The Ukrainian Catholic Church has a complicated history. This is evident even in its very name, which is a combination of several profound, complex, and multi-layered concepts. This name did not appear in an instant, even more so, it was not always as we know it today. The only unchanging term that has ever expressed the identity of this group of people is the word “Church.” This community has always felt itself to be a group of Christ’s disciples who, united by the hierarchy, are on the pilgrimage through history breaking and consuming the Bread of the Eucharist and the Word of God, sharing the joys and sorrows of this life. The other words in the name reflect other traits of this community’s identity and appeared at different historical moments until their configuration has become as we know it today.
It seems sometimes that the name of this Church and its changes reflect the very historical path of the Ukrainian people whom God has set at the crossroads of various influences: East and West, South and North. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is a clear example of how the uncertainty of proper to “life at the crossroads” can be creatively directed in a positive direction. This Church sprouted in the souls of people who first identified themselves with the people of Rus’, or simply as Ruthenians (not to be confused with the modern terms “Russia” or “Russian”. The first use of the word Ruteni in reference to the inhabitants of Rus’ was in the Annales Augustiani of 1089. For centuries thereafter Rutheni was used in Latin as the designation of all East Slavs, particularly Ukrainians and Belarusians. In the 16th century the word more clearly began to be associated with the Ukrainian and Belarusians of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as distinct from Muscovites.
The term “Ukrainian” appeared in the name of the UGCC only in the mid-20th century! Before, the name of this Church was Ecclesia Ruthena (unita), i.e., the Ruthenian Church (united). The designation “Ukrainian” in the name of this Church does not limit it only to the Ukrainian people. Among members of the UGCC there are not only Ukrainians but also English, Americans, Irish, and even Chinese. All of these people have discovered not so much the Church’s ethnic dimension as the unique Christian tradition with which the Ukrainian people have enriched the universal Church. This tradition so touched their hearts that, without becoming Ukrainians, they wanted to praise God in the forms (thought in their own languages) shaped in the bosom of this Church. These facts carry an immense worth: what grew within one people has become a universal property. This process testifies both to the maturity of the Church’s tradition itself and to the maturity of the people’s culture as a whole.
The second part of the name – “Greek Catholic” – appeared due to Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria. The other identities of the Church are combined in this phrase. First of all, it adopted the faith embodied in one of the Eastern Christian traditions, thus becoming a successor of the theological, canonical, spiritual, and liturgical heritage of the Church of Constantinople. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church shares the Byzantine tradition with its sister Greek Catholic Churches in other countries, as well as with the Orthodox Churches.
On the other hand, this definition shows that this Church is part of a large Catholic family. This global community – the universal, or simply the Catholic Church – included not only the Christians of the Latin liturgical tradition, that is Roman Catholics, but also many Christians who adhere to Eastern traditions; Alexandrian, Armenian, Byzantine, East Syriac and West Syriac. Among the various Eastern Catholic Churches, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the largest. This Catholic identity, expressed in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, has repeatedly been under assault. This was especially true in the last century, which was a time of both glory and martyrdom for the UGCC. In the Soviet era, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was the largest underground religious community in the world. It was also one of the most active structures opposing the Soviet system, upholding human dignity and the right to religious freedom in the face of totalitarianism.