Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Vocation of Eastern Churches in America

Outside the United States, no one would need to ask if the Eastern Churches have a vocation. Their call, like that of the Latin Church, is to administer the Sacraments and pass on the teachings of the Church to their faithful wherever they are found. The United States, however, has that ignominious distinction of being a "cultural melting pot", wherein everything is thrown into the furnace together and the resulting metal will have a few streaks of its component parts. Eastern Churches in the diaspora face confusion as to where they belong in American Catholicism. Should they "belong"? I posit that they should not "belong" or consider themselves as possessing a "vocation" in any unique sense, that their real vocation and contribution might be to uphold as natural a state of ecclesiastical affairs as possible.

My father was born in 1941, months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and was married in 1962, months before John XXIII called Pius XII's Council. He had no idea that there even were Eastern Catholics until a few years ago. Previously, he had assumed that Episcopalians, if they ever stopped ordaining women, "would be the closest thing to us" and that Eastern Orthodoxy was nothing more than Slavs belching guttural noises as discordantly as possible. His rearing in 1950s Catholicism was as common as can be imagined, which is quite telling. Eastern Catholics, usually Slavs or Italo-Greeks, kept quiet as the exception in a Protestant and Roman Catholic country. They sent their children to Roman Catholic parochial schools. Many, where Eastern parishes were not available, attended Roman parishes and raised their children on Roman Sacraments. As adults some of these children continued to live as Roman Catholics, imagining their parents' lineage to be an old world curio or an embarrassing piece of cultural baggage. Then there were a few now and then who would leave for the Orthodox milieu, either because they met a modern day John Ireland or because they wanted to live out the great historical drama of Byzantium more fully. Then immigration slowed, attendance dropped, people died, and the Eastern parishes were left to think about their place.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the original intent of the Eastern Churches—to reconvert the Orthodox and retain the proper traditions of those peoples—became obscured. The Pope agreed to stop converting the Orthodox in the old world and years of "Uniate" guilt set in until they could aspire to be nothing more than "Orthodox in Communion with Rome." Occasionally this has been true. The Melkite Church was the Church of Antioch, which re-entered communion with Rome until Patriarch Cyril VI Tanas until the Greeks erected their own Antiochian Orthodox Church, effectively splitting the original Petrine See into two equally sized parts. Then came Orientale Lumen, and the Eastern Churches were now to "[encourage] an atmosphere of brotherhood" with the Latin Church (OL 26).

The author of Orientale
Orientale Lumen is not a bad document. Indeed, very little of Robert Taft's writing is bad as long as he steers clear of Latin liturgical commentary. It does, however, take for granted that Eastern Churches are a side piece in the greater Church Catholic without mandating any clear steps towards fixing that. A prior Latin bishop visited my former Melkite pastor and mandated that he force the Roman Catholics at that parish to cease attending and instead go to Roman parishes. The pastor replied that he would with great haste, only if the bishop directed all Byzantine Catholics towards his church. It is an amusing anecdote of something that would have had great effect if done two generations ago. That cannot be done now. What can be done?

The future of Eastern Christianity in America, Catholic or Orthodox, is not in immigration from Eastern Europe or even the Middle East. It is from homegrown Americans looking for a deeper Christian experience. The two strongest factors in favor of the Eastern churches are their liturgies and their parishes. Their liturgy appeals to people looking for reverence, for depth, for a robust tradition unfettered by effete committees, and for those seeking a place where traditionally sung prayers are normal; these people are not necessarily vagrant traditionalists (although there were many in the 1990s) or boutique liturgical fetishists. They are simply people who want strong prayer without attachments. Parishes similarly sell themselves on visitors looking for a community without strings. While every Eastern parish is bound to have a considerable number of people from the old countries or who attend for cultural purposes, the churches are generally friendly to those want to belong to a welcoming parish where one can become intimately acquainted with the other congregants, to have fellowship, and to pray for one another's problems. Smaller churches, regardless of rite, tend to have this appeal, bu not always as strongly as Eastern bodies. One Slavic priest said to myself and a few other 20 and 30-somethings, "You're the future of this church, not the people from Crimea."

Archbishop Tawil
Entering the Byzantine tradition years ago helped me shed political concerns about the Church and to look at her prayers as actual prayers, not talking points about Vatican II. I think a great many other people find similar comfort in Eastern parishes, albeit it for different reasons. The concerns of Eastern Churches in America, at least in the past, will carry less weight going forward. Years ago Archbishop Joseph Tawil, the Eparch of Newton, said "We must have the courage to be ourselves." This remark, aimed inevitably at a de-Latinizing mentality, can be applied more broadly. Eastern Churches must not be self-referential churches ("We are Orthodox in Communion with Rome", "We are Uniates", "We don't do St. Augustine", "Everything Eastern is original and everything Latin is new and dubious"). There is a tendency to gloat and self-aggrandize about one's church among Eastern Christians, but this tendency is certainly on the decline. Summorum gave the disaffected traditionalists a path out of the East and the Western romance with Byzantium ended in the 1990s. Eastern Churches offer a tremendous opportunity for American Catholicism at the local level, especially as church attendance in this country continues to decline and stronger communities outshine those in decay. 

Byzantine Christianity will never be dominant in America, but it can be strong and nourish the spiritual needs of those searching for Christ. This is their vocation, both in America and in the old world, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages....


  1. Excellent write-up! I, myself, started as a traditionalist of the "Latin Mass wherever you can get it, provided it's not from the sedes or anyone whacky" variety. I gravitated towards a Byzantine Church primarily due to an attraction to the Liturgy itself, but the secondary reason was to have a traditional and reverent liturgy without all the political nonsense. Had it not been for them, I might have eventually found the Ordinariates.

    Which brings up another point. I wonder if the Ordinariates can serve as an example to many. Low Mass traditionalists can learn how to recapture the spirit of beautiful sung liturgy (with - shock! - vernacular done right!) while Pauline Massers can be shown the beauty of a traditional and reverent liturgy. I'm sure the Ordinariates have a place in an eventual raising of awareness and nourishing the needs of the faithful.

    1. Greta potential with the Ordinariates, for just the reasons you note; the difficulty is that there are so few communities, and no one really knows about them. So far, growth has been very modest, with a few exceptions. But it is early days yet; it's only been around in North America for a little over three years

  2. A prior Latin bishop visited my former Melkite pastor and mandated that he force the Roman Catholics at that parish to cease attending and instead go to Roman parishes. The pastor replied that he would with great haste, only if the bishop directed all Byzantine Catholics towards his church.

    I would cheerfully have committed some degree of manslaughter to have seen the look on the good bishop's face.

    I have had the great honor of attending a local Melkite parish with regularity over a goodly stretch not long ago, one which happens to have not only well done liturgy but a strong community. In the end I decided that it was not my tradition (which is Latin Rite, something well before 1962 when I can find it), but I am very glad that they have managed to carve out a vibrant niche in Melting Post America. And I look forward to seeing what that niche looks like a couple generations from now. It would be a much poorer Church, and a poorer country, without it.

    Thanks for a thoughtful essay.

  3. I attended a Melkite liturgy just about a month or so ago; I found it overall good, though unfortunately the Pauline Mass's handshake at the Sign of Peace found its way there! I wonder if that's the exception or the norm.

    1. Emphatically, no, it is not the norm. It is only the second time I have ever heard of such nonsense during a Byzantine liturgy (some Greek Orthodox parishes on the west coast do it, too).

    2. From my experience, a Slav from the old country would never shake hands at DL. Now, if there is the sign of peace (as on Forgiveness Sunday) they would fully embrace one another since they don't have the American weirdness concerning physical contact.

      I'm guessing the church you attended was more Americanized?

    3. Yeah, it was a Greek Melkite church in the Inland Empire area of Southern California. I wanted to see an Eastern Catholic liturgy. The language was Greek and Arabic. Unfortunately, as I said, the Pauline Mass ethos found its way there a bit, along with the loose dress. I am myself hate the Little House on the Prairie look; nonetheless, because of the heat, quite a few of them looked as if they were attending a typical Pauline Mass.

    4. Paul,

      Try St. Andrew's in El Segundo! Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful place to worship!

    5. The Russian Catholics? That is a rarity. I have every intention of visiting that parish if I ever visit my California relatives.

    6. Wow, that's a bit too far from my place! But it doesn't matter.

  4. EV,

    You should! I cannot describe how great of a place it is.


    If you ever have some free time on a Sunday, please do come! The Divine Liturgy is celebrated at 10:00 AM on Sundays.