Friday, September 14, 2012

The "U" Word

Some years ago I taught a course at Milwaukee's Lafarge Institute entitled "Introduction to the Eastern Churches."  It turned out to be a popular course.  And the running joke was that the student needed a "score-card," in order to understand the terminology: Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Chaldeans, Maronites, Byzantine-Catholics, and on and on.
From the perspective of world-wide Christianity, all the Eastern Christians put together are numerically small.  From an historical perspective, small as they may be, they are very significant in that they represent some of the earliest continuously existing Christian communities.  In the Acts of the Apostles it states matter- of-factly that "it was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians."  Today there are no less than 5 ancient communities who trace their origin to the (once) great city of Antioch.
Early on in the development of the organization of the Church throughout the world it was agreed upon that the bishops of certain major cities of the Empire enjoyed preeminence among the bishops.  These were the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.  Later Constantinople was added immediately after Rome, being as it was, the "New Rome."  This caused a problem because Rome and Alexandria both resented this "intrusion" in the ancient order of things. 
At any rate, situations such as this caused rifts great and small amongst the various Churches.  Theological differences, now considered semantic rather than dogmatic, caused further separations.  The fall of the Empire in the West caused a whole new world-view to evolve there - including a brand-new Roman Empire: that of the formerly barbarian kings.  Remember that in the order of the chief bishops or patriarchs, there came to be five - with only one in the West.
The relationship of the Bishop of Rome to the other Bishops of the other Apostolic Churches was a matter of discussion, opinion, and even doctrine over the centuries.  Constantinople and its Church flourished and spread throughout the Balkans and the lands of the Eastern Slavs (Ukraine, Russia, Belarus) with only occasional contact with "Old Rome."  The Crusades were the occasion of some contacts, which did not endear the Western Christians to their Eastern brethren.  (To be fair, there were events which rarely are mentioned, such as the slaughter of the Latin Christians of Constantinople)
Now, I have admittedly not expressed all of the above in a scholarly way, but it brings me to a point: By the time of Constantinople's fall to the Muslims in the Fifteenth Century, ancient, apostolic, catholic, orthodox Christianity had become very much divided.  The Copts of Egypt, the Ethiopians and the Armenians maintained Communion with each other.  The Antiochenes were divided between the "Melkites," i.e. Byzantines and the Syriacs.  There were Nestorian communities from Baghdad to China.  There were ancient communities in India.  And there was Rome and Western Europe.
Over the years there were attempts at reunion.  Notable among these was the Council of Florence (in the 1430's) which actually managed to unite all the Eastern Churches with Rome.  Though the bishops managed to come to tenuous agreements, when they returned home to Greece, Russia, Egypt, etc. the "union" fell apart.  It simply was not accepted.
[Interesting note: there were Eastern Christians in southern Italy who had never been separated from union with Rome.  Also, the Maronite Christians of Lebanon have claimed that their Church also never separated from Communion with Rome.]
A century or so after the failed union of Florence, the popes sought in various ways to reach out to the Eastern Churches hoping for another reunion.  What happened -briefly- is that communities of Eastern Christians entered into union with the Roman Catholic Church.  Primary among these were the Eastern Slavs - called collectively the "Rus" or "Rusyns."  These were Orthodox Christians living in the general area of Ukraine and Belarus.  The union took place in 1595-96.  Most of the bishops, with their Metropolitan Archbishop of Kiev, agreed to articles which would preserve their legitimate, ancient, Byzantine traditions of worship, government, etc. while recognizing the authority of the Pope of Rome.  This "program" was called the Unia - a Polish term which means "union."  The Christians of the Kievan Metropolia were virtually all within the government of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and there's no doubt that political considerations played an important role in the "Unia."  Though related ethnically to the Russians (Muscovites), there had been little contact between the Church of Moscow and that of Kiev.  In fact, the Metropolitans of Kiev were confirmed directly by the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Those who entered into union with Rome came to be called Uniates.  This term has become more and more a pejorative.  Personally, I like the term.  When I was a youngster already interested in Eastern Christianity, it was a pretty standard term.  Plus, it means what it says: United.  But no one else seems to like it.  Instead, the descendants of these original Uniates are called Byzantine Catholics.  Or Greek Catholics - though none of them are Greek.  Those who are not of Byzantine tradition are called Eastern Catholics.  More often they are called by their particular names: Chaldean Catholics, Malabarese Catholics, Coptic Catholics, etc.  Nowadays there is much hyphenation, as in "Ukrainian-Greek-Catholic" or "Melkite-Greek-Catholic."  Not too long ago they were collectively called Eastern Rite Catholics.  This was inadequate because it implied that the Eastern Catholics were "regular" Catholics except that their "rite" or ritual was exotic.
The preferred term in many circles is "Orthodox in union with Rome."  This reflects a newer self-understanding: that we Eastern Catholics are Orthodox Christians (just like the Russian Orthodox and the Serbian Orthodox), except that we have entered into union with Rome.  Eminent Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev would agree with this term.  He converted to Catholicism based on his conclusion that to be fully Orthodox one had to be in union with the Roman Church.   Of course, for most people "Orthodox in union with Rome" is a kind of oxymoron, because the "Orthodox" are those who are not in union with Rome. 
What I find interesting is that, in the Polish language, whence the term "uniate" is derived, the Eastern Catholics were referred to as "unici prawoslawni" which means, simply enough "United Orthodox," or, "Orthodox in Union."
In the long run, it doesn't do much to resolve the need for a "score-card."  And there is little danger of anyone finding a sign that reads "St. Thomas Uniate Church."  It is sad that history has heaped up division after division, false unions, partial unions, forced unions.  Uniates - oops! - I mean Eastern Catholics still are in need of a self-understanding that expresses the reality of their union, challenges any imposed or embraced character of second-class status - and whatever resentments are bound to attach to such a status, renew the beautiful and valuable treasures of their own spiritual and liturgical patrimony, without apologizing for their very existence - either to the West or the East.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Rome and the Nuns

Following a lengthy (3-year) study of communities of women religious in the United States, it has been decided at the Vatican level to appoint a reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, under the immediate charge of Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, due to grave concerns about positions taken by the LCWR over the years.
The Leadership Conference was founded in the mid-1950's and given authority by Rome's Congregation for Religious, now known by the unwieldy title of "Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life."  Its purpose was to provide a forum for superiors of women's religious Orders to meet and share mutual concerns.
The current reform is concerned with evidence that the Leadership Conference has abandoned the Catholic Faith and Church teaching regarding some key issues: radical feminism, abortion, homosexuality, etc.  Response to this call for reform has been varied.  Many have expressed concern that the Vatican is trying to "come down the poor nuns."  Others have expressed relief that such a reform has finally been called for.  I have studied in great detail, the situation of "women religious" in the United States as it has unfolded since the 1960's.  My remarks below are the result of this study and ongoing concern.

First of all, the panoply of women religious in the United States impressed me from a very early age.  In almost every parish there was a convent.  Those living in the convent were committed to the teaching and the authority of the Church.  They lived a dramatic witness of community life, expressed in the living out of the vows, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Most were engaged in the education of children.  I have vivid memories of walking past a local convent and hearing the chant of the prayers.  The monastic or quasi-monastic presence in virtually every parish was palpable.

These Sisters and/or nuns (there is a difference), exhibited a certain variety.  In my immediate neighborhood there were Sisters of St. Joseph, Felician Sisters and Dominican Sisters - all teachers.  Their habits differed remarkably - though they represented the age-old habit of tunic and veil.  Their spirituality and piety were different, due to their particular origins.  Common prayer, daily Mass, contemplation, common meals, and the apostolate formed the framework of their daily life.  They were true sisters - and the head of their house was aptly and lovingly called "mother."  (Nowadays she might be called a co-ordinator!) The Leadership Conference would have reflected this up until the '60's.

The Second Vatican Council called upon these women throughout the world to reexamine their experience of religious life, and when possible, to take steps to return to the aims and spirit of their foundresses.  Regarding the religious habit the only change suggested was modification to avoid unhealthy, cumbersome and exaggerated styles of garb.  Many of the communities of Sisters were founded specifically for the education of youth.  The Felician Sisters, founded in 19th century Poland, were founded to care for the poor and orphaned.  It was in the U.S.A. where immigration had swelled the parochial schools of Polish parishes, that the Sisters of this community became primarily associated with teaching.  (Some were also engaged in nursing - true of many communities of women.)

Their habit was unmistakably Franciscan: tunic, cord, scapular, crucifix, cloak and veil.  Like most communities, their headdress had become exaggerated, in the various contrivances that the veil was attached to.  The Sisters of St. Joseph looked like "lady Jesuits," with the addition of assorted starched pieces and the veil.  The Dominicans were simplest of all, and readily identified as Dominican.

The call for a return to the spirit of the founder was a call to deepen what they were already living.

At some point the LCWR became preoccupied with feminist issues, "liberation" theology, ordination of women to the priesthood, ecology, etc.  It has been demonstrated that the LCWR - while officially "representing" most congregations of women religious - had become an elitist organization of "professional" women.  Like the Vatican they eschew, they became authoritarian and succeeded in imposing their will on an unsuspecting majority of faithful Catholic nuns.

Most who are over the age of 55 will recall that many nuns stopped wearing the habit, stopped living in convents, stopped observing the spirituality and treasures of community life.  Those who read up on these developments might also have been shocked to find the LCWR and certain religious communities proposing ideas that were contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.  This is what I find amazing: that women who vow to live a life as consecrated women in an OFFICIAL way, that is as nuns or religious Sisters, have balked at the requirement that they conform to the very institution that gives them their official position and approves of their way of life and gives them credibility.  It also amazes me that the Church's present call for reform has been  seen as threatening or oppressive, by those in the forefront of "reform."

I know that the good old days were not good in every way.  Reform was needed, particularly in dress and in observance of customs.  In some communities, a Sister who accidentally broke a tea cup might be required to prostrate on the floor in the doorway of the dining room while the other Sisters stepped over her, as a sign of her contrition.  The care and cleaning of the garb in some instances took a full day - and in many instances that garb had become more and more elaborate with each generation.  Some communities required that a Sister get permission of her superior before having a drink of water between meals.  There was little or no collaboration in terms of assignment of chores and duties.  Some of these customs actually made sense, but often had become external forms void of any interior understanding.

When the reforms started in the 60's and 70's there were many explanations that were given.  One was that nuns' habits had been the customary dress of widows at the time of their founding, and could now be discarded.  This is false.  The habit of women religious goes back at least to the 4th century where it was described as a tunic, girdle, and veil.  Some ladies were told that their foundresses had been dynamic, revolutionary women of their times, and that it was now incumbent upon the modern daughters to become equally dynamic and revolutionary.  (Of course the venerable foundresses would not have gained approval for their foundations if they had spoken out contrary to the teaching of the Church, or advocated life-styles contrary to generally accepted norms of convent life.)  Some decided to disobey the reform by abandoning religious garb and instead chose a pin which they contrived as a sign of their consecration.  Some of the popular literature was calling upon Sisters to divorce themselves from the "spirit of the foundress" and come to some new understanding of life based on their "lived experience."

I looked on with sorrow at many instances of wholesale abandonment of religious life.  Later in life I was to discover that many Sisters were sorrowed and bewildered by what the powers-on-high had instituted in place of their customary -and approved- way of life.  Many left the convent because the life to which they had solemnly vowed themselves had not only disappeared, but been held up to ridicule.

The Church has indeed been patient.  When official leaders of a formal group publicly take stands that are clearly antithetical to the Church's teaching, why have they not been removed from their Church-sanctioned offices?  When public societies of vowed consecrated religious life abandon the way of life wholesale, how is it that they retain their official "status?"  Incidentally, when so many women in leadership call for ordination to the priesthood - why has there been no equal clamor for ordination to the diaconate? Hmmmm.

Everyone knows what religious life is like and what a convent is.  Even the popular media depict nuns in traditional garb living the traditional life.  The specter of assembled women, wearing professional, business outfits complete with jewelry and makeup, presiding at bizarre ceremonies that have no relation to common Christian prayer, signing their names (and titles and the initials of their various Orders) to documents and statements and letters that challenge fundamental Christian doctrine, and boldly declare positions that have been condemned is horrible - if it is even relevant.

The LCWR is being called upon by ITS leadership: the Catholic hierarchy, to be true to its calling to promote solid Christian life in the heart of the Church and work together with women vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience.  That this is controversial amazes me.

Monday, May 28, 2012

What's it all about?

In the recent controversy over U.S. government health care policies vs. religious freedom, it seems like the Church's position regarding artificial birth control is front and center - treated both as the essence of the argument and as a red herring distracting from the essence of the argument.
One hears the illogical argument that "most" U.S. Catholics do not subscribe to the Church's doctrine.  Then I ask, "Is it the government's role to interpret religious doctrine according to a poll of the opinions of the 'faithful?'"
The bishops' more lucid argument is that it's not about birth-control.  Rather it is about the Church's right to function in the world, in Her various ministries, in Her own institutions according to the dictates of Her teaching.
My own opinion is that it IS about birth-control after all. 
Until the 1930's all Christian Churches and denominations condemned artificial contraception.  The Anglican Church's Lambeth Conference in 1908 stated that one cannot speak of contraception without "repugnance."  Twenty-two years later the Lambeth Conference approved of artificial contraception. And by 1931, virtually all Protestant groups agreed with this revolutionary opinion.
In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued the famous encyclical "Humanae Vitae." The encyclical reiterated the Church's continuous teaching on the matter, despite expert advice which had suggested that the Church change Her teaching.
The response to Pope Paul's encyclical was swift.  I was still in high school at the time and I recall the confusion.  Some priests were openly telling their parishioners that they could ignore the document.  Others were telling penitents that they could not receive Holy Communion if they did not stop using "the pill."  Society at large cast His Holiness and the hierarchy at large in the role of mediaeval fools.  Some theologians and professors were quite public in their rejection of the document and its teaching.  And many priests told their people to use their conscience as their guide.  (This would be perfectly sound IF the consciences were informed by at least reading Humanae Vitae and studying and seeking sound spiritual direction.  But the prevailing idea seemed to be "if you're okay with it, go ahead.")
Perhaps naive, I recall being stunned by the reaction.  Growing up hitherto, I had often heard the phrase "The Church teaches..." - and that ended any discussion.  The phrase "Sister said..." had the gravity and finality of "Roma locuta est."  In 1968 it no longer seemed to matter what the Church taught.  Indeed, "Sister says..." had lost all currency.  The faithful were being told that we had "grown up" and could now think for ourselves.  We were no longer dumb sheep or lisping children.  This all following an age when we children would not dare go to a movie unless Dad first checked it out with the Church's approval ratings given by the "Legion of Decency."
Sociologically speaking many exciting papers could be written about American Catholicism in the '60's and '70's.  Society had become increasing suspicious of Authority.  Demonstrations against the govenment were a daily occurence.  Soldiers and police officers were routinely spat upon at parades.  Catholics were being sold a bill of goods by countless wolves using the sheep's clothing of "renewal."
Humanae Vitae should have been received by bishops, clergy and faithful with at least an open mind and heart- certainly with respect and eagerness to discover what our "teacher-in-chief had to offer us."  As Catholics, if the document challenged our own opinions or ideas, we would have the obligation to study it and to pray and to try and conform our life according to its precepts.
But society at large would have none of this.
Instead it became a discussion about hormones, chemicals, barriers, and how antedeluvian the Church was in its out-dated attitude. Galileo became the hero of the argument.  And the conscientious couple struggling with this issue found themselves at sea.
The germ of the teaching is that sexual activity belongs in the context of loving and mystical (read "sacramental") commitment, cooperation in God's creation, respect for one's spouse and for the mystery of human life, openness to new life and ongoing spiritual warfare.  Though only 1 out of millions of U.S. Catholics, I recall NONE of this being taught or even recommended from the pulpits of the Diocese of Brooklyn at the time.
It was all about birth control and whether I may and whether I might.  In the same year that Humanae Vitae was published, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara - now president of the world bank, announced that foreign aid would be given with a preference for those countries which promoted contraception.  Admirably, one Latin American president responded that it was insulting to assume that money could buy off the consciences of the faithful in his country.  Though I am not particularly prone to conspiracy theories, Mr. McNamara's proposal does appear to be part of a wider agenda.
Now, separated from a sacramental and deifying theology and a deep understanding of human love and God's eternal wisdom, the ultimate teaching is this: "Sexual activity need no longer be confined to marriage, nor seen as holy and God-cooperating."  The bearing of children is a matter of convenience and economics.  Sex became recreational.  Sex became "liberated."  We witnessed a "sexual revolution."  Adult responsibility dropped by the way-side.  Adultery and fornication, cohabitation, anonymous sex, all became options for the 20th century American.  Marriage need no longer be confined to the complimentarity of "opposite" sexes.  Children were and are being born out of wedlock at alarming rates.  Divorce is endemic. 
The Church has become at odds with society.  And society has become predictably more and more secular and even pagan.  Now the government's health issues are directly opposed to the Church's teaching and the government is trying to insist that the Church conform.  We are being instructed that in the modern world, the Church no longer has to "right" to conform to Her own precepts!  It is reminiscent of the Soviet policy whereby churches could remain open and priests could perform liturgical rites so long as they neither preached the Gospel nor taught Christian doctrine to children.
The Church Herself is handicapped because Her leadership has often relinquished any serious role of teaching and of moral authority.  And it is - after all - about "birth control," because the controversy has separated the average Catholic from the "mind" of the Church.  And many of the aberrant teachings and practices prevalent in society have been embraced by the faithful who have had no one to guide them except the opinions and examples of their favorite sit-coms - or have been taught that guidance and doctrine are obsolescent.
[I am reminded of a cartoon from the '60's which depicted a father and his outlandishly dressed hippy-son.  The caption: "But, Dad, I want to be different like everybody else!"]
Meanwhile, all of the nonconformist anti-establishment activists of the 60's and 70's have been proven most conforming and sheep-like in following the whirwinds of changing opinion and convention.  And it is the minority of faithful Christians seeking lives of sanctification and spiritual nourishment, who live their lives according to the patterns of nature and nature's God, who truly believe and trust in Him, who struggle and seek Him - it is they who are truly revolutionary and not fooled by the false promises of this world.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Culture and Nostalgia

Yesterday I happened to be in a grocery store. I noticed a woman, perhaps in her late forties, with a male companion - perhaps husband? - who appeared to be a decade or so her junior. The woman had numerous piercings and tattoos. Her gentleman companion had a Mohawk hair-do. They both appeared to be under the influence of some substance or another. Lots of giggling, dropping things, etc.

Within an aisle or two I chanced upon a mother and son. Mother was approximately my age (60's). They were arguing. He wanted her to hurry up. She cursed him with the "F" word and told him to leave - she would walk home. The conversation ensued for awhile, with Mom & son each cursing the other, as I meandered out of ear-shot. Most of the customers were Hispanic and there were many small children around.

Later in the afternoon I watched the news on TV. One of the noteworthy items was that apparently voters in North Carolina had affirmed the definition of "marriage" as a union between a man and a woman. There was much controversy and discussion, back and forth. Apparently the President of the United States had come out publicly in favor of the newer definition.
In this morning's newspaper there was a short item about the political leaders of France, their divorces, marriages, concubines, etc. It was quite confusing.
In our contemporary American culture none of the aforementioned characters, behaviors, etc. is particularly noteworthy. Admittedly, my amateur sociological or anthropological observations are judgmental to some degree. The relationship between the pierced, tattooed, intoxicated middle aged woman and her younger companion cannot be known for sure. They could have been aunt and nephew, or simply neighbors. So I have made assumptions. I mention the Hispanic families and the small children, assuming that most are of the Catholic Faith, in traditional, intact families, working class. [These assumptions are based on the particular neighborhood.] At any rate, it saddens me that in a market, during the afternoon hours, one can encounter a drunken couple laughing and cavorting, a grandmotherly type using really filthy language, echoed by her son's retorts, and then check the media and find a debate as to what a marriage is, and read a brief article categorizing the various marriages, adulteries, divorces, and companionships of world leaders.

I grew up in a devout Catholic household in the 1950's and '60's, in a working-class neighborhood in Queens. I am sure that there were alcoholics, including housewives. One did not encounter them in public in a state of intoxication. In fact, any adult appearing in public in an intoxicated state would have been remarkable to say the least. Indeed, sobriety was a matter that concerned more than chemical use. The "F" word was never uttered in public. In fact, I recall occasions when men were ejected from taverns because their language was indecent. I honestly never heard a woman use that particular word until I was well into my twenties. I never heard my mother swear. Adults who did swear would not do so in public and would not tolerate their children using such language. In my immediate neighborhood there wasn't a single divorced person. Every child on my block was born to a married couple. Those who were siblings had the same mommy and daddy. Pornography was unknown and, at any rate, unavailable. Every Dad worked and supported his family. Many Moms also worked outside of the house. Every family I ever knew ate their meals together.

Certainly all the "modern" issues existed back then. But the culture sustained a level of decent behavior. This is no longer the case: Celebrities having children out of wedlock are celebrated. Divorces and multiple marriages are commonplace. Indecent behavior - even in public - is unobjectionable. Tolerance and license have replaced respect. Mind your own business. I'm okay, you're okay. Whatever floats your boat. Live and let live. These are the virtues that govern contemporary American society.
The difference is Faith.
Though most people I knew as a child were active members of a church or synagogue, there were some who did not. But they showed a distinct respect for their neighbors of Faith. Belonging to "the Church" was essential and was a life-long condition. One might "skip" Mass occasionally, but it was a glaring exception. If one happened inadvertently to eat meat on Friday it was cause for embarrassment. Contrary to oft-cited anti-Catholic anecdotes, the Bible was prominently displayed and available for reading. Family prayer was regular, though rote and ritualistic. But the saying of Father Peyton that "the family that prays together stays together" was taken seriously. In our parish church there were six Masses every Sunday, and devotional services every Tuesday and Wednesday night - all well-attended. Modest attire was standard - everywhere.

The same standards existed for our Jewish and other neighbors. The bottom line was that we - and society at large - recognized God. We differed in belief from one another, but respected the worship and observances proper to each group. God was feared, and our relations with one another reflected that reverence. Society recognized that there were obligations and commandments. Sadly, this attitude has yielded to a selfish and subjective and inconsiderate model, based too often on "what seems right to Me." I know that we cannot return. And I admit that things are not necessarily as rosy was we remember them. But we can return to the practice of our Faith, meaning, we can commit to making our Faith the basis and standard of our life, unapologetic, seriously and starting with ourselves.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Great Canon

Tonight (Wednesday of the 5th week of Great Lent) we will be "doing" the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.  I could say "singing," or "praying," or "chanting" the Great Canon - but doing is more apt, since it involves praying not only with the voice and ears and mind and heart, but also with the body.  There are hundreds of short, pithy, moving hymns - each followed by a prostration to the ground.
The hymns are arranged in 9 groups which are called odes, and which correspond to odes from the Old Testament.
The first time I experienced the Great Canon was as a novice at the Stoudion Monastery near Grottaferrata in Italy. I was 19 years of age.  The community consisted of six monks who had fled from Soviet Ukraine, one from Canada, one from England, and me.  I remember that in the course of the service, one of the Fathers began to remain on his knees, making semi-prostrations - rather than getting up to his feet each time.  In my youthful "zeal" I recall both pitying the good monk, and also judging him.  "If he would summon his strength, he'd be able to do the prostrations properly."  The monk in question was missing a kidney and had a deformed hand.  He had survived war, flight, refugee camps and God knows what else and had remained faithful to his monastic calling.  But I - a recent high school graduate, forty years his junior, was happy that I could perform prostrations "superior" to Monk Lavrenti's.
   "Among the Judges was Samuel the great, botn in Ramah and reared in the House of the Lord;   learn from him, O my soul, and judge your own deeds before you judge the deeds of others." (5th Ode of the Great Canon)
   The next time that I can remember the Great Canon would have been a year or two later.  It was at the cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia in the Bronx.  Besides the bishop (Nikon, I believe), there were two monks who lived at the cathedral.  One was tall and thin, with a somber demeanor.  The other was short and stocky, cheerful and very agile and quick.  The singing was "awful" by musical standards.  But that added to the charm and the genuineness of the prayer.  Unlike the Ukrainians in Rome who did their prostrations slowly and with measured devotion, the Russians did theirs with rigor and vigor.  It was reminiscent of squat-thrust exercises in gym class.  They made the sign of the cross, quickly fell forward on hands and knees and jumped up immediately!  Though I was a mere stripling of a youth, I could barely keep up!  And unlike the church of the Stoudion perched near the rim of volcanic Lake Alabano, in silence - the Bronx cathedral stood a block north of the Cross Bronx Expressway, and a block or two away from the Third Avenue El, in a neighborhood of poor Hispanics.  It was pandemonium.  But in the midst of it: what beauty and fervor!
   Some years later the brethren of our Monastery in Steubenville were invited to join the faithful of the Orthodox Church up the hill for the Great Canon.  The pastor was named Father Wojtila, and claimed to be related to His Holiness Pope John Paul II.  Father Wojtila was a dear friend of our brotherhood.  My memories of this occasion are as follows:  After so many prostrations I began to notice little balls of red lint on my habit.  My pious exercises were slowly but surely destroying the carpeting of the little church!  I recall being preoccupied with thoughts as to how I might modify my prostration-style so as to spare the carpet.  Listening to the deep and beautiful prayers, I was distracted.  It turned out that the carpet had only recently been installed and my endless acts of "erosion" did no harm at all.  On the way back to the Monastery, walking down the hill, I remember an awareness of being soaked from persperation, still feeling hot in the chilly night air - and also feeling aches throughout my body.  The next morning I was so stiff I could barely move!
   "O my soul, the waves of my sins have returned and engulfed me as the waters engulfed
   the Egyptians and their charioteers in the Red Sea." (6th Ode)

   Now, many years later, I am looking forward to tonight's prayer.  The hymns themselves provide an excellent annual review of the Old Testament.  They follow the course of the whole of Scripture beginning with Adam's exile from our homeland.  They provide a reminder of all the sin and mercy and repentance of the whole history of the world - all that has been poured forth of the Triune God for the salvation of each human soul.  I know that I will not be able to perform many prostrations.  I could not even keep up with the elder monk Lavrenty of the Stoudion - though I am younger now than he was then.  The arthritis and the knee-replacement preclude any likelihood that I'll be able to imitate the lively vigor of the Russian faithful in a Bronx that no longer exists.  Chances are I will not even break a sweat as I had 35 years ago in Steubenville, OH.  Nevertheless, the need for repentance is clearer now.  There is a spiritual urgency with an awareness of how much must be done, how little I am able to do, and how much reliance must be placed upon His shoulders.
   "O my soul, pass through the flowing waters of time, like the Ark of old, and take possession of
   the Promised Land as God commands you."  (6th Ode)

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Last night some friends and I were discussing beloved Archbishop Timothy Dolan's elevation to the college of cardinals.  His Eminence was Archbishop of Milwaukee for several years and was very much loved and admired here.  During our conversation I wondered out loud whether himself might become the first American Pope.  I quickly added my own political opinion, namely, that the Bishop of Rome should be an Italian.  To my chagrin a friend remarked that after all, Rome is universal - my friend is Eastern Orthodox, and one of the difficulties between the Catholics and the Orthodox is precisely Rome's claim to universal jurisdiction!
In the early Church there were four chief bishops: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.  Rome had the first place, and its bishop did exercise some measure of universal jurisdiction now and then, here and there.
When Constantine moved East, to Byzantium (re-named Constantinople or New Rome), the bishop of Constantinople gained an eminent status.  In the first Council of Constantinople, the bishop of that city was accorded the second place - after Old Rome and before Alexandria.  Rome and Alexandria disputed this "canon" for various reasons.  However, by the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), Constantinople's status was secure.  Under Emperor Justinian (541 AD), the Roman Empire had been more or less neatly divided into five ecclesial regions and the bishops in charge of each region were first called "patriarchs."  Before that time, and ever since, the bishops of Rome and of Alexandria were called "pope."  Outside the empire, the regional Churches were headed by bishops called "catholicos."
Once upon a time, someone called the Pope of Rome "ecumenical" and that particular pope renounced the title and said that it was inappropriate to call a bishop "ecumenical."  Once upon another time, the patriarch of Constantinople began to be called the "Ecumenical patriarch."  Rome also thought that was silly and inappropriate.
The status of the Patriarch of Constantinople is an interesting study.  It was given the status of #2 because it was the seat of the Emperor and of the Senate.  Currently it is a small and besieged jurisdiction in modern Istanbul.  Yet it retains its dignity among the Patriarchs.  Like Old Rome, New Rome has suffered the temptation of exercising extra-territorial jurisdiction.  There have been occasional disputes between the Churches of Constantinople and Moscow, when Orthodox communities have sought "autocephalous" (self-governing) status.  At times Moscow would grant autocephaly to a Church formerly under its jurisdiction, e.g. the Church of Poland and the Orthodox Church in America, and Constantinople would not recognize it.  At other times the Ecumenical Patriarch would receive groups under its wing and Moscow would protest.
The whole situation is very confusing and has caused a lot of division.  Never mind groups of Orthodox who have united with Rome and thus cut themselves off from their Orthodox mother-Churches.
It occurs to me that the situation in America might provide a "way" to resolve these jurisdictional issues.  Here in the USA there are Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox and Albanian Orthodox bishops.  Most are in communion with one another.  There are also Roman Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, Melkite-Greek Catholics, Ruthenian Catholics, Romanian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Maronite Catholics, and several others - all in communion with one another.  In fact in one neighborhood of Yonkers, NY back in the 1970's (around Ash Street) there were: Ukrainian Catholic, Ukrainian Orthodox, Carpatho-Russian Orthodox, Ruthenian Catholics, and Russian Orthodox churches - all of which had members who were of the same family and from the same villages back in the Soviet Union.  An elderly member of St. Nicholas parish told me that back in the 30's there were fights in the local bakery many a Sunday morning between the various "faithful."
Those days are now over.  And whether the above-mentioned churches still exist I do not know.  BUT we are in an ecumenical age.
There's that word again "Ecumenical."
It occurs to me that, due to the situation in the US, as a result of decades of immigration, EVERY Orthodox Patriarch is "ecumenical" - exercising jurisdiction over his flock.  It is problematic because according to very ancient and universally accepted canons, only one bishop can exercise jurisdiction in one place.  I'm not one to recommend over-throwing the canons,  but it IS obvious that the Serbian Patriarch, the Russian Patriarch, the Melkite Catholic Patriarch, the Coptic Pope and the Armenian Catholicos are all acting as Ecumenical patriarchs.
We cannot go back to the days of the Pentarchy (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) and the Empire that held them together.  Constantinople no longer has political prestige.  Antioch is a much-reduced city populated mostly by Muslims.  Moscow's jurisdiction over Poland ended with the last tsar - and her jurisdiction over Ukraine has been in dispute since the fall of the USSR. 
Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York could become Pope of Rome, not because he's Italian, but because he, descendant of Irish immigrants, belongs to the Church of Rome.  All the ancient Churches, like the Church of Rome, are now universal.  And with the "cat's-cradle" of overlapping bishoprics and jurisdictions, and the ever-diminishing ethnic loyalties, a solution may emerge "that all may be one."

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Eastern Rite.

     One of the great experts on the Eastern Churches was the eminent Redemptorist priest, Fr. Clement Englert (d. 1987).  Besides his scholarly work, he did much to bring the general public to a knowledge of the Eastern Churches.  He spoke in parishes and schools, and authored numerous articles, booklets and pamphlets.  I remember one from back in the '60's that was entitled "Which Rite is Right?"  Nowadays it sounds kind of corny - but it was a good introduction for Western Catholics to the concept of "Rite."      When Eastern Catholics began emigrating to the West (e.g., The USA) from Eastern Europe, Italy and the Middle East they created quite a sensation -mostly in chancery offices!- inasmuch as virtually no one had ever heard of them.  Catholics in the U.S. had suffered much discrimination already, and had gained some measure of acceptance.  Being Catholic in America meant one thing: Roman.
     The Easterners were Catholic in that their hierarchy had entered into communion with Rome.  But their identity was anything but Roman.  So the concept of "Rite" developed.  A "rite" is a whole system that governs how the Eucharist, the other sacraments, the Divine Office, etc., are performed.  Whether sons and daughters of Erin, or the descendants of French colonists, old immigrant stock from German lands, or more recent newcomers from Poland, Italy and Hungary, the American Catholic was steeped in the Roman Rite - a rite which had spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world.  One could attend Mass in Liverpool, Prague, or Manila and experience the same ritual, and a sense of common identity that surpassed ethnicity or political allegiance.  The priest was celibate, the words were in Latin, the bread was unleavened, the Baptism was by pouring, the Confirmation only by a Bishop, and so on.
     The bearded Eastern priest, with a wife and children, celebrating the Liturgy in Greek or Slavonic or Arabic, behind an icon screen, the faithful partaking of the Precious Blood, the host being of leavened bread, no genuflection, making the sign of the cross differently... .  Well, it might be very intriguing, but it certainly was not Catholic. 
     So good scholars like Father Clement took pains to introduce the Eastern Catholics to their fellow-Catholics with the general notion that we are all the same [Catholic] but belong to different "Rites."  The pamphlet entitled "Which Rite is Right?" further developed the important notion that none of the Rites was superior to the other.  Whether one was a Catholic of the Byzantine Rite or a Catholic of the Roman Rite was "no big thing."  Any differences were superficial.
     Eastern Rite Catholics began to minimize anything in their Eastern identity that stood out as "different" or "other."  Icon screens were removed or reduced to invisibility.  Lenten services were replaced with Stations of the Cross.  The priest had long ago shaved off his beard and, thanks to legislation from Rome, could no longer be married.  Children were sent to (Roman) Catholic schools for religious education since - after all - we're all the same.  Stressing the sameness had the predictable result of minimizing any difference which, of course, meant removing any reason for Eastern Catholics even to exist, except for preservation of a colorful old world custom.
     However, a Rite is much more than a "ceremonial."  Any ceremony is an outward manifestation of a deeper reality.  What was called a "Rite" is a patrimony that includes feasts and seasons, theological expression, unique spirituality, practices of fast and abstinence, saints and events that derive from the "Mother Church."  For instance both the Roman Rite and the Byzantine Rite calendars include commemorations on the anniversary of the dedication of churches in Rome and Constantinople respectively.
     One does not "belong" to a Rite.  One belongs to a Church.  In a sense every diocese is truly a Church.  To paraphrase St. Ignatius of Antioch "Where the bishop is, there is the Church."  In the early part of the first millenium there were five Churches of special significance: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.  Most local Churches had a filial connection to one of these Churches.
     As a parish of the Melkite-Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, our community is Eastern - Byzantine specifically.  Our "rite" is identical with that of other Byzantine Catholic Churches (e.g. Romanian, Ukrainian, Ruthenian) and Eastern Orthodox Churches.  Our bishop is a member of the Synod of the Melkite-Greek Catholc Patriarchate of Antioch.  Thus we are united with other Melkite-Greek Catholic Churches throughout the world - whether in Syria or Brazil, Lebanon or Australia.  Our hierarchy is in full communion with Rome, and therefore, part of the world-wide Catholic Church.  We do not have Ash Wednesday, adoration of the exposed Blessed Sacrament, or an Advent wreath.
     In the United States there are almost 180 Roman Catholic dioceses compared with 18 Eastern Catholic dioceses.  Thus, we are a very small minority: 30,000 U.S. Melkites among 2.5 million American Eastern Catholics compared to over 77 million Roman Catholic fellow-citizens.  All of our Eastern Catholic bishops are members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and, thanks to the passage of time, most of our Eastern Catholic faithful are fully American.  We are no longer seen as a foreign entity or a relic from the "old world," nor simply Catholics with a peculiar ceremonial.
     In these ways we have come of age.  We do not need to sublimate our differences.  Nor do we need to accentuate them.  We can become comfortable in our own tradition, and share it as part of the common heritage and tradition of all Catholics.  If we are true and faithful, we can serve as a sign of unity:  Churches of many different traditions experiencing the unity for which Our Savior prayed at  His Mystical Supper.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What is Parish?

The word "parish" comes from  two Greek words: para (near) and oikos (house).  In other words - "neighborhood."  Until recent years, that's pretty much what a parish was: a neighborhood.  I recall sitting on the beach near my grandparents' bungalow at Reeve's Park near Riverhead, Long Island, getting acquainted with the other teenagers who were there for the summer.  "Where are you from?" "Our Lady Queen of Martyrs," "Joachim & Ann," etc.  The name of your parish indicated the neighborhood -usually in Queens or in Brooklyn - where you lived for most of the year.
My family had a slight complication: we lived near Our Lady of the Snows, but we went to St. Hedwig's because O.L.S. did not (yet) have a school.  Nevertheless, though we went to Mass every Sunday at St. Hedwig's, we were members of Our Lady of Snows - and my parents contributed to both.  Why?  Because we had an obligation to our actual parish, but we also wanted to make an offering where we went to Mass and to school.
At some point things changed.  A Catholic is no longer required to belong to the parish in which he lives.  We are pretty much free to worship wherever we want.  We can go to the pretty church, the hip church, the Eastern Church, the church with the quickest Mass, etc.
Few Eastern Christian parishes had geographical boundaries, since they were few and far between.  Our parishes have always been parishes of choice.  Indeed, for Eastern Catholics it was often more convenient to attend a Latin parish nearby.  Why drive past three Catholic Churches to go to the Melkite (or Ruthenian or Maronite or Ukrainian) Church?  Or why drive across town to the Eastern Catholic church when there was an Eastern Orthodox church down the street? Consequently the Eastern parish often became associated with ethnicity, and might be visited on Christmas or during Holy Week, for a touch of old country nostalgia.
Now that we are all parishes-of-choice, some issues arise:

Molly Doe calls the rectory wanting to get her daughter's baby baptized at St. Haralambos. 
The parish secretary doesn't recognize the name.  She asks Father.  "Molly Doe, Molly Doe... Oh, yes, she's related to Boris and Nelly Doe.  I'll take the call."
"Yes, Father.  I want to arrange for my daughter Tiffany's baby to be baptized.  We were all baptized at St. Haralambos."
"Yes, I know the family.  It's good that your daughter wants her child baptized in the Eastern church.  In fact, it might be a good idea for Tiffany to come to St. H's now and then so she can be acquainted with her Eastern tradition."
- nervous giggle from Molly -
"Where does Tiffany go to church now?"
"Well, Father, she doesn't go to church.  But she considers herself a member of St. Haralambos, because we all were, and we're all (fill in ethnicity).

[The best scenario would be for Father to gather Molly, Tiffany, Mr. Tiffany and the prospective god-parents for several sessions, explain the mystical theology of the Church, give rich insights into the Eastern tradition, and point out all the benefits of active parish membership.  And to so enthrall the Doe Family with a thirst for God, that two, three or four new families are added to the roles of active, participating parishioners.  Hope springs eternal.]

Very often, once Tiffany learns that she, her husband and the sponsors will need to attend some pre-Baptismal formation classes, these might conflict with Wednesdsay evening zumba-dance-class.  So they decide that Father X was snotty and wanted us to go through "all this stuff," and he wouldn't even let Uncle Harry be god-father because Harry's a Mormon, etc., etc., etc.

By the way, I actually met a couple both of whom had been baptized in infancy, but were never raised in the Church.  They had six children.  Only two were baptized.  Why? Because they were twins and Mama found these cute outfits and thought they'd look nice for a christening.

So - a parish is no longer a physical neighborhood with geographical boundaries.  Nor is it usually the only church in town.
Is someone a member because he was baptized and chrismated there some forty years ago?  Or because, even though he's Episcopalian, his dad was baptized and married there?  Legalistically speaking, the answer might be positive.  However:

When I was newly ordained and named pastor of a small parish, I had some legalistic scruples.  After awhile of trying to figure things out I called Archbishop Tawil - a very wise man.  I explained that the X family were actually Maronites, and that several of the Y's were Greek Orthodox, some of the families were Latin Catholics, and so on.  "So, who's actually a member?"
Sayidna's  answer was simply: "Those who come."

I have tried - with a few exceptions - to use this as a rule of thumb: Those Who Come.

Active membership in a parish is the only membership that really means anything.  It is genuine.

An active member worships regularly with the community,
     participates fully in the liturgical and social life of the parish,
     contributes regularly to the support of the parish (financially and in sharing time and talents),
     involves their children in parish life,
     lives the sacramental life of the Church.

Such a member doesn't need to call a "stranger" named Father So-and-So to try and arrange for a service or a consideration.  When they're going on a long trip, they know to ask for a special traveller's blessing.  If they're going in for surgery, they arrange for the sacrament of anointing.  In times of trouble, they know that they have a spiritual Father to hold them up in prayer - not to mention brothers and sisters in Christ.  When a baby is on the way they prepare for the birth, the naming, and the baptism.

By living the Christian life they evangelize, perhaps unwittingly, drawing others to Christ and to the community which is His Church.  This is way more rich and engaging than bothering with a neighborhood landmark, an "old country" tradition or a photo-op.  It is a gathering into the Ark of God - safe from the storms and the rising deluge -the response of the soul to Our Lord's calling.  A response of faith, hope and love.  A gift. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012


     When someone makes a solemn commitment as an Eastern Christian monk he receives a garment called the "schema."  It is a piece of cloth similar to a scapular, portraying the cross of Christ and the instruments of the Passion. 
     "Schema" is the obvious source of our English word "scheme."
     In ordinary parlance the word "scheme" has the connotation of intrigue or underhandedness.  In fact, if you check your dictionary, you'll find that the number 1 meaning is "pattern."  The schema of the monk, worn like a yoke around his neck, symbolizes a pattern of life consecrated and dedicated to Christ.  As St. Paul said: "I preach Christ - and him crucified." (1 Corinth. 2:2)
     I love words.  They are full of surprises and various levels of meaning.  I love the English language because it is such a gathering of different languages.  That's why "spelling" is such an issue - because our words reflect their sources.  Datum (s) and data (pl), for example.  No one works with a "datums-base."  (Although some people do speak of charisms instead of charismata...Oh, well!)
     I have been pastor of St. George Melkite-Greek Catholic Church for over 16 years.  Most people know what a Catholic Church is.  But what is a Greek-Catholic?  What is a Melkite?  Are you Orthodox?  Yes - though many Orthodox would say we are not.  Are you Catholic?  Yes.  But most Catholics have never heard of us.   "I belong to the Eastern Church."  (Which one?  There are dozens!)
     Depending on context or mood, I am not only a pastor but a priest, a presbyter, a hieromonk, a hegumen, a minister and a preacher.
     This can all be very confusing.  But the very act of Creation was preceded by the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters of chaos.  Confusion or lack of understanding causes division, and that division can be enhanced by words.  But confusion or lack of understanding can also lead to knowledge and unity - also susceptible to the influence of words.
     The Gospel of St. John opens: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." 
     My hope and prayer is that this blog may gather words and ideas that lead to clarity, understanding and enjoyment.