Brief History of Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church

Part 1
AD 395—the Roman Empire was formally split into the Roman Empire in the West and the Byzantine Empire in the East where Greeks made up most of the Byzantine Empire’s population


Our faith tradition originates with Byzantine Christianity, (that is, from Constantinople), which was composed of various constituent parts, Greek being predominant (although Latin, Syriac and Slavic elements were also very significant).  Today, we use the term “Greco” rather than “Greek” to denote that we are referring to a tradition which is not ethnically “Greek”, but more descriptive of a particular expression of Christianity.

Later, Saints Cyril and Methodius were missionaries who helped spread Christianity and in 860 A.D. St. Cyril created an alphabet for the Slavic people—the Cyrillic Alphabet, which is still used by Russian and other Slavic nations today

In 988 Prince Volodymyr the Great established Christianity in its Byzantine-Slavic Rite as the national religion of his country, Kyivan-Rus. Thousands of people were baptized in the Dniper (pronounced Dneeproh) River, which flows through the modern capital of Ukraine, Kyiv (pronounced: Keyiv).

1071 A.D.: the Seljuk Turks (a group of Arab Muslims) began to move closer to Constantinople

The Byzantine emperor ask the Roman Catholic Pope for help in defending Christianity from the Muslim invaders

The Pope called on Western Europe to help and Western European forces went to Palestine to fight the Muslims—Crusades however, the Western Europeans saw the Crusades as a way to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims, not a way of helping the Byzantine Empire

1204 A.D.: Western Crusaders attacked Constantinople

      They burned and looted the city

      The Western Europeans created a new empire in Constantinople

All this contributed to the Great Church Schism of 1054 dividing Christian East from West. The Kyivan Church inherited the traditions of the Byzantine East and was part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Yet this Church also remained in full communion with the Latin West and it’s patriarch, the Pope of Rome.

Though Constantinople and Rome had their disputes, the Kyivan hierarchy tried to work for Christian unity. Representatives from Rus participated in the Western Councils of Lyon (1245) and Constance (1418). Isidore, the Metropolitan of Kyiv, was himself one of the creators of the Union of Florence (1439).

In 1595, The Council of Brest began the process of reunification and in 1596, the Treaty of Brest saw the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church return to full communion with the Church of Rome. In the process, the traditions of the Kyivan Church were preserved and its ethnic, cultural and ecclesial existence were guaranteed: this was the beginning of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church as an institution.

Some hierarchs and faithful of the Kyivan Church, however, insisted on remaining under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Torn by internal division, the Central and Eastern sections of Ukraine passed under the control of the ruler of Moscow in 1654. Soon the Orthodox Kyivan Metropolitanate was under the authority of the Moscow Patriarchate (1686). As the Tsarist Empire grew, it repressed the Greco-Catholics and forced “conversions” to Russian Orthodoxy (1772, 1795, 1839, 1876).

After World War I, Ukrainian Greek Catholics found themselves under the governance of the nations of Poland, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia.

Under the previous century of Austrian rule, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church attained such a strong Ukrainian national character that the in the war between Poland, the Greco-Catholics of Galicia were seen by the nationalist Polish and Catholic state as even less patriotic than the Orthodox Volhynians. Extending its “Polisation” policies to its Eastern Territories, the Polish authorities sought to weaken the UGCC.

In 1924, following a visit with Ukrainian Catholic believers in North America and western Europe, the head of the UGCC was initially denied re-entry to Lviv), only being allowed back after a considerable delay. Polish Roman Catholic priests, led by their Latin bishops, began missionary work among Greek Catholics; and administrative restrictions were placed on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

These restrictions varied but frequently prevented the Priest from celebrating the Divine Liturgy especially among those Priest who were married and had families.


Part 2

During the Sovietization of the region in autumn 1939 the Bolsheviks suspended the Greek-Catholic Theological academy in Lviv, eparchial seminaries in Pszemysl, Lviv, and Stanislaw; they stopped publications of Christian newspapers, prohibited ranks of monasticism and religious institutions. Priests were not allowed to help people confess their sins and to give communion in hospitals, they could no longer have services in schools, and the cross of Jesus Christ was not allowed in the classroom either. Land that belonged to church or monastery was confiscated, monks and nuns were evicted from monasteries, and their farms were liquidated. Communities of believers and clergy had to pay enormous tax (10-15 thousand Karbovanets per year). 

More and more priests of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church were placed under arrest in the end of 1940. In November 1941 the Metropolitan, Andrey Sheptytskyi sent to the Vatican a report about the destruction of the Greek-Catholic Church by the Bolsheviks. In the report, he stated that in 1939-1941 on the territory of Western Ukraine “32 priests were sentenced or tortured, and 33 priests were deported to Siberia”. For 1267 parishes there were only 807 priests left. The Greek-Catholic Church was not completely liquidated only due to the breakout of the war in the Eastern front.

In the summer of 1944, Moscow started preparing to liquidate the Greek-Catholic church after the Soviets came back to Western Ukraine. After the death of the Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky on November 1st, 1944, the Greek-Catholic Church was headed by Yosyp Slipyi. In December, the same year he sent the delegation of representatives of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church to Moscow. Delegates attempted to have the Church restored but Stalin had already made other plans and on March 17th, 1945, Joseph Stalin personally approved written proposals to liquidate the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church by putting it under the jurisdiction of Moscow patriarchate.

Purposeful attacks on the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic church began and it was accused of cooperation with the Germans and of having connections with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. The article was republished in other publications of Western Ukraine and was spread out as a separate brochure. After the propaganda work concerning the discrediting of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church as the “enemy of the people”, on April 11th in the St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv the NKDV (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) arrested all episcopate of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church together with their leader Yosyp Slipyi, and also very many priests. At the same time, mass arrests took place in Stanislav and other cities.

In the winter of 1944-45, Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy were summoned to ‘reeducation’ sessions conducted by the NKVD/People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Near the end of the war in Europe, the state media began an anti-Ukrainian-Catholic campaign. The creation of the community in 1596 was discredited in publications, which went to great pains to try to prove the Church was conducting activities directed against Ukrainians in the first half of the 20th century.

In 1945 Soviet authorities arrested, deported, and sentenced to forced-labor camps in Siberia and elsewhere the church’s metropolitan Yosyf Slipyi and nine other Greek Catholic bishops, as well as hundreds of clergy and leading lay activists. In Lviv alone, 800 priests were imprisoned.[All the above-mentioned bishops and significant numbers of clergymen died in prisons, concentration camps, internal exile, or soon after their release during the post-Stalin thaw.[14] The exception was metropolitan Yosyf Slipyi who, after 18 years of imprisonment and persecution, was released thanks to the intervention of Pope John XXIII, Slipyi took refuge in Rome (Studite Monastery in Grotto Ferrata just north of Rome), where he received the title of Major Archbishop of Lviv, and became a cardinal in 1965.

I can personally attest to this as in 2001 I had the great privilege of visiting Grotto Ferrata and was able to see Pateriarch Slipyi’s cell (lets clarify the word cell: this is not a cell like a jail cell, monks live in a small room that is called a cell).

His cell remains untouched as are his bloody footprints throughout the Monastery. They are actually roped off and untouched.

The clergy who joined the Russian Orthodox Church were spared the large-scale persecution of religion that occurred elsewhere in the country. In the city of Lviv, only one church was closed (at a time when many cities in the rest of Ukraine did not have a working church). Moreover, the western dioceses of Lviv-Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk were the largest in the USSR and contained the majority of the Russian Orthodox Church’s cloisters (particularly convents, of which there were seven in Ukrainian but none in Russia). Orthodox canon law was also relaxed on the clergy allowing them to shave beards (a practice uncommon to Orthodoxy) and conduct liturgy in Ukrainian as opposed to Church Slavonic.

In 1968, when the Ukrainian Catholic Church was legalized in Czechoslovakia, a large-scale campaign was launched to harass recalcitrant clergy who remained illegal. These clergy were subject to interrogations, fines and beatings. In January 1969 the KGB arrested an underground Catholic bishop named Vasyl Velychkovsky and two Catholic priests and sentenced them to three years of imprisonment for breaking anti-religious legislation.

Activities that could lead to arrest included holding religious services, educating children as Catholics, performing baptisms, conducting weddings or funerals, hearing confessions or giving the last rites, copying religious materials, possessing prayer books, possessing icons, possessing church calendars, possessing religious books or other sacred objects. Conferences were held to discuss how to perfect the methodology in combatting Ukrainian Catholicism in the West Ukraine.

At times the Ukrainian Catholics attempted to employ legal channels to have their community recognized by the state. In 1956–1957 there were petitions to the proper authorities to request for churches to be opened. More petitions were sent in the 60s and 70s, all of which were refused. In 1976, a priest named Volodymyr Prokipov was arrested for presenting such a petition to Moscow. The response to these petitions by the state had been to sharpen attacks against the community.

The Ukrainian Catholics continued to exist underground for decades and were the subject of vigorous attacks in the state media. The clergy gave up public exercise of their clerical duties, but secretly provided services for many lay people. Many priests took up civilian professions and celebrated the sacraments in private. The identities of former priests could have been known to the Soviet police who regularly watched them, interrogated them and put fines on them, but stopped short of arrest unless their activities went beyond a small circle of people. New secretly ordained priests were often treated more harshly.

The church even grew during this time, and this was acknowledged by Soviet sources. The first secretary of the Lvov Komsomol, Oleksiy Babiychuk, claimed:

in this oblast, particularly in the rural areas, a large number of the population adheres to religious practices, among them a large proportion of youth. In the last few years, the activity of the Uniates [Ukrainian Catholics] has grown, that of representatives of the Uniates as well as former Uniate priests; there are even reverberations to renew the overt activity of this Church.

Part 3


After World War II Ukrainian Catholics came under the rule of Communist Poland and the hegemony of the Soviet Union.  With only a few clergy invited to attend, a synod was convened in Lviv, which revoked the Union of Brest. Officially all of the church property was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, Most of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy went underground. This catacomb church was strongly supported by its diaspora in the Western Hemisphere. Emigration to the U.S. and Canada, which had begun in the 1870s, increased after World War II.


After Stalin died, Ukrainian Catholics hoped this would lead to better conditions for themselves, but such hopes were dashed in the late 1950s when the authorities arrested even more priests and unleashed a new wave of anti-Catholic propaganda. Secret ordinations occurred in exile. Secret theological seminaries in Ternopol and Kolomyia were reported in the Soviet press in the 1960s when their organizers were arrested. In 1974 a clandestine convent was uncovered in Lviv.


During the Soviet era, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church did flourish throughout the Ukrainian diaspora. Cardinal Yosyf Slipyi was jailed as a dissident but named in pectore (in secret) a cardinal in 1949; he was freed in 1963 and was the subject of an extensive campaign to have him named as a patriarch, which met with strong support as well as controversy. Pope Paul VI demurred, but compromised with the creation of a new title of Major Archbishop (assigned to Yosyf Slipyi on 23 December 1963), with a jurisdiction roughly equivalent to that of a patriarch in an Eastern church. This title has since passed to Myroslav Ivan Lubachivsky in 1984 and thereafter to Lubomyr Husar in 2000 and Sviatoslav Shevchuk in 2011; this title has also been granted to the heads of three other Eastern Catholic Churches.



In 1984 a samizdat Chronicle of the Catholic Church began to be published by Ukrainian Catholics. The founder of the group behind this publication, Yosef Terelya, was arrested in 1985 and sentenced to seven years imprisonment and five years of exile. His successor, Vasely Kobryn, was arrested and sentenced to three years of exile.


The Solidarity movement in Poland and Pope John Paul II supported the Ukrainian Catholics. The state media attacked John Paul II. The antireligious journal Liudyna i Svit (Man and the World) published in Kiev wrote:

Proof that the Church is persistently striving to strengthen its political influence in socialist countries is witnessed by the fact that Pope John Paul II gives his support to the emigre hierarchy of the so-called Ukrainian Catholic Church . . .. The current tactic of Pope John Paul II and the Roman Curia lies in the attempts to strengthen the position of the Church in all socialist countries as they have done in Poland, where the Vatican tried to raise the status of the Catholic Church to a state within a state. In the last few years, the Vatican has paid particular attention to the question of Catholicism of the Slavonic nations. This is poignantly underscored by the Pope when he states that he is not only a Pope of Polish origin, but the first Slavic Pope, and he will pay particular attention to the Christianization of all Slavic nations.


By the late 1980s there was a shift in the Soviet government’s attitude towards religion. At the height of Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization reforms the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was allowed again to function officially in December 1989. But then it found itself largely in disarray with the nearly all of its pre-1946 parishes and property lost to the Orthodox faith. The church, actively supported by nationalist organizations, took an uncompromising stance towards the return of its lost property and parishes. According to a Greek-Catholic priest, “even if the whole village is now Orthodox and one person is Greek Catholic, the church [building] belongs to that Catholic because the church was built by his grandparents and great-grandparents. The weakened Soviet authorities were unable to pacify the situation, and most of the parishes in Halychyna came under the control of the Greek-Catholics during the events of a large scale inter-confessional rivalry that was often accompanied by violent clashes of the faithful provoked by their religious and political leadership. These tensions led to a rupture of relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Vatican.