Skip to comments.The Rite Switch: why Roman rite Catholics become Eastern rite
Posted on 06/03/2004 6:39:11 AM PDT by NYer
The words "Byzantine" and "Greek" in the past have been used to describe the Eastern Catholic Churches, which consist of seventeen churches with roots in particular countries, all in full communion with the Pope. The largest ones found in America are the Ruthenian (Eastern European), Melkite (many countries of the Middle East), Maronite (Lebannon), Ukrainian (Russia), and Coptic (Egyptian) churches. Eastern rite liturgies are characterized by sung liturgies, elaborate vestments, small congregations, and varied ethnic customs, reflecting the traditions of the different countries of the rite.
The Eastern churches draw their membership mainly from their home countries, with a small representation in America. In the "melting pot" of America, a slowly growing trickle of Roman Catholics, when exposed to the Eastern churches, find something they'd like to make their own.
Changing rites (as the process is sometimes called) from Roman to Eastern used to be near-impossible. Under the new code of Canon Law it is somewhat easier, but still an involved process. Most Roman Catholics who switch rites attend an Eastern church for years before considering making the change, and many never switch.
This process can't be called "conversion" because each Catholic church - whether Eastern or Western - contains the fullness of the truth as revealed by Christ. Catholics who switch rites are merely embracing a different expression of that fullness.
Author Connie Marshner had grown up in a nominal Catholic home. When she returned to the practice of her faith as an adult, a friend brought her to a Byzantine parish, and she was immediately hooked. "It's so mystical and yet so accessible. The language so beautifully captured me." The liturgical environment also drew her in. "The fact the whole congregation sang was just so dynamic. Everyone there was 100% there. Automatically, you knew you were part of a community."
Marshner and her husband are long-time members of Holy Redeemer Melkite Church in McClean, Virginia, a new congregation with many former Westerners mixed in with its Arabic population. The exterior of the church is unassuming, but the interior is rich with wood trim and original icons, including a huge painting of Christ the Pantocrator (Supreme Ruler) set into a recess in the drop ceiling.
Divine Liturgy on Sundays is crowded with people of all ages and races. Two choirs, one for adults, one for children stand on either side of the front altar, in front of the iconostasis (a wooden screen separating the congregation from the sanctuary). A crowd of priests, deacons, and acolytes resplendent in embroidered robes stand before the gates of the iconostasis, chanting. The servers - mostly young fathers - carry incense and golden ceremonial fans - ripidia -- representing the wings of cherubim. Everyone sings vigorously, though few songbooks are in evidence. Babies cry, children run up and join the children's choir and then slide back to their parents at whim, but no one seems distracted.
Marshner loves the way children are incorporated in the liturgy. "It's very easy for children to take to the Byzantine liturgy because it involves all the senses - the incense, the vestments, the singing, the processions. A mother with lots of small fussy children has a much easier time." "There are no cry rooms," she notes. "If you have a crying baby, you just walk up and down the aisles and let them stare at the icons and the candles and they quiet down. Besides, no one really hears them because of all the singing. The only long quiet time is during the homily."
Consideration for his children also impelled her husband, William Marshner, a Lutheran convert, to switch rites. Marshner, a theology professor at Christendom College, explains, "I'm a theologian. I get my satisfaction out of dogma. But I couldn't expect my children to do so. I wanted my kids to have a very strong flavor of the sacred. I knew it would draw them back to the Church despite any troubles they might have."
Melkite priest and former Roman-rite Catholic Fr. Constantine Belisarius sees the recent influx of Westerners into the Eastern Churches as perhaps correcting a historical imbalance. He notes that in the New World, the Western Church was quick to declare its supremacy, and often Eastern Catholics were proselytized away from the rites of their birth into Roman Catholic churches. "There was ethnic tension. Some Eastern Catholic immigrants remember as children being told by Roman Catholic peers, 'You're not really Catholic.' That hurts."
Such tensions, most often fueled by misinformation, persist today. Fr. Constantine knows of a Ruthenian-rite Catholic who, while hospitalized, was refused Communion by the visiting Eucharistic minister. "You're not Catholic," she was informed. Fr. Constantine laments, "This is plain ignorance on the part of Roman Catholics. It's costly ignorance for the Catholic Church."
While many Eastern priests are enthusiastic about the addition of Westerners to their formerly exclusively ethnic congregations, not everyone sees the situation as positive. Fr. Joseph Amar, a Maronite priest who teaches classics at Notre Dame University, doubts that the rite-switchers have "an authentic attraction to the Eastern rite." He suspects that many of them are "discontented Traditionalists" yearning for the Tridentine rite. "The Eastern churches aren't some kind of pristine Christianity. People who expect that are in for some real surprises."
Fr. Constantine admits, "Angry Roman Catholics can be a real millstone around the neck of an uneducated Eastern rite pastor. But if you can educate them, if they're willing to embrace the Eastern tradition, you can get them beyond being reactionary." He says he knows people who initially came to an Eastern rite church because they were angry "but they aren't angry any more."
Fr. Richard Roher has encountered some "Roman malcontents" in the early years of his new Ruthenian parish of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Carey, North Carolina. But "they didn't stay. Once they realized the parish wasn't going to ever look like a 1950's Roman Catholic church, they left. Folks don't stay here long if they're angry with the Church. We make it clear that we love the Church and they won't find a sympathetic ear here."
Around 70% of his congregation are former Roman rite Catholics, and he himself switched rites six years ago. "When I first got here, there had been some 'Latinization' of the church, but I phased those traditions out. I'm very, very Byzantine," he says. Most of the switchers, he admits, "are young families with children. The children are very involved in the liturgy, and that keeps the parents coming. Parish members have told me they've gone from dragging their kids to Mass to cutting vacations short because their kids insist on being home for Divine Liturgy!"
The church also attracts Protestants, who are the majority in the area. "The best compliment I've gotten was from a Baptist who said, 'This is a Christ-centered church!' after she'd been here once. Our emphasis on Scripture and the patristic tradition attracts them." Some have even begun taking instruction to become Catholic.
George and Ann Lally are two Irish Catholics who joined Fr. Roher's parish. They were attracted by "the sense of community, tradition, and reverence. Fr. Rick does an exceptional job of explaining things we'd taken for granted about both rites." Their children love the church, particularly their son, who serves at Divine Liturgy. The whole family has "grown spiritually" because of the Church. They switched rites six months ago.
In a more typical situation, Stanley Budzinkski became interested in the Eastern churches when he began dating a Ruthenian Catholic. "I had gone through Catholic school all the way through and never heard of the Eastern Churches," he confesses. "It was a big mystery to me when I first started dating Jenny." But investigating the Ruthenian rite of the Church brought him to "fall in love. It was so much to my liking. God works in so many different ways."
Budzinski married his girlfriend and became a Ruthenian over twenty years ago. Later he underwent training to become a cantor in St. Mary of the Dormition Church in Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania.He treasures the rite's many ancient devotions to the Virgin Mary, including the moleben service and the akathist - a sung litany of Mary's titles.
Rev. Mark Melone of the Melkite Parish of St. George in Sacramento, California, notes that 50% of the priests in his diocese are former Roman Catholics. He attributes this to Eastern Catholicism's "integrated spirituality" as well as to the fact that they were the first to use English in their liturgies in this country. "In a sense, our tradition is more personal and less cerebral. We tend to have smaller communities, and everyone gets involved."
He himself became Melkite in his college years, before becoming a priest over twenty years ago. For himself, the Melkite church resonated with his Italian background and upbringing. "I found the Byzantine rite expresses my Mediterranean Christianity a lot better."
Another new Melkite parish is run by Fr. Daniel Munn, an Anglican-turned-Catholic priest. He and his wife and four children entered the Catholic Church sixteen years ago. He hastens to say, "Now, I didn't become a Melkite because of their married clergy, which is what everyone thinks." His varied life as a "failed atheist" married to a Southern Baptist took him in and out of the Episcopal church and into Catholicism. The Eastern tradition had attracted him for a long time. "I'd always thought I'd join Greek Orthodoxy if I left Episcopalianism," he admits. "But that's not what God had in mind."
Recounting the bureaucratic hurdles he had to leap to become a Catholic priest, he says, "The Eastern Church has a definite gift for spirituality, but you can't beat the Roman Church when it comes to administration." In the end, it was easiest for him to enter the church via Roman Catholicism and be granted bi-ritual faculties. "All I had to do was encourage a latent schizophrenia," he jokes.
Although he is pastor of St. Ignatius of Antioch Melkite parish in Augusta, Georgia, he still celebrates the Western liturgy in a local Roman-rite parish every week. "I love everything about the Catholic Church in a way that someone not reared in it does, but there's something very special to me about what Eastern Christianity has preserved and makes alive. So asking me which rite I like better is like trying to decide which one of your kids you love better."
Regarding the status of the Eastern churches in America, he says, "I think the Eastern Church serves a good purpose in reminding the Roman part that Catholicism really is a universal Church embracing more than just Roman Catholicism." He adds, "I always tell my Roman rite friends that they have to go to Divine Liturgy at least one time before they die so that when they get to heaven, they'll know what God is doing."
In recent years, the Pope has called attention to the treasures and contributions of the Eastern Churches in his 1995 encyclical "Orientale Lumen" (Eastern Light). "We believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ's church the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each."
Fr. Joseph Francavilla, pastor of Holy Redeemer, says that the Eastern Churches are richly gifted with their very ethnicity, a balance to the universality of the Roman rite. "The Church is important not just because it is universal but because it is particular. In the Eastern Church we rejoice in the fact that the Church is mine." In addition, they are an almost prophetic sign of unity. The Eastern Churches are "monumental proof that the Church doesn't have to be Roman in order to be Catholic. We remained in charity and communion in Church in Rome without being Roman."
Fr. Constantine agrees, "The Church realizes that people stand before God in different postures. It's one of the great strengths of the Church and it's too bad that people aren't familiar with it. My feeling has been that if we fostered the Eastern Rites in America we could convert the whole country."
"The Eastern Churches are the Treasures of the Catholic Church" ... Pope John XXIII
It is long past time for the ancient liturgy in the West to be accorded the same respect as the ancient liturgies in the East.
Actually, the reverse trend prevailed for hundreds of years. To cite one example, from San Diego News Notes:
"The Maronite liturgy originally incorporated the Church's earliest liturgical forms, which is reflected in the fact that the Maronite Service of the Holy Mysteries contains the Church's oldest Eucharistic Prayer. Rome sent apostolic visitors to Lebanon between the 15th and 17th centuries to scrutinize Maronite liturgical texts, "in the period where they started to Latinize everything," Father Mouannes explained. They ordered the Maronites to purge elements from their liturgy deemed heretical, and the Maronites complied, even when obliged to burn liturgical books. However, in doing so, some of the Church's primordial liturgical practices were lost. "That's why, now, in our Mass, we have a lot of similarities with the Latin [Roman rite] Church," he pointed out. "We were Latinized more than the other ones [Eastern rite Churches], because we searched for it. We wanted to show that now we are one with Rome, one hundred percent; we are with the rock."
It was Vatican II that reversed this 'latinization' trend, recommending that the Eastern churches restore those elements that had been stripped out of their liturgy. Essentially, it has taken more than 400 years to arrive at this point!
Yes, but that is not a reason to "punish" the Traditional Latin Mass. It should be accorded the same respect as the ancient Eastern liturgies.
Very interesting article, thank you. It covers the situation from a variety of angles and doesn't take just one simplistic view. As the article points out, many Eastern rite parishes are just as modernized as the Roman Rite ones. The only time I ever attended an Eastern rite for a funeral, it was just as Novus Ordo-ized as the Western rites. But I understand that is not the case everywhere, and there seems to be a great deal of (mostly legitimate) diversity among the Eastern rites.
Back in the 80's, when we lived in McCarrick's Metuchen there was a Maronite Church about 10 minutes away from us. I don't know why, but it never occurred to us to go there. Looking back I'm not sure I realized they were united with Rome.
We actually moved our family back to Philadelphia to get away from the abuses that were going on in Metuchen.
It should. You're right. It should be given a Tridentine Rite.
But, you see, the ultra-trads and the SSPXers don't want that. It would mean they have failed in their effort to reimpose the Tridentine Mass on the Latin Rite.
The goal of many traditionalists is to totally suppress the Novus Ordo.
I understand their principle. They don't to compromise with something that they see as damaging to the formation of Catholics.
Ditto! Were it not for this forum, I would never have considered attending an Eastern Rite church either. It was 'Sandyeggo' who mentioned that she had attended a Maronite Catholic liturgy, that set my wheels in motion.
We actually moved our family back to Philadelphia to get away from the abuses that were going on in Metuchen.
You are most fortunate! There are 8 Maronite Catholic Churches in the state of PA, including St. Maron Maronite Church in Philadelphia (Rev Msgr Sharbel Lischaa, (215) 389-1300) LISTING
Give it a try sometime - but - you must attend the liturgy at least 3 times (the first visit can be quite disorienting). Also, call ahead of time to inquire which of their liturgies is in English.
In fact, make a list of other Eastern Rite churches in your community and attend the liturgy at each one of them as well. You may be pleasantly surprised by the experience. Good luck and please let me know how your adventure turns out.
Make that "They don't want to..."
It reflects an arrogance and pride that does not comport with Catholicism or even Christianity.
A separate rite would allow them to worship as they please, with their own apostolic administrators. Anyone who wishes to assist at an all-Tridentine-Rite parish could do so.
But, many ultra-trads don't want that. Just read what UR has to say.
He will tell you in no uncertain terms that a separate rite or apostolic administration is tantamount to accepting defeat.
Please ping UR when you talk about him. You ask for the same from others.
Sorry about that. I don't generally engage UR anymore, as he has plunged himself into sedevacantism, IMO.
I'm not sure about that. I haven't read everything he has written recently. However, if he is still loyal to the SSPX, then he is against sedevacantism. Their Angelus Press published a book against sedevacantism this year.
But, you have to read his stuff. It's been over the top, of late.
Glad you enjoyed it! For so many years, I kept myself locked into the only liturgy I knew. This forum has been an epiphany for me for through it, I have learned so much more about my catholic faith and deepened my relationship with God.
The only time I ever attended an Eastern rite for a funeral, it was just as Novus Ordo-ized as the Western rites.
Lol! That must have been one very wealthy parish! Most of the Eastern Rite communities are quite small, with limited resources to build extravagant churches. Our community uses a small shrine built more than 50 years ago, as its church. The current pastor arrived 3 years ago, following his ordination. He studied at Boston College, attended St. John's Seminary and was ordained in Lebanon. He is bi-ritual and also assists the Diocese of Albany, by saying masses during the week at the priestless parishes, where he consecrates a sufficient number of hosts for their weekend liturgies.
After fixing up the little shrine, he worked with the parish community to help them achieve their goal of having a real church. Last year, they purchased an abandoned protestant church nearby and he, along with the men of the parish, have worked industriously to renovate the old building. Meanwhile, the women of the parish are actively working to raise funds needed to replace broken windows and install an elevator for the 'seasoned' members of the community (we have one parishioner who is 95 and still attends Sunday liturgy). There is a tremendous sense of community spirit, reminiscent of the first christian communities.
From the very beginning, I have been impressed with the orthodox teaching, the total respect for the Eucharist, and so pleased to see young boys arrive at mass, dressed in suits. Father has set high standards and expectations for those interested in enrolling in this parish. However, he watches over his community as a true father. Last year, when the organist became ill, he drove over to his house, unannounced, insisted that he get in his car and then drove him to the hospital. He remained with him the entire time. Once he was released, he drove for several hours, looking for an all night pharmacy where they could have his prescription filled. Needless to say, we hold this priest in high regard and with great respect.
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