Monday 9 June 2014

Communion in Diversity – The Other Churches

By Artur Suski, S.J.


A Roman Catholic priest walks into an elementary class and leads the students in prayer. He asks all to begin with the sign of the cross, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. He quickly notices that one of the girls in the class crossed herself the wrong way. “No, dear, we cross ourselves from left to right – you’re doing it wrong.” The priest continued to come to that class for a number of years and every time he used the opportunity to correct the girl’s “wrong way of crossing herself.” In reality, she was of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. This and many similar stories are known to many of us. Alas, this true story, which took place in the 1950s in the US, exemplifies the lack of acceptance, and to some extent, the lack of respect, for the non-Latin rites in the Catholic communion before Vatican II.

Much has changed since then, and for the better, I think. Those in the Latin rite are a bit more conscious of their Eastern brothers and sisters, both Catholic and Orthodox. Not only are they more conscious, there’s a growing number of people who have made the effort to participate in Eastern liturgies to experience for themselves these ancient traditions.

I recently had an engaging conversation at a Jesuit community about the different Churches in the Catholic communion, and their relation to the Latin Church. All were in agreement that today most people in the Latin rite have no clue as to what happens in the other rites. We also agreed that the presence of one rite in the communion enriches the other. How beautiful it is to see the Eucharist celebrated in so many different ways, and to see that indeed it is the same Eucharist.

There are of course language barriers, as most of these Churches developed in a concrete ethnic and cultural reality. But you may be surprised to learn that most, if not all, of these Churches have developed English liturgies in North America. Whole liturgies, hymns included, are done in English with Eastern musical tones.

What strikes me the most as I examine the different rites is the universality of the Church. Christ came to touch all cultures and to bring all of them to himself. Each of these Churches began with their unique language and culture. As the liturgies developed, much of their cultural heritage was assumed too. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One way of looking at it is that it is a baptism of sorts. Cultures as they embraced Christianity were slowly transformed – the good things were incorporated into Christian rituals, while the bad were purged.

An Ethiopian Church wedding:

For centuries, most of these cultures and rites were separated and isolated from each other due to geographical and political reasons. Only select travellers and privileged ones were able to see the world and experience these differences in past years. Now, we are all blessed by the presence of so many different rites in our own backyards, so to speak. Take any major city, and you will have a handful of different rites present (there are a total of seven rites, by the way)!

What can the different Churches gain from dialogue and participation in each others’ liturgies? Much, I believe. Firstly, there is the theological heritage that each brings. The East and West, though the doctrines and dogmas are mostly identical, have different ways of “theologizing”, that is, of interpreting Scripture and Tradition. One can positively challenge the other. In the Eastern Churches, these theologies have made it into the liturgies through the hymns. If you go to any liturgy that is faithfully done, you will taste their theology.

Secondly, liturgies can inspire growth. Sometimes one Church emphasizes one aspect of the liturgy, while the other, another aspect. If we get too isolated, we become too narrow-minded as we emphasize one thing and downplay another. Having contact with other traditions reminds us of the other elements that our own tradition has perhaps neglected.

Openness to receiving a “visit” is also something that allows friendships to form between the Churches. Is my local Roman Catholic parish, for example, open to receive Eastern Christians to participate in our liturgies? Would we be willing to con-celebrate with Eastern clergy?

I’ve certainly been drawn to the tradition of the Icons and chanted liturgies, as well as the deep reverence that these Churches share for holy or consecrated places and objects. Turning one’s back to these traditions hurts our own. That being said, I am not saying that we should change our own tradition to make it like another. We should rather strive to live out our tradition to the fullest, after having been enriched and challenged by another. What are some of the things that you’ve noticed from other rites, things that would enrich your own?

The invitation is to explore these other rich traditions we have in the Church and humbly realize that all of these rites have equal dignity and no one is better than the other. Both the East and West have been a bit too proud of their side without acknowledging the other for a long time. Pope John Paul II, in his document Ut unum sint (That they may be one), wrote this about the Eastern and Western Churches: “The Church must breathe with her two lungs!" Respect and admiration for the East is certainly a strong step towards ecumenism, towards a reunion of the Eastern and Western Churches.

Just recently, it is rumoured that Pope Francis has privately invited Patriarch Kirill of Russia to a meeting. As Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Synodal Department for External Church Relations, stated recently: “There is a part of the Catholic Church that is investing energy, talent and resources to strengthen the interaction between Catholics and Orthodox, while another is doing everything possible to create distrust and enmity”. Let us pray that both sides will grow in trust and affection for each other; it can only start by showing respect for and interest in the other’s rich traditions.

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