“Eastern” in a “Western” World

It is very difficult to be an Eastern Catholic in a country that is predominantly Western. All too often our local Catholic Churches do not know of – or understand – the great diversity of our faith.

The following article, which originally appeared in Sophia (May-Aug 2001) explores this situation and includes the a personal letter of explanation from Roman Bishop Gerald Barnes of the Diocese of San Bernardino


by Richard R. Velazquez

Ever since I married my wife Shedha at St. Anne Melkite church in North Hollywood, CA, I knew that someday we would have our own children and that we would bring them to Christianity through the Melkite Church. I have always felt that it is a great spiritual joy and pride when an Eastern Christian parent brings his or her infant child to receive the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ during the Divine Liturgy. My day of joy came when I initiated my two adopted children on December 20, 1998, at St. Phillip Melkite Mission in San Bernardino, CA. The priest was Fr. Justin Rose. This was a wonderful day in the life of our families.

My joy however, was short lived. You see we live in an area which has no Melkite Church. St. Phillip is an hour away from our home and it is not always possible to attend Sunday Divine Liturgy there. We then attend Mass in a Latin church in either Desert Hot Springs or in Palm Springs. Soon after initiating my children I attended Mass in the Latin church of St. Elizabeth of Hungry in Desert Hot Springs. When I approached the Altar with my children, the priest refused to give my son Fans and my daughter Henadee communion. He stated that when I am in a Roman church I must do as the Romans. I then spoke with another priest in Palm Springs and he gave my children communion only once. I did not question him as to why he did not continue. I did not want to cause any problem. I then attended the Divine Liturgy in both Orthodox churches in the Desert and they too refused to give us communion unless we became Orthodox. I explained that I was already Orthodox but that I was in union with Rome. The thought of converting to the Greek or Antiochian Orthodox Church did cross my mind but then I recalled the sermon of our late Patriarch Maximos V Hakim in which he thanked and implored all Melkites for not leaving the faith to either the Latin or the Orthodox Churches.

Each Sunday when I would attend mass in a Latin Church I would take the Eucharist in the hand and not consume it until I went to the pew and shared it with my children. I was questioned twice as to why I did this? The Latin Catholics could not understand why a child or infant could receive communion. I explained to them that while they had their age of reason, we, the Melkites, had the Holy Spirit.

In late 1999 or early 2000 while visiting Fr. Joe, a retired Ruthenian priest I noticed that he had a booklet titled “Eastern Catholics in the United States.” (This booklet was published by the Committee on the Relationship between the Eastern and Latin Catholic Churches National Conference of Catholic Bishops in June 1999) I borrowed the booklet and read it from cover to cover. On pages 26 through 29 it explains the Eastern Holy Mystery of Christian Initiation and that infants are given communion. It goes on to state on page 28 Paragraph 4 that “Holy Communion may be received in any Catholic Church.” I tried to bring this fact to the Latin priest in my area but I was not able to find the diplomatic terms or words to do so.

It was not until I attended the Grand Opening of Martha’s Village and Kitchen in Indio, CA, on January or February 2001, that I was to do anything about it. The Latin Bishop of San Bernardino was present and after the services I approached him. I explained my situation to him and he informed me that the rules had been revised and that it was no longer an issue. He asked me to write him a letter and that he would take care of the issue. And, as you can see from the following letter the issue is now History:

“Dear Mr. Velazquez:

God’s blessing to you. This letter is in response to your e-mail which followed our conversation at Martha’s Kitchen regarding your children not being allowed to receive communion either at St. Elizabeth in Desert Hot Springs or at Our Lady of Solitude in Palm Springs. I apologize for the delay. I appreciate that this is a matter of serious concern to you and your family. Eastern Catholics in communion with the Catholic Church have the right to receive communion in our Church and are to be welcomed to the Eucharist in all the parishes in the Diocese of San Bernardino, CA.

In his Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, Pope Paul VI, on November 21, 1964, says: 3. These individual Churches, whether of the East or the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves in rite, that is, in liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage, are nevertheless, each as much as the others, entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in primacy over the universal Church. They are consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards to rite and they enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, also in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world (cf. Mark 16,15) under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff.

In his 1995 apostolic letter, Orientate Lumen, The Light of the East, Pope John Paul II wrote, “A particular thought goes out to the lands of the Diaspora where many faithful of the Eastern Churches who have left their countries of origin are living in a mainly Latin environment.” The Pope continued, “I particularly urge the Latin Ordinaries in these countries to study attentively, grasp thoroughly and apply faithfully the principles issued by this Holy See concerning ecumenical cooperation and the pastoral care of the faithful of the Eastern Catholic Churches, especially when they lack their own hierarchy.” As Bishop of the Diocese of San Bernardino, I understand that in this big diocese it is not always possible for the faithful to attend their own church on Sundays though this is considered first choice. When Eastern Catholic families like yours celebrate the Sunday obligation in one of our Latin Catholic Parishes they are welcome to the Eucharistic table.

The Committee on the Relationship between Eastern and Latin Catholic Churches of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their work “Eastern Catholics in the United States of America,” in 1999, explains that in the USA, “It is the normal practice of the Church that Catholics celebrate the Lord’s day by participating in the celebration of the Eucharist in a community of their own church. Nevertheless, where there is diversity of Churches in the one place, the faithful worthily celebrate the resurrection of Jesus by attending the Eucharist in any of the autonomous ritual Churches.”

Holy Communion may be received in any Catholic Church. Since sacramental initiation in the mystery of salvation is perfected in the reception of the Divine Eucharist, children of Eastern Catholic Churches who have not received the Eucharist at the time of their Christian initiation, should receive their first Holy Communion in their own autonomous Church.

May God bless you for your continued commitment to Our Lord Jesus Christ and our Christian faith. Thank you for sharing with me your concern in this matter.

Sincerely in Christ, Most Reverend Gerald R. Barnes, Bishop of the Diocese of San Bernardino”