Wednesday, February 22, 2012

More Than One Way to be Catholic

The Byzantne Chapel in the National
Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
in Washington DC
Well, last night some of my colleagues and I were going to go out after work for some Mardi Gras festivities—nothing out of control, just a nice Cajun dinner and music but Christos from our finance office said he couldn’t—it was—for him—already Lent. Already Lent on Mardi Gras?  Christos is Byzantine Catholic and Lent for him had begun last Sunday.  It is a reminder that not all Catholics are Roman Catholic and that we should not refer to our Church as “Roman” but simply as Catholic for the Church does indeed include Ruthenian, Coptic, Chaldean, Syro-Malabar, Ukrainian, Russian, Greek, Syro-Malankar, Syriac, Maronite, Armenian, Melkite, and I don’t know how many other Catholics—all of whom stand in communion with (not under) the See of Rome and its Pope as full members of the Catholic Church.        I have always been surprised how few Catholics know about the Eastern Rites.  (the Western Rites—of which there are more than the Roman—is another question and somewhat more complex).  I was always aware of the multiple ways of being Catholic given that just a few blocks away from my hope parish in New York State is a Byzantine Rite Catholic Church.  Father Peter had fled what was then the Soviet Union after World War II with his young wife.  Their four children were in our parish school and we never thought anything of a married priest.  Back in those pre-Vatican II days Father Peter and his parish would come to our parish one Sunday a year—just before lent—and sing the Divine Liturgy.  We all knew that Divine Liturgy was another word for Mass and we all went to communion. Our pastor wanted us to know that there were many different ways Mass could be celebrated.  By 1960 their liturgy was already in English and we could follow along very easily, though the music—and the entire liturgy was sung—was beyond our (at the time unused) Catholic vocal range. Nevertheless, his parishioners raised the roof with their singing.  And communion was in both kinds—with small cubes of real bread soaked in the Precious Blood and given into our mouths on a spoon.  (In those days none of us received in the hand, so communion on the tongue was nothing unusual or archaic, though this wasn’t so much on the tongue as dropped into our mouths.)  All this was a great help when Vatican II came along because we had no illusions about “The Mass of Antiquity” or ridiculous stories about how the Mass had been given in the form we knew it by Christ to his Apostles.  We saw for ourselves that Mass could be radically different in form and yet the same Mass. We saw that priests can be married and be no less holy than unmarried ones.  We saw that the Liturgy can be celebrated in various languages.  We knew that the unity of the Church did not depend on uniformity but rather on the bonds of charity that united us in diversity.  
      As I have gotten older and studied a bit I have found that there are even doctrinal differences among the various rites.  Purgatory, for example, is not a universally held doctrine among the rites for there are different eschatologies in the East than in the West.  The Doctrine of the Assumption (or what we Catholics call the Assumption) is formulated differently in the Byzantine Rites, stressing Mary’s “Falling Asleep” or death.  And my friends among the clergy in the various Eastern Rites keep telling me that it is fine with them if I keep original sin where it belongs—in the Western Church—as they want nothing to do with it.  Yet united in charity and mutual respect and around the See of Peter we are one Church—unified in our diversity.   

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