Church Union of Berestia

Church Union of Berestia [Берестейська унія; Beresteiska uniia]. An agreement, proclaimed in 1596, between the Ruthenian (Ukrainian-Belarusian) Orthodox church in Poland and Lithuania and the Holy See. The recognition of the pope as the head of the church and the implications of this position for the faith, morals, practices, and church administration (defined by the Church Union of Florence in 1439) were accepted by the Orthodox clergy. For his part, the pope agreed to the retention of the Eastern rite and confirmed the administrative-disciplinary rights and autonomy of the Kyiv metropoly.

Various circumstances brought about a crisis in the Ukrainian Orthodox church in the second half of the 16th century: the Turkish conquest of the seat of the patriarch of Constantinople in 1453; difficulties in the Ukrainian-Belarusian Orthodox church, such as declining discipline; the creation of the Moscow patriarchate in 1589; Protestant influences; and the Polonization of the Ukrainian upper classes. The Orthodox bishops worked out a plan for establishing ties with Rome at their sobors in 1590–4. The initiators of the plan hoped to gain not only ecclesiastical benefits from the union, but also an end to the Polonization of the upper classes and equality for the Orthodox church and its clergy in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The union was supported by leading Polish circles because it was politically and religiously advantageous to them. Roman Catholic clerics, particularly the Jesuits Piotr Skarga, Benedykt Herbest, A. Possevino, P. Arcudius, and B. Maciejowski, and the Orthodox bishops, especially Ipatii Potii, the bishop of Volodymyr-Volynskyi, who tried to gain the support of Prince Kostiantyn Vasyl Ostrozky, all worked to bring about a union. Prince Ostrozky, however, insisted on the participation of the Byzantine and the Muscovite churches in the talks. This would have prolonged the negotiations; hence, the union advocates decided to act without him. On 22 June 1595 all nine Orthodox hierarchs signed a letter to Pope Clement VIII declaring that they were ready to enter into negotiations on church unification and authorizing bishops Kyrylo Terletsky and Potii to act for them in Rome. In September Potii and Terletsky left for Rome and, after long talks, set forth their confession of faith before the papal curia on 23 December 1595.

The union was announced by the papal bull Magnus Dominus on 23 December 1595. In January and February of 1596 the rights and privileges of the Uniate church were worked out and were guaranteed by the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem of 23 February 1596. The pope took the necessary steps to get the consent of the Polish government to the civil guarantees of the agreement, such as senatorial seats for the bishops, aid for the clergy and churches, and security of church property. After Ipatii Potii and Kyrylo Terletsky returned from Rome, a sobor was called in Berestia for 16–20 October 1596. The sobor split into two groups—for and against the union with Rome—and thus two councils went on concurrently. Prince Kostiantyn Vasyl Ostrozky led the opposition. He persuaded the bishop of Lviv, Hedeon Balaban, and the bishop of Peremyshl, Mykhail Kopystensky, as well as many clergymen and noblemen to support his position. Representatives of the patriarchates of Constantinople (the protosyncellus Nicephorus) and Alexandria (the protosyncellus Cyril Lucaris) participated in the Orthodox sobor. The union was accepted by Metropolitan Mykhailo Rahoza and five bishops, the hegumens, archimandrites, and part of the clergy and gentry. Each group condemned and anathematized the other. The sobor favoring the union, which was joined by most of the hierarchy, confirmed the union and proclaimed it before the people in a pastoral letter. The Polish king Sigismund III Vasa issued a proclamation in support of the union. The Apostolic See was represented at the sobor by the Roman Catholic bishops of Lviv, Lutsk, and Kholm, and the Polish government and crown were represented by several senators. The Jesuit Piotr Skarga made the closing speech on 20 October.

The Church Union of Berestia split the Ruthenian church and the faithful in two and led to a long and bitter domestic struggle. The schism deepened as new Orthodox bishops were consecrated in 1620 and as the union became one of the key issues in the political and social conflict between the Cossacks and the Poles and in the Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654 with Muscovy. The union eventually won the adherence of the Uzhhorod eparchy (1646), Peremyshl eparchy (1692), Lviv eparchy (1700), and Lutsk eparchy (1702). In the 18th century Uniate Catholicism became dominant in Right-Bank Ukraine, Galicia, and Transcarpathia. When these territories were annexed by Russia, Ukrainian Catholicism was forcibly liquidated: under Catherine II on the Right Bank and in Volhynia, under Nicholas I in the rest of these territories (1839), and under Alexander II in the Kholm region (1875). The Uniate church in Galicia and Transcarpathia survived under Austro-Hungarian rule (1772–1918), but was abolished in 1946–50 by the Soviet government, which orchestrated the sobors of Lviv (see Lviv Sobor of 1946), Mukachevo, and Prešov. As a result, the Ukrainian Catholic church survived officially only in the West, the Prešov region of Slovakia, Poland, and Yugoslavia until its restoration in Ukraine during the early 1990s.

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Atanasii Velyky

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]




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