To understand Byzantine Catholic people and their Church, it is necessary to know who they were and from where they came. Thus, the journey of faith must start in their homeland, the “Old Country” of Central Europe.
They literally came from the heart of Europe. If a map of the European continent could be envisioned as a picture with the tip of Norway as the top frame, the isle of Crete as the bottom frame, the coast of Ireland as the left side frame and the Ural Mountains as the right side frame, then their homeland, the area known variously as Carpathian Rus’, Subcarpathian Rus’, Transcarpathia, Carpatho-Ruthenia, Carpatho-Russia and Carpatho-Ukraine, would be in the exact center of the picture.
The most striking feature of this area is its mountainous terrain. Located just south of the crests of the Carpathian Mountains, the land, which averages 2,000 feet in elevation, is covered with forests and lined with narrow, arable valleys. The rugged landscape obviously restricted the choices for livelihood of the people dwelling in the region. Given the harsh and uneven topography, industrialization never took place. Instead, the people of this region, who for the most part lived in small, scattered villages numbering no more than a few hundred residents, scratched out a minimal, subsistence-level existence as shepherds, loggers or small-scale farmers.
Living in the center of Europe had profound consequences on their development. By straddling the border between the East and the West, they were strongly influenced by a complex set of cultural, political and religious forces from both areas.
The area of Central Europe was initially settled by tribal peoples from territories immediately to the north and east beyond the Carpathian Mountains in what is the present day Ukraine. Thus, the very name of the Carpatho-Rusyn people is of Eastern origin. It is derived from the word “Rus,” which is the name given to the early Slavic peoples who migrated to and eventually inhabited this area of the European continent.
Their language also reflected its Eastern orientation. It is an East-Slavic language, written in the Cyrillic alphabet, which was developed by St. Cyril, the missionary monk, who with his brother, St. Methodius, brought Christianity to the Slavs in the ninth century. Thus, the Carpatho-Rusyn language is grammatically and etymologically related to other East-Slavic languages – Russian, Byelorussian and, in particular, Ukrainian.
More importantly than its ethnic name and language, the religious life of these people was rooted in the East. Like the other Eastern Slavs, they received Christianity from the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Greek missionaries, Saints Cyril and Methodius, “The Apostles to the Slavs,” introduced Christianity and the new “Slavonic” alphabet to the state called Greater Moravia, the area of the present day Czech Republic and Western Slovakia, in the year 863. From there, the followers of these Byzantine missionaries moved eastward to convert the Carpatho-Rusyn people.
Their Eastern ethnic, linguistic and religious origins and inclinations, however, were counterbalanced by strong influences from Western Europe. By the end of the first millennium, these Rusyns had been joined to the political, religious and cultural world of Kievan Rus’, which included the area of the future “Kingdom of Galicia.” Gradually, with the decline of these states, first the Carpatho-Rusyn lowlands and then the highlands were annexed to the neighboring Kingdom of Hungary, a domination that would last until 1918.
Living as part of a country which officially was Roman Catholic had a lasting socioeconomic and cultural impact on the Carpatho-Rusyns. By the late 16th and 17th centuries they had been reduced to the status of mere serfs, individuals legally bound to the land and subject to the whims of the landlord for goods and services. In addition, the conquest, first of the Byzantine center the City of Constantinople, and later of large portions of the territory of the Hungarian kingdom by the Islamic Ottoman Turks, led to an increasing political and religious isolation for them and their only effective leadership, the clergy.
During the period of the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuit order established missions in Central Europe. Their teaching and the prevailing Catholic culture, as well as varied political, social and economic pressures, influenced part of the Carpatho-Rusyn clergy in the Kingdom of Hungary to unite with the See of Rome. The Union of Užhorod was celebrated in 1646 when sixty-three Carpatho-Rusyn priests assembled in the garrison chapel of Užhorod Castle and swore allegiance to the successor of Peter.
The Greek Catholic faith provided both a spiritual dimension and a social focus for the lives of these people. The whole cycle of life in their small villages was governed first and foremost by the precepts of the Church. Though the pattern of their lives was determined by the rhythms of the agricultural seasons, it was also intertwined with numerous religious observances and obligations. These included keeping Sundays and holy days as day of rest, observing the fasts and feasts of the Church, and following the dictates for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Thus participation in the life and activities of the Church was as natural as the daily pursuit of the necessities of life itself for them. This close relationship with their Church also provided these Carpatho-Rusyns with a cultural identity, because it distinguished them from other nationalities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
As they parted from their family, friends and loved ones in the Old Country, it would be this religious and cultural identity as Greek Catholics which the founders of the Metropolitan Church would seek to keep and to establish in America.