Union of Brest
Famous in the history of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church of Russia for the union of the Ruthenians with Catholicism
Union of Brest. —Brest, in Russian, Brest-Litovski; in Polish Brzesc; in the old chronicles, called Brestii, or Brestov; a city in Lithuania, with some 50,000 inhabitants, famous in the history of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church of Russia for the union of the Ruthenians with Catholicism. After the annexation of Red Ruthenia, or the Ukraine, to Poland, in 1569, the Ruthenians, who had become politically subject to Poland, began to compare the lamentable condition of their Church with the development and vitality of Catholicism and to turn their eyes towards Rome. The Ruthenian clergy were steeped in immorality and ignorance; the bishops made no scruple of setting their flocks an evil example, living in open concubinage, and practising the most brazen simony. Russian documents of the sixteenth century bear witness to this melancholy decay of the Orthodox Church in the Polish provinces and to the impossibility of applying any remedy. Face to face with this spiritual ruin, the Catholic Church, reinvigorated by the accession of Jesuit missionaries, was showing her immense religious and moral superiority. Some loyal and honorable members of the Orthodox clergy and laity gradually became convinced that only a return to the Roman obedience could secure for their Church anything like sound conditions.
The Jesuits, who had been established at Vilna in 1569, at Yaroslaff in 1574, and successively at Polotsk, Grodno, and other cities of Southern Russia, soon set about to conciliate the friends of union among the Orthodox and to second their efforts. They began publishing works of religious controversy, emphasizing the spiritual, moral, and political advantages which must accrue to the so-called Orthodox Church from union with Rome. Eminent in this labor of preparing opinion for return to the Roman Church were Father Peter Skarga (1536-1612), one of the greatest apostles, and a literary and political genius, of Poland, and Father Benedict Herbest (1531-93). The former published, at Vilna, in 1577, his famous work on “The Unity of God‘s Church under One Only Pastor” (O jednosci kosciola bozego pod jednym pasterzem), and it filled the Orthodox with confusion; they burned numerous copies of it, so that a new edition had to be published in 1590. Father Herbest then published, also in Polish, his “Exposition of the Faith of the Roman Church, and History of the Greek Servitude” (Cracow, 1856). These two works helped greatly to dispel the doubts of the Orthodox friends of union and bring them still nearer to Rome; a result that was greatly furthered by the writings and labors of Antonius Possevinus. However, the Orthodox remained still undecided. Jeremias II, Patriarch of Constantinople, visited Moscow in 1588 and in 1599 arrived at Vilna, where he convoked a synod to find remedies for the most serious evils of the Ruthenian Church. Received by Sigismund III, King of Poland (1587-1632), with honor and costly gifts, he consecrated Michael Rahosa, Metropolitan of Kieff and Halicz (1588-99). Finding that some of the Orthodox Ruthenians did not conceal their desire for reconciliation with Rome, Jeremias II, to bind them more closely to his own authority and the Orthodox Church, by a decree of August 6, 1589, appointed Cyril Terlecki, Bishop of Lutzk, his exarch for the metropolitan jurisdiction of Kieff. The patriarch also imposed a precept that a synod of bishops must be held every year to remedy the disorders of the Ruthenian Church.
In 1590 the metropolitan, Rahosa, convoked a synod at Brest for June 24. A few days before the Ruthenian bishops assembled, Terlecki had a conference at Bels with the Bishops of Lemberg (Balaban), Pinsk (Pelezycki), and Chelm (Zbiruiski), and they jointly drew up a document undertaking to “submit their will and their intelligence to the Pope of Rome“, and begging that their rites and their ecclesiastical privileges should be preserved. This document was presented to the Synod of Brest, at which the metropolitan and the Bishop of Vladimir assisted; it was accepted and approved, but kept secret, for reasons of prudence. Terlecki was charged to present it to Sigismund III and obtain the royal sanction for it, but a year and more passed before he fulfilled his charge. Sigismund III, having at last received the document, replied to it on March 18, 1592, expressing his joy at the decision of the Ruthenian episcopate, promising them his assistance against possible persecutions by the Orthodox, and assuring them that the national rite should be respected and safeguarded. Nevertheless, the proposal of union, though warmly approved by Terlecki, did not attain realization. Terlecki was soon supported by Adam Pociej, who was consecrated Bishop of Vladimir in 1593, in succession to Meletius Chrebtowicz, deceased. Pociej was a sincerely convinced advocate of the union, though he well understood the obstacles to its accomplishment. Another synod of Ruthenian bishops met at Brest on June 24, 1593, but avoided the question of union, and confined itself to depriving Gideon Balaban of the administration of his diocese. Balaban refused to recognize the privilege granted to the Orthodox patriarchal community of Lemberg by Jeremias II.
On June 24, 1594, the Ruthenian bishops again assembled at Brest, but their meeting had no synodal character, as Sigismund III was in Sweden, and no synod could be held in the absence of the sovereign. A few days later, Bishops Terlecki, Balaban, Zbirujski, and Kopystenski met at Sokal and reaffirmed their adhesion to the act of union drawn up at Bela and approved at Brest, in 1590. Terlecki had full powers to treat of the union with the Court of Poland and the Holy See. They composed a “Decree on receiving back and entering into the communion of the Holy Roman Church” (Decretum de recipienda et suscipienda communione sanctee Romance Ecclesi), in which, after deploring the evils resulting from the schism, they begged to submit themselves to the jurisdiction of the visible pastor of God‘s Church, on condition that the sacred rites and liturgical customs of the Eastern Church were preserved, saving such points as might be judged contrary to the union and prejudicial to the unity of faith. Terlecki began to solicit the adhesion of the Ruthenian bishops to this document, which was dated December 2, 1594. It was subscribed by the metropolitan, Rahosa, Pociej, Terlecki, Zbirujski, Pelezyski, Gregory of Polotsk, and Jonas Hohol of Pinsk.
On June 12, 1595, Rahosa, the metropolitan, and the Bishops of Vladimir, Lutzk, and Pinsk met at Brest and drew up two petitions, one to Clement VIII and the other to Sigismund III. The former protested that they desired to renew the union concluded at the Council of Florence, saving always the Eastern customs and rites; in the latter the same desires were expressed, and it was added that the Ruthenian Church adopted the Gregorian Calendar. Pociej and Terlecki betook themselves to Cracow to confer with the king’s delegates and the Apostolic nuncio as to the basis and conditions of the union. These conditions were accepted. On August 2, 1595, Sigismund III declared that the Ruthenian clergy enjoyed the same privileges and rights as the Latin, that they were free of the excommunications and censures inflicted by the Patriarch of Constantinople, that Ruthenian sees should be entrusted only to Ruthenian prelates, that the Ruthenian Church should retain the free possession of its property, that Ruthenian churches and monasteries could not be latinized, and that the Eastern prelates were thence-forward to have no jurisdiction over the Ruthenian clergy. The Apostolic nuncio agreed to the concession of these privileges, and Sigismund III required that delegates of the Ruthenian episcopate should go to Rome for the definitive sanction of the act of union. But its conclusion was already known, and the Bishops of Lutzk, Chelm, Przemysl, and Lemberg announced it to their flocks in pastoral letters dated August 27. Unfortunately, the metropolitan, Rahosa, did not act loyally: after signing the decree of union, he endeavored secretly to hinder its execution, and instigated Constantine, Prince of Ostrog, to assemble the Ruthenian bishops and dissuade them from submitting to the Holy See. But Rahosa’s intrigues were to no purpose, and, on November 25, 1595, Pociej and Terlecki arrived at Rome with the decree of union of December 2, 1594.
The arrival of the Ruthenian bishops overwhelmed Clement VIII and the Roman Court with joy. The delegates were received with great honor; the pope and the cardinals discussed the conditions of reunion proposed by the Ruthenian episcopate, and ungrudgingly conceded that the integrity of the Ruthenian Rite should be maintained; it was also agreed that the “Filioque” should not be inserted in the Nicene Creed, although the Ruthenian clergy professed and taught the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son. The bishops asked to be dispensed from the obligation of introducing the Gregorian Calendar, so as to avoid popular discontent and dissensions, and insisted that the king should grant them, as of right, the dignity of senators. To all these requests Clement VIII acceded.
All obstacles having been removed, the union of the Ruthenians with the Roman Church was solemnly and publicly proclaimed in the Hall of Constantine in the Vatican. Canon Wollowicz, of Vilna, read in Ruthenian and Latin the letter of the Ruthenian episcopate to the pope, dated June 12, 1595. Cardinal Silvio Antoniani thanked the Ruthenian episcopate in the name of the pope, and expressed his joy at the happy event. Then Pociej, in his own name and that of the Ruthenian episcopate, read in Latin the formula of abjuration of the Greek Schism, Terlecki read it in Ruthenian, and they affixed their signatures. Clement VIII then addressed to them an allocution, expressing his joy and promising the Ruthenians his support. A medal was struck to commemorate the event, with the inscription: “Ruthenis receptis”. On the same day the Bull “Magnus Dominus et laudabilis” was published, announcing to the Catholic world the return of the Ruthenians to the unity of the Roman Church. The Bull recites the events which led to the union, the arrival of Pociej and Terlecki at Rome, their abjuration, and the concession to the Ruthenians that they should retain their own rite, saving such customs as were opposed to the purity of Catholic doctrine and incompatible with the communion of the Roman Church. On February 7, 1596, Clement VIII addressed to the Ruthenian episcopate the Brief “Benedictus sit Pastor ille bonus”, enjoining the convocation of a synod in which the Ruthenian bishops were to recite the profession of the Catholic Faith. Various letters were also sent to the Polish king, princes, and magnates exhorting them to receive the Ruthenians under their protection. Another Bull, “Decet romanum pontificem”, dated February 23, 1596, defined the rights of the Ruthenian episcopate and their relations in subjection to the Holy See.
About the beginning of February, 1596, Terlecki and Pociej returned to their own country, arriving at Lutzk in March and celebrating a solemn “Te Deum” for the success of their mission. But the enemies of the union, their religious fanaticism aroused, redoubled their activity. At the Diet of Warsaw, which opened in May, 1596, the Ruthenian deputies, led by the Prince of Ostrog, protested against the bishops who had signed the decree of union and declared that they would not accept it. The Orthodox communities of Vilna and Lemberg stirred up the people against the unionist bishops. To cut this religious agitation short, Sigismund III ordered the Ruthenian episcopate to be convoked in a synod at Brest, October 8, 1596, and the union to be solemnly proclaimed. About October 6 the metropolitan, Rahosa, the Ruthenian Bishops of Vladimir, Lutzk, Polotsk, Pinsk, Chelm, the Latin Bishops of Lemberg, Lutzk, Chelm, Father Skarga, and other prelates met at Brest. The Orthodox had sent many of their lay representatives, various archimandrites, Nicephorus, the protosyncellus of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and Cyril Lucaris, representing the Patriarch of Alexandria. The Orthodox, under the Prince of Ostrog, petitioned for the deposition of the bishops who had withdrawn from the obedience of the Patriarch of Constantinople, for the maintenance of the Old Calendar, and for the abrogation of the act of union. They moreover held a conciliabulum to concert measures of opposition. In vain did the king’s commissioners labor to allay their hostility and induce them to accept the union; they would not yield, and they refused to recognize Rahosa as their metropolitan.
All attempts failing to win over this opposition to the union, the Ruthenian bishops, on October 9, wearing their pontifical vestments, went in procession to the Church of St. Nicholas and celebrated the Liturgy, at the conclusion of which Hermogenes, Archbishop of Polotsk, mounted the pulpit and read the declaration of the Ruthenian episcopate accepting the union with Rome. When this had been read, the Latin and Ruthenian bishops embraced each other and then repaired to the Latin Church of the Most Blessed Virgin to sing the “Te Deum” again. Next day another solemn ceremony was celebrated in the Church of St. Nicholas, and Father Skarga preached on the unity of God‘s Church. Bishops Gideon Balaban, of Lemberg, and Michael Kopystenski, of Przemysl, having declared themselves opposed to the union, were deposed and excommunicated. Their dioceses remained in schism until 1720. The enemies of the union published, on October 9, a protest against the Ruthenian episcopate. The Prince of Ostrog became the soul of the opposition, and the struggle was maintained, particularly in the field of theology. But Sigismund III efficaciously undertook the defense of the union; in an edict of December 5, 1596, he ordered the Ruthenians to recognize as bishops only those who had accepted the act of union.
Thus came to pass one of the most auspicious events in the history of Catholicism among the Slavic peoples. The Union of Brest would have produced most abundant fruit, and would have contributed greatly to the triumph of Catholicism in Russia if the statesmen and the Latin clergy of Poland had realized its political and religious utility, and had used all their efforts to favor it, and if, after the partition of Poland, Russia had not destroyed it in the conquered provinces by methods of the most brutal violence.