Review: Bringing Back the Saints

While I plan to devote several posts to aspects of Michael Petrowycz’s 2005 thesis, Bringing Back the Saints: The Contribution of the Roman Edition of the Ruthenian Liturgical Books to the Commemoration of Slavic Saints in the Ukrainian Catholic Church (available online for free from the University of Ottawa here), I did want to call attention to this important and fascinating work which serves a dual function as both a history of the (Slavic) Greek-Catholic reclamation of its authentic patrimony and a challenge to the Latin-dominated model of sainthood in the universal Church. As some are no doubt aware, recent decades have seen Greek Catholics of all stripes chipping away centuries-old layers of inorganic Latinizations and Roman-centric impositions in an effort to fulfill one of the central promises of the historic unia, namely the right to be both fully Eastern and fully Catholic. Part of that reclamation process has been to discard petty Western-based fears that drawing eastward in liturgy, spirituality, and theology meant a slide toward schism, though there is some distance to go. What Petrowycz’s thesis shows is that the origins of this project began well before the Second Vatican Council, when the Eastern Slavic churches, in concert with Roman authorities, sought to restore their traditions in full, including recognizing the heroic saints of the ancient Kyivan Church who, for largely political reasons, had been ejected from Greek-Catholic calendars beginning in the early 18th C.

As Petrowycz makes clear, the restoration (or some might say importation) of Slavic saints onto Catholic calendars has a long and contentious history dating back to the early days of the unia following the Union of Brest. Through the influence of mainly Latin bishops and priests, the idea that “post-schism” Slavic saints should be commemorated by Catholics became unconscionable even if several Catholic historians and theologians were willing to press the case that there never existed a “clean break” between East and West (at least as the Slavic lands were concerned) until after the Council of Florence in the 15th C. Moreover, some of the oldest and most revered Slavic saints, including St. Vladimir and Ss. Boris and Gleb, predated any official break in communion between Rome and the Kyivan Church and should therefore be considered a nonissue. Opinions on the matter varied for centuries, though matters came to a head during the reign of Pope St. Pius X when the Russian Greek Catholic Church was established. With Pius X famously instructing the nascent Russian Catholic Church that they were to continue in their ways with neither alteration nor diminution, a precedent of sorts was set for Russian Catholics to continue venerating “their saints,” including many who had lived and died outside of visible communion with the Latin Church. Although this new reality raised the hackles of some Roman clerics, by the reign of Pius XII, a significant number of “post-schism Russian saints” had been approved for veneration by Russian Catholics.

Matters were slightly more complicated for the non-Russian Slavic Greek Catholics. Although St. Andrey Skeptytsky (no, we don’t need to wait for a Vatican canonization) had helped promote a wider veneration of historic Slavic/Kyivan saints than the Greek Catholic Church had seen in centuries, it would not be until after his death that their respective liturgical cults became officially cemented amongst the Eastern Catholic Slavs. The story of how that came to be makes up a sizable portion of Petrowycz’s thesis, and it is one many Catholics would do well to reflect upon. Instead of obsessing over artificial divides and scrambling for a “clean break” with the Orthodox East allegedly “lost the faith,” the praxis of the Greek Catholic churches has reflected a far more nuanced understanding of what tragically occurred centuries ago with an eye to how the rift between East and West might be healed.

While this post is not the place to explore the matter in depth, Petrowycz’s thesis does raise some important questions about the nature of canonization; its ostensible infallibility; and what Latin Catholics might learn from historic Eastern practice concerning the veneration and canonization of saints. Needless to say, the Eastern Orthodox pathway to sainthood is far more organic and “bottoms up” than the contemporary Latin practice, a reality that has the virtue of shutting-down many (though not all) politicized venerations or, at the very least, helping ensure that “fly by night saints” fade into memory as their momentary cults die out. Additionally, Petrowycz helps contextualize what was—historically—at stake with regard to the various controversies over Eastern Slavic saints and the Latin-generated fears that anything “not Roman” was automatically suspect.

There will always be those in the Catholic Church who believe that once 1054 rolled around, the Orthodox East was forever lost to all sorts of diabolical delusions. Poor them. What Petrowycz’s study helps clarify is that such lines of thought were not always present in the Church and that the tumultuous centuries of union since the 16th C. gave rise to a number of nuanced views of the matter, culminating (at least in part) with the mid-20th C. efforts of Eastern and Western Catholic clerics to grant a legitimate roadway for the Eastern Catholic churches to recall, retain, and promote their full dignity.