Testimony to the Primacy of the Pope
by a 17th c. Russian Orthodox Prelate


The ecumenical review ISTINA published by the French Dominicans has published (in its January - March 1990 issue) a remarkable proposal for the union of the separated Ruthenian (Ukrainian) Church with Rome that was made by the famous Metropolitan of Kiev, Peter Mohila (1596-1647). Mohila, as the dissident Ruthenian Metropolitan of Kiev, had made that city an intellectual center of the Eastern Orthodox world with his establishment of the famous Kiev Academy based on a Latin-Polish (and Jesuit) scholastic model. The historian Ihor Sevcenko has commented appropriately on:

"How Eastern and Western Christianity, the Latin, Greek, Slavonic, Ruthenian and Polish literary traditions; and Roumanian, Ukrainian, and Polish Cultures all met in the person of the great Metropolitan and in the Kiev of his time." (See "The Many Worlds of Peter Mohila" [Harvard University: the Millennium Series, 1985].)
Mohila had been described in 1629 by the Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Joseph Rutsky:
"Mohila can serve the cause of union not only in Kiev-Rus but also in Moldavia and Wallachia; he gives the impression of being favorable to the Catholic Faith. He is educated, reads Latin and understands the Fathers."

In 1640 Mohila authored or co-authored an "Orthodox Confession of Faith" which would become regarded by many as a faithful expression of the faith of the Eastern Orthodox churches, though some Orthodox would soon dismiss it as the work of a "disguised Polish Jesuit" and a manifestation of "crypto-Romanism" (despite its deviations from various Catholic doctrines - especially in the Confession's "corrected" version at the hands of the Greek theologian Meletios Syriagos).

The original manuscript detailing Mohila's 1645 project for the union of all Byzantine-rite Ruthenians (those united with Rome since the Council of Brest in 1596; and those opposed to the union and offended by the Latinizing efforts of the Polish hierarchy) was written in Latin and entitled "Project of a Polish nobleman of the Greek religion." It was kept in the archives of the Roman Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith and published for the first time in a work by Ed. Smurlo (1928) and again by A.G. Welkyi in 1964. A French translation of Peter Mohila's remarkable proposal is now provided by B. Dupuy in ISTINA (Jan-March 1990). It should be noted that the term "Ruthenian" refers to the Byzantine-rite Western Ukranian and Byelo-Russian (White Russian) populations living in the former Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom and who would be today's Ukrainian Catholic and Ukranian Orthodox peoples. In the 16th and 17th century there were fierce conflicts and religious polemics involving Latin and Byzantine rite Catholics, Lutheran and Calvinist Protestants, and Ukrainian Orthodox zealots under the influence of Moscovy and the dissident Patriarch of Constantinople (this latter under Turkish domination). In 1623 the Ruthenian Catholics saw their holy Archbishop of Polotsk, St. Josaphat Kuntsevych, receive the crown of martyrdom at the hands of the opponents of union. Two decades later the Orthodox Metropolitan of Kiev Peter Mohila was to clearly acknowledge in his 1645 "Project of Union" his own acceptance of the divine Primacy of the Roman Pontiff, while observing that the legitimate rights of the Eastern patriarchates must be respected by the West. This testimony deserves to be better known.

Let us hear Peter Mohila's testimony in his own words:
...The root of all our evils is the divergence which exists between the Greeks and Romans on the subject of the primacy of the Sovereign Pontiff. Emanating from this principle, some erroneous principles have issued, and from them some even more pernicious. It is thus that the Greeks have transmitted their errors to us Ruthenians who follow the rites of the Greeks. But we, who intend to restore religion to its holy principles, ought to set aside all that has been done or which is being done to the benefit of discord, and to return to those sound principles which lie at the source and origin of true religion. Consequently, the source, origin and cause of the discords of old between Greeks and Latins (and today among the different groups of Ruthenians) is deemed to be the recognition of the primacy in the Church; it is to this question (as being at the head of all the others) that we must apply ourselves.

We read in the Council of Florence that, some controversies having been raised by the Greeks because of the addition of the "Filiogue" to the Symbol [the Creed] - the Greeks objecting and the Romans responding - the Greeks concentrated all their energies on the single point of the primacy, without succeeding in extricating themselves. The Latins proceeded with wisdom, demonstrating that there was controversy between the Greeks and Latins only on the primacy [seeing that they had not imposed on the Greeks the insertion of the clause a Filio [from the Son] in the Symbol [the Creed], and that this clause [being admitted on the theological plane], the Romans requested only its avowal and not its addition to the Creed. There, was no further contestation concerning the Eucharist: the Latins admitted that the Byzantine liturgy was holy as based upon the institution of the Apostles and the Holy Spirit in the ecumenical Councils. They insisted on only one point: the acknowledgment by the Greeks of the primacy which had always been the endowment of the successors of the Prince of the Apostles; and they concluded tacitly that if agreement were lacking on that, all efforts at union would remain without effect; if it were approved, everything was intact. It is this same manner of proceeding that must be followed in this holy enterprise. We must follow it; it is the surest way. It is advisable to proceed thusly, and still more now than at that time when discussions took place between Latins and Greeks. At Florence. indeed, many sharp arguments took place, and the discussants appeared far from reaching agreement on the Eucharist as well as on the procession of the Holy Spirit, on purgatory and on the particular judgment, etc.... Contrariwise, today, our Ruthenians who are well instructed, have the conviction that anyone who denied the adoration due the Holy Sacrament (either in the Roman Church or in theirs) or who would not acknowledge the invocation of the saints and their glory, the particular judgment, prayers and suffrages for the dead and, consequently, purgatory would be a heretic and not a Ruthenian. As regards the procession of the Holy Spirit, the question is not within the capacity of all and is not grasped by the simple; it has encountered a certain number of intransigent foes, but the instructed perceive its truth well and have an exact understanding of it.

There alone remains as matter for reflection the key point, i.e., the question of the primacy. That is why a Synod being convoked by the grace of God and all these questions being brought together again for it and proposed for discussion. It would be necessary to declare, first of all, that the ancient Greek Church had always piously professed the aforesaid points of doctrine and that she professes them in exact fashion today in her daily prayers, her hymns, and in adherence to the principles laid down by the holy Fathers of the Church.

Today, the Ruthenians are divided among themselves on the primacy of the Roman Pontiff (like the Greeks and Latins of old), and it is on that subject that uniformity, consensus and concord are desired. But in order that such accord be realized, it is necessary that either of the two parties would surrender to the other or that a new compromise solution be suggested by the Holy Spirit. It seems impossible now that one of the two parties would surrender to the other, for they have both engaged in extreme positions based on extreme arguments. The Ruthenians united to Rome would wish to suppress the diocesan synodal structures which limit the power of the bishops and the way they administer their dioceses - and this at a time when barbarous Moscovite Russia is eager to free itself from the Patriarch of Constantinople. But the recognition of the primacy should not lead to an abrogation of what has already been decided by the Councils. Contrariwise, the non-united Ruthenians would set aside the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, wishing to depend only on the Patriarch of Constantinople. But then the schism will develop even more rapidly among the Ruthenians than with the Greeks. It is necessary, then, to seek a middle-of-the-road solution and to reject these two extreme positions.

The appropriate solution would be the following: Let all recognize the primacy. The Apostolic See ought to content itself with this without changing or abandoning any of its principles and basic rights. It is real union and not mere change that we must seek. Now, the constitution and nature of union is to unite two realities and to safeguard each natural integrity. That which existed previously should exist today; that which did not exist previously ought to be suppressed. That which has always existed is the Sovereign Pontiff regarded as the first and supreme pastor in the Church of Christ, as the Vicar of Christ, the Chief. May that be conserved today! But we have never read that a Latin has ever exercised a direct jurisdiction over the Greek rite. The Greeks have always acknowledged the primacy, but they themselves have always been under the jurisdiction of a patriarch of their own rite.

... We confess openly, in virtue of the principles and basic foundations of the Church of God that our own (Byzantine) rite distinguishes us from the Roman, but that we have communion in one and the same faith. We are not able to deny that the Blessed Apostle Peter has been, as we profess in the hymns of our Church, the Prince of the Apostles and that his successors, the Roman Pontiffs, hold in perpetuity the supreme authority in the Church of God.

Consequently, without distancing ourselves from our father, the patriarch [of Constantinople], from whom we Ruthenians have received initiation into holy baptism, and without delaying the union of the Church (in which is given true salvation), everyone of us - clerics and laity - (in order to escape the dangers of dissensions) has accepted the following solution in the name of Our Lord: to live in unity under one head and one only pastor, the Vicar of Christ, as the Symbol of Faith [the Creed] prescribes for us; to profess one only Catholic and apostolic Church and in her, one only sovereign successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff; and to remain faithful to the rites of our holy Greek religion conserved in their integrity from the beginning and until the most clement God (by His power from on high) will render liberty to the Greek people (from the Turks) and to our pastor, the Patriarch (of Constantinople) who will conduct us to that salutary concord which we implore with a holy ardor, especially in the Divine Liturgy. (translation by J. L.)

It is remarkable that Mohila's comments on the necessary pre-conditions for Church union, namely: the need to respect the liturgical heritage of the Eastern churches; lessening Roman centralization over the Eastern rites; and restoring the historical canonical prerogatives of the patriarchs - anticipate by 3 centuries the wise counsels set forth in Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism, 14-18:

"From the earliest times the churches of the East followed their own disciplines, sanctioned by the holy Fathers, by Synods, and even by Ecumenical Councils. Far from being an obstacle to the Church's Unity, such diversity of customs and observances only adds to her beauty and contributes greatly to carrying out her mission.... To remove all shadow of doubt, then, this holy Synod solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, while keeping in mind the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to their own disciplines, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful and better adapted to foster the good of souls. The perfect observance of this traditional principle - which indeed has not always been observed - is a prerequisite for any restoration of union."

With the collapse of Eastern Bloc Communism, a new opportunity has presented itself for re-establishing "full ecclesial union" between Ukrainian Catholics and Ukrainian Orthodox. With an even wider perspective Pope John Paul II has declared:

"In our own time the theological dialogue taking place between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches as a body is directed towards that goal with a new method and with a different form and outlook, in accordance with the teachings and directives of the Second Vatican Council" (Letter to the Bishops of Europe, June 11, 1991).

The heritage of past religious conflicts and polemics has been the repeated allegation by various Eastern Orthodox and Protestant writers that the Catholic doctrine of Papal Primacy is irreconcilable with the history of the early Church and with the conciliar conception of Church authority cherished in the East. Peter Mohila's 17th century proposal for the union of the Churches thoroughly refutes such a notion. A convinced partisan of union, the learned Metropolitan of Kiev had no difficulty in subscribing to the primacy of the Roman Church in matters of doctrine. For him it was sufficient that the hierarchs of all rites formally acknowledge the Roman primacy in a common profession of faith pronounced in the three languages: Greek, Latin and Slav. Mohila's welcome project for Church union was, in fact, favorably received in Rome. Unfortunately, the famed Metropolitan of Kiev died prematurely less than two years later on January 1, 1647, before he could pursue his grand project for the union of all Ruthenians with the Chair of Peter.

Nevertheless, he left behind him a document constituting a "moral and religious testament" which - in the Providence of God - will herald the long awaited reconciliation with the Apostolic See of Peter not only of the Ukrainian Orthodox but also of the other Othodox Churches in communion with the Patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople.

Originally published in "Social Justice Review" issue of Jan./Feb., 1992
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