A Bedouin shepherd leads his flock of sheep out of Smakieh in the early morning. (photo: George Martin)
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Peter blesses worshipers at St. Sharbel Maronite Church in Warren, Michigan. (photo: CNS/Jim West)
Archbishop George Alencherry, major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, gives Communion during a Divine Liturgy at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Chicago. (photo: CNS/Karen Callaway)
Sheep and shepherds are not part of the common experience of most of us, but images of both pepper the teachings of Jesus. When he took note of the weary crowds following him, he compared them to sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36-37). Predicting his own death, Jesus dreaded that his disciples would be scattered like sheep without a shepherd (Mk 14:37). And lastly, Jesus held up the example of the ideal shepherd as one who would go in search of the one lost sheep (Mt 18:12-14).
This image of scattered sheep lacking a shepherd accurately describes the situation of hundreds of thousands of faithful belonging to the Eastern churches — Catholic and non- Catholic — who have emigrated from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Northeast Africa and southwest India since the middle of the 19th century and settled in any country that will receive them; most now live in the Americas and Australia.
Specifically for Eastern Catholics, what have their shepherds done to help these faithful preserve their faith in and worship of God according to their own spiritual traditions? Before we can answer this, a little information will be helpful.
Eastern churches. What is meant by the term, Eastern church? It no longer has any geographic connotations, but refers to the origins of a family of churches in the Eastern Roman Empire.
Christianity arose in one of the largest political entities in history, the Roman Empire — a territory that today covers approximately 40 nations.
In a process that stabilized at the end of the fourth century, the Roman emperors divided the empire. Rome, the ancient and formerly pagan capital, became the center of the Western Empire. The newly established Christian city of Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Empire. The Western Roman Empire, besieged by barbarian tribes, collapsed in 476. The Eastern Roman Empire (posthumously referred to as Byzantine by a 16th-century historian) lasted for almost another thousand years.
The true beauty of the Good News is that it can be transplanted from its original home in Jerusalem and take root and flourish in a variety of cultures. Rome, the site of the martyrdom of Sts. Peter and Paul, evangelized Western Europe and the lands colonized by them. In the East, three major cities of the Eastern Roman Empire were centers of Christian evangelization: Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. Not confining itself to the Roman imperial boundaries, Christianity had established itself in Armenia, Ethiopia, India, Mongolia and Persia by the sixth century.
The prestige and influence of the bishops of these three cities overshadowed bishops in the surrounding territories. The title patriarch began to be applied informally to the bishops of these cities. Without using the term patriarch, the authority of these bishops was given official recognition at the first ecumenical council, held in Nicaea (known as Iznik in modern Turkey) in 325. Eventually, the governance of the church by the five patriarchs of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, though not recognized officially by Rome, was generally accepted as the standard arrangement in the East.
Regrettably, the history of Christianity was not one only of expansion, but also of division, too. The first divisions arose during the fifth century over different understandings of Christ’s humanity and divinity.
The church in the lands formerly in the Western Roman Empire and in the Eastern Roman Empire ultimately drifted apart, particularly after the coronation of Charlemagne as King of the Romans in the year 800, and culminated with the Great Schism of 1054.
The church of the West referred to itself as the Catholic Church while the church of the Eastern Roman Empire referred to itself as the Orthodox Church. The former was to suffer further upheaval and division with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
From the 11th century, Catholicism nearly disappeared from the East. Only the Rusyns of Kiev (until the 15th century), the Maronites of Mount Lebanon and the Italo-Greeks of the Italian peninsula remained in full communion with the church of Rome while maintaining their distinct traditions. Reunions of the Eastern and Western churches at the ecumenical councils of Lyon (1272-74) and Florence (1431-45) never took hold.
The missionary efforts of the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East resulted in partial reunions of various Orthodox groups with the bishop of Rome and the Catholic Church. These groups wanted to follow their own traditions and refused to adapt themselves to Latin Christianity. In order to accommodate their wishes, Rome established Catholic bishoprics and patriarchates to serve them. The Orthodox resented the entire movement as proselytization and regarded these new Eastern Catholic churches as traitors.
Today, there are 22 Eastern Catholic churches, with a total population of approximately 15 million faithful — a very small minority in the Catholic Church with its population of 1.2 billion faithful. These Eastern Catholic churches should not be identified as national or ethnic churches, such as the Polish church or the Irish church. Rather, the Eastern Catholic churches are recognized as sui iuris (self-governing) and can govern themselves in any matters not reserved to the Roman pontiff and the college of bishops.
The Eastern Catholic churches are not equally autonomous. Eastern Catholic patriarchal churches enjoy the highest degree of autonomy; they can elect their own leadership for positions inside their territory, pass their own laws and resolve their own judicial questions, again in their own territory. The major archiepiscopal churches employ a governance system that is quasi-patriarchal; the significant difference is that the election of the major archbishop must be confirmed by the Roman pontiff. Metropolitan and other churches have significantly reduced autonomy, so we shall restrict our focus to the patriarchal and major archiepiscopal churches.
Eastern and Western systems of governance differ significantly. As mentioned earlier, the standard form of governance for the Eastern churches is a patriarchal structure. While the patriarchs are fathers and heads of their respective churches, patriarchs should not be misconstrued as little popes. In the decree on the Eastern churches, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, the fathers of Vatican II succinctly articulate the governance systems of the Eastern Catholic churches: The patriarchs with their synods are the highest authority for all business of the patriarchate …
The synod comprises all the bishops of the patriarchal church. The statement significantly is silent regarding the superiority of either the patriarch or the synod. Rather, canon law allocates responsibilities to each, creating a balance between the authority of an individual (the patriarch) and the authority of a group (the synod). Generally, the patriarch exercises administrative authority while the synod exercises legislative and juridical authority.
There are six Eastern Catholic patriarchal churches: the Armenian (470,000 people), the Chaldean (478,000), the Coptic (164,000), the Maronite (3.3 million), the Melkite Greek (1.6 million) and the Syriac (160,000). The major archiepiscopal churches are Romanian (708,000), Syro-Malabar (3.8 million), Syro-Malankara (425,000) and Ukrainian (4.4 million). Eastern Catholic churches also includes three metropolitan churches, the Carpatho-Rusyn (646,000), the Ethiopian (223,000) and the Slovak (220,000), and various other smaller churches including the Albanian, Belorussian, Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Italo-Albanian, Russian and those in the former Yugoslavia.
For the past 150 years, emigration has been one of the greatest challenges facing these communities of faith. Generally speaking, emigration from Eastern Europe and the Middle East began in the latter part of the 19th century and accelerated following World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires. Further instability — World War II, the creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israeli wars and conflicts, the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon, the Iraqi wars, the rise of Islamist groups and, most recently, the Arab Spring — have intensified the need for Eastern Catholics to depart and build their lives elsewhere.
The matter has been a complex one for the Eastern Catholic churches as the jurisdiction of their traditional heads is restricted to their original homelands. This means that when the Eastern Catholic faithful, lay persons and clerics, left their homelands, they were placed under the jurisdiction of Latin bishops, most of whom had little or no understanding of the Eastern rites and traditions. A well-known and painful example is that of Alexis Toth, a widowed Rusyn Greek Catholic priest, who was made unwelcome in the 1890’s. Father Toth eventually left the Catholic Church and drew tens of thousands of faithful with him, earning him the title of father of the Orthodox Church in America. The prohibitions against Eastern Catholic married priests serving in North America exacerbated the problem since many of the churches did not have celibate priests.
In 1912, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic was appointed as bishop in Canada and, in 1924, bishops were appointed for the Ukrainian and Rusyn Greek Catholic communities in the United States. It is important to note that these bishops were not subject to the hierarchy in Ukraine; they were appointed by and subject directly to Rome. Despite the immigration of numerous other Eastern Catholics to North America, only the Ukrainians and Ruthenians had bishops in the United States; other groups of Eastern Catholics waited decades for the arrival of a shepherd.
Vatican II tackled the issue. In Orientalium Ecclesiarum, the council fathers urged that means should be taken therefore in every part of the world for the protection and advancement of all the individual churches and, to this end, there should be established parishes and a special hierarchy where the spiritual good of the faithful demands it.
As a consequence of this mandate, bishops of the Maronite and Melkite Greek Catholic faithful were appointed for the United States in 1966. Succeeding decades witnessed the appointment of bishops for the Armenian, Chaldean, Romanian, Syriac, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches in North America.
But a very thorny problem remained: What was the connection between these churches in diaspora with their churches in the homeland? The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, the law governing the Eastern Catholic churches issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990, articulates the arrangement that Eastern Catholic bishops, clergy, religious and laity outside the territory of the patriarchal or major archiepiscopal churches are under the direct jurisdiction of the pope. Practically, the pope manages their affairs through the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.
This is not to say that all bonds between the churches outside and inside the patriarchal territory are broken. For the appointment of bishops outside the territory, the patriarch with the synod of bishops proposes three candidates to the Roman pontiff, who makes the appointment. These bishops have the right and obligation to participate in the synod of bishops. All liturgical laws passed by the synod of bishops enjoy the force of law for all the faithful and institutions of the respective church inside and outside the territory. Other laws of a disciplinary nature can acquire the force of law inside and outside the patriarchal territory if the local bishop decides to do so and it is within his competence or if the Apostolic See approves the law.
These arrangements were much debated in the process of the revision of the law for the Eastern Catholic churches. In fact, during the final stages of the preparation of the draft of the law, the Eastern Catholic patriarchs submitted a formal protest to the pope. The patriarchs, however, were assured that if any individual church needed specific arrangements, the pope would willingly consider a request for special laws.
Like any governmental system, the arrangements for the governance of the Eastern Catholic churches are not perfect. There have been demands that the jurisdiction of the Eastern Catholic hierarchies be expanded worldwide (without precedence for any bishop other than the bishop of Rome). Beyond the novelty of such an arrangement, one must also take into consideration the diversity of the Eastern Catholic patriarchal and major archiepiscopal churches regarding personnel and resources. For some, the governance of an international community would be a challenge they could not meet. Given that the situation of the churches themselves is in such a state of flux, it might be best to consider the arrangements as interim or transitional.
The pain involved in migration initially disposes us to regard the entire matter negatively, but we must consider that Divine Providence has brought about an expansion of Eastern forms of Christianity handed down from the Apostles. The church of Christ is enriched and its unity can be strengthened by this diversity.
A prominent scholar, teacher and writer in the field of Eastern canon law, Chorbishop John D. Faris is a priest of the Maronite Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn. He serves as pastor of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Maronite Church in Utica, New York, and as an adjunct assistant professor at the Catholic University of America. Chorbishop Faris also shared in the leadership of CNEWA from 1996 until 2008.