The Ecclesiastical Union of Brest

The idea to unite Orthodox and Catholic Churches in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania remained alive even after six failed attempts to do so in the 15th century. The plan surfaced once again in the second half of the 16th century, after the Jesuits settled in Lithuania in 1569. They fought against the Reformation and aimed at bringing the Orthodoxes back to the unity of the Church. Petras Skarga, a Jesuit, wrote a book On the Unity of God’s Church and on the Greek Parting from That Church in 1577. He dedicated the book to Konstanty Wasyl Ostrogski, an influential aristocrat, patron of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania and Poland and the voivode of Kiev. Both Catholics and Orthodoxes saw the Reformation as the rod of fate. After the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church found effective measures aimed at the reorganisation of the internal structure of the Church and at fight against the Reformation. In Lithuania and Poland, though, many representatives of the aristocracy turned their backs to the Orthodox Church and became Protestants. For instance, nobles such as Lew Sapieha and Jan Hieronimowicz Chodkiewicz turned to Calvinism in around 1570–1573 and 1555 respectively.

Catholics and Orthodoxes brought closed by a mutual foe

Ostrogski reveals the reasons behind the spread of reformist ideas within the Orthodox Church: “Such laziness, lethargy and languidness (in belief) has spread among people mostly because the shepherds have ceased preaching the word of God and they have ceased preaching sermons, and then the impoverishment of God and His Church has come, the famine of God’s word has come, and finally people have rejected the Church and their faith.” Hypatius Pociej, the bishop of Vladimir and Brest, speaks of similar issues: “Lowly and ordinary people and artisans who have left their crafts (tar-thread, scissors and an awl) behind and have appropriated the offices of shepherds, interpret the Holy scripture falsely and distort it while using it for their mendacious and pernicious goals.”

The words of both the Orthodox noble and the Orthodox cleric reflect the need to reform the internal structures of the Orthodox Church; both of them also voice the reasons behind the malaise, including the lack of intellectual clergy and the need to expand the network of schools. In the wake of the Council of Trent, the Jesuits embarked on setting up schools and advancing their intellectual potential thus reviving the hopes of returning to the united, or early-day, Christian Church and of defeating the Reformation. Ostrogski discussed the possibility of the ecclesiastical union with the nuncios of the Pope Gregory XIII in Poland and Lithuania, Alberti Bologneti and Antonio Possevino, a Jesuit, in addition to his direct correspondence with the Holy Father. The discussions resulted in the idea of establishing the Orthodox Patriarchate of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth subordinate to the pope. The plan also included inviting Jeremiah II, Patriarch of Constantinople, to the PLC from his Rhodes Island exile by Turk authorities. Jeremiah II rejected the idea, though.

Hopes of the Orthodox hierarchs

Jeremiah II’s trip to the GDL in 1589 turned into a stimulus to start the reforms. He was positive about Rome and the critics of the Reformation and, in turn, enjoyed support by hierarchs of the Orthodox Church and laymen alike. Jeremiah II dismissed several hierarchs who had been ordained in violation of law of the Orthodox Church, including Onesifor Devochka, the metropolitan of Kiev, who was replaced by Mikola Ragoza, the candidate proposed by Ostrogski, while Hypatius Pociej, a one more man backed by Ostrogski, became the bishop of Vladimir and Brest. The protections of the duke reflect his passionate wish to bring about changes in the Orthodox Church through the discussions over the issue of union of the two churches. The Patriarch of Constantinople awarded the stavropigin rights to the Orthodox fraternities in Lvov and Vilnius which found themselves under the direct jurisdiction of the patriarch. They operated next to Orthodox churches and monasteries taking care of preserving the purity of religious doctrines, of supporting schools and hospitals and of helping the needy members of their fraternities. The move sparked discontent among Orthodox bishops, because the fraternities were given power to control and limit their authority. Cyril Terlecki, the bishop of Lutsk-Ostrog, wrote in his letter to Hypatius Pociej: “Jeremiah has already replaced one bishop and has established fraternities that had been and still are persecuting bishops, (…) and if they succeed to depose one of us from our diocese, consider yourself what a contempt that will be! The king gives offices for life and never revokes them, (…) while the patriarch has groundlessly defamed the bishops and has taken dioceses from them; consider yourself what freedom that is!” Cyril Terlecki enunciates the key objective for Orthodox hierarchs:

“And after we devote ourselves to the authority of the Roman pope, we will not only rule our dioceses until our death but we will also sit in the Senate next to Catholic bishops and will be able to reclaim the lands snatched from our Church.”

The social structure was considered at that time something given by God and comprised three estates: clergy, nobles and husbandmen. Orthodox churchmen did not have a proper position within that hierarchy and could not match their Catholic counterparts in terms of power and influence. This is why they strived for authority and strength equal to that of Catholic bishops and to the order of the world created by God. The only way they could achieve that was through a union with the Catholic Church.

More divisions instead of unity

Jeremiah II summoned the Orthodox synod in 1589 in Brest in order to confirm the changes already implemented and to waymark future reforms. Orthodox clergymen started gathering every year. Their discussions covered both internal reforms of the Orthodox Church and the key postulates of the union. The synod published the declaration of union with the Catholic Church in 1590. Duke Ostrogski was an active participant of the synods. He made public his vision of the church union in 1593 which included the transformation of schools in order to eradicate “total ignorance of clergy”; the union should be forged in a way which leaves the Orthodox tradition unchanged; the union must be universal, therefore bishops should enter into negotiations with Eastern patriarchs, tsar in Moscow and voivodes of Moldavia and Wallachia. The bishops acknowledged that this set of conditions was impossible to implement. While rejecting the project, the bishops were in fact against the oppressive influence of secular aristocrats on the Orthodox Church. However, this was how they obtained an irreconcilable enemy, Duke Ostrogski.

The synod approved the project of the union, the Articles of the Union with the Roman Church, in June 1595. The document recognized the decisions of the Union of Florence (1439), affirmed the supremacy of the pope according to the teachings of the Catholic Church and guaranteed the inviolability of liturgical traditions and rites to the Orthodox Church. The project also called for seats in the Senate for Orthodox bishops and abolished the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople on the Metropolis of Kiev. King Sigismund III Vasa had approved the Articles before bishops Cyril Terlecki and Hypatius Pociej set off for Rome at the end of 1595. Following lengthy discussions, Pope Clement VIII approved the document brought by the bishops by his bull Decet Romanum Pontificem issued on 23 February 1596.

Upon the return of Hypatius Pociej and Cyril Terlecki to Lithuania, a synod was summoned in the St Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Brest on 16 October 1596. The synod announced on the 18th of October that the Orthodox Church of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth enters the union with the Catholic Church. The new confession, Catholics of the Greek Rite, was born, although many historical documents have since called them Unites. They adhere to the Rite of the Greek Orthodox Church, but the head of their Church is the Pope in Rome rather that the Patriarch in Constantinople. The Synod of Brest went on in tough circumstances. Those against the union, led by Duke Ostrogski, gathered at the other end of the city, two former proponents of the union among them, the bishop of Lvov Gideon Balaban and the bishop of Peremyshl Michael Kopystenski. The supporters of the union were guarded by troops sent by the Voivode of Trakai Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł the Orphan and the Grand Chancellor of the GDL Lew Sapieha.

The Catholic Church of the Greek Rite became a historic reality. It kept growing over time, but the Orthodox Church has survived too.

Lithuania was to face a yet another conflict between Unites and Orthodoxes in addition to the rivalry between Catholics and Protestants.

Unite bishops never got the seats they craved in the Senate of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Literature: Lietuvos Didžiosios Kunigaikštijos kultūra. Tyrinėjimai ir vaizdai. Vilnius: Aidai, 2001, p. 72–93; Krikščionybės istorija Lietuvoje. Vilnius: Aidai, 2006, p. 126–143, 218–245, 285–293, 333–335.

Remigijus Černius