ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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


Surviving in the West

Irish-American priests are fond of an old joke about two pastors who cannot get rid of the bats in their bell towers. One pastor is at a loss, having tried traps, repellents, even ringing the bells constantly – no matter what he does, the bats come back. The other pastor shares his secret: He baptizes the bats, gives them first Communion, confirms them – and never sees them again.

The joke illustrates a problem not unique to Latin (Roman) Catholic parishes, where confirmation often marks the end of regular church involvement. Though Eastern Catholics do not generally confirm teenagers, many Eastern Catholic parishes have seen their members drift away. Some return to marry and raise a family, but many do not.

While the overall Catholic population in the United States has risen from 57.4 million in 1995 to 64.8 million in 2005, a constant 23 percent of the total population, U.S. Eastern Catholic jurisdictions have reported grim statistics in those same years, making the challenge of passing the faith on to the next generation an even greater one if the churches are going to thrive.

The churches that have seen increases in the last 10 years – Chaldeans, Maronites, Melkites and Syriacs – are absorbing immigrants from the churches’ native lands. Numbers show that churches rooted in Eastern Europe are not doing as well. In 1995, the Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church reported 192,537 members. In 2005, that number dropped to 99,381. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church also saw a decline, though not as dramatic, from 141,549 to 104,558 between the same years.

Community leaders – even the Chaldean, whose population in the United States has nearly doubled in the last 10 years – are concerned. For when the flow of Catholic immigrants from the Middle East dries up, so too will Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite and Syriac parishes if these churches fail in their evangelization and educational endeavors.

Numbers, however, should not be taken at face value: Byzantine Catholics authorities acknowledge their numbers were inflated in the 1970’s and 80’s; part of the drop in members is actually an adjustment from exaggerated reports.

Where there is real decline, economic and geographic shifts are often to blame. Many of the mines, factories and farms that employed so many families of Eastern European descent in Ohio and Pennsylvania have now disappeared, disbursing the population that once built and worshiped in the Eastern Catholic churches that dot the landscape.

“In the 1960’s and 70’s, many people moved west, and so parishes were developed there,” said Father John Kachuba, who heads the religious education office for the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma. “Now people are moving to Florida and other southern states, so we have developed parishes there. Where some people move to, there may not be a Ruthenian parish, but there may be a Ukrainian or Melkite parish. Hopefully, they’re being served.”

Unfortunately, many Eastern Catholics do not see the similarities they have with other churches of the same tradition – part of the reason education should be a higher priority in the parish. A Melkite Greek Catholic of Palestinian descent, for example, may feel more comfortable in a Latin Catholic church than a Ukrainian Greek Catholic church. Though the Melkite and Ukrainian churches share the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Ukrainians typically celebrate it in Ukrainian, and occasionally in Church Slavonic.

“Each church in the Byzantine tradition has stayed so ethnically focused,” said Bishop Nicholas Samra, a retired auxiliary bishop of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton.

“When people move, if they do not see a Melkite church, most of them would not think of going to a Ruthenian or Ukrainian church. We need to do more to educate our own people to let them know that the Byzantine tradition is one.”

Still, options are limited. Byzantine parishes can be found in 40 states, Maronite parishes in 30, Ukrainian parishes in 29 and Melkite parishes in only 13.

“We are small, and people are spread out,” said Father David Petras, director of Spiritual Formation at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Pittsburgh.

“There are no longer ethnic ghettos. That’s a super problem with no solution. You can’t provide a priest for a few scattered parishioners.

Father Kachuba – whose transplanted parents were founding members of Holy Angels Byzantine Catholic Church in San Diego in the 1950’s – said he and many of his fellow priests try to keep track of their members, even when they move away.

Tracking parishioners as they move and connecting them to nearby Eastern Catholic parishes are small but important gestures on the part of the clergy. But they must be matched by a much larger commitment on the part of the parishioner if a family is going to remain connected to the church.

Eastern Catholic parishes face the added challenge of getting parishioners to commute long distances to church – often passing several Latin Catholic parishes along the way.

At Our Lady of Redemption Melkite Greek Catholic Church near Detroit, nearly half of the parishioners travel 35 to 40 minutes each way to attend liturgy. Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn draws people from the New York metropolitan area, which includes Connecticut and New Jersey. These long commutes are typical of most Eastern Catholic parishes.

Even recent immigrants, who bring from their native lands strong ties to their churches, often do not make the weekly trek to church a priority.

Antoine Zihenni, a parishioner at Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral who heads the parish’s young adult group, knows firsthand how difficult it is.

When he arrived from Lebanon in 1991, “it was a shock,” he said. “I was 21. During my first five or six years here, I worked 70 hours a week and went to school.” It was not until 1999 that a more settled Mr. Zihenni regularly began attending the Qorbono, the Maronite eucharistic liturgy.

His wife, Rita, also from Lebanon, said that because recent immigrants are focused on earning a living in a new land and culture, it is often easier to get the next generation, or the “American-dominated” Maronites, into church, because they are more interested in connecting with their heritage.

Her solution is to provide more social support for immigrants through the parish’s young adult group.

“It’s about networking,” she said. “You make an e-mail list and send e-mails. Ask people to bring their friends. They begin to socialize. You connect and talk with them. Since you are here a long time, you refer them to places. You build a network.”

Though this approach is helpful in the short term, parishes may need to look beyond should they want to avoid the declines the Byzantines and the Ukrainians have seen in recent decades.

“For too long, we were concerned about maintaining cultural, political and social activities,” Bishop Nicholas said. “Our people do not know their faith well, but they know how to do an Arabic dance. Focusing on ethnic traditions is natural at one point, but we did not outgrow it.”

Preserving heritage was a priority in many Eastern churches, Catholic and Orthodox, in the 19th and 20th centuries, but that will have to change in the 21st century. For churches that make up a tiny minority of Christians in the United States – most Latin Catholics do not know the Eastern churches exist – the challenges are great.

For example, while publishers like Harcourt, Sadlier and others produce religious and educational texts for Latin Catholics, because of their relatively small numbers, Eastern Catholics must publish their own texts if they are to have any at all.

The Eastern Catholic Conference of Diocesan Directors, made up of officials from the 11 Maronite, Melkite, Romanian, Ruthenian and Ukrainian Greek Catholic eparchies in the United States, gathered to develop its own series, God With Us, which was written for students in first through eighth grades.

After decades of use, the curriculum, which now begins with preschool, is now being revised, grade by grade.

“This is very exciting,” said Benedictine Sister Marion Dobos, director of Religious Education for the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh. “We reworked it into a format that is very attractive and beautifully done.”

Sister Marion, who found the curriculum “in terrible need of revision” when she came to the religious education office, spoke enthusiastically about her ongoing ministry of educating the young, choosing not to focus on difficulties.

“Anyone involved in religious education today faces the same challenges – parental interest and involvement,” she said.

“Families are so fragmented today. Very often, the only stability they have in life is coming to catechism or religious education classes. It is a real challenge. Sometimes they are with one parent five days a week and another on the weekend. That is across the board, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. We have very similar challenges.”

The challenges need to be tackled, not only by bishops and religious education officials developing texts at the eparchial level, but by pastors and lay leaders at the parish level.

“Pastors cannot just hand books to parish volunteers and say go teach,” said Bishop Nicholas. “They have to develop adult lay leadership. It’s embarrassing when I see how much is spent on education compared to renovations or social activities. Parishes need to cough up the money to develop good programs.”

At Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia, religious education is a top priority, second only to the Divine Liturgy, said Georgianna Kostak, who directs the parish’s program, which educates more than 100 children and teenagers.

“We have a large staff that is dedicated to this,” she said. “Most of my teachers teach year after year. This is a gift they give to the church. It’s a commitment. They must be active and involved. They are the students’ friends and mentors as well as their teachers.”

Ms. Kostak’s program, which brings families to the parish well before the 10:30 a.m. liturgy, uses the God With Us series as a supplement. For their younger students, teachers use a Greek Orthodox text. And teachers of older students develop their own curriculum, focusing on a different topic – such as sacraments, Commandments, liturgy and Scripture – for each grade level.

Unlike the pastor with the bats in the bell tower, Ms. Kostak sees her former students years later, not just at the Divine Liturgy, but as teachers in her program. Some who attend college nearby teach religious education on Sundays, while others return after college to teach. She says the parish keeps in touch with all former students, encouraging them to maintain their faith, even if they go to college in an area where there is no Eastern Catholic parish.

“In some cases, if there is nothing available, they will go to a Latin parish,” she said. “In some cases they will go to an Orthodox parish. But they do go to church. We send them out with a prayer book and an icon. And periodically we will send them a note to let them know we are thinking of them. They always come back.”

Commitments on the part of the eparchies and parishes have to be matched by commitments from parents – commitments to practice the faith and involve their children in parish-based religious education regardless of whether they attend a Catholic school.

“Parents teach best by example rather than by precept,” said Father Romanos Russo, a Melkite priest who is pastor of St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Church in New York City, and the father of two sons. “It’s important for children to see their parents regularly pray – morning prayers, grace before meals, evening prayers, preparation for the experience of liturgy. That, I think, is fundamental.”

Because Communion is an integral part of the chrismation of Eastern Catholic infants, they have the advantage of receiving the sacrament’s gifts as a small child.“There is no time at which a child is not nourished at the table of the Lord,” Father Russo said. “You can see with the passage of time that they know they are not just popping a treat.”

Icons in the home, the rituals of fasting and feasting, holy water and incense all make faith real to small children, not by words, but with actions, Father Russo said.

Formal religious education in his parish stresses this concept of parents as primary educators.

“It is not possible for parents to simply drop kids off,” he said. “While children are attending Sunday sessions geared toward them, parents are attending a session of their own on the same themes, so parents can deepen that experience during the week.”

Intergenerational catechesis, a concept also spreading though Latin Catholic parishes under the titles “whole community catechesis” and “whole parish catechesis,” ideally should be matched by intergenerational parish involvement. To many, that means having a strong youth or young adult group.

The Maronite Youth Organization, for example, is a nationwide, parish-based group of 13- to 22-year-old Maronites. Its members organize fund-raisers, participate in liturgies and hold national and regional retreats.

Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Maronite Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn said any time he makes a pastoral visit, he spends an afternoon with the youth of the parish.

“I learn what they are up against,” he said. “These are really good and decent kids who come here, but they are in a world very different from the church’s world. Everyone is so often tempted to believe what the world tells them about life. I talk to them about sacrificial love, love as a form of giving, giving of self.”

Most Maronite parishes take youth and young adult ministry a step farther, involving the young parishioners in weekly liturgies.

A youth group that meets by itself once a week for activities is a decades-old understanding of youth ministry borrowed from Protestants, said Bob McCarty, the executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.

“Every young person should be connected to the life of the faith community,” he said. “Instead of looking at young people as the church of the future, look at them as the young church of today. The faith community itself is energized by the presence of young people in liturgies and on committees.”

Mr. McCarty added that parishes must look beyond the myth that young people who fall away from the church will return when they are ready to marry and raise a family.

“It just is not the reality anymore,” he said. “When young people look for a faith community, if they had good experiences as teenagers, they will go back to the Catholic Church. But if they do not feel welcomed, if they feel their gifts will not be utilized, if the experience does not connect faith to their lives, they are going to go somewhere else.”

Father Gary George, who coordinates youth ministry for the Maronite Eparchy of St. Maron, understands this challenge and works to bring young people into all areas of church life, including the parish council, at St. Maron Church in Youngstown, Ohio, where he is pastor.

“Youth are not involved in the level they should be,” he said. “It should not be youth group, Knights of Columbus, this group, that group. What about involvement?

“‘Father wants to decorate the church,’ ‘the parish needs a choir.’ If you look around, you will see the majority of people who run the church are all older people.

“Everyone in some way wants to feel involved,” he added. “We have to get young people to own the parish. They have to feel they can do everything at their church, not just one part of it.”

Such involvement challenges the view that the Eastern Catholic parish is only for an older generation of immigrants. That view, unfortunately, still exists in many places.

Historian Jay P. Dolan of the University of Notre Dame said the descendants of his wife’s grandmother, who was Ukrainian Greek Catholic and a strong figure in the family, have attended Latin parishes and schools for decades.

“They have no desire to go to a Ukrainian parish,” said Mr. Dolan, author of “The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to Present.” “That has never been part of their history and is not in their memory. That is part of a past immigrant era. That is something good for Mom.”

The Eastern Catholic churches may not survive in the United States for another century or two, he added.

“Will they still be here? A lot of it has to do with continued immigration from countries where this is the dominant religion,” he said. “That is key. If not, you will see the disappearance of these churches.”

All Catholics should understand that such a disappearance would be tragic.

“If all 30,000 U.S. Melkite Greek Catholics tomorrow entered the Latin Church, Catholics of the Latin rite would not notice, because it would be statistically insignificant to them,” Father Russo said. “But it would destroy a church on the North American continent, and we are talking about a church mentioned in the 11th Chapter of Acts, the Church of Antioch. That church would have disappeared.”

“Even though the Latin Church may be the largest single Catholic Church, the Eastern Catholic churches form many traditions and allow for the diversity of the peoples throughout the world,” Bishop Nicholas said. “The Latin Church needs the Eastern churches, and the Eastern churches need the Latin. They complement each other. Oneness is not uniformity, it is diversity.”

If all of the proverbial bats in the U.S. Eastern Catholic bell towers flew to Latin, Orthodox or Protestant churches, Catholics would be impoverished – whether they know it or not.

Vincent Gragnani writes on contemporary issues for a number of Catholic magazines.

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