Editors’ note: Excluding the new immigration from Ukraine this year and from Lebanon in the past two years, Eastern Catholic congregations in North America have been growing with new members who have no family or historic ties to these churches. Laura Ieraci explores this trend in her feature article, “A Place to Call Home,” published in the September 2022 issue of ONE. In the audio report below, she shares some of her notes from the field — some which did not make it into her article. A full transcript follows.
It’s the end of August and I’m at a wedding at Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Illinois. The couple wearing crowns is being led around the tetrapod three times by the priest, who holds a handheld cross, while the cantor sings a hauntingly beautiful hymn:
Rejoice, O Isaiah! The Virgin is with child,
And shall bear a son Emmanuel,
Who is both God and Man, And Orient is His Name,
Whom magnifying we call, the Virgin blessed. …
And thus, the man and woman take their first walk as a married couple with their eyes fixed on the cross of Christ.
The make-up of this particular couple is not uncommon in Eastern Catholic churches across North America: The groom was born and raised Eastern Catholic, and the bride was not, embracing the Eastern church through marriage.
Full disclosure: Marriage led me to the Christian East as well, but marriage isn’t the only way Eastern Catholic churches are growing in membership in North America. Increasingly, these churches are welcoming people who come by winding paths, the culmination of a spiritual search, people who were neither born into these faith traditions nor belong to the cultural groups at the origins of these churches.
My assignment as a journalist led me to speak with pastors and faithful from different Eastern Catholic churches in North America, namely the Maronite, Melkite, Ruthenian Byzantine and Ukrainian churches, and to discuss with them this growing trend in recent decades.
I spoke with Dr. Pascal Bastien in Ottawa, Canada. He was raised Roman Catholic in a French-Canadian family and was drawn to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church by the beauty he found in its liturgy. He and his wife, Amie, had their children baptized in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and he proceeded to change his church of ascription to the Ukrainian Church, too.
While Amie retains her membership in the evangelical church in which she was raised, she attends Sunday liturgy with her husband and children at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Shrine of St. John the Baptist, where non-Ukrainians make up almost half of the congregation.
Father Thomas Loya, pastor of Annunciation Church in Homer Glen, shares his perspective on the recent growth of new membership in the Eastern churches:
“A lot of people today are looking for what they see as tradition or stability, things that are faithful to the church teaching, faithful to good liturgy. And so, where they’re not finding it in their own churches, [they] have found the Eastern churches. But also, there’s a lot of unchurched people who are coming.
“The human heart still yearns for that, and people will seek it and they look for it and they are finding it in the Eastern Catholic churches at this time.
“It’s not to say that we’re better than other churches. It’s just that our particular riches right now seem to be serving a specific need, right now, at this time. And I think this is part of the answer and the reason for the growth that we’re experiencing.”
The limitations imposed by the print medium meant not all of the people I interviewed made it into my final piece.
One of these people is Father Robert Pipta, rector of the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh, who says this new demographic is reflected at the seminary as well. Of the nine seminarians who were to start the new academic year in 2022, only two were raised Eastern Catholic.
Father Robert Pipta:
“This particular grouping of seminarians, primarily are those who were Roman Catholic and have come into an Eastern Catholic church. And then we have those who converted to Catholicism from a Protestant denomination.
“And then there are those who as adults embraced Christianity and did so in an Eastern Catholic church, but these people were not raised in the Byzantine Christian tradition.
“And then there are those who converted to Catholicism from an Eastern Orthodox church.
“There’s without question, going to be a fervor that is brought to the church through the adult decision, and then usually the very mature, spiritually guided decision that is made for the church. That in and of itself is enriching.”
Laura Ieraci is assistant editor of ONE.