By Deacon Philip Franco, PhD
Like most American 12 year-olds, my youngest son Joseph is obsessed with all things Catholic. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) He is fascinated with theology and Church structures. Recently, Joseph discovered something that rekindled my love and interest in the Eastern Church.
Joey discovered the various Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church on the internet. He was immediately fascinated, and we embarked on a little adventure, checking out different Eastern Catholic Liturgies each of the past few Sundays. His interest served as wonderful father-son trips to share time and get some very delicious but unhealthy breakfasts all over New York.
As I posted social media images of the different liturgies we attended: The Maronite Rite, the Byzantine (ruthenian) Rite and the Ukrainian Rite — we also snuck in a beautiful Tridentine Mass, but that’s material for another day — many people texted or emailed asking me why I was attending non-Catholic Churches! This reminded me of the sad fact that the great majority of western Catholics in the Latin Rite (that’s us) do not really know or understand the Eastern Catholic Churches. This is one incredibly rich and beautiful aspect of our universal Church (the word Catholic actually means universal) that we tend to completely miss here in the West. Eastern and Western Catholics both deserve better. We in the Latin rite of the Church have a great deal to learn about the East; it can enrich our spirituality and knowledge.
I hope to clear up some of the many misconceptions and assumptions about the Eastern Churches, as a way of introducing us all to a larger world and a broader picture of Our Lord as He is “painted” in the traditions and emphases of these Churches. So in a very limited space, what exactly are the Eastern Catholic Churches and how are they different? The first thing to know is that we belong to what is called the Latin or Western Rite of the Catholic Church.
The way we offer Mass, the way we celebrate the sacraments and decorate the Church, the vestments our clergy wear and other such things are all part of the Latin Rite. As you may have noticed, we do not use the Latin language exclusively anymore, but we are Latin in that our traditions emerged from the Western part of the Roman Empire over many centuries of development. We are the largest Rite within the Catholic Church, making up well over 90% of the world’s Catholics. This enormous percentage is why people tend to think only of the Latin Rite when they think of Catholicism.
Over the course of centuries, as the Church developed in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, different liturgies, songs, prayers, church laws and customs were developed. The culture and customs of the local area were incorporated into Christian traditions and this was perfectly accepted and legitimate. As the two parts of the Empire (East and West) grew apart in terms of culture, so did communication between the Church in the East and the Church in the West.
Invasions over the centuries certainly did not help. As you might expect, the Holy Spirit as the soul and guide of the Church did not permit the beliefs of the Church to change or err. The Church in the East had the same Seven Sacraments, the same beliefs and the same essential structure as the West. East and West remained and still remain the same religion! Generally, Bishops in the East always recognized the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, as the first among all bishops, even if there were squabbles as to precisely what that meant and means today.
Unfortunately many years of cultural and political differences led to a split in 1054 between East and West. The East called itself the Orthodox Church and of course the West is the Catholic Church. (The label “Roman” Catholic came later and it’s fine but not too exact.) Some large groups of Eastern Christians refused to side completely with the Eastern authorities. They wanted to keep all of their beautiful traditions while remaining fully united to the visible head of the Church on Earth, the Pope. These Churches either kept or eventually came back to communion with the Catholic Church and were permitted and encouraged to keep the beauty of their traditions.
Unfortunately, these loyal Catholics are often misunderstood. Many Catholics do not think they are “really Catholic” (yes, they most definitely are!) and many in the Orthodox Church have treated them as traitors over the centuries for remaining loyal to the Pope of Rome. Easterners have often found themselves stuck in the middle of a difficult split. Thankfully, things have improved in recent years, as we pray for Christian unity.
There are 23 different Eastern Catholic Churches in the world, all in communion with the Pope — many of them represented here in our own Diocese of Brooklyn. If you enter one of these gorgeous Churches you might feel like you are in an Orthodox Church, but the picture of the pope to be found somewhere in the building will give it away: this is a Catholic Church. Two of these Churches, the Maronite Church from Lebanon and the Italo-Greeks (also Called Italo-Albanians) from Southern Italy, have never lost their communion with the Pope and the Catholic Church. Some of them have returned over the centuries, while others claim to have never left Rome.
Eastern liturgies are much more ornate and have much more singing than we are used to experiencing. In our experience of these liturgies, my son and I tried to sing along when appropriate, but our voices made it obvious we were visitors. Very rarely will you see a statue in an Eastern Church. The Eastern Catholics venerate icons, symbolic images of the saints and all things holy. These are more than just images, they are seen as windows into the word of the spiritual that invite us into a prayerful communion with the Lord and His Angels and Saints.
In fact, for the Eastern Church, all liturgy is an experience of Heaven on Earth and is meant to be an example of us stepping into the heavenly liturgy to praise the Triune God. This is one of the reasons why in most Eastern Churches something called an iconostasis separates the sanctuary of the Church from the nave: this tall gate of icons has “great doors” through which only the
priest may enter, symbolizing entrance into the Holy Presence of God. The side doors, called Deacon Doors, are for deacons and other non-priests to enter when necessary. (Deacons never get enough respect!) Usually, all of this is composed of golden colors as the Book of Revelation speaks of Heaven as adorned in gold.
When it came time to receive Holy Communion, (you certainly can receive it, under the same conditions you would be allowed in a Latin Rite) Joey and I were admittedly a bit thrown off. The Eastern Churches use leavened bread for their Liturgy and the priest places this directly into your mouth, from an ornate spoon, after having dipped it into the Most Precious Blood. This manner of receiving by intinction is not regularly practiced in the West.
Plus, even little children were receiving, as they are initiated fully at the time of their Baptism. At that moment the infant will also be Confirmed (Chrismated) and given a piece of the Eucharist. For the first time I can remember, I had no clue how to act in
Church and what the proper posture was, making me feel bad for all the times I may have judged cafeteria Catholics for not knowing when to sit, stand or kneel in my own parish. Now I know how they feel.
After each liturgy, we were welcomed happily by clergy and parishioners who realized we were visitors. Our frequent confusion, bad singing voices and “backwards” making of the sign of the Cross made it pretty obvious that we were not experienced. (All Eastern Christians go to their right shoulder first). In two instances, the clergy pointed out that it was providentially that specific rites feast of St. Joseph, a little message from the Lord not lost on my son Joey. Maybe God is calling him.
This great reintroduction I had to the Eastern traditions, thanks to my son, was a beautiful gift. As Catholics, we have an incredible spiritual and historical heritage that we often fail to fully realize or appreciate. If you have the opportunity, take a moment to visit our brothers and sisters of the different Eastern Catholic Churches. Say a prayer for the many Eastern Christians (both Orthodox and Catholic) who are brutally persecuted. And of course, pray for a full and complete reunion, so that, as Christ Himself prayed, we may all be one, united as the Body of Christ.
Deacon Franco is a Pastoral Associate at Our Lady of Mount Carmel-Annunciation, Williamsburg.