The Eastern Catholic bishops in the United States share their brother bishops’ concerns about religious freedom and evangelization, and see their distinct liturgies as powerful tools for expanding their flocks.
Bishops from the Chaldean, Ruthenian, Maronite, Ukrainian, Armenian, Melkite, Syriac and Romanian Catholic churches were at the Vatican May 15-19 for their “ad limina” visits. They were the last group of U.S. bishops to make the visits to report on the status of their dioceses to Pope Benedict XVI and to hold discussions with Vatican officials.
Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of St. Maron of Brooklyn, N.Y., said Eastern Christians, whose churches have experienced much persecution over the centuries, have a message for their fellow Christians in the West: “Don’t be silenced by anybody.”
“Christianity doesn’t seek to ‘impose’ on anybody,” he said. “That’s the false myth in American society,” because the Catholic witness to non-Christians takes place primarily through service in hospitals, nursing homes and schools, said the bishop, whose diocese covers 40 parishes in 16 states.
For the Maronite Church in the United States, he said, one challenge is to meet the needs both of Maronites whose families have been in the country for generations and of newcomers from Lebanon and the Middle East, who may speak only Arabic.
“The other (challenge) is to welcome people who have no church background, no faith background and have a found a home with us,” he said.
“It’s fascinating among my clergy (there are) last names like Beaton, Franklin, Jensen, Morrison – not the traditional Arabic names. You have men who have found a great love for this church,” its liturgy and spirituality, the bishop said.
Ukrainian Archbishop Stefan Soroka of Philadelphia told Catholic News Service that the recent immigration of Catholics from Ukraine “has been a source of renewal” for his church, which has been losing many of the children of earlier generations of Ukrainian immigrants.
Building up the faith of members and persuading those who have left to return is a challenge the Eastern Catholic bishops share with their Latin-rite counterparts, he said.
One thing the Eastern Catholics have discovered, though, is the evangelizing power of their spirituality and their liturgies, which seem to give people a greater sense of mystery, even when celebrated in English, which is the standard for most Eastern Catholics in the United States, Archbishop Soroka said.
“When we do our liturgies properly with the fervent, life-giving manner in which they are meant to be celebrated, they do attract people because of their spirituality,” he said.
One issue that the Eastern Catholic bishops do not share with their Latin-rite brothers is having both married and celibate priests.
Archbishop Soroka, who said about a third of his priests are married, said allowing married men to become priests isn’t the magical solution to a vocations crisis. “I don’t have a lineup. I have a lineup of people who think that because they are married and have children they should be excused from some of the preparation and formation. And I tell them, ‘Would you go to a doctor that only took half his courses?’ And this is a doctor of souls.”
“We’re still ordaining more single men, celibate men,” he said, and “there is a revival of interest in celibacy” and religious life.
Like Archbishop Soroka, Melkite Bishop Nicholas J. Samra of Newton, Mass., said some of his older parishes in the United States have a dwindling population, but in cities where there has been new immigration, the church is growing.
In addition, Bishop Samra said, “we do have a very large group of people that find Eastern spirituality very conducive to their lifestyle compared to Western spirituality.”
In Miami, he said, there are so many South American Catholics who are attracted to the Melkite’s Byzantine liturgy and spirituality that they celebrate a Melkite liturgy in Spanish.
“We welcome anyone who wants to be a Melkite. We’re not out there stealing people from other churches, but if they walk into the doors of our church and they like it, ‘God bless you, welcome, the church is open to you.’” Bishop Samra said.
“There have been some people who have come to us, I’m sure, thinking we’re quote-unquote a little more traditional than their church was, but they soon learn” that the Melkites have a tradition of using the vernacular for prayer and of making constant slow, organic changes to their liturgy.
Romanian Bishop John M. Botean of St. George in Canton, Ohio, told CNS, “The power of the Byzantine liturgical life in particular can be very, very moving to people, and it speaks to them at levels and in ways that they may find new.”
The bishop said one of his monks has an explanation that has been particularly helpful in explaining what distinguishes them from Roman Catholics; it boils down to “the difference in church life that comes out when you live out of the authority of a tradition rather than a tradition of authority.”
Also, Bishop Botean said, “We tend to be a lot less thematic in our approach to liturgical celebrations, for instances, and a lot more just focused on the same mysteries over and over and over again.”
“Incense, color, movement, choreography – all the sense are engaged in the celebration of the liturgy,” which flows from a style of worship “that’s very peculiar to the Middle East at the time of Christ,” the bishop said.
“We’ve had an experience of 2,000 years of, as they say, organic development that has added layer upon layer of things,” he said. On any given Sunday, “in a sense you decided what you’re going to omit, to focus on the rich treasury of liturgical texts that are available for the service. And the texts themselves come through supported by all the other sensuality of the liturgy.”