Square Zero

Why Byzantine Catholics?

Posted by Eric (April 7, 2006 at 3:27 pm)

Holy Trinity Cathedral (Orthodox Church in America)Here is pictured one of the towers of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago, a sight I cannot behold without some feeling of sorrow.

I took this picture a couple of weeks ago when I happened to be passing through the Chicago neighborhood that is home to several Eastern Christian churches. Only a few blocks away from this church, which is the cathedral church of the Diocese of the Midwest of the Orthodox Church in America, is St. Nicholas Church, the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral. Same liturgy, same spirituality, two Cathedrals

Five centuries after the beginning of the Great Schism of 1054, the most of the Orthodox bishops of Ruthenia in Eastern Europe entered communion with the Pope of Rome in the Union of Brest, by which act they also left communion with the Orthodox. In succeeding centuries, a few other Orthodox bishops have done likewise (in Romania, for example), and today there are several Byzantine Catholic churches, occupying a strange sort of territory between Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholicism. Last November I became a citizen of that strange territory, formally switching from the Latin Rite to the Byzantine Rite (specifically, Ruthenian).

The very existence of we Byzantine Catholics is a source of bitter resentment to many Orthodox, who tend to consider us, variously, as traitors of the East or dupes of the West. Meanwhile, few Roman Catholics have ever heard of us (in Catholic school I learned more about Zoroastrianism than Orthodoxy, and not one thing about Byzantine Catholicism).

I can understand why the Orthodox might be troubled by the very existence of Byzantine Catholics. Without going into the debates surrounding the Union of Brest—whether the Ruthenians were forced into union by the Catholic Kingdom of Poland which annexed their land in 1569, or whether the Ruthenians turned to Rome to overcome corruption and disorder in their church—there is something strange about this small group of churches being in union with Rome. The Orthodox have always maintained that union should be negotiated with the whole of Orthodoxy; they consider it unfair for Rome to “pick off,” so to speak, a couple of vulnerable churches here and there.

Of course, it’s hard to say what it would mean to negotiate union with all the Orthodox. Who do you talk to? Everybody knows who leads the Catholic Church. But with whom do you hold negotiations among the Orthodox. They’re not all in communion with each other—the list of schisms among the Orthodox over the centuries is long and dismaying.

Nevertheless, there is a good argument that the Byzantine Catholic churches should not exist. All the same, it seems to me—even aside from my conviction as a Catholic that it’s never a bad thing for a bishop to be in union with Rome—that the Church needs Byzantine Catholics.

The Church—and I mean here the whole Church, Catholic and Orthodox—needs a group of the faithful whose special task it is to lament in a very personal and pointed way the separation between Rome and Byzantium. Somebody needs to be permanently and painfully uncomfortable about the Great Schism. Someone needs to be praying and fasting unceasingly for the union of East and West.

And to the extent that Byzantine Catholics, in their provincialism and distrust of both Orthodox and Catholics, have forgotten this role, it seems to me the Holy Spirit has called forth certain Latin Rite Catholics to make Byzantine Catholicism their own and take on the task of offering these desperately needed prayers for union.

Because those prayers are so desperate—because union seems so unlikely—the sight of an Orthodox church will always bring sorrow to my heart. It’s not that I wouldn’t be welcomed there; quite the contrary, I’ve always found Orthodox individuals to be most welcoming. It is, simply, that I cannot fully participate in the liturgical life of those churches—I cannot receive there the Body of Christ, even though He is there.

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4 Responses to “Why Byzantine Catholics?”

  1. TheDegu says:

    I have tended to think that it is far easier to reconcile the Orthodox one by one (‘picking off’) than by aiming for them to agree to some accord as a whole. A messy proposition, as you point out.

    Smaller individual Churches, yes, but all of Russia or Greece? That would take some doing…

    Comment posted April 13th, 2006 at 11:42 pm
  2. Bekah says:

    Your description of the unique role of Eastern Rite Catholics brings to mind allusions to the Jews in diaspora, or maybe wandering the desert. Marking time between what was, in preparation for what will be, but knowing that you will likely not experience it yourself.

    Your writing is very vivid. Thanks for the food for thought.

    Comment posted May 5th, 2006 at 5:22 pm
  3. Eric says:

    TheDegu—What you’re really pointing to is how hard it will be to heal the Schism. Individual Orthodox convert to Catholicism, but that’s a two-way road; my guess based on anecdotal evidence is that slightly more Catholics are crossing the Bosporus than Orthodox the Tiber. It really has to be a pan-Orthodox reunion with Rome, and that will take some doing.

    Bekah—Thanks for the kind words. You may be right that I will not live to see the Churches reunited; all the evidence points that way. But I’m still holding out hope I’ll live to see it. Maybe in 2054, when I’m 88—a thousand years in schism is enough.

    Comment posted May 6th, 2006 at 4:52 pm
  4. Kathleen Anderson says:

    Upon my return to the Church when I was 24 (26 years ago) I began to go to retreats and workshops and conferences. There were a few bi-ritual priests (ordained in both Eastern and Western Rites) who influenced me towards a much deeper spirituality. Later, I was fortunate to have lived in a parish (Latin Rite) were a Byzantine Rite community formed, using the small chapel on the church property. First I got to meet the individuals and the pastor of this group. Then, as a liturgical artist, I discovered Holy Icons and began to learn this extraordinary gift to the Church. Slowly I began to attend both rites every weekend, especially after the small community purchased their own church building. An awesome experience! Ten years ago I moved to a city with no Eastern Rite Catholic parish and several Orthodox parishes. I learned exactly what Eric is talking about. I have great joy in the beauty of Eastern Christianity and great sorrow in the separation. It was tough to go to the Orthodox Divine Liturgy without receiving Holy Communion, so my attendance there is infrequent. Still I have a great longing in my soul for the eventual reunion. As an iconographer, fasting is a regular discipline. I feel the prayer for Unity well up upon occasion. There is a strong sense East and West are two parts of a Whole. I believe the LORD sees us as One.

    Comment posted August 5th, 2006 at 9:15 pm