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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Place to Call Home

Eastern churches welcome new members

The Reverend Thomas J. Loya spends a portion of his homily each Sunday explaining the nuts and bolts of Christianity in the Byzantine tradition.

“Remember, we do not satisfy a Sunday obligation in the Byzantine Church, that is not our spirituality,” he reminded his parishioners one Sunday last July. 

“It’s a beautiful blessing, because they have found a home, and we’re glad we can be that home for them.”

“What we do is we immerse ourselves … in the mystery of the Holy Trinity and how that is experienced,” he continued. “We live life completely as gift, gratitude and wonderment.”

The Sunday homily is Father Loya’s primary opportunity to teach his growing congregation at Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Illinois, about following Jesus Christ in the Byzantine tradition. Rooted in the church of Constantinople, once the court church of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, the Byzantine rite is the most prominent of the Eastern Christian traditions that also include the Armenian, Coptic, Geez and Syriac rites. 

The Byzantine Catholic Church in the United States — with its origins in Transcarpathia, a mountainous region located in present-day eastern Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and western Ukraine — is one of 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic churches in full communion with the bishop of Rome.

Father Loya founded the parish of the Annunciation in Chicago’s southwest suburbs 22 years ago. In his 40 years as a priest of the 12-state Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma, Ohio, Father Loya has seen a growing trend of people, who were neither born into Eastern Catholicism nor of Eastern or Central European heritage, join his church. Many previously attended Protestant churches or had no religious affiliation at all, he says.

The shift these past two decades has been dramatic, says Father Loya.

“Where we would have had maybe 80 percent of the people in our congregations with an Eastern Christian background and 20 percent who did not, now that is shifting to the point where it’s pretty much reversed.” 

Priest blesses the gifts while deacon observes, at a parish in Chicago.
Father Thomas J. Loya blesses the gifts during the Divine Liturgy at his parish in suburban Chicago. Deacon Tim Tkach concelebrates. (photo: David Bratnick)

“The shift was gradual at first, but now it has accelerated. The majority of our parishes now are sustained or populated by people who do not have that Eastern Christian or ethnic background,” he says.

After celebrating Divine Liturgy in Homer Glen, Father Loya drives 182 miles one way to Muscatine, Iowa, to celebrate with a fledgling Byzantine Catholic mission.

An evangelical outreach of the eparchy, the mission currently has seven registered families — none of them with Eastern European ethnic or religious heritage — most of whom have been received into the Christian faith according to the rites of the Byzantine tradition. Up to 40 people attend its biweekly liturgies, some of whom drive more than two hours to get there, says Adam Kemner, who established the outreach with his wife, Lynsey, in 2014. 

Mr. Kemner learned about the Byzantine Catholic Church as a teen. His parents wanted to teach him about the diversity within Catholicism, attending St. Luke Byzantine Catholic Church in Sugar Creek, Missouri, up the hill from their Roman Catholic parish. While they attended the Divine Liturgy at St. Luke’s only once a month, it quickly became his “preferred place.”

“Once I got my own wheels, I would go a little more frequently,” he says. “Basically, if I wasn’t scheduled to serve Mass at my parish, I was at St. Luke’s.”

He met his wife while in high school. A member of the Church of the Nazarene, she was searching for answers to her questions of faith. She explored Catholicism seriously, but she could not seem to settle on joining the Roman Catholic Church. Mr. Kemner took her to St. Luke’s one Pentecost. She was 19.

“I was just, like, ‘This is where I want to be,’ ” she recalls. “I fell very much in love with the Byzantine Catholic Church and this little parish.”

Nine months later, she was received into the Byzantine Catholic Church.

“I believe I have a better understanding of who Jesus is and I feel a lot more comfortable answering my children’s questions” about faith, she says.

While in college, they married and had their first son baptized at St. Luke’s. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Kemner submitted his official request to transfer his church of ascription to the Byzantine Church, too — a process more commonly called change of rite. It was important, he says, that his entire family belong to and worship in the same tradition. 

A work opportunity eventually led the Kemners to Iowa, where no organized Eastern Catholic faith community existed at the time, so they prayed at a local Greek Orthodox church. 

However, a providential meeting with the Reverend Sergio Ayala, then a deacon of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church working in Iowa, planted a seed. Deacon Ayala was willing to assist the Kemners in getting a Byzantine Catholic faith community off the ground, finding a church for worship, and accompanying the community in its growth. Mr. Kemner contacted Bishop John Kudrick, then-bishop of Parma, who agreed that a rotation of priests could start ministering to the faithful in Iowa.

Eight years later, the outreach has settled into a 2,100-square-foot storefront off of Route 61 and Mr. Kemner, a business analyst and father of 10, volunteers about 20 hours a week to keep the outreach going. Father Ayala, now a priest, lives in Chicago’s North Side and trades off the biweekly liturgies with Father Loya. 

Of Hispanic origin, Father Ayala also represents a similar trend in new membership in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in North America.

Often perceived as a Middle Eastern or an Arabic church, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is not ethnic in its origins as are some Eastern churches, says the Reverend François Beyrouti, pastor of Holy Cross Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Placentia, California, a suburb of Los Angeles.

We are of the “apostolic church of Antioch that uses the Byzantine liturgy,” he explains, adding that “it was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians.”

But, he concedes, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is centered in the eastern Mediterranean, and has proliferated predominantly in Arabic-speaking nations. While new membership in the Melkite Church in North America trends toward people who do not have a Middle Eastern background and do not speak Arabic, he says, there is still the need “to be pastorally sensitive to ethnic realities,” especially for older members of the community and for new immigrants, who want to worship in Arabic.

“My response has been to be as open as humanly possible and to make the services coherent, if you do not understand Arabic, so you’re able to follow,” says Father Beyrouti, who set up a monthly schedule for bilingual, English-only or Arabic-only liturgies. The church pews are equipped with bilingual liturgical books.

“Sometimes we forget we have to be the local church if we’re going to exist in North America, if we’re going to exist anywhere in the world.”

While Father Beyrouti was born in Lebanon and is of Middle Eastern heritage, Bishop Nicholas Samra of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts, which includes parishes throughout the United States, says more than half of his clergy is currently not of Middle Eastern descent.

The vision for the Melkite Church to evangelize among all people in North America was cast by the first eparch of Newton, Archbishop Joseph Tawil.

“He was a man of vision and he believed we are a church in the United States open to anyone. He was very committed to evangelization, even outside the ethnic community, and he welcomed this very, very strongly,” says Bishop Samra.

Efforts to catechize successive generations of Eastern Catholics born in the United States led to 
the development of an English-language children’s catechetical program, God With Us, about 50 years ago, says Bishop Samra, who has been part of the initiative since his seminary days. 

Still, despite his ongoing call to increase English-language outreach and liturgies, the bishop is concerned about the growing number of young people of Middle Eastern descent, who identify primarily as American and have dismissed the Melkite Greek Catholic Church as their “grandparents’ Arabic church.”

“I really believe the future of our church in the United States is going to be from people who are not ethnically tied to this community,” he says.

The strong ethnic identity of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was no obstacle for Dr. Pascal Bastien to embrace this church as his own. He first encountered Eastern Christianity while studying computer engineering at the University of Ottawa in Canada.

“Most of my classmates were either Egyptian or Lebanese and I was immersed in a totally different face of Christianity I had never encountered,” says Dr. Bastien, a French Canadian Roman Catholic, who would join his Eastern Christian classmates at vespers regularly. 

“Admittedly, at first it all seemed very foreign,” he says, until he attended vespers at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Greek Catholic Shrine in Ottawa at age 20.

“I know it sounds a little bit cliché, but I really didn’t know whether I was on earth or in heaven,” he says. “And I just started attending vespers regularly after that.”

However, the beauty of that prayer did not immunize him from a crisis of faith. He went to medical school and left his faith behind, returning to it only after he met Amie, a member of a Vietnamese evangelical church, during his residency in Toronto. They later married.

“We had an unusual path of finding how we might put the Lord back at the center of our lives,” he says. And it led them to St. Elias Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, where Mrs. Bastien soon took on the role of playing the church bells after Sunday liturgy.

The couple has three children, all baptized at St. Elias. Dr. Bastien also submitted his paperwork to transfer his church of ascription and formalize his adherence to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. 

Amie Bastien and her children, Éli, Clément and Léonie, chant evening prayers in the icon corner of their home in Ottawa, Canada. (photo: courtesy Pascal Bastien)

The Bastiens recently moved to Ottawa, where Dr. Bastien works in general internal medicine and Mrs. Bastien set aside her finance career to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom. The children attend a Maronite school and the family is back at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Greek Catholic Shrine, where almost half of the congregation is not of Ukrainian origin, says Dr. Bastien. 

While she remains an evangelical, Mrs. Bastien volunteers with the children’s liturgy and lives the Eastern Catholic practices with her family at home. 

Attending an Eastern Catholic church, “I’ve really come to appreciate the awesomeness of God — that is something I encountered much more in the Eastern church — and a different way to encounter prayer, which I found has really completed my Christian experience,” she says.

Not being ethnically Ukrainian has not impeded Dr. Bastien from taking on an important leadership position in the community as board president of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute Foundation. He also took up transposing Ukrainian liturgical music to French hymnody as a hobby — a project he began with Archbishop Borys Gudziak when the latter was serving in France. Some French chant has been incorporated into the liturgy in Ottawa.

“Sometimes we forget we have to be the local church if we’re going to exist in North America, if we’re going to exist anywhere in the world,” says Dr. Bastien. “And the local vernacular makes sense. 

“The more a parish and a priest specifically understand their mission to be that of a local church, to bring all to Christ, the more it’s bound to happen that people will realize, ‘This is the place for me.’ ”

Now leading the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, Archbishop Gudziak also notes the “increasing number of members of our church who are not ethnically Ukrainian,” a large number because of intermarriage. 

“Many others have joined our community through these relationships, and there are those who are drawn by the spirituality, the liturgical tradition, the theology, the certain kind of intimacy in our communities, which are generally smaller,” he says.

He agrees with Dr. Bastien that a “very important” pastoral approach to welcoming people who are not ethnically Ukrainian is to “take down the language barrier.”

“And then it is basically a very human thing just to be welcoming to anybody, not filtering people by their ethnic background, ethnic or racial,” he says.

An Eastern Catholic church that does not evangelize and seek new membership is not living the call of the Gospel, says Chorbishop John D. Faris, a canon lawyer, pastor of St. Anthony Maronite Parish near Richmond, Virginia, and CNEWA’s former assistant secretary general.

“Evangelization casts the net wide and is not restricted to ethnic identity or bloodlines or nationality or anything of the sort,” he says. 

If a church in North America “is not evangelizing, it is dying,” he adds. 

“A church must evangelize to live. We live in a society that needs Christ, that needs to hear Christ,” he says. “And the more you keep welcoming others into the community, the healthier the parish.”

The Maronite Church is rooted in the monasticism of a fourth-century monk, St. Maron, whose teaching and spirituality spread from present-day Syria to Lebanon. Current membership in the Maronite Church in North America is not restricted to the Lebanese or to Maronites alone. 

“There is a lot of intermarriage in the Maronite Church. This is very, very common,” says Chorbishop Faris.

Among his longstanding, married parishioners, about 80 percent have spouses who are neither Lebanese nor canonically Maronite — many are Roman Catholic — he says, adding that he was born into such a family. 

“I am half Lebanese, half Irish, I’m fully Maronite,” he says. “This is a Maronite parish. We love Lebanese culture. We love Middle Eastern culture. We embrace it. But ‘Lebanese’ is not a church. ‘Maronite’ is a church.”

Changing one’s canonical ascription is not necessary to worship or to belong to an Eastern Catholic church, he explains.

“Catholics are free to worship and receive the Eucharist in any Catholic church,” whether Eastern or Western, he says. Canonical ascription only comes into play in a definitive way when people are discerning a religious or priestly vocation.

Several ethnicities are also represented in his parish, including Indian and Vietnamese. However, a new wave of immigrants from Lebanon — which has been experiencing economic and political collapse in recent years — has begun arriving at his parish at a rate of about one family per week, leading him to add a Sunday liturgy in Arabic.

St. Anthony’s also experienced a phenomenon common to other Eastern Catholic churches during the COVID-19 pandemic — an influx of Roman Catholic faithful, who could not worship at their usual parishes due to various lockdown measures. In some cases, these faithful stayed even after the Roman Catholic churches reopened.

Another common experience in Eastern Catholic churches is as a place of refuge for some of those uncomfortable with the many changes in the modern world, including variations in liturgical expressions in the Latin rite. 

“Eastern churches are perhaps perceived or interpreted as … [a] refuge for traditional values,” the chorbishop says. “There’s a perception that our liturgy is traditional and we’ve never changed … But, we’re no more ancient than the Latin church.”

The noted canonist and pastor quickly adds that sometimes there are attempts by those seeking refuge in Eastern Catholic parishes to influence their chosen faith community in a manner that conflicts with the values and traditions of that church. In these cases, it is up to the pastor to ensure the integrity of the tradition, he says.

Mr. Kemner in Iowa notes that when people approach him seeking a faith community to validate a particular partisan perspective or worldview, he impresses upon them that this is not the purpose of any parish or outreach. Rather, the parish is a place where the faith community seeks to know and serve God and, at the Byzantine outreach in Iowa, it is where followers of the Gospel commit themselves in doing so through Byzantine traditions and practices.

Back in Homer Glen, Father Loya, says the zeal of new members has reinvigorated his parish, which sees about 200 people on a Sunday.

He, too, admits that new membership comes with growing pains. One challenge is helping new members understand and embrace the history of the particular church, its customs, traditions and spirituality, and not to impose how things were done in their previous church. As well, while many newcomers cite the family atmosphere of the smaller Eastern churches as a draw, Father Loya says most are not prepared for its “very high impact.”

“Sometimes you’ll bump heads,” he says. 

“Everybody gets noticed. Everybody gets involved. It’s not someplace you can come anonymously and leave. We’re not big enough to have staff, so everybody needs to pitch in. We really need everybody’s gifts, everybody’s time and effort.”

Eastern Christian traditions also expect a higher level of commitment to liturgical life than most Christian denominations, says Father Loya.

“While we don’t speak in terms of obligation, we expect people to be here for the holy days and feast days,” he says. “It’s how we live as Eastern Christians.”

Likewise, he observes in his new parishioners a “purity of search for spirituality” and a seriousness about prayer, church teaching and being faithful to the Christian life. 

“They’re also bringing a lot of personal gifts and a certain objectivity where they can see things that might be lacking,” he says. “They’re helping us to get out there more, to evangelize with ideas that can apply to the Eastern churches.” 

“These people who are coming are very committed, very enthusiastic,” he says. “It’s a beautiful blessing, because they have found a home, and we’re glad we can be that home for them.”

Since ONE’s Laura Ieraci conducted the interviews for this article, Father François Beyrouti was named to succeed Bishop Nicholas Samra as the eparch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton. The team at ONE congratulates him on his new ministry. AXIOS!

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