How the Good News went from Jerusalem to Texas

Christianity started in Jerusalem. From there, the apostles and their disciples spread out preaching the Good News, bringing Christ into the local cultures and transforming them with the message of Christ’s death and resurrection. It wasn’t long before churches in different places did things in different ways, adapting the ways of the church to the ways of the culture they were in. These differences did not dilute the faith, but strengthened it by the diversity of the people who were united by their holiness. By 988 AD, the Gospel reached a place called Kyivan-Rus, which is now primarily called Ukraine.

With time, poor communication, different cultural understandings, pride, secular and political influences, and other tragedies, the churches developed friction and eventually had outright disagreements. Around 1054, the Western Roman Empire–centered in Rome with its Roman Church–had a disagreement with the Eastern Roman Empire–in Byzantium about 150 miles away with its Byzantine Church–over who could do what. The newly converted people of the Rus’ were caught in the cross-hairs, wanting to stay in communion with both as the tensions escalated. In the Great Schism, which we retroactively identify as the point Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity had a tragic and so far unrepaired separation of communion around 1054 AD, the Kyivan Church was part of the Byzantine Church from Constantinople. That meant it was in what would later be called the Orthodox communion and was out of communion with Rome.

It was a hard time with a lot going on. The Kyivan Church was having plenty of problems in their region with a terrible economy matched. The poor quality of education that resulted was reflected in their leaders. Then the Russian government established their own branch of the church and claimed the Kyivan people under their jurisdiction.

The Rusyns tried to make continued communion with both East and West a reality. Representatives from Rus’ participated in the Western Council of Lyon in 1245 and the Council of Constance in 1418. Metropolitan Isidore of Kyiv (a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic bishop) was himself one of the creators of the 1439 Union of Florence which declared continued communion between East and West. Despite their attempts and the fact that the Union of Florence was even signed by both the Byzantine and the Roman bishops, unity between Rome and Constantinople was not restored.

The Ukrainian Greek-Catholics got together a synod of the bishops of Kyivan-Rus and all of them decided to retain/return to communion with the Roman Church. They wrote up a treaty with Rome called the Union of Brest which said they’d be able to keep their traditions and ways of living and understanding the faith. That treaty was signed by the Roman Church and the Kyivan Church in 1595, then reconfirmed in 1596 with a council, and the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics have been unquestionably Catholic ever since. Those who were not a party to the treaty are today referred to as Orthodox Christians while those who were are known by several names, the most common of which today is Eastern Catholic.

To share mutual communion means the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics may receive Communion, or the sacraments, in Roman Catholic Churches and Roman Catholics may receive the sacraments in the Kyivan Churches. We intercommune, or share communion. Since the Catholic Church practices closed communion–only sharing the Eucharist with those who have the fullness of the faith Christ left to His Church–to share communion means we acknowledge each other as having the same fullness of faith and as belonging to the same Church.

Most western Christians are unaware of the communal nature of the Catholic communion of Churches because they don’t frequently travel to non-western areas where they would have experiences introducing them to the Eastern lung of the Catholic Church. The modern education programs in western areas often don’t want to confuse their people with the differences, so the Eastern lung sadly isn’t experienced in religious education, RCIA, or similar venues where the majority of Roman Catholics receive their instruction in the faith, either. Pope John Paul II wrote about this in Orientale Lumen (emphasis added):

Since, in fact, we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each.

Our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters are very conscious of being the living bearers of this tradition, together with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. The members of the Catholic Church of the Latin tradition must also be fully acquainted with this treasure and thus feel, with the Pope, a passionate longing that the full manifestation of the Church’s catholicity be restored to the Church and to the world, expressed not by a single tradition, and still less by one community in opposition to the other; and that we too may be granted a full taste of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church which is preserved and grows in the life of the Churches of the East as in those of the West.

As Eastern Catholics have entered the diaspora, forced out of their traditional homelands by political, secular, and in some places religious tensions, they’ve taken their faith with them. For the people of Kyivan-Rus, those emigrations occurred in four distinct waves.

The first wave of Rusyn immigrants was primarily peasants from the Transcarpathian Mountains who moved to the Coal Belt area of the United States and Canada looking for economic prosperity. The next wave was a more educated group of Transcarpathians who were fleeing Communism between WWI and WWII. The third wave came after World War II when President Truman allowed tens of thousands of Ukrainians to settle in the United States as refugees. It was a small wave of people in comparison, but these people typically had higher levels of education and were able to establish stronger community networks once they arrived. The fourth wave of Ukrainian immigration is ongoing, occurring after the fall of the Soviet Union. Among those parishioners at St. Sophia’s who have Ukrainian heritage, about half are the children or grandchildren of immigrants in the early waves and about half are themselves recent immigrants in the fourth wave. The rest of the parish reflects the standard American melting pot of diversity. Each story and journey is as unique as the person who tells it, with our love for Christ uniting us.

As the apostles and disciples did in the early church, the Ukrainian immigrants integrated Christ into their culture and those of the people they evangelize. That is how we have Brazilians, Argentinians, Germans, Canadians, Italians, Texans, etc who are as Catholic as the Pope and in full communion with him while they trace their Christian patrimony not back through Latin Rome, but back to Kyivan-Rus, and from there to Byzantine Constantinople, and from there to Jerusalem and Christ.