ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Byzantine Catholics in the Midwest

Though transplanted from central Europe, Byzantine Catholics in the Midwest continue to follow the ancient rites and traditions of their church.

Although the traditional ancestral roots of most Midwestern Byzantine Catholics are Slav, today’s Byzantine Catholics are a part of the complex ethnic fabric that is the American tapestry. In the Midwestern Ruthenian Eparchy of Parma, centered in the city of Parma, Ohio, this diversity breathes new life into an eparchy covering 12 states from the industrial heart of Ohio to the plains of the Dakotas.

Established in 1969, it originally embraced 25 states reaching from Ohio to the West Coast. During the early years, the first bishop, the Most Rev. Emil J. Mihalik, founded parishes in Alaska and Hawaii as well. In 1982 the Holy See established the Eparchy of Van Nuys, California, leaving Parma with its current 12 Midwestern states.

The eparchy’s parishes may seem small to many Roman Catholics – the average parish is just 160 households. The largest parish in the eparchy has 534 households, while the smallest lists only eight! With parishes of these numbers, parishioners experience a real spirit of family – parishes need everyone’s participation and support.

These parish families express this spirit through the many liturgical and social events that are a regular part of parish life in the Byzantine Church. Parish meals, centered around the liturgical calendar, include pre-Lenten meatless meals. St. Thomas Sunday breakfasts on the Sunday after Easter, parish festivals and picnics during the spring and summer months, St. Nicholas dinners and Christmas Eve suppers usually feature traditional ethnic foods, but do not exclude favorite recipes borrowed from other ethnic backgrounds. In addition, wedding anniversaries, baptisms and weddings become total parish events celebrated by all, not just a few.

Food also plays an important liturgical role, especially during the more important feast days. There is the blessed bread distributed during the anointing with oil on greater feasts. Sometimes honey cakes are also included. There is the boiled wheat and honey mold blessed on the first Friday of the Great Fast (Lent). The feast of the Transfiguration features a blessing of fresh fruit while the feast of the Dormition is marked by the blessing of flowers and herbs.

On the eves of the Nativity of the Lord and of the Theophany (January 5) families share special penitential meatless meals with prayers and chanting of the festal verses. And no Byzantine Catholic forgets the traditional Easter bread, Pascha, and Artos, a sweet loaf blessed on Easter and distributed on Thomas Sunday.

The custom that families most consistently carry out is that of bringing baskets of food to be blessed on Easter. Foods included are those given up during the Great Fast. Traditionally they include a Pascha bread, sausage, butter, lamb, horseradish, salt, an egg custard, ham, hard-boiled eggs and elaborately decorated fresh eggs.

All of these bring the liturgical life into the family home.

Because most parishes cannot support a parochial school, (there are only two in the eparchy) religious education classes are a prominent feature of parish life. During these Eastern Christian formation classes students learn the theology, liturgy, chant and customs of the Byzantine Church. This prepares them to live their Christian lives effectively as Byzantine Catholics.

While these are the positive aspects of life in the Eparchy of Parma, there are also challenges. Roman Catholics will find echoes of their own dilemmas – the eparchy faces a clergy shortage. There are only 35 priests to serve the 14,000 faithful in the 40 parishes of the eparchy.

When pastoral needs require it the Congregation for the Eastern Churches may allow a priest of one rite, who has received training in the theology and liturgy of another, to celebrate the liturgy in that rite as well. Thanks to the help of bi-ritual priests of the Latin (Roman) Church three parishes receive the ministry of a regular pastor.

Six other parishes do not have a resident pastor but each parish is served by the pastor of a nearby parish. The eparchy ordained one priest in 1993, but has had three deaths since. A second priest was ordained in March and there is just one seminarian beginning his studies. The shortage of clergy has caused Bishop Pataki to close two parishes. In one case there are Byzantine parishes nearby, but in the other, not one. These people will more than likely attend Latin parishes and may eventually decide to transfer permanently to the Latin Church.

The eparchy’s two Catholic elementary schools provide an excellent education, developing the minds of our future leaders, anchoring them in the basics of reading, writing, arithmetic and religion. But the small size of parishes and a sagging economy resulted in the closing of yet another school last March. Since a Catholic education is important to many parents, Byzantine Catholics often send their children to Latin Catholic schools. It is not surprising that many of these students eventually find their way permanently into Latin Catholic parishes.

Bishop Pataki has taken several measures to address these issues and to promote spiritual renewal in the eparchy. In 1987 he promulgated a standard text to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. In the past some priests, responding to the pastoral needs of the people, omitted parts of the liturgy. The lack of consistency in the way this was done created confusion among laity and clergy alike. A standard liturgical text has brought a welcome harmony to the celebration. The Bishop also directed the Liturgical Commission to make a fresh translation of the lenten liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts and directed that it be celebrated in all parishes at least once a week during the Great Fast. This liturgical service had fallen out of general use and its restoration has been beneficial to the lenten renewal of the Christian faithful.

One of the most significant tasks the Bishop has undertaken is the restoration of the sacraments of Christian initiation for infants. While baptism and chrismation (confirmation) had always been celebrated together, first communion had been delayed until the child reached seven years of age. Responding to the canons of the new Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, which directed that the Eucharist be given along with baptism and chrismation, Bishop Pataki had the Liturgical Commission prepare a new translation of the rite of baptism and chrismation. He promulgated this for the eparchy and has directed the restoration of first Eucharist at the time of baptism, regardless of age.

Bishop Pataki also established an eparchial assembly (the same as a diocesan synod in the Latin Church), which resulted in the promulgation of eparchial statutes in September 1993. These statutes seek to make the new canons more effective in the eparchy and improve implementation of the teachings of Vatican II. Through the various structures and programs outlined in the statutes, there has been an increase in lay representation and leadership throughout the eparchy.

Of similar importance is the new eparchial mission statement that lists evangelization as the most important mission of the eparchy. The new Office of Evangelization has prepared materials to assist parish evangelization teams in their tasks. This year there will be an eparchy-wide effort to invite fallen-away Catholics back to their church. The suggested date for this effort is the Sunday after Easter, Thomas Sunday, which is named for the Gospel account of the doubting apostle read that day. This seems an appropriate time to invite back those who have experienced doubts about their faith.

A unique twist to its work of evangelization is the support the Eparchy of Parma provides to the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. Many of the Greek Catholic priests who arrived on these shores nearly 100 years ago to work with the steady flow of immigrants were from western Ukraine. When the Soviet Union annexed western Ukraine the communists liquidated the Greek Catholic Church and turned over most of its property to the Russian Orthodox Church. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the Greek Catholic Church has been legalized and a portion of its property has been restored. However the job of restoring ecclesial life is now the responsibility of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic hierarchy.

Bishop Ivan Semedi of Mukacevo has undertaken the task of building a seminary to train the many candidates who are eager to become priests. Unfortunately there is little money available. After construction began in late summer 1992, financial problems caused repeated delays. Construction halted in June 1994. Today the half-completed building sits idly while weeds grow around it. Meanwhile the seminarians live and study in makeshift quarters.

Wishing to return something for what they received years ago, a group of clergy and laity in the eparchy recently formed the Three Holy Hierarchs Association. Named for the original patron saints of the old seminary in Uzhorod, Ukraine, the association plans to raise funds to complete the construction of the new seminary. This will help repay a debt of gratitude for those pioneering priests who brought the Byzantine Catholic faith to the New World.

With the grace of God the whole Catholic Church, Byzantine and Roman, will forge ahead, overcoming obstacles, growing in faith and love so that the kingdom of God may unfold, revealing to all the glorious tradition of the church, East and West.

Father Rachford is Director of Communications for the Eparchy of Parma.

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