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.