between Old Rome and New Rome, culminating in the Schism of 1054 had resulted in to an estrangement that was to last for nine centuries. The Crusaders and their sacking of Constantinople in 1204 furthered the separation between the Christian East and the West, which various councils, such as the Council of Lyons (1274) and of Florence (1439) tried in vain to mend.

Moscow Patriarchate . The Christian faith came to Russian lands when Prince Vladimir in 989 was baptized by missionaries from Byzantium and then set about to convert his Kievan kingdom to Orthodoxy. The last Greek metropolitan of Kiev, Isidore, participated in the Council of Florence and accepted union with Rome, but both he and the union were rejected by the Czar Basil II. In 1459 Metropolitan Jonah was recognized as the head of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Russia. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453), the Russians sought and obtained from the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremias II, recognition of the Russian Church as an independent patriarchate and of Job (15861605) as the first "Patriarch of Moscow and of all Russia." Various internal dissensions arose, chief among which was the schism of the Old Believers (Raskolniki) who opposed the reforms of Patriarch nikon (165467). They split off from the Russian Church into two groups, the Popovtsi (with priests) and the Bezpopovtsi (without priests); today they continue; the popovtsi with a fully established hierarchy of its own. Peter the Great in 1721 suppressed the patriarchate, which was later restored as a result of the overthrow by the revolutionaries of imperial Russia in 1917. Then, although the Communists suppressed it, Stalin restored it again in 1943 when he most needed the patriotic support of the religious peasant class. The Orthodox Church in Russia underwent bitter persecution until the fall of Communism. Since the early 1990s many dioceses, churches and monasteries have been restored. Abroad the Russian Orthodox are split into various jurisdictions. The patriarch of Moscow directs three exarchates for Central Europe, Western Europe, and North America. Another Western exarchate with its see in Paris depends upon the patriarch of Constantinople while another, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia formerly with its see in Karlovci, Yugoslavia, now in New York, has parishes spread throughout the world.

Orthodox Church of America (OCA) . The Orthodox Church of America stems from the original Russian mission to Alaska and California. In 1970 this jurisdiction, then known as the Metropolia, was granted autocephaly by the Moscow Patriarchate. It is now known as the Orthodox Church in America.

Romania . The beginnings of Christianity are not clear in Romanian history. It seems that in the early centuries evangelization was first carried on by Latin missionaries among the descendants of the Roman colonisers sent there by Emperor Trajan. When the Bulgars conquered Romania, they brought with them Byzantine Christianity, using the Old Slavonic language in the liturgy. After the fall of the second Bulgarian Empire the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople gained jurisdiction and imposed the Greek language and culture. In the 17th century Romanian began to be used. Only in 1881 was Romania finally formed into a single state consisting of Moldavia and Vallachia whose national religion was of Byzantine Christianity, using Romanian as the liturgical language. After World War I Transylvania, Bessarabia, and Bucovina were added to Romania. In 1947 Romania became a republic in the Soviet sphere. The Romanian Orthodox Church was elevated to patriarchal status in 1925. In the U.S. it is divided into two different jurisdictions. The Romanian Orthodox Church and the Canonical Episcopate of America, dependent on the patriarch of Romania, has Detroit as its see; the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America is a diocese under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church in America.

Bulgaria . The Bulgarians were originally a Turco-Finnish race that settled in the Balkans in the 7th century. They fused with the Slavs who surrounded them and accepted their Slavic language. They received Christianity through the missionaries of Byzantium sent by Constantinople on request of the Bulgar Czar Boris (853889). In 917 Czar Simeon declared the Bulgarian Church an independent patriarchate, but in 1019 it was suppressed by the Byzantine Emperor Basil II. A second Bulgarian patriarchate was set up at Trnovo in 1186 but it was destroyed under Ottoman persecution in 1393. In 1870 the Bulgars obtained from the Turkish Sultan the decree to set up their own national church free of Greek influence. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated the Bulgarian Church in 1872, but the other Slavic Churches recognized it. Only in 1961 did the patriarch of Constantinople recognize it as an independent patriarchate.

Georgia . The early history of Christianity in Georgia is very obscure. Christianity is said to have been brought there by St. Nina, a Christian prisoner, who converted King Miriam about 320. The first missionaries came from the Patriarchate of Antioch and exercised jurisdiction until the 8th century. Byzantine missionaries entered Georgia in the 6th century, and the Georgians readily accepted the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch, freeing themselves from the Syrian and Armenian oversight. Through the succeeding centuries Georgia became the prey of conquering armies of Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and finally Russians. It was annexed to Russia by Czar Alexander in 1801, and from then until the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Georgian Church was under the domination of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Georgian Church had its autocephaly recognized by the Moscow Patriarchate.

Estonia . From the 16th century nearly all Estonians were Lutheran, following the religion of their Swedish overlords. During the period from 1830 to 1848 about 75,000 Estonians and Latvians became Orthodox under the Russian Church when Russian conquered the region. In 1923 they sought and obtained approval from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople for the establishment of an autonomous Orthodox Church of Estonia, dependent on Constantinople. However, in 1940 the Soviet Union annexed Estonia and Latvia; the Moscow patriarch, not considering the autonomy granted these two churches by the Ecumenical Patriarch, assumed them under his own jurisdiction. After the collapse of the Soviet union, a dispute arose between those who wanted to remain under the Moscow Patriarchate and those who wanted to re-establish the autonomous church under the Ecumenical Patriarch. Tensions flared in 1996 when the Ecumenical Patriarch revived the 1923 arrangement. Intense negotiations between Moscow and Constantinople brought about a peaceful resolution, with parishes given the choice to elect whether to remain under Moscow or join the autonomous church. Of the 84 parishes, 50 chose to join the autonomous church, while 30 with predominant Russian membership remained with Moscow.

Albania . Christianity came to Albania from two directions, bringing Latin Christianity to the northern part and Byzantine Christianity to the southern part. After the 15th century with the occupation of the Turks, Christianity was in part suppressed, making Islamism the prevalent religion in Albania. The Orthodox Church of Albania attained autocephaly in 1937. It suffered intensely under communist rule. The collapse of communist rule rejuvenated the church, allowing it to reopen parishes and accept candidates for priesthood.

Finland . The Finns belong ethnically to the same group as the Estonians and Hungarians. In 1917 they were declared independent of Russia, but after World War II they were forced to cede a part of their southern territory to the Soviet Union. More than 96 percent of the Finns are Lutheran. The Orthodox Church of Finland received its autonomy from the patriarch of Constantinople in 1923, an autonomy that was recognized only in 1957 by the Russian patriarch.


Historically, Byzantine Catholic Churches are known by their older designation "Greek Catholic Churches," their legal name in the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. These churches parallel their Orthodox counterparts, adopting the ecclesial, liturgical, theological and spiritual traditions of Orthodoxy, but recognizing the primacy of the See of Rome. These churches include the Melkite Catholic Church, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the Ruthenian Catholic Church, the Romanian Catholic Church, the Greek Catholic Church, the Bulgarian Catholic Church, the Slovak Catholic Church and the Hungarian Catholic Church. There are also other Byzantine Catholic communities without hierarchies, e.g., the Russians, Belarusans, Georgians and Albanians.

Melkite Catholic Church . The word Melkite properly speaking originally designated all Byzantine Christians, both Catholic or Orthodox, of the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The word comes from the Syriac malka or the Arabic word malek or melek meaning king or emperor. The term was first coined by anti-Chalcedonians in derision of those Christians who remained faithful to the Byzantine emperors in their attempt to impose the Christology taught by the Council of Chalcedon (451). But today, in its popular and limited sense, the word refers only to the Byzantine Catholics using both Greek and Arabic who through the centuries entered into communion with the See of Rome. If now all Melkites are of Arabic speaking extraction, their history was not always of such unity. Between the 5th and 12th centuries some were of Greek extraction, others of Syrian, others Egyptian. Originally they followed the Antiochene, Alexandrian, or Jerusalem liturgical rites, but with time and the centralization forced upon them by Byzantine emperors they adopted the Byzantine liturgical rite exclusively. They are now centered in three patriarchates: Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Through the centuries, especially in the Patriarchate of Antioch, an active movement of reconciliation with Rome was developed. Beginning with the Catholic patriarch, Cyril VI (172459), there was an uninterrupted line of Melkite Catholic patriarchs. The Melkite Catholic patriarch resides at Damascus and bears the title "Patriarch of Antioch and of all the East" and the personal titles of the patriarch of Alexandria and Jerusalem. In the U.S. Melkite Catholics center mostly around New York and in New England.

Italo-Albanian Catholic Church . The Italo-Albanian Catholic Church is also Byzantine in heritage, although it does not have a direct Orthodox counterpart. Three different movements account for the origins of the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church. The first wave of Greek colonists first immigrated to Sicily and southern Italy even before Christianity was founded. The second wave of Greeks to Italy came shortly after the sacking of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. The third migrating group was composed of Albanians. When their kingdom passed into the hands of the Turks after the death of their leader Skanderbeg (d. 1463), many fled to Italy and Sicily where they clung on steadfastly to their Byzantine heritage. At present, the Italo-Albanian Catholic Chrurch has two eparchies of equal rank: Lungro (in Calabria, southern Italy), established 1919 with jurisdiction over mainland Italy; and Piana deli Albanesi, established 1937 with jurisdiction over Sicily. The historic Italo-Greek Catholic monastery of St. Mary's of Grottaferrata, outside of Rome, founded 1004 is a territorial abbey that ministers to parishes in southern Italy and Sicily.

Ukrainian Catholic Church. The Ukrainians lay claim to being the original Russians, since the nation known as Russia today first developed in Kiev, the present-day capital of the modern Ukrainian Republic. After Russia centralized its power around the principalities of first Vladimir and then Moscow, Kiev became known as the center of "Little" Russia, especially for the five centuries when it was subject to Poland and Lithuania. Here a reunion of the Orthodox with Rome was effected through the Synod of Brest-Litovsk (159596), which set up the largest branch of Byzantine Catholics. There were many factors, political, social, and cultural, that prompted this reunion. In 1620 an Orthodox hierarchy was reestablished that paralleled the Catholic group. The Catholic Ukrainians in the West, centered in the province of Galicia, after having been under the control of Poland, came under the power of the Austrian Empire in the 18th century. One of the great names among the Galician Ukrainians is that of Metropolitan Andrew Sheptitzky who from 1900 until his imprisonment by the Soviets in 1944 ruled the See of Lvov as the primate of the Galician Ukrainians. He did much to strengthen his fellow Ukrainians amid great persecution from the Soviets and to instill in them an equal fidelity to Rome and to their Byzantine heritage. Great numbers of these Ukrainians migrated to America in two groups, the first from 1880 to 1914 and the second group during World War II. The first immigration was that of Catholics from Galicia; the second, of Western and Eastern Ukrainians. Ukranian Catholics in the U.S. are divided into the metropolitan diocese of Philadelphia, and the dioceses of Stamford (CT), St. Josaphat in Parma (OH), and St. Nicholas in Chicago.

Ruthenian Catholic Church . Ethnically different from the Ukrainians and with a language differing from the western Ukranian, the Ruthenians are called also Podcarpathian or Carpatho-Russians or Rusins. For many centuries the area they inhabited belonged to the Hungarian Kingdom, but they were Slavic. After World War I, Podcarpathia Rus was made a part of the Czechoslovakian Republic, and in 1939 it was proclaimed the Independent Republic of the Carpathian Ukraine. It was briefly returned to Hungary (193944) but then became part of Soviet Ukraine. The majority of its Christian inhabitants became Byzantine Catholics in the Union of Uzhorod (1646), and in 1771 the eparchy of Mukachevo was established. In America besides the metropolitan diocese of Pittsburgh there are the dioceses of Passaic (NJ), Parma (OH), and Van Nuys (CA).

Romanian Catholic Church . The beginnings of Christianity are not clear in Romanian history. It seems that in the early centuries evangelization was first carried on by Latin missionaries among the descendants of the Roman colonisers sent there by Emperor Trajan. When the Bulgars conquered Romania, they brought with them Byzantine Christianity, using the Old Slavonic language in the liturgy. After the fall of the second Bulgarian Empire the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople gained jurisdiction and imposed the Greek language and culture. In the 17th century Romanian began to be used. Only in 1881 was Romania finally formed into a single state consisting of Moldavia and Vallachia whose national religion was of Byzantine Christianity, using Romanian as the liturgical language. After World War I Transylvania, Bessarabia, and Bucovina were added to Romania. In 1947 Romania became a republic in the Soviet sphere. A movement started in the 17th and 18th centuries came to a climax when a part of the Orthodox Church of Romania was united with Rome (1701). With the dissolution of the Austrian-Hungary Empire in 1918, the Romanian Catholics found themselves along with their Orthodox counterparts in a united Romania. In 1947 the Peoples' Republic put an end to the Catholic Church's organization. Before they were swallowed up through a mandate of the state by the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Romanians numbered more than one and a half million. Many emigrated to the U.S. There is now a Catholic Romanian diocese in Canton, Ohio.

Greek Catholic Church . In 1829 Greek Catholics were freed from the civil jurisdiction of the Orthodox patriarch, preparing the way for the formation of a Greek Catholic Church. This movement started under John Marango (d. 1885) in Constantinople and was transplanted to northern Greece in Thrace at the turn of the century. These Greek Catholics in Greece are under the leadership of one bishop, an apostolic exarch who resides in Athens. Relations with the Greek Orthodox Church has remained tense, which views the Greek Catholic Church as an unjustified papal intrusion in its jurisdiction.

Bulgarian Catholic Church . The Bulgarian Catholic Church began slowly in 1859, but the Balkan War (191213) and World War I crushed the movement. It began again, only to be throttled during World War II. Communist rule brought much hardship to the fledging church. The collapse of the Soviet communist bloc brought some relief. The Bulgarian Catholic Church regained some of its property and reopened churches. The Apostolic Exarch resides in Sofia.

Russian Byzantine Catholic Church . Russian Byzantine Catholics number only about 3,000 worldwide and owe their beginnings to the embryonic Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, established the first quarter of the 20th century under Exarch Leonid Feodorov (18791935). The Russian Catholics never mustered enough numbers or support to have an independent hierarchy. There are two Russian Byzantine Catholic parishes in the U.S.

Bibliography: d. attwater, The Christian Churches of the East, 2 v. (rev. ed. Milwaukee 196162). f. e. brightman, Liturgies Eastern and Western, 2 v. (Oxford 1896) v.1. j. m. hanssens, Institutiones liturgicae de ritibus orientalibus (Rome 193032) v.2,3. a. a. king, The Rites of Eastern Christendom, 2 v. (London 1950). r. roberson, The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey, 6th ed (Rome 1999) r. f. taft, The Byzantine Rite: A Short History (Collegeville, MN 1992).

[g. a. maloney/

r. b. miller/eds.]