ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Eastern Churches in the Western World: Roots, Growth, Future

The Eastern Catholic churches in the Americas and Oceania encounter challenges as they adapt to new environs and cultures.

Why are there Eastern churches in the West? The dispersion of Eastern Christians to the New World reflects the tragedies of the 20th century – two world wars, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian and Soviet empires, economic disparity and Middle East turmoil – and the promises of peace and prosperity in a new world.

The emigration of Eastern Catholics began in the latter half of the 19th century. Once established in the Americas and Oceania, it was common for these immigrants to band together and form social clubs and societies. In some cases a priest would visit periodically and celebrate the Divine Liturgy. These communities, however, were not yet churches since they lacked episcopal ministry, a crucial element in the realization of an ecclesial community.

As Eastern Catholics left their homelands, the issue the Holy See had to address was whether to appoint Eastern Catholic bishops to serve them. The alternative would have been simply to commit all the Eastern Catholic faithful to the pastoral care of the local Latin ordinary. This would have been in keeping with the ancient principle – more often observed in the breach – that for each church there is only one bishop.

Beginning with this principle, it was commonly deduced that there could only be one church in any locale because church was defined in terms of territorial circumscription. In its definition of a particular church, however, Vatican II is silent regarding territorial circumscription. Rather, the council fathers defined the church as a portion of the people of God entrusted to a bishop. Church is defined in terms of persons, not territory, therefore making it possible for more than one church to occupy the same territory.

Greek Catholics of Ukrainian and Ruthenian descent were the first Eastern Catholic community to become a church in North America when, in May 1907, the Holy See appointed Basilian Father Soter Ortynsky as bishop. Subsequent Eastern Catholic eparchies were not created, however, for another six decades. Unfortunately, many of the Eastern Catholic faithful were by then affiliated with Latin Catholic parishes or had become Orthodox or Protestant.

When eparchies were finally erected, one of the tasks facing bishops was to forge in the faithful and clergy the notion of an Eastern Catholic Church and to create a sense of unity among communities dispersed over vast distances.

Some of the faithful were of the second or third generation and had little knowledge of their heritage except for a few ethnic foods and colorful expressions. Bishops often found that local ethnic social clubs rivaled the parish for community attention. And the clergy was not always supportive, since some priests would have preferred the supervision of the Latin bishop who treated them with benign neglect.

Rites. The faithful who immigrated to the New World brought with them a “rite,” a liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary heritage. This rite was not a static, unchangeable relic but a living organism, influenced by the cultures and historical circumstances of the new land.

An important element of culture and rite is language. It is erroneous to equate rite with language or to say that the celebration of a Divine Liturgy in the local vernacular is something less than an authentic observance of the rite. According to the liturgist Father Robert Taft, S.J., in the East “every language is, in effect, liturgical.”

In the case of the Maronite Church, the rite is no longer authentically celebrated and expressed only in Syriac and Arabic – English, French, Portuguese and Spanish are also part of the Maronite liturgical family. Today’s Eastern Christians have a right to live in their own age and to worship in their own tongue, as did their ancestors.

Diaspora. One term commonly used to describe a community outside its historical territory is diaspora, a Greek word meaning “dispersion.” The term is appropriate but its identification with the diffusion of the Jews gives rise to certain connotations that are not helpful to an understanding and appreciation of the spreading of the Eastern Catholic churches.

The main problem with using this term is that it implies that the “true” church is found in the homeland and that the goal of any true Eastern Catholic is to return to that homeland. This is an unrealistic approach. Undoubtedly those Eastern Catholics who have made new lives owe allegiance and must lend support to those in the homeland. This does not mean that the émigrés intend to return to their lands of origin. Occasionally this happens, but not often, and the chances decrease with each new generation. It is also sad but true that the conditions that forced them, or their parents, to leave have not changed very much.

To apply the term diaspora to Eastern Catholic communities in immigration denigrates the catholicity of these churches as if to say they are out of place in the West and are less in keeping with the cultural milieu. Because these churches are catholic, they possess the ability to inculturate them-selves anywhere and to contribute to the diversity of the Catholic Church.

Some have suggested that the terms “Mother Church” and “Daughter Church” should be used in distinguishing the two communities. In some way, the church of the homeland did give birth to the church in the land of immigration. This familial terminology also finds support in the description of the patriarch as a “father and head” of his church.

While these terms are useful, they fall short. Under current canonical arrangements, the mother church has little authority over the daughter. In some ways, the daughter is an orphan. Such terms may contribute to the immaturity of the daughter church.

The constant reference to the geographical and canonical divisions within each of the Eastern Catholic churches is counter-productive. Perhaps the goal should be to remove the barriers dividing the communities and make no reference to the location of any part of the church. Might we not speak simply of “church”?

Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction. There are six Eastern Catholic patriarchal churches – Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite and Syriac – and two major archiepiscopal churches – Ukrainian and Syro-Malabar – which can be characterized as having “quasi-patriarchal” status.

These churches all have faithful residing outside the historic boundaries of their churches; in some cases, it seems that the majority of the faithful reside outside that territory. With the exception of the Coptic Catholic Church, all these churches have established either eparchies or exarchies in lands of immigration. Two metropolitan churches, the Romanian and the Ruthenian churches, also have eparchies established outside their historical boundaries.

Under the provisions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, the jurisdiction of the patriarchs and the synods of bishops of the patriarchal churches (a synod being the legislative body of a patriarchal church) is restricted to the territorial boundaries of their respective churches. The consequence of this restriction is that significant portions of sui iuris – that is, “under one’s own law” – churches are not self-governing, but alieni iuris, that is, “under the law of another.” At first glance, such an arrangement can be perceived as unduly restrictive and offensive to the dignity of these ancient churches. Before we condemn, however, let us examine the canons of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches and their effects on Eastern Catholic jurisdictions.

It is the “right and obligation” of the patriarch to acquire appropriate information regarding the faithful outside the territorial boundaries. He can do this by making a personal visitation or commissioning another, in which case, the consent of the Holy See is needed. The results of the visitation will then be discussed with the synod of bishops; recommendations for action can then be made to the Holy See. Bishops outside the territorial boundaries of the patriarchal church are to send copies of their five-year reports to their respective patriarchs.

With regard to the election of bishops for offices outside the boundaries of the patriarchal church, the synod of bishops elects three candidates who are proposed to the Roman Pontiff who will then make the appointment. This arrangement is in contrast to the election of bishops for offices inside the patriarchal territory in which case only the assent of the Roman Pontiff is required for a candidate to be appointed.

Bishops outside the territorial boundaries generally have the same rights as those inside the patriarchal territory; particular law can restrict their deliberative voting power except in the case of elections of patriarchs, bishops and candidates for office outside the patriarchal territory. Given the current restriction of synodal authority to the confines of the patriarchal territory, such possible restrictions are reasonable; otherwise, bishops outside the territory would be voting on matters from which they would be exempt.

Although hotly debated throughout the codification and revision process, a decade of experience reveals that the above-described arrangements are workable and even beneficial for the life of the Eastern Catholic churches.

While the Eastern Catholic hierarchies have urgently requested an expansion of their jurisdictions, laws must respond to the practical realities and one question must be asked: Do the authorities of these churches have the personnel and resources to administer an international organization?

Perhaps when the hierarchical heads of these churches request jurisdiction, they are actually seeking the support of their brothers and sisters who have prospered in the lands of immigration. This is not an unreasonable request, and every effort must be made to foster the bonds of unity between the two communities.

Despite the conclusion that the current arrangements are practical and effective, it must also be stated that the bisection of the Catholic patriarchal churches is an anomaly and should be tolerated only for as long as necessary.

The Holy Father has already expressed his willingness to accommodate the requests of the patriarchs and their synods. Perhaps the mission of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches should be to help the hierarchs of the patriarchal churches to acquire the expertise, personnel and means to govern an international community. The goal would be an “emancipation” of the communities located outside the territorial boundaries from the tutelage of the Roman Curia and a reunification of the Eastern Catholic patriarchal churches.

Priestly celibacy. In the 1890’s, the Latin Catholic hierarchy in the United States was confronted with a wave of immigrants who brought or wanted to bring married priests to minister to their communities.The Latin bishops were within their legal rights to determine which clerics they wanted to accept. The U.S. Latin bishops could have taken another path that would have recommended the establishment of hierarchies for these faithful. Instead, the bishops requested that the Holy See impose a prohibition against Eastern Catholic married priests serving in the U.S. The Holy See acceded; the prohibition was imposed in 1929 and reinforced in the code.

Times have changed. The current legal restriction is an archaic vestige of an embarrassing prejudice. The Latin Church has already accepted married priests with the ordination of former Anglican priests; married deacons are commonplace. The Australian hierarchy has even formally indicated to the Holy See that it would have no objection if the prohibition against married priests were to be lifted. Perhaps the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the U.S. would consider a similar request.

We must admit that not all the Eastern Catholic hierarchs would welcome married priests. While the Eastern Catholic churches have criticized the Latin hierarchy for the imposition of celibacy, some of them have also been quite reluctant to have that restriction lifted.

Since our Eastern Catholic faithful are dispersed, the faithful are sometimes found in rather small communities of 25 to 100 families, too small to support the full-time ministry of a priest. Currently, some of these communities are served by “circuit riders,” priests from other parishes who come on an occasional basis. If a mature married man (possibly one who is already a deacon) were ordained, he could serve the community without being dependent on it for a livelihood.

The lifting of the prohibition would also pose additional issues. Support of the clergy is one that immediately comes to mind. Many of the Eastern Catholic hierarchs have a difficult time in providing decent support of a celibate clergy; support of married priests and their families would pose an even greater challenge. Perhaps the married priests could serve in a capacity similar to that of the married deacons, that is, have employment elsewhere in the church (e.g., teaching) or in the secular sphere and serve on a part-time basis.

The transfer of clergy would also be more difficult since factors involving schools, the employment of spouses and children and other family bonds would need to be taken into account.

The spiritual and academic formation of married seminarians would present additional challenges. The situation of a first class, better educated, celibate clergy and a second class, less educated, married clergy would have to be avoided.

None of these issues need suffice as a reason to maintain the current restrictions. An appropriate response simply calls for prudence and creativity. Perhaps Eastern Catholic bishops would continue to prepare candidates for a celibate clergy but would also consider the possible ordination to the priesthood of mature men who have received the required formation. And any person who was not baptized in an Eastern Catholic church would need the nihil obstat of the Holy See before receiving priestly ordination.

Conclusion. The phenomenon of the Eastern Catholic churches in the West is only a little over a century old. In the context of an institution celebrating its 2,000th birthday, that is not a long time. There have been failures – some of which could have been avoided – but there have also been successes. An assembly such as this is a sign of an even brighter future.

Maronite Chorbishop John D. Faris is CNEWA’s Assistant Secretary General.

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