CATHOLICS living in Western Europe have little awareness of their Eastern brethren within the Catholic Church. Yet there are nearly seven million of these "Catholics of Eastern Rite" scattered throughout the world.
They celebrate Mass (or the Divine Liturgy, as they call it) in a manner quite different from us in the West, and they have always used their respective vernaculars. Their liturgies were not affected by Vatican II. Rather, they influenced the renewal of the Western liturgy promoted by the Council.
The Byelo-Russian GreekCatholic (or Uniate) Church is one of several of these Eastern Rite Churches which now have members in Britain, In the face of massive persecution during the last century and a half, it has survived through the unyielding faith of its people and the zeal of its priests.
It resulted from the Union of Brest-Litovsk in 1596, when the Byelo-Russian Orthodox bishops sought communion with the Holy See. This union was suppressed by the Tsarist Government in 1839, but it revived after the Russian Revolution.
During the period of suppression, many Uniates joined the Latin Rite Catholics rather than abandon the union with Rome and, de facto, the Uniate Church continued to exist.
The post-Revolutionary revival was to be short-lived, as the Soviets took control of Byelo-Russia during the 1920s. They began the systematic persecution of all Christians, which has continued to the present day.
There are now no Uniate Churches functioning and, as far as we know, there are no longer any Uniate priests. They have all been killed or transported to the "Gulag Archipelago."
As regards the Latin Rite. Church sources estimate that in 1967 there were only 67 active parishes. Twenty of their priests were born in the 19th century. So today nearly all of them are either dead or of advanced age. If a parish priest dies, another is not allowed to replace him and priests from other Soviet Republics, such as Lithuania, are not allowed to work in Byelo-Russia. All bishops of the Latin Rite have either been killed or sent to concentration camps.
The Orthodox Church of Byelo-Russia has suffered a similar fate, although it does have an Archbishop at Minsk. Its sole surviving seminary was "liquidated" (to use the official euphemism) seven years ago. Despite what amounts to its complete annihilation in ByeloRussia, the Uniate Church continues to survive in exile.
At the end of the Second World War there were about 20,000 Byelo-Russians in Germany and with the Polish Resettlement Corps in Italy. They eventually settled in Britain, North America and Australia.
A small number of priests were also able to escape from the Soviet Union both during and after the war. In the face of great difficulties, they established a network of missions in these countries.
Their tremendous labours were rewarded when, in 1960, Pope John XXIII appointed Fr Ceslaus Sipovic, the Rector of the Byelo-Russian Mission in London, as Bishop and Apostolic Visitor of ByeloRussians, He thus became the first Byelo-Russian Uniate bishop since the suppression of the union in 1839.
Bishop Sipovic is a Marian Father, and first came to London in 1947 when he set about organising a ByeloRussian Catholic Mission. This now consists of three large suburban villas in Finchley, North London.
One houses the small chapel, another house contains the Byelo-Russian Library and Museum. This has been built up over the years and now attracts Byelo-Russian scholars from all over the world.
The mission also has a small school for boys, which must soon close because of financial difficulties.
As well as the Bishop, the mission has four priests and three lay brothers, one of whom is now studying for the priesthood.
There are about 6,000 ByeloRussians living in Britain today, mainly in London, Bradford, Manchester and Birmingham. About two-thirds are Orthodox and the remaining third are Catholic. Relations between the two Churches arc very cordial, and they co-operate in cultural, welfare and humanitarian activities among their people. The liturgy of the ByeloRussian Church is the ancient Eastern liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Byelo-Russian Church music is distinctive, and many chants and hymns which were once in danger of being lost have now been revived by Church choirs in the countries of exile.
Vatican II was a most important event for the ByeloRussian Church, as for all Eastern Catholic Churches. For the council recognised the equality and dignity of all rites within the Catholic Church, both Eastern and Western.
But although the ByeloRussian Catholic Church is now Firmly established in exile. its true home is still in ByeloRussia, where there are no priests, no churches and the faithful are known only to God.