Saturday, June 22, 2019

Ad Orientem: Is There a Future?

What is the future of the Eastern Churches, Catholic and Orthodox, in the United States? Or is there one at all?

This sore subject has come up frequently in a few recent conversations. Religion on the whole is declining in American life and the irreligious are the largest voting demographic out there. The Eastern Churches abroad, even more so than the Italian and Irish Roman Catholic parishes of old, are uniquely dependent on members of a national bloc to have a base of attendees. One hopes the people are devout, but inevitably a large portion of any [insert country] Catholic/Orthodox parish subconsciously use their parish as a means of association with others who share their identity. Their children know this and see the church as a cultural foible. After they graduate high school, they may never set foot in the church again until their parents' funerals.

I am unaware of any equivalent of CARA in the Eastern Christian world abroad, but anecdotally the Eastern Churches' future shares much in common with that of the Latin Church. In the next generation there will be another round of compression for the physical plants (churches, schools convents), tears will flow, fleeting communities will reminisce for the good old days (which may not have been so good).

However, just as the Latin Church's future will look more to its past and coalesce around stronger, smaller, more orthopractic settings, so I believe Eastern Christianity will persevere in the United States, albeit greatly reduced and in very different looking parishes. Aside from well-moneyed areas with good donor based, the usual ethnic parishes are probably on their way out. Much like in the Latin Church, thriving oriental parishes usually do not look too much like the rest of their larger body. They are often smaller parishes, sometimes less than a hundred souls, but devout souls. The people who attend have little or nothing to do with Eastern Christendom by ancestry and genuinely want to be there. Melkite Catholic parishes have done an excellent job at cultivating this sort of group into their parishes to give them new blood; some OCA churches have succeeded in doing the same. Barring an act of God, these places will not convert Americans into hesychasts, but they do produce enough devotion, vocations, and income to sustain themselves; they will not be primary fixtures in American religion, but they will be there.

The East deserves our respect and affection. Their faithful and priests have served this poor soul for seven years now, taught me proper prayer, and provided true Christian community. Tomorrow I will cast my shadow in the nave of my local Ukrainian temple and observe the Second Sunday after Pentecost. My parish is doing well. Remove the Ukrainians and it would struggle. Increase the proportion of Ukrainians and it might be gone in ten years.

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