Letter from Europe

Faith and identity in the Slovakian hills

Issue no. 2021/17

Picture above: Wooden Greek-Catholic (Uniate) church at Bardejovské Kúpele in north-east Slovakia (photo © hidden europe).


Next week, the Pope is visiting Slovakia and the world’s media will surely show images of His Holiness taking a leading role in what looks like an Orthodox liturgy. It prompts us to look at faith and identity in the Carpathians - the area where the Ukraine, Slovakia and Poland converge.

Dear fellow travellers

The simple wooden tserkva at Lukov-Venécia, like so many churches in the Carpathians, has an Orthodox-style iconostasis in its interior. It’s a very striking building, appealing in its simplicity with a stepped pyramid design, shingled roof and planked walls.

Elsewhere in the hills that mark Slovakia’s border with Poland (to the north) and Ukraine (to the east) there are many similar churches, all richly decorated with icons and Orthodox-style crosses. Casual visitors could easily mistake these churches as all being affiliated to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

It’s not quite that simple, for in this part of central Europe the lines between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism are rather blurred. For there is in central Europe, and also in diaspora communities in other parts of the world, a part of the Catholic Church which, rather than celebrating Holy Mass in the Roman rite, uses an Orthodox-style liturgy, sometimes alluded to as the Eastern or Byzantine rite.

Next week, the Pope is visiting Slovakia and the world’s media will surely show images of His Holiness taking a leading role in what looks like an Orthodox liturgy. The moment to look out for is next Tuesday morning, where at 10.30 in Prešov, the Pope will celebrate the Divine Liturgy according to the Byzantine Rite.

Europe’s Eastern-rite Catholics are scattered over a dozen countries from Lithuania to North Macedonia, with particularly strong concentrations in the hilly borderlands of north-east Slovakia, south-east Poland and western Ukraine a remote region that corresponds in part to the former territory of Ruthenia.

For years, governments in this region firmly denied the existence of any vestiges of Rusyn life and culture, and the distinctive religious practices of Eastern-rite Catholics were suppressed, both in Ruthenia itself and more widely. We have visited the sites of former thriving communities in the Bieszczady Mountains of south-east Poland which were simply eradicated from the map in the late 1940s.

Recent decades have seen a great revival of Eastern-rite Catholicism in the Carpathian region, and for many its unusual rituals have become a cherished badge of identity. The political divisions in Ukraine which became so evident during and after the Orange Revolution of late 2004 have in part been about identity and the competing interests of mainstream Orthodoxy versus Eastern-rite Catholicism.

With the election of Pope Francis in 2013, Eastern-rite Catholics took heart in having a Pontiff who was very familiar with that part of the Orthodox tradition which still recognizes the Roman apostolic succession. The pope’s early life in South America was deeply influenced by migrant clergy from Ukraine who used the Byzantine rite. And as Bishop of Buenos Aires, he regularly celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the eastern style for those of the faithful who hailed from the Carpathians.

These Eastern-rite Catholics are often referred to as Uniates or Greek-Catholics. Expect to hear a lot more about them over the coming days, as the media struggle to unravel the history and practices of a religious tradition that dates back centuries and has its own very distinctive spirituality. It’s a movement which has deeply affected our own attitudes to faith, culture and identity.

The Pope will arrive in Slovakia on Sunday evening. And, as it happens, we are also heading to Slovakia next week. The Pontiff’s Tuesday visit to Prešov will mark the highpoint of engagement with the country’s Greek Catholics.

We have over the years written extensively in hidden europe about Rusyns and other Eastern-rite communities across Europe. Issue 43 of the magazine featured the wooden churches of the Carpathian region, with a front-cover image of the wonderful Greek-Catholic church at Bardejovské Kúpele, a fine example of the three-tier design found so often in Slovakia.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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