In February 2022, as the Russian military crossed into Ukraine and marched toward Kyiv, Ukrainians and foreigners alike spilled into L’viv, a city thought to be safer because of its proximity to the Polish border. More than six months later, L’viv has become more than a temporary refuge—it has become a center for humanitarian aid, a cultural capital, and a safe haven for thousands of displaced people. As the world has turned its attention to L’viv, observers have recalled the city’s past as the diverse Austro-Hungarian city of Lemberg. An urban center in the borderlands of the Habsburg Empire, Lemberg produced political activists, artists, and writers who wrote in Ukrainian, Polish, German, and Yiddish. These figures were critical to the creation of a transnational European culture.
Still overlooked, however, is the city’s role as a Ukrainian spiritual center: under the Habsburgs L’viv became the seat of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. While most Ukrainians today identify as Orthodox (80 percent), a sizable minority are Greek Catholics belonging to this Eastern-rite Catholic Church. These nearly four million Greek Catholics, about 9 percent of Ukraine’s population, are concentrated in L’viv and its surrounding area. Indeed, most of the historic churches in L’viv’s downtown are Catholic.
The Catholic presence in L’viv is not simply a historical curiosity. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has played an outsized role not just in the local culture, but in the creation of the Ukrainian nation. Historically, it has been in the moments when the fate of Ukraine hung in the balance that the Greek Catholic Church made its largest impacts. As L’viv takes on new importance in the Ukrainian war effort, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has again become more visible, not only locally but throughout the region. What can history tell us about how this current war will influence this overlooked religious community? Will the Church yet again be in a position to shape Ukrainian history?
Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church is a product of the shifting borders that have characterized so much of Eastern Europe’s history. When an alliance of principalities coalesced to form the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569, its leadership had to figure out how to absorb Orthodox Slavs from the territories of what is now Ukraine into their Catholic realm. The nobility and the clergy settled on a church union in 1596, which would allow locals to continue to practice the Eastern-rite customs of Orthodox Christianity while accepting the spiritual authority of the pope, creating what was known then as the Ruthenian Uniate Church and is known today as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Although the institution was founded in 1596, this Church traces its Christianity to Grand Prince Volodymyr (Vladimir in Russian) who adopted Byzantine Christianity for his kingdom in medieval Kyiv in 988. In this way, Greek Catholics see their spiritual heritage as emanating from the same source as the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches.
When the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth weakened in the late eighteenth century, its territories were partitioned and Greek Catholics found themselves divided between two empires with radically different approaches to this Church: the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Imperial Russia saw the Greek Catholic Church as an imposition of Catholicism on a population that it deemed part of the Orthodox world. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the imperial Russian state banned the Church and forcibly transferred clergy, believers, and properties from the Greek Catholic Church to the Russian Orthodox Church. All the while, they called this process a “reunification,” claiming they were “reunifying” Greek Catholics with their Orthodox brethren as their lands and sacred spaces were annexed by Russia. Tellingly, Putin and his allies use similar rhetoric of “reunification” to justify Russia’s current war in Ukraine.
The treatment of the Church by Catholic Austria-Hungary was quite the opposite. As Catholics, the Habsburgs poured resources into the Greek Catholic Church to place it on more even footing with the Roman Catholic Church. This included state funding for seminaries, programs to allow Greek Catholic clergy to study in Rome, and money to build opulent cathedrals in the styles of the day. In 1817, the support of the Habsburg emperor allowed the Vatican to establish a metropolitan in Lemberg for the Greek Catholic Church. For the Habsburgs, this move was also meant to fight Russian influence. A well-funded and state-supported Greek Catholic Church, it was thought, would insulate the population from Russian state-funded Orthodox missions in the borderland city.