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What is the Russian Catholic Church? Part I: Introduction

Above: the parish of the Descent of the Holy Spirit in St. Petersburg on November 6, 2022.

When introducing a topic to someone just as curious as new to the matter, one usually has to choose between the two approaches that have developed in the West – a more synchronic one that is more typical of philosophy done and read in English, or a more diachronic style of the Сontinental Europeans who love to tell their readers stories. Trying to travel by either path, I shall first answer a number of direct ‘analytical’ questions about our church then briefly tell the readers about its history presented in some very prominent personalities.

The Russian Catholic Church – is it an actual Church or a self-proclaimed community of a certain rite?

Yes, it is indeed a Church sui iuris (of its own law) recognised by the Holy See.

What are those Churches sui iuris within the Catholic Church?

Churches sui iuris are parts of the Catholic Church that live according to their own right (as well as rite), that is, they are separate ecclesiastical entities that have some degree of self-government and other peculiarities.

The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches defines the concept of sui iuris as follows:

Canon 27 — A group of Christian faithful united by a hierarchy according to the norm of law which the supreme authority of the Church expressly or tacitly recognizes as sui iuris is called in this Code a Church sui iuris.

The Catholic Church de facto consists of twenty-four Churches sui iuris (organised in various particular churches like dioceses, archdioceses etc.), collected cum Petro et sub Petro, i.e. under the rule and patronage of the Roman Pontiff. The largest of these twenty-four, the Latin or Roman Catholic Church, has its own Code of Canon Law and organisational principles, while the twenty-three numerically smaller Churches – equally Catholic – are governed both by a) the shared Code of the Eastern Churches and
b) their own particular laws (which must not contradict the former and depends on the status of the Church in terms of autonomy).

Is the Russian Church a separate Eastern Catholic Church, or is it rather a semi-independent constituent part of, for example, Ukrainian Greek-Catholic or any other Church?

It is no secret that there is no official decree establishing a list of Churches sui iuris, that is probably why nobody has seen an official papal decision of establishing the Church of Rome. Nonetheless, according to Canon Law, any type of official recognition by the Supreme Authority is sufficient for a Church sui iuris to exist. And the Russian Church has one as a completely separate Eastern Church, for it is to be found among other equal Byzantine Catholic Churches in the respective section of Annuario Pontificio – the official papal annual journal:

Another mention of this Church is present in the materials of the conference held on October 8-9, 2010 at the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (Pontificium Consilium de Legum Textibus) that took place in the hall of St. Pius X.[1] In the appendix, which was published by the official Vatican publishing house Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Chiesa sui iuris Russa is mentioned directly. At the same time, in terms of official liturgical books and ecclesiastical calendar approved by the Holy See, we differ from our brothers and sisters from Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary or any other nation.

As follows from these sources and will be shown later through history, both of its canonical structures (Exarchates) are of the Apostolic See, i.e. subjected directly to Rome, and not to any other bishop, metropolitan or patriarch of any neighbouring Eastern Catholic Church. From its very foundation, it was perceived as a separate Byzantine Catholic Church by both Rome and those hierarchs who acted on behalf of the Pope in matters of its canonical structure.

Who is the Head of the Russian Church?

First, it is Jesus Christ Our Lord. Second, it is the Pope – the visible head of the Catholic Church. It gets rather complicated, however, as far as the canonical structures and hierarchy in Russia. Since December 20, 2004, Bishop Joseph Werth, SJ has been taking care of our Church in Russia. However, he is not our caput et pater –head and father – in the same sense His Beatitude Svyatoslav Shevchuk is to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Above: Bishop Joseph Werth, who has care of the Russian Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite, celebrating Sunday Liturgy at the parish of the Descent of the Holy Spirit in St. Petersburg on November 6, 2022.

Being the ordinary for Catholics of all Churches belonging to the Byzantine tradition, Bishop Joseph with good heart does everything necessary to ensure that our parishes and communities live and develop as they want and try to, but, speaking of canonical status, he is ‘an Ordinary without an Ordinariate.’ Even though our Church can certainly be considered a Church sui juris, there is nevertheless no canonical structure of our Church sui iuris headed by him. Besides, our parishes abroad (those established by Russian Catholic immigrants) are governed by other Latin Ordinaries according to a similar principle, while the historically preserved structures of the Russian Church itself – two exarchates in St. Petersburg and Harbin, China – are currently sede vacante, although they have never been abolished by the Church’s supreme authority, and therefore are still included in the list of Annuario Pontificio.

Russian Catholic Church (of the Byzantine rite) – Snapshots of History

In order to express not only my opinion, but the sensus Ecclesiae, I shall speak about the structure and order of events and personalities adopted in the oldest currently existing Russian rite Catholic Parish – that of the Descent of the Holy Spirit in St. Petersburg. This is practically the same vision that was also presented to the Russian Government during the legal registration of our religious community. I also express my gratitude to the pastor of the parish – Fr. Alexander Burgos – for his help with photos and compilation.

Among the founders of the Russian Catholic tradition of the Byzantine rite, we can considered Grand Duke Vladimir I and his grandmother, Grand Duchess Olga, who brought Christianity to Russia in the Middle Ages. Both of these princes are now revered as saints in Russian Orthodoxy, and the Roman Catholic Church as well, along with Cyril and Methodius, the Catholic Enlighteners of the Slavic nations.

We should note here that at the time of the conversion of Russia, the Catholic Prince St. Vladimir was the prince of “Kievan Rus,” the capital city of the Russian people. Later, due to historical and political changes beyond the scope of this article, this Catholic people of Kievan Rus split between Ukrainian speakers whose centre was Kiev and Russian speakers whose centre was Moscow. Nevertheless the mother city of Slavic Catholicism is Kiev whose father is St. Vladimir.

The period of Greek and Latin unity was not as short as one would often think. When it comes to the Great Schism, there is often an oversimplification as natural as unacceptable, as if in 1054 the entire Eastern Church went into schism after Constantinople. In fact, it was not the case: for example, even in the 12th century, Russian faithful would go on pilgrimage to the relics St. Apostle James in ‘Latin’ Galicia.[2]

When the liturgical commission in Rome was deciding which Russian saints to include and which not to include in our liturgical calendar, there were disputes about the upper limit of unity with Rome that the Russian Church enjoyed after Constantinople separated itself. The minimalists leaned towards the 12th century, while the boldest estimates covered up to two centuries more.[3] Moreover, all of this happened in the fifties and earlier, that is, before the Second Vatican Council, when the attitude towards the boundaries of the Catholic Church was most strict (that being the late post-Tridentine and post-Vatican I period).

Speaking of liturgical commemoration, the Russian Church in general has a diametrically different attitude to the ‘Transition of the Relics of Saint Nicholas from Myra to Bari’ in 1087 compared to that of the Greeks. For the latter, the fact that the Latins took the relics of the saint is a robbery, while the Russians celebrate the salvation of his body from desecration by the Turks.

After the Mongols conquered Russia, the connection with the West became weaker, and the attitude became more hostile after the first fall of Constantinople in 1204. It should be noted, however, that unlike the excommunications of 1054, there was no formalised Russian schism with Rome, only the influence of Greek priests and bishops on the Russian Catholic populace.

The next ‘birthday’ of the Russian Catholic Church was the day of Union concluded at the Council, which took place from 1431 to 1449 in Ferrara and Florence. It was the 6th of July 1439 when the Pope proclaimed unity, and one of the Eastern unionists was Metropolitan Isidore (1385-1463) – de jure of Kiev and de facto of Moscow.

Unfortunately, for purely political reasons, namely, due to the fact that even before that union, the Moscow prince Vasily II wanted to see his man in the Metropolitan chair for the purpose of political centralisation, the union was used as a pretext for overthrowing Isidore and dooming him to unjust mockery in future Russian historiography. Isidore was forced to leave Moscow for Constantinople and eventually took a significant part in the defence of the city, fighting side by side with the Emperor-led Greek Uniates and Latins alike against the superior forces of the Turks, Orthodox Serbs and their influential anti-Catholic collaborators inside the city walls.[4]

The modern history of the Byzantine Rite Russian Catholic Church begins at the end of the 19th century. It all started as a result of a number of factors:

1) an internal movement towards full communion with the Catholic Church, embedded in the self-consciousness of ancient Russian Christianity, i.e. being ‘autochtone,’ or “indigenous,” not grafted onto the Russian tradition ‘from outside’;
2) the entry of the Western Russian Church into that full communion with Rome at the end of the 16th century (the Brest Union), which allowed the existence of the Russian church tradition in the bosom of the Catholic Church for the first time in the modern era;
3) serious Western influences on theology, religious education and spirituality of the Russian Church;
4) awareness of the inability of the official Russian Church, merged with the state and under its pressure, to give a proper answer to the questions and problems faced by the faithful.

The aspirations of Russian Eastern rite Catholics were based on the theoretical views and ideas of such authors as Fr. Ivan Gagarin, Prince Golitsyn, Princess Volkonskaya and philosopher Vladimir Solovyov.

Read part II: Heralds of a Catholic Russia.


[1]Il Codice Delle Chiese Orientali. La storia. Le legislazioni particolari. Le perspective ecumeniche, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2010.

[2] Рождественская Т.В. Новонайденное древнерусское кириллическое граффити из Франции. Cf:

[3] An explanatory introduction to the reprint edition of the Russian Catholic Church of the Byzantine rite Ecclesiastical calendar (Bely Kamen, St. Petersburg 2022).

[4] Marios Philippides – Walter K. Hanak, Cardinal Isidore, c. 1390–1462 A Late Byzantine Scholar, Warlord, and Prelate (Routledge, 2018).

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