Laity To Help Grow Eastern Catholic Churches

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (CNS) — The message hit Patrick Keegan loud and clear: He’s a leader in his Byzantine Catholic parish just as much as his pastor.

A catechist at St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church in Barberton, outside of Akron, Keegan said he wants to assume a greater leadership role in his parish and in the wider community by living out his faith.

“You have to make yourself known. You have to listen at the feet of Jesus, but you can’t just stay at the feet of Jesus. You have to go out,” Keegan told Catholic News Service during a break at Encounter 2012 near Cleveland Sept. 22 sponsored by the Eastern Catholic churches.

“I can’t teach what I don’t live and to know what I have to live I have to read Scripture,” Keegan continued. “I have to read the church fathers. I have to pick a side of the fence, so to say. I either live for Christ or I don’t.

“It’s tough. It’s really tough.”

Keegan, who joined St. Nicholas after years in the Latin Catholic Church, said he travels 60-mile round trip from his home in Wooster, Ohio, to his parish once or twice a week to teach the faith to young people. He said he hopes his example inspires others.

He was one of 200 laypeople and 85 Eastern Catholic clergy to attend the conference on 20-23 September. Other regional gatherings were scheduled for 11-14 October in Hillsborough, N.J., and 2-4 November in Los Angeles.

Conference organizers hoped the events featuring well-known speakers mixed with a healthy dose of worship and prayer will inspire and reinvigorate lay members and clergy to collaborate in evangelization, invite newcomers to check out their churches and to raise the profile of the Eastern churches in their communities.

The Eastern churches are diverse, encompassing cultures from Eastern Europe, throughout the Middle East and India. Among the churches participating in the conference were the Armenian, Chaldean, Syro-Malankara, Syro-Malabar, Maronite, Melkite, Romanian, Russian, Ruthenian Byzantine, Syriac, Ukrainian Byzantine and Ukrainian Catholic churches. The Slovaks of the Byzantine Rite of Canada also participated in the conference. All are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Many attendees described the Eastern Catholic churches as the “best kept secret” of the North American Catholic Church and expressed hope that the conference series will be the start of a major effort to boost membership in their not-very-well-known parishes. Several said collaboration — especially in religious education, Bible study, cultural programming and prayer — is vital.

“We need this. We need people from our churches to interact with people of our faith,” said Mary Snell, a member of Nativity of Mother of God Slovak Byzantine Church in Toronto. “Our churches are empty and we need to get people back in.”

Speakers urged participants to take personal responsibility in building their individual parishes. They often cited examples from the New Testament of how St. Paul expressed joy when new leaders stepped forward to share Christian beliefs and build the early church.

Meeting during the first two days of the conference, clergy were urged to welcome and encourage a wider role for laity in their parishes, many of which count membership at 200 households or fewer. Laity over the last two days were asked to join with clergy in sharing their Catholic faith when possible and as appropriate in daily activities.

“When Paul talks about building, we hear that he’s talking about building fellowship, building community. Fellowship means a community, which is much more than just superficial interaction,” Melkite Bishop Nicholas J. Samra of Newton, Mass., said in his address to clergy.

Church leadership, he explained, must move beyond the pursuit of self-interest and extend beyond the confines of the parish. Church leadership, he said, is bound by Scripture to respond to the needs of society.

After his presentation, Bishop Samra told CNS the Eastern Catholic churches, while founded in various ethnic cultures, must welcome all newcomers if they are to follow Paul’s vision of faithful Christian communities.

“I truly believe, especially in our churches which are not as overbuilt as the Roman churches, that no parish should ever have been closed,” Bishop Samra said. “If we really live the evangelical life and accept that we’re a church, we’re not an ethnic group, that we’re … bringing people into the body and incorporating them, churches should always be growing. Our focus is Christ and still is and we try to get that across to people.”

In two rousing presentations on developing lay leadership, Melkite Deacon Sabatino R. Carnazzo, executive director of the Institute of Catholic Culture and a member of Holy Transfiguration Melkite Catholic Parish in McLean, Va., called upon his audiences to root their ministry in the Scripture.

In his first presentation to clergy, he called upon priests and bishops to cast aside clericalism that “reduces the laity to the status of second class citizen.”

He encouraged clergy to move beyond “what they (laity) cannot do, but to ask ourselves what God wants them to do. What is the rightful activity of the people of God as leaders? What does true leadership look like in the church?”

Deacon Carnazzo then reminded laypeople to remember they are called to leadership and discipleship.

“Lay leadership is no an answer to the problems (of the church),” he said. “It is the purpose of the church in the first place.”

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