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Emerging from the Catacombs

A discussion on the state of affairs of central and eastern Europe’s Eastern Catholic churches.

The opening line of A Tale of Two Cities quite accurately describes the state of affairs of Europe’s Eastern Catholic churches in the final decade of the 20th century: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

It was the best of times. While the Soviet Union unraveled, the atheistic, totalitarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe collapsed. The Eastern churches, accorded freedom and public recognition, were at last able to proclaim the Gospel and to live their faith.

And it was the worst of times. A period of insecurity, confusion and discord settled in. Under Communist rule, the people had lived with a certain sense of predictability and security despite the bureaucracies and shortages that characterized it.

Freedom has been fascinating for these liberated peoples, but freedom has also brought with it new problems. Many people in Central and Eastern European society have indiscriminately embraced Western values and culture, which often conflict with their own. Consequently, even those Western-oriented ideas that would benefit post-Communist countries have come to be viewed with suspicion by many. Institutions with ties to the West the Eastern Catholic churches fall into this category – have been denounced by fanatic nationalists as Trojan horses.

These were not the only problems confronting Eastern Catholics. Not only had the world changed, but so had the Catholic Church. Because of the relative isolation of these churches, the renewal of Vatican II (1962-65) was unknown. Some of the conciliar documents had been translated for those churches, but not the council’s spirit of renewal. The Catholicism of Central and Eastern Europe remained entrenched in the past.

As the constraints of Communism fell, the Eastern Catholic churches in Central and Eastern Europe were suddenly faced with an identity crisis. How were they to be faithful to their authentic Eastern traditions, loyal to the Bishop of Rome, and, at the same time, accommodate themselves to this modern world?

European Assembly of Eastern Catholic Bishops. In order to assist the renewal of these churches, Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, convened a meeting of all those who were responsible for the leadership and support of the Eastern Catholic churches. The bishops and religious superiors of the Armenian, Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Italo-Albanian, Romanian, Ruthenian and Slovak Catholic churches were invited, as were the archbishops of Paris and Vienna, who had Eastern Catholics under their pastoral care. The geographic proximity of many of these churches offered them the opportunity for future cooperation in common endeavors.

In addition to personnel from the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, the secretaries of the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity were also present. Representatives of Roman universities and seminaries and various funding agencies, including CNEWA, also participated in the assembly.

The meeting, which took place from 29 June to 6 July 1997, was hosted by Bishop Szilárd Keresztes, Byzantine Catholic Bishop of Hajdúdorog, at his seminary in Nyiregháza, a city approximately 100 miles east of Budapest. Hungary’s 300,000 Byzantine Catholic faithful are descendants of Slavs (Ruthenians and Slovaks) and Romanians who have been assimilated into the Hungarian majority. Hungarian became the liturgical language of the community after Hungary achieved independence in 1918.

One of the fundamental objectives of the meeting was to enable the bishops to meet with one another, to pray together, and to reflect upon their roles in rebuilding their respective churches. The meeting launched this dialogue with discussions regarding Eastern ecclesiology, liturgy, monasticism, ecumenism and religious formation.

An Ecclesial Identity. In the Nicene Creed we profess the Universal Church to be “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” Even so, there are 22 churches, all of whom take pride in being Catholic. One of these churches, the Latin (or Roman) Church, originated in the western portion of the Roman Empire. The other 21 churches are Eastern, that is, they trace their origins to the eastern part of the Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire. The Eastern Catholic churches are unknown to many Latin Catholics who presume there is only one Catholic Church, the Latin Church, and mistakenly believe that all Eastern churches are Orthodox.

At the assembly, Father Michel van Parys, O.S.B., the former Abbot of Chevetogne (a Belgian Benedictine abbey in the Russian tradition), challenged the leaders of Eastern Catholic churches to return to their genuine Eastern traditions and to bring these treasures to the Catholic world. It is also their task, he said, to bring the message of the Church of Christ’s universal mission and unity, its catholicity, to the Eastern world. All of this must be done in a region that is struggling to rebuild its economies and societies after decades of oppression.

One factor that will assist the Eastern Catholic churches in the restructuring of ecclesial life is The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, promulgated in 1990. This common law of all the Eastern Catholic churches provides basic norms for these churches to govern themselves; the synods and councils of hierarchs of the Eastern Catholic churches now have the responsibility of formulating particular law appropriate to their respective needs.

An Eastern Identity. During past centuries, the Eastern Catholic churches, in a misguided but understandable effort to identify themselves with the Latin Catholic Church, latinized their liturgies and discipline. Consequently, the Orthodox churches condemned the Eastern Catholic churches as traitors.

Efforts have been made to reverse this trend of latinization and to assist the Eastern Catholic churches in recovering their traditions. The Holy See’s 1996 publication of the Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches has given new impulse to the renewal effort. While the Instructions are not innovative (they simply articulate what had already been set forth in the Eastern Code) they do challenge Eastern Catholics to rediscover their authentic Eastern identity.

This renewal is also an ecumenical effort: the restoration of genuine Eastern traditions will demonstrate that a church can be in full communion with the See of Rome and remain faithful to its Eastern traditions.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that the liturgy is the “outstanding means by which the faithful are able to express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true church.”

During his presentation in Hungary, Father Robert Taft, S.J., the renowned liturgical scholar from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, emphasized that an Eastern rite is not simply a different way of “saying Mass,” but a patrimony of feasts and fasts, saints, shrines, devotions, hierarchal structures and disciplines arising out of unique ethos. Father Taft asserted that the only reason for the existence of the Eastern Catholic churches within the Catholic communion is the distinct ecclesial patrimony they bring to the Universal Church.

Another crucial aspect of Eastern ecclesial life is its monastic tradition. In Orientale Lumen, Pope John Paul II says, “monasticism has always been the very soul of the Eastern churches: the first Christian monks were born in the East and the monastic life was an integral part of the Eastern light passed on to the West by the great fathers of the undivided church.”

Monasticism, the Pope continues, with its common traits in both the East and West, is a “wonderful bridge of fellowship, where unity as it is lived shines even more brightly than may appear in the dialogue between the churches.”

A vibrant monastic life invigorates the liturgical and spiritual life of the church and provides support for the pastoral endeavors of the entire community.

May they be one! When John Paul II opened his encyclical letter on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint, by repeating a phrase from the priestly prayer of Christ, “May they be one,” (John 17:11) he echoed the hope of unity among all Christians. The path to the reestablishment of full communion, however, is a difficult one.

The meeting of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I in the Holy Land in 1964 gave the Christian world hope that a restoration of full communion might be in sight. However, two recent events give evidence of the strained relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The first occurred in December 1991, when Pope John Paul II convened a special Synod of Bishops of Europe. Although they were invited, the Orthodox churches boycotted the meeting because they were upset with the rebirth of the Eastern Catholic churches and the creation of parallel Catholic hierarchical structures.

The second painful episode occurred last year when the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, did not send a delegation to Rome on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, thereby breaking a tradition begun more than three decades ago.

Most of the Eastern churches in full communion with the Bishop of Rome developed from the missionary efforts of religious priests inspired by the reforms of the Council of Trent.

In some cases (e.g., the Union of Alba Julia for the Romanians and the Union of Uzhorod for the Ruthenians) entire Orthodox jurisdictions were integrated into the Catholic Church.

In the case of the Greek-Melkite and Syrian Catholic churches, Catholic missionaries formed core groups of pro-Catholic sympathizers among the Orthodox, who elected pro-Catholic bishops and patriarchs.

Lastly, zealous missionaries worked outside the Orthodox churches, but created parallel Catholic institutions to attract the Orthodox faithful.

All these efforts met with varying degrees of success in achieving partial unions between Catholics and Orthodox.

A negative consequence of these partial reunions was the partition of almost all the Eastern churches into two groups: a majority who remained separated from the Bishop of Rome, and the newly established Catholic communities, usually in the minority and always stigmatized as traitors who had abandoned their authentic Eastern heritage.

The animosity that developed between the Catholic and Orthodox communities persisted into the 20th century. Some Orthodox churches were not entirely dissatisfied with the suppression of the Byzantine Catholic churches in Ukraine, Romania and Slovakia after World War II.

These Eastern Catholic communities suffered the confiscation of their churches, the imprisonment (and in some cases, death) of their bishops, priests and religious, and the absorption of their faithful into the Orthodox Church.

After the collapse of the Communist regimes, conflicts between Catholics and Orthodox, which had been suppressed by the authorities, resurfaced, leaving Christians to resolve these problems among themselves. Catholics and Orthodox have made recourse to historical facts in order to vindicate their rights, but for the most part such an approach has resulted only in the resurrection of painful memories, followed by accusations, counter-accusations and, on occasion, even violence. Attempts on an international level to resolve these conflicts have also been in vain.

Another faculty member of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, Professor Dmitri Salachas, in his presentation to the assembly gathered in Hungary, asserted that efforts to restore full communion between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox churches should more rightly be described as a reconciliation of the Eastern churches, Catholic and Orthodox.

In June 1993, a significant step in the journey to reestablishment of full communion among the Eastern churches took place at an Orthodox seminary in Balamand, Lebanon. The assembly, which included leaders of the worldwide Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, led to the publication of the “Balamand Declaration.”

One facet of the agreement that has been much publicized is the recognition of the Eastern Catholic churches’ “right to life.” While the document declares that “uniatism” (partial reunion) is now an unacceptable method to be followed in establishing unity among the churches (art. 12), it also recognizes the right of the Eastern Catholic churches to exist and even invites them to participate in the dialogue (art. 16).

A less-noted, but perhaps even more significant element of the document is found in article 14. This states that the Catholic and Orthodox churches are “responsible together for maintaining the Church of God in fidelity to the divine purpose, most especially in what concerns unity.” No longer should the Catholic and Orthodox churches enter into dialogue with the intention of converting or competing with the other. Instead, the Catholic and Orthodox churches share in their solicitude for the Church of Christ. It is now left to the leadership of these churches to formulate appropriate models in which they can participate in this coresponsibility.

Formation of Church Leadership. A program of church renewal naturally addresses the issue of the formation of its ministers. Again, it is important to recall that under Communist rule all of these Eastern Catholic churches were impeded to varying degrees in the formation of their priests and religious.

In his paper to the assembly’s participants, Father Giles Pelland, S.J., Rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, emphasized the need for future priests to be knowledgeable about the traditions of their own churches. In order to achieve this goal, there is a need for good libraries, programs in ancient and modern languages, and courses about each rite. Even those clerics and religious who know their own rite well are often ignorant of other Eastern rites and churches.

Challenges for the Future. In his letter to the participants who attended the meeting in Hungary, the Pope again encouraged the Eastern Catholic churches “to be themselves.” It is the unique mission of these churches to bring witness of the Christian East to the worldwide Catholic community. In a sense, these Eastern churches in full communion with the Church of Rome make it truly catholic and not restricted to the West. While imitation may be regarded by some as the highest form of flattery, such an approach can be harmful, even fatal, for Eastern Catholics. Instead, Eastern Catholics must face their identity crisis with courage and seek to be authentically Eastern.

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

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