ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Fulfilling a Tradition

St. Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Chicago undergoes a face-lift.

“The Catholic Eastern Rites should not be a stumbling block to Christian unity.”

These are the words of Father Andriy Chirovsky, a young American-born Byzantine-Ukrainian Catholic pastor and teacher. He disputes the often repeated belief that the Church’s Eastern Rites already are the link between East and West.

“Our Eastern Churches eventually could become the link that helps reunite Eastern and Western Christianity,” Father Chirovsky points out, “but first we must return to the pure customs and traditions of the Eastern Fathers of the Church, as Vatican II and all the recent popes have urged us to do.

“Slowly and carefully, but persistently, we must remove from our churches the Western influences that have diluted a system of worship which is most powerful when it can function in real integrity.” he continues. “Orthodox Byzantines look at Eastern Catholic churches that are an incompatible mixture of Eastern and Western customs and art, and assume this is what would happen to them if they returned to communion with Rome. But this most assuredly is not Rome’s intent. Vatican II made it clear that the Catholic Church does not want hybridism in its rites.”

Father Chirovsky is determined that his own parish, St. Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on the outskirts of Chicago, will stand among the most integrally Byzantine churches, Catholic or Orthodox, in the Chicago metropolitan area. He says the decoration and remodeling now underway at the nineyear-old church must be completed before the 1988 millennium, the 1,000th anniversary of Ukraine’s conversion to Christianity.

Father Chirovsky is also an instructor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and director of religious education for the Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of Chicago, which stretches from Detroit to the Pacific Ocean. He has been the pastor of St. Joseph’s for two years.

Father Chirovsky has commissioned Sorin Belciu, an iconographer who studied Byzantine religious art in his native Rumania, to decorate the interior of the church. Belciu has worked at about a dozen Byzantine churches in Rumania, Greece, and Canada, but St. Joseph’s is his first assignment in the United States. His wife Simona, an expert at working with gold leaf, is assisting him.

Father Chirovsky insists on purity in the tradition, whether in liturgy or in the decoration of the church, because “liturgy is a language.”

“It is a language of divine-human communication,” he explains. “If you’re going to speak to God, speak well. Mixing Eastern and Western traditions is not unlike speaking broken English. People can get quite used to it, but it is impossible to pass on to your children the grammatical rules of broken English.”

And so the 28-year-old pastor, supported by St. Joseph’s parish council, has begun the often difficult task of carrying out the directives of Vatican II on restoring the fullness of the Eastern tradition. The gray and white walls of the church are coming alive with warm and vibrant colors as they are decorated with meticulous attention to Byzantine iconographic canons. A new Byzantine chandelier has been hung in the church. Some of the purely Western art forms, including statues and modernistic Stations of the Cross which were placed in the church temporarily, are gradually being relocated.

“You have to be extremely careful about such things,” Father Chirovsky cautions. “People develop attachments to objects they’ve grown accustomed to seeing, and pastoral sensitivity is a must.” But the will of the Church is firm in this regard, he feels, and the fullness and integrity of the tradition must be restored.

One of the most important elements in the restoration will be the installation of an elaborate iconostasis, or icon screen, separating the sanctuary from the congregation. For the past several years, the parish has made do with a symbolic iconostasis of four icons mounted on stands at the front of the sanctuary. Father Chirovsky says he feels “almost naked” standing in the sanctuary chanting the liturgy in full view of the congregation.

“In the East,” he explains, “we cover what we respect, including the sanctuary. It’s a cultural thing.”

The interior decorations at St. Joseph’s will be completed more than a decade after the cornerstone was laid for the building itself because of the high cost of the structure, a striking blend of traditional Byzantine and modern architecture. The parish already has spent more than $3 million on the church, a heavy burden for St. Joseph’s 300 families, who are far from wealthy. They financed the project through their unusual generosity and their hard work on an annual Ukrainian carnival and other fund raising events.

Father Chirovsky believes the new church was far more expensive than necessary, and observes that it has a great deal of vertical wasted space. The main dome soars 110 feet into the air.

“This sort of structure is imposing,” he says, “but during a Chicago winter it is impossible to heat.”

While the interior design is not ideally suited to Eastern Rite worship, the young pastor believes his iconographer is skilled enough both as a painter and an architect to transform it into a model testifying to the grace and beauty of Byzantine architecture, art, and traditions.

Some of the Western admixtures that “disrupt the integrity of the Byzantine symbol system” can seem quite innocuous to the uninformed observer. An example can be found in the first St. Joseph’s Church, erected in 1956, which stands next to the new church and is used as a parish hall. In the old church is an icon screen that will be moved to a new auxiliary chapel. The screen bears an “icon” of the Blessed Virgin Mary giving the Marian rosary, a Western form of prayer, to St. Dominic, a saint of the Roman rite.

“This may seem innocent to the uninitiated,” says Father Chirovsky, “but it is against all rules of Byzantine iconography, which spell out in detail the content and placement of images for a theological purpose. Most important, this would be a red flag to any Orthodox visitor, and might be taken as proof that it is impossible to be in communion with Rome and still retain the fullness and integrity of the Orthodox tradition of the East.

“We have an immensely important ecumenical role to play,” the priest emphasizes.

Father Chirovsky points out that there is nothing wrong with Western religious art, which he considers “extremely effective in its own place.” But trying to combine Western and Byzantine art in the same church, he says, is “like trying to mix oil and water. It just doesn’t work.”

The art throughout the interior of a Byzantine church is united by one central theme, the three stages of salvation. The vestibule, where the walls are adorned by icons of the Last Judgment, represents the world that has not yet accepted Christ. The nave where the parishioners worship is Christ’s kingdom on earth, and the sanctuary represents heaven, the fulfillment of His kingdom to come.

According to a popular legend, it was the beauty of the Byzantine tradition that converted Ukraine to Christianity. In A.D. 988, Prince Vladimir decided it was time for his people to give up their pagan ways. He sent his emissaries throughout the known world seeking the perfect religion for the Ukrainians. The returning messengers had good things to say about the Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem, and Jewish faiths, but none were nearly so enthusiastic as the emissary who had visited the magnificent church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

“There was such an outpouring of beauty,” the messenger reported, “that I was unsure whether I was still on earth or in heaven.”

Prince Vladimir, now a Byzantine saint, wisely chose the religion that would add such beauty to his people’s lives.

“The Byzantine tradition has given us beauty,” Father Chirovsky says, “and if we are allowed to be ourselves, we can give so much to the universal Catholic Church. The universal Church needs both the pragmatism and simplicity of the Roman Rite and the mysticism and symbolism of its Eastern Rites, but there is no reason to create hybrids.

“In my Sunday Liturgy,” he adds, “I pray for the pope five times. I don’t need statues in the church to feel truly Catholic.”

Jerry Patterson is a freelance writer.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español