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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Byzantine Rite Keeps Its Latin Ties

As hundreds of Moscow churches joined the Orthodox Christian world last month in celebrating Easter, one congregation stood out from the rest.

It wasn't just that 100 people were worshiping in borrowed space in a cramped primary school classroom in northeasterm Moscow, made stuffy by burning candles and incense. Nor was it that they had to forego the traditional midnight procession around the church for fear of angering neighbors. It was that they prayed for both the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II and the "Roman Pope," John Paul II.

This was Easter at the city's only Byzantine-rite Catholic parish, where the priest is married, the liturgy is virtually identical to that of the Russian Orthodox Church and the orders come from the Vatican.

The existence of such congregations in Russia, and especially that of thousands of Byzantine-rite parishes in Western Ukraine, is a source of acute tension between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches. The activities of the Byzantine-rite Catholic Church is a leading reason given by the patriarch in rejecting repeated Vatican overtures for a historic meeting with the pope.

What all this means for the Byzantine-rite congregation of Father Andrei Udavenko, who has about 50 regular parishioners, is that he gets paltry support from the politically sensitive Vatican and is often viewed by Orthodox believers as a trickster offering an Orthodox liturgy for Catholic worship. Udavenko realizes full well how much more appealing in Russia the Byzantine-rite church is to the more conventional Latin-rite.

"There is tremendous potential here," Udavenko, 36, a bearded, bear-like man, said in an interview. "It all depends on the pope and what he wants. Right now, he wants a dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate more than anything else."

Udavenko, a Russian citizen whose bishop sits in Lviv, Ukraine, said he is technically in Moscow "on a business trip" -- one that has lasted six years. This longstanding temporary status, said Udavenko, is indicative of a Vatican policy that has sacrificed believers' spiritual needs for better relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.

"There is a duplicity to their policy. They recognize our parish but they don't support us," Udavenko said. "I need a church [building]. But, of course, it is not going to happen because it would get in the way of politics."

Father Michael Kwiatkowski, chancellor of the patriarchal curia of the Ukrainian Byzantine-rite CatholicChurch under which Udavenko works, acknowledged the disparity in resources devoted to Russia's estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people of Byzantine-rite Catholic background (three priests) and those devoted to the nation's 400,000 residents of Latin-rite Catholic background (more than 170 priests).

"In Russia it is a very difficult situation for them," Kwiatkowski said in a telephone interview from Lviv. "Unfortunately, sometimes people feel that the best response is no response at all."

Kwiatkowski said his office is frequently approached with requests for the pastoral care of ethnic Ukrainians in Russia.

"There are a large number of communities in Siberia," he said. "They send letters or delegations here, asking for a priest. One just came in recently asking for somebody to come for Easter."

In Moscow, a senior Catholic official who is familiar with the situation and asked not to be identified, defended Vatican policy, saying the Byzantine-rite priests working in Russia must first themselves work to build up the number of parishioners and then the Vatican will devote more resources. The official also criticized Udavenko for not registering his congregation with the Russian government under a new law on religion.

"How can the Vatican help an underground church?" the official asked. "It is against the law and against the opinion of the Moscow Patriarchate."

For his part, Udavenko said his parish has chosen not to register (which is possible under the law), because it had no need for the legal rights given to registered groups to have employees, bank accounts or lease space.

A specialist on the Catholic Church at the Moscow Patriarchate's department of external church relations, Vladimir Kuchumov, said the fact that the Vatican has not put in place an administrative structure for Byzantine-rite Catholics in Russia made the presence of priests such as Udavenko more palatable. Still, he criticized "missionaries in Siberia and Kazakhstan operating under the cover of Ukrainian social and cultural organizations."

Needless to say, most parishioners in Udavenko's congregation are not steeped in the intricacies of the churches' diplomacy, jurisdictions and squabbles. The majority seem to have been drawn to the congregation by Udavenko himself, who formally left the Russian Orthodox Church as a priest in 1992, citing the Catholic Church's greater independence from the Russian government.

Catholics who worship like Orthodox can be a confusing phenomenon in Russia, where there remains a good deal of ignorance about religion generally following decades of state-sponsored atheism. "In some ways it creates a double burden," said schoolteacher Oleg, 33, one of Udavenko's parishioners. "First, we must explain that we are Christians and then we must explain that we are Catholics. This takes a good deal of effort."