The Russian Byzantine Catholic Church traces ist institutional origin back to the second half of the nineteenth century in Russia where the philosophy of Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) (see photo below) had fostered an active debate and interest among various circles of intellectuals in the notions of the universality of the church and Church unity.
It should be noted that when Christianity came to Kievan Rus in 988 A.D., the new Russian Church, following the Byzantine tradition brought from Constantinople, was in full communion with the Holy See of Rome. The events of 1054 did not cause any immediate rupture between the See of Rome and the Russian Church; rather there was a gradual drift apart. Indeed, contact between Rome and Moscow continued. The Russian Church was represented at the Council of Florence in 1439 by Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev and several other Russian clergy. The Russian bishops signed the Act of Union at the Council and they declared the union, which was warmly received by their people, throughout their territories as they returned to Moscow.
Metropolitan Isidore and his retinue arrived in Moscow on March 19, 1441, and on that same day celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the Church of the Ascension in Moscow and promulgated the Union before Tsar Basil II and his court. Four days later, Tsar Basil, motivated by a somewhat xenophobic and nationalistic desire to control the Church and to exclude foreign influences from his domain, had Metropolitan Isidore arrested. However, Isidore managed to escape to the west, apparently with the collusion of Tsar Basil himself. Although the Union was not formally upheld by Tsar Basil or Metropolitan Jonah, whom Tsar Basil appointed as Metropolitan Isidore's successor, it continued to live in the hearts and souls of several Russians and other subjects of the Tsars.
After this time, there were always some Russians who were in communion with the Holy See, albeit small in number and hardly organized. Among these, there were the isolated instances of Russians who chose to become Roman Catholics (Princess Elizabeth Golitsin, Fr. Dmitri Golitsin, S.J.--the "Apostle of Western Pennsylvania"--and Fr. Ivan Martiniov, S.J.,) or those who, retaining their Russian Orthodox tradition, suffered for their belief publicly (Blessed Deacon Peter Artemiev).
However, the more enduring presence was that of the "Starokatoliki," who derived in large part from the supporters of the Servant of God Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev and who were augmented from time to time by the descendants of Greek Catholics from the western parts of Russia, who had been sent into internal exile in the Urals, North Caucausus, or Siberia. Surviving for long periods without benefit of Byzantine Catholic clergy, these believers preserved and nourished as family traditions both their Russianness and their communion with the Holy See. In some respects, these families provided one of the several diverse sources of fertile soil upon which the seeds of Soloviev's thought would flower and bring forth fruit.
According to Soloviev's reasoning, the Russian Orthodox Church is separated from the Holy See only de facto (there was no direct formal breach between the Sees of Rome and Moscow), so that one can profess the totality of Catholic doctrine and be in communion with the Holy See while continuing to be Russian Orthodox. Soloviev was received into communion with the Holy See as a Russian Byzantine Catholic on February 18, 1896 by Fr.Nicholas Tolstoy, the first Russian Byzantine Catholic priest (see below). Soloviev's thought had a profound impact on several generations of Russian society and inspired such later thinkers as Fr. S. Bulgakov, Fr. P. Florensky, Fr. G. Florovsky, N. Berdyaev, L. Karsavin, the poet V. Ivanov, and one could even include Fr. A. Men, among others.
As a result of Soloviev's thought a movement began among various intellectual circles, spanning the aristocracy, the intelligentsia, the growing middle class and later spreading as well amongst farmers and workers, that led various Russians to seek to be in communion with the See of Rome. At first they did this by being received into the Roman Catholic Church, but this solution left all but a few of them thirsting for the spiritual richness of the Byzantine Slavonic tradition.
This tendency began to change as the nineteenth century began to draw to a close. In 1893, Fr. Nicholas Tolstoy, a Russian Orthodox priest, was received into communion with the See of Rome and was incardinated in the Melkite Catholic church. He returned to Moscow and a small community began to form around him. A few years later, it was he who received Vladimir Soloviev into communion with the Holy See. Larger numbers of like-minded individuals began to form circles and communities in St. Petersburg and Moscow and among them were a number of Russian Orthodox clergy, as well as some Russian Old Ritualist or Old Believer priests.
Decisions by these groups of people were taken to enter into communion with the See of Rome and to form themselves into more formal communities and this,was undertaken under the moral protection in part of Prince Peter and Princess Elizabeth Volkonsky and Mlle. Natalia Ushakova, who had influential connections with the authorities. In St. Petersburg, an upper floor room was rented at ul. Polozovaia 12 and outfitted as a chapel and the first priests of the St. Petersburg community, Fr. Ivan Deubner, Fr. Alexander Zerchaninov, and Fr. Eustachios Susalev (the third, a Russian Old Ritualist priest received into communion with Rome) began to hold regular services. The Divine Services were celebrated either according to Russian synodal form or to the Old Ritual, depending on which priest was officiating. In Moscow, Fr. Tolstoy's community began to form around the family of Vladimir and Anna Abrikosov and a chapel was set up in their home.
On May 22, 1908 Fr. Zerchaninov was appointed the Administrator of the Mission to the Russian Catholics. The decree from the Vatican Secretariat of State appointing him specifically states: "Therefore His Holiness commands the aforementioned priest Zerchaninov to observe the laws of the Greek-Slavonic Rite faithfully and in all their integrity, without any admixture from the Latin Rite or any other Rite; he must also see that his subjects, clergy and all other Catholics, do the same."
Subsequently, this command to observe strictly the Russian Orthodox Church's rituals and spirituality was confirmed during an audience with Pope Pius X attended by Mlle. Ushakova.
In response to Mlle. Ushakova's inquiry whether the Russian Catholics should hold firmly to their Russian synodal and Old Ritualist practices, or adapt these to the more "latinized" Galician liturgical forms, Pope Pius replied that the Russian Catholics should adhere to the synodal and Old Rite practices with the now famous response in Latin: "nec plus, nec minus, nec aliter" (no more, no less, no different). This principle continues to be observed by the Russian Catholic communities today.
The first public Divine Liturgy was celebrated, in St. Petersburg, on 29 April 1909 (Pascha, or Easter, on the Julian Calendar) by these three priests. The choir was made up of amateurs. After the Liturgy, they agreed with Fr. Susalev's idea to send the following telegram of Paschal greetings to the Czar:
"On this radiant day of Pascha, the Russian Old Ritualists in communion with the Holy See address their prayers to God for the prosperity of Your Imperial Majesty and His Highness the Grand Duke and Heir."
A cordial response was soon thereafter received from Baron Vladimir Fredericks, Minister of the Court; this response was prominently displayed in the chapel and for some time police harassment abated. In April 1911 Minister Stolypin sent a legal authorization, thanks to the intervention of Mlle. Ushakova. In 1912, the St. Petersburg chapel was moved to ul. Barmaleieva 2 because more space was needed for the growing community.
It should be noted that at this time it was illegal to be Russian and Catholic of the Byzantine rite in Russia, and this remained the case technically after the 1905 Decree on Religious Toleration. The presence amongst the early Russian Catholics of a number of Old Ritualists, whose tradition was recognized by the 1905 Decree, enabled the communities to begin to organize and function. Nonetheless, these communities were often hounded by the police and the priests and members occasionally arrested.
In spite of these difficulties, the Russian Catholics firmly believed in their faith and their goals of achieving church unity among the separated Catholic and Orthodox sister churches, keeping in mind Soloviev's view that the separation of the Russian Orthodox Church from the Church of Rome was only a de facto separation and therefore it was possible to be Russian Orthodox in spiritual practice and be in communion with the Church of Rome. Government harassment abated for a few years, but the communities continued to be monitored and occasionally harassed.
As one would expect in a thriving spiritual community, and the Russian Byzantine Catholic communities were indeed thriving even under the difficult conditions under which they functioned, persons were drawn to the religious life. To meet the needs of the Moscow community, Vladimir Abrikosov was ordained a priest on May 19, 1917 in order to serve them. He and his wife had taken vows of chastity in preparation for entering the monastic life. Anna Abrikosov, who had organized a religious community for young women under simple vows along the lines of a Dominican Third Order, became ist leader as Mother Catherine.
A young man named Leonid Feodorov, who grew up in the midst of the intellectual ferment of Soloviev's circles in St. Petersburg, made his way to L'viv and later to the West in order to study for the priesthood. Early on, the movement in Russia, inspired by Soloviev, had attracted the attention of Metropolitan Andrew Sheptitsky (1865-1944) (photo to right), the leader of the Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic Church and he took a special interest in fostering and aiding the Russian Catholic movement and in the training of young Leonid. Upon completion of his studies abroad, his ordination, and his monastic tonsure (all punctuated by visits back to his mother and the community in St. Petersburg), Fr. Leonid returned permanently to St. Petersburg in 1913 whereupon he was promptly arrested for his association with Metropolitan Andrew and was sent into internal exile in Tobolsk until March, 1917.
In Saratov, a small community of Russian Catholics developed from the ministry of Fr. Alexander Sipiagin who had been working as a professor of natural sciences there after his reception into communion and ordination. Later, under the guidance of Bishop Pie Neveu, Fr. Alexi Anisimov and his entire parish in, Saratov were received into communion.
In June 1918, Fr. Patapios Emilianov and his entire Old Ritualist parish with nearly 1,000 members (828 adults!) at Nizhnaja Bogdanovka (200 kms. From Makieievka in the Don region) declared themsleves to be in communion with Rome. They had approached and been received by Metropolitan Andrew.
A movement toward union with the Holy See had also arisen amongst the Georgians. Many of the Georgian Byzantine Catholic priests and laity were to suffer side by side with the Russian Catholics in the maelstrom that was about to descend upon them all.
The First World War and the ensuing Russian Revolutions of March and October, 1917 followed by the Civil War brought upheaval for all in Russia, and the by now several thousands of Russian Catholics were no exception. The fall of the Czarist government in the March Revolution and subsequent grant by the Provisional Government of religious rights to all enabled the Russian Catholics to establish themselves and organize more formally. Metropolitan Andrew, due to the vicissitudes of the war, happened to have been a prisoner under house arrest in Russia at the time. The Provisional Government freed him and he was able to make his way to St. Petersburg to join the community for ist first public Paschal celebrations. He convened the first sobor or council of the Russian Catholic Church during Bright Week 29-31 May, 1917 (the week after Pascha or Easter) which met for several days and adopted a set of 68 canons to govern and administer the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church. Fr. Leonid Feodorov was appointed officially as this Church's first Exarch.
St Petersburg, May 30, 1918--Feast of Corpus Christi--Photo shows Exarch Leonid and his clergy who were gueests at the celebration of their Roman Catholic brethren. This was the last public procession which the Soviet regime permitted in St. Petersburg (from Osipove, I, "Se il mondo vi odia..." Milan, 1997)
For a few months the new Church experienced some measure of relative peace and growth amid the chaos that was developing around it. At first, after the October Revolution little changed, but soon the full brunt of the Communist oppression was visited upon the all of the Churches in Russia and the Russian Catholics were no exception.
In January 1923, Exarch Leonid (photo to left) was arrested and tried along with several of his clergy and several Roman Catholic priests. He served out his prison term of ten years under the extremely harsh conditions of the Solovky prison camp, a former monastery on the White Sea in Northern Russia, together with many of his clergy and with several bishops and priests of the Russian Orthodox Church. Reports from some survivors of Solovky prison in those days reported that Exarch Leonid was, even under those harsh conditions, active in the cause of church unity. With Exarch Leonid in Solovky were some of his clergy, several Roman Catholic priests, and the Georgian Byzantine Catholic exarch, Fr. Shio Batmanishvili.
The clergy imprisoned at Solovki contrived to set up a chapel and to celebrate the Divine Liturgy whenever possible under the strained conditions of the camp. For a period they were even allowed by the camp authorities the use of the chapel of St Germanus on Sundays.
Their zeal and ingenuity in doing so was truly remarkable and is underlined dramatically by an event which took place in the camp in 1928. Roman Catholic Bishop Boleslaw Sloskans was sent to the camp and soon after his arrival he ordained a young man, Serge Kasipinski, to the diaconate and later to the priesthood for the Russian Byzantine rite. A second Russian Byzantine Catholic, Donat Novitski, was soon thereafter also ordained a Russian Byzantine Catholic priest in similiar fashion. Exarch Leonid in the exercise of the special authority granted him, had already ordained both young Serge and young Donat to the subdiaconate in the camp.
Prayer and vocations flourished in the camp and were an inspiration to, and in some instances a source of conversion for, the other prisoners. Most of the reports concerning the Russian Catholic clergy and laity in the gulags reveal the same zeal and fortitude, with the clergy ministering to any other prisoners who sought their help and arranging secret liturgies when possible. It is also reported that several of the Orthodox clergy fellow prisoners with whom Exarch Leonid discussed church unity in the prison acknowledged that they could accept communion with the See of Rome upon the terms and under the understanding as explained by Exarch Leonid.
Ironically, while this systematic persecution was being carried out, the Moscow City Archives reveal that a Russian Byzantine Catholic parish--not that of the Abrikosovs--was legally registered by the Moscow Soviet in 1927. This community appears to have been different from the parish organized by Fr. Serge Soloviev, a relative of the celebrated philosopher, who was appointed Vice-Exarch for the Russian Byzantine Catholics in 1923. These parishes managed to function for several years under extreme conditions of harassment and surveillance. Vice-Exarch Serge was arrested on February 15, 1931.
An "illegal" monastery dedicated to Saint Peter was also organized in Moscow during the early thirties and functioned in the catacombs under the direction of Archbishop Bartholomew Remov, a former member of the Holy Synod who had secretly entered into communion with the Holy See. In the course of 1935 the NKVD "uncovered" the monastery and Archbishop Bartholomew and ist members were arrested and tried; Archbishop Bartholomew was sentenced to death, his monastics sentenced to prison terms.
Upon completing his prison term, Exarch Leonid, as a convicted felon under Soviet law, was subject to internal exile and hence could not return to St. Petersburg, Moscow or other major cities. He spent his final years in failing health in the little hamlet of Viatka and fell asleep in the Lord on March 7, 1935, a true confessor of the faith.
Several of the other Russian Catholic clergy perished in prison, were executed, or died under mysterious circumstances. Some were able to flee to the West. On August 17, 1922 Fr. Vladimir Abrikosov was arrested, tried and sentenced to death, which sentence was commuted to perpetual external exile. He was expelled from Russia and, after some months in Rome, he settled in Paris. A year later, Mother Catherine and several of the sisters of her community, along with Fr. Nicholas Alexandrov, who had been serving the Moscow community after Fr. Vladimir's expulsion, were likewise arrested.
While imprisoned, Mother Catherine contracted cancer and under the harsh conditions of prison life, her health soon deteriorated and she succumbed to the disease. Some of the Abrikosov children were able to flee to the West to join their father. The few sisters who had not been arrested, together with the sisters who survived their prison ordeals, upon their release, remained behind and organized a Russian Catholic catacomb community in Moscow that has survived to this day.
The other communities in Saratov and Bogdanovka experienced similar fates. In October and November 1937, the greater part of the Russian Catholic clergy and faithful, together with the Georgian Byzantine Catholic, Armenian Catholic, and Roman Catholic clergy and faithful still being held in Solovki (photo above of Solovki monastery prison), were executed together with thousands of Orthodox, Protestant and Jewish clergy and faithful in one of the largest mass executions carried out in the gulags at Sandormoch and Leningrad.
The Russian Catholics who left Russia did so alongside their Orthodox brethren and along the same routes east, west and south. Hence, they were to be found in all the centers of the Russian diaspora: Harbin and Shanghai, Istanbul, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Rome, Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, London, New York, San Francisco, and Montreal.
Gradually, parishes were organized in the diaspora. In Harbin, a Russian Catholic catechism was published in 1935 by Fr. S. Tyshkiewich, one of the pastors of the Harbin community. The communities in Harbin and Shanghai soon faced new threats with the invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese and later the rise of the Chinese Communists. Some moved to Hong Kong and Australia, some moved to Argentina; one large group moved to the Los Angeles area and established St. Andrew's Russian Catholic Church in El Segundo, CA.
In 1927 the Russicum, the Pontifical Russian College, was established to train clergy for the Russian Catholics in the diaspora and in order to have priests to work in Russia for those who remained in Russia at such time as priests would be allowed in to serve those communities. The emigre Russian Catholics continued to be active in the intellectual circles of the Russian emigre communities as well as in those of their new homelands.
Prince and Princess Volkonsky and Julia Danzas, activists in the St Petersburg community, were active in the Paris Russian emigre community. In Brussels, Mlle. Irina Posnova founded the "Zhizn s Bogom" press of Foyer Oriental Chretien. Viacheslav Ivanov, one of the leading poets in modern Russian literature, was a disciple of Soloviov's and was received into communion with the Holy See by Fr. Zerchaninov. A friend of Fr. Vladimir Abrikosov, Ivanov was active in Paris and in Rome, where he taught at the Russicum.
Helena lzwolsky (photo to right), the daughter of a former Czarist diplomat and Sorbonne graduate, was widely known in the intellectual circles of Paris and New York; a member of St Michael's, she served on the faculty of Fordham University, was the author of several books and articles and was an editor of the journal "The Third Hour". Helena was a friend of both Dorothy Day and Catherine de Hueck Dougherty, both of whom frequented the Russian Byzantine liturgy at St. Michael's in New York.
Exarch Leonid was succeeded as exarch by Fr. Kliment Sheptitsky, brother of Metropolitan Andrew. Exarch Kliment, who has been posthumously honored by the State of Israel for his aid to Jews during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine (photo below), died in a Soviet prison in 1951.
Exarch Kliment Sheptitsky
To meet the needs of the Russian Catholics throughout the world, an ordaining bishop has been appointed, beginning in 1936 with the consecration of Bishop Alexander Evreinov. He was succeeded in 1958 by Bishop Andrei Katkov. Bishop Andrei served for several decades in this postion. Perhaps the high point of his career was his invitation as an official guest of the Moscow Patriarchate to visit Russia in August and September 1969, during which trip he was accorded all the respect and honor due a bishop by his Russian Orthodox episcopal hosts.
Patriarch Alexei I himself personally presented a "Panaghia"(symbol of the Episcopate) to Bishop Andrei. Shortly thereafter, on December 16, 1969 the then Metropolitan Alexei of Tallinn, now Patriarch Alexei II, acting as Director of Affairs of the Moscow Patriarchate, announced the Sacred Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church's decision to admit Catholics to receive communion in Russian Orthodox churches (this decision was subsequently rescinded several years later). Bishop Andrei reposed in the Lord in September, 1996. At the time of writing, the Russian Catholic faithful around the world are anxiously awaiting the consecration of Bishop Andrei's successor.
Bishop Andrei Katkov at St Michael's in New York
Fr. Andrew Rogosh, a Russicum graduate, was sent to New York City in 1935 to minister to the Russian Catholics there. In 1936, St Michael's Russian Catholic Church opened ist doors and has been serving the Russian community in New York and their supporters for over sixty years.
One of the many confessors of the faith with which the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church is especially blessed was Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J.. Fr. Walter was born in 1904 in Shenandoah, Pa, where he grew up. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1928. He experienced what he described as "almost a direct call from God" to volunteer for the Russian mission in response to Pope Pius XI's appeal. He was the first American Jesuit to be ordained in the Russian Byzantine rite in June 1937. He was assigned to the Byzantine mission parish in Albertyn in eastern Poland (now in Belarus) under Bishop Nicholas Charnetsky. When World War II broke out in September 1939, Fr. Walter found himself within the Soviet zone of occupation.
On March 19, 1940 Fr. Walter (photo on right) entered Russia proper with a group of Polish refugees, together with two of his Russian Byzantine Jesuit priest colleagues, hoping to be able to minister to their needs and those of any Russians who might request his aid. A year later he was arrested by the NKVD and sentenced to fifteen years hard labor. After an initial five years of solitary confinement in Lubianka prison in Moscow, he was sent to the Siberian slave-labor camps above the Arctic Circle, part of the infamous Gulag Archipelago.
In 1947 Fr. Walter was declared "legally dead" back in the US. In 1955 he was released from prison and was given restricted freedom in the USSR. He functioned as a priest while working in factories and as an auto mechanic in various Siberian cities. In 1963 together with another American citizen, he was exchanged for a Russian couple being held for espionage in the US.
Upon returning to the US, Fr Walter served as a member of the John XXIII Center for Eastern Christian Studies at Fordham University in New York. He wrote two books about his experiences, "With God in Russia" and "He Leadeth Me". He became an internationally known director of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. During the last eight years of his life he was afflicted by a severe heart condition and arthritis, but still served as spiritual advisor to many persons, including a community of Byzantine Carmelite nuns in Sugarloaf, PA. He died at the John XXIII Center on December 8, 1984. Fr. Walter was a friend and spiritual father to many at St. Michael's and our community is honored to have had Fr. Walter celebrate the Divine Liturgy with us on several occasions.
The late Fr. Pietro Leoni who served the Russian Catholic parish in Montreal until his death had a similar experience to that of Fr. Walter. Assigned as a chaplain to an Italian military hospital that was sent into the occupied southern zone of the former USSR, he first was able to work in the Catholic parish in Dnepropetrovsk. Upon his release from military service in 1943, he went to serve a Catholic parish in Odessa. He was arrested in 1945 and held in Soviet prisons and labor camps, were he continued his apostolate as best he could, until his release in 1955.
The catacomb communities that formed in Leningrad, Moscow, and other places throughout the former USSR around the survivors of the original Russian Catholic communities, and those spiritually minded persons who were inspired by the obdurate faith of the Russian Catholics, survived as best they could. Clandestine priests of either rite would serve them when possible. Many priests were ordained in the catacombs and gulags by Ukrainian Catholic and Russian Catholic bishops also being held prisoner and would circulate and serve the communities whenever they could. As a result of this catacomb existence and the restrictions on internal movement of former gulag inmates, several new communities arose throughout the former USSR, particularly in Siberia and Kazakhstan in the smaller cities (e.g., Tobolsk, Obdursk, Krasnodar, Norilsk, Krasnoyarsk, Karaganda) where former gulag inmates (both clergy and lay people) were sent to live in internal exile.
Under the circumstances the catacomb clergy often attend to the spiritual needs of not only Russian and Ukrainian Byzantine Catholics but of Roman Catholics as well. These new communities, and our parish in Moscow as well as the "Spiritual Dialogue Club" (the continuation of the tradition of the Abrikosov's circle maintained by Sr. Nora Robashova) in Moscow, our parish in St. Petersburg and those in what is now Belarus (e.g., Minsk, Mohiliov, Homel, Brest) are a tribute to the faith and zeal of the Russian Catholics and should be an inspiration to all those who believe in Jesus Christ.