ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

The Eastern Churches Down Under

A survey of the Eastern churches in Australia.

Although there were Eastern Catholics in Australia as early as the mid-19th century, it is only within the past 50 years that large numbers have fled the turmoil of Eastern Europe and the Middle East to settle in that land down under.

Today Eastern Catholic churches, particularly the Maronite Church, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, are flourishing in Australia. In the major cities of Melbourne and Sydney, Armenian, Chaldean and Coptic Catholics also worship in their own churches served by their own priests, as do Russian Byzantine Catholics in Melbourne and Syrian Catholics in Sydney. Other Eastern Catholic churches are represented in Australia but do not have their own bishops or priests.

In keeping with the directives of Vatican II and subsequent directives of the Holy See, Eastern Catholics are encouraged to keep their own traditions.

The Eparch of St. Maron of Sydney, Bishop Joseph Hitti, cares for Australia’s estimated 160,000 Maronites in nine parishes. The eparchy maintains three schools, three child-care centers, two hostels and two nursing homes.

Bishop Issam Darwish heads the Eparchy of St Michael’s of Sydney and serves a flock of 45,000 Melkite Greek Catholics, mostly from the Middle East, in nine parishes.

As these two eparchies lie outside the geographical territory of their patriarchates, their patriarchs do not have jurisdiction over them; therefore, they are subject to the Apostolic See.

There is only one eparchy in Australia of a major archiepiscopal church, the Eparchy of Sts. Peter and Paul of Melbourne for Ukrainian Greek Catholics. The eight parishes of the eparchy are under the pastoral care of Bishop Peter Stasiuk, who serves an estimated 35,400 people.

As each of these three Eastern churches has established an eparchy in Australia, the pastoral care of their faithful falls to their own eparchs.

Catholics from those Eastern churches that do not have bishops or dioceses in Australia are subject to the jurisdiction of the local Latin bishop in the area in which they live. Members of the Eastern churches with their own priests are encouraged to worship within their own tradition, but even those Eastern Catholics without a priest are helped insofar as possible to observe their own traditions and customs.

Orthodox churches were generally absent from pre-1945 Australia. Some tiny, isolated pockets of Orthodoxy, mainly in Melbourne and Sydney, had been in Australia since the mid-19th century.

A band of “Old Believers,” who broke from mainstream Russian Orthodoxy in the 17th century, arrived in Queensland after the 1905 Revolution in Russia and settled near Gladstone, where their descendants remain to this day.

The first Russian Orthodox church was established in Brisbane in 1924. Like all Eastern Christians in Australia, both Catholic and Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox faithful were often isolated by language and customs from the Anglo-Saxon population around them and survived on their own memories of home. Following the Communist revolution of 1917, a group of Russian Orthodox faithful found themselves in exile outside Soviet Russia. To meet their needs, a group of Russian Orthodox bishops formed an autonomous church that would re-establish relations with the Moscow Patriarchate as soon as conditions allowed. This church became the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. To date, it has not returned to canonical communion with the Moscow Patriarchate.

In Australia, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia maintains 21 parishes in the Australian Diocese, including three in New Zealand, all of which are presided over by Archbishop Hilarion Kapral.

The Moscow Patriarchate established two parishes in Australia, directed by Father Peter Hill; in addition, an English-speaking Russian Orthodox parish of the Moscow Patriarchate, located in Melbourne, is under Antiochian Bishop Gibran of Larissa and is served by clergy of the Australian Antiochian Orthodox Diocese.

Greek Orthodox Christians started to immigrate to Australia in 1850, but it was only a half century later that they built a Greek Orthodox church in Sydney. A temporary priest arrived from Greece; when he left the community was without a priest until two more were sent from Greece, one for Melbourne and one for Sydney. Subsequently, Greek Orthodox priests were imported and many still are; a seminary, however, St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, opened in Sydney in 1986, and may put an end to the need for imported priests. This seminary not only trains clergy but also teaches theology; it is a center for research and publication.

Today, Archbishop Stylianos presides over the Greek Orthodox faithful in Australia. The Archdiocese there, which includes 120 parishes and two monastic communities, is divided into three districts that are headed by an assistant bishop responsible to Archbishop Stylianos.

In 1913 a priest from Damascus arrived in Australia to serve the Antiochian Orthodox community of economic migrants from the Ottoman provinces of Syria and Lebanon. By 1920 they too had started to build their own church in Sydney.

Headed by Bishop Gibran of Larissa, the Australian Antiochian Orthodox Diocese now has nine parishes in Australia and three communities in New Zealand.

Postwar migration dramatically swelled the numbers of Orthodox Christians in Australia. For roughly five years after World War II, shiploads of Orthodox migrants arrived in Australia, notably from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, as Orthodox Christians sought to escape persecution in the Soviet Union. Large numbers of Greek Orthodox Christians also arrived at the same time.

By 1960 there were about 200,000 Orthodox in Australia – Greek, Antiochian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Romanian, Russian, Serbian and Ukrainian.

Education, from primary schools to higher academic institutions, is valued by both Orthodox parents and church authorities. Australia’s Greek Orthodox community is justly famed for its secondary schools and theological college. The Coptic Orthodox are also active in promoting education and training in church life; they have numerous schools throughout Melbourne and Sydney.

Monasticism is an integral element of the Eastern churches. There are several monasteries of Orthodox nuns, including an established Russian community at Campbelltown and a newer one at Geelong in Victoria which is under Greek jurisdiction. There are also two Serbian monasteries, one at Canberra and another at Elaine near Ballarat.

Significant numbers of faithful from the Assyrian Church of the East, fleeing persecution in Turkey, migrated to Australia and established several parishes presided over by a bishop, Mar Meelis Zaia, who resides at Fairfield in New South Wales.

In recent decades, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, Coptic Orthodox have also sought shelter in Australia. Currently, there are 14 parishes in Melbourne and Sydney and several Coptic schools. Linked to the Coptic Church by history and doctrinal formulation, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church lacks a formal ecclesiastical establishment in Australia but a number of Christians from Ethiopia have migrated there.

Armenian Apostolic communities were few in Australia before World War II, but their postwar migration has been significant and the Armenian Apostolic Church has parishes, mainly in Sydney and Melbourne, presided over by Archbishop Aghan Baliozian, Primate of Australia and New Zealand, who resides in Chatswood.

The Syrian Orthodox Church has a less visible presence in Australia. Their liturgy follows the West Syrian pattern and their center is in Sydney at Petersham. The Syrian Orthodox Patriarchal Vicariate of Australia and New Zealand has eight parishes in Australia and one in New Zealand.

What is the place of the Orthodox Church in Australian society? According to Father Miltiades Chryssavgis, a Greek Orthodox writer, the Orthodox community in Australia has grown in number more than any other Christian denomination. He notes that after World War II there was a “massive influx” of Orthodox faithful; today their estimated number is close to 700,000. They are the fourth largest religious group in Australia.

Because so many of Australia’s current Eastern Christian faithful are migrants who cling to their cultural roots, there are cultural and religious tensions between migrants and those Eastern Christians long established in the country – between parents and their Australian-born children, between those living in the closed circle of their own ethnic backgrounds and those who see the mission of the church as all-embracing.

For the Orthodox, at present, most Orthodox churches in Australia are so culturally based and nationalistic that they give the impression of being there primarily to minister to people of their own ethnic origin, according to Father Chryssavgis.

The children of Eastern Christian parents – both Catholic and Orthodox – present a real challenge: unlike their often isolated migrant parents who may dream of returning one day to their mother country, these young people must deal with the social and cultural issues of everyday Australian life at school and at work. Their churches must help them meet these challenges.

Like most Christian churches throughout the world, the Eastern Christian churches in Australia must also deal with an ever-increasing number of mixed marriages. Although most partners in mixed marriages are married in an Eastern Christian church, many of these couples are rarely seen in church after the ceremony. Meaningful premarital education and follow-up are real needs.

“Relations between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches have never been good,” the Australian bishops noted in their 1997 publication, The Eastern Catholics in Australia. “Mutual ignorance and suspicion make any form of real dialogue very difficult.”

Because many Orthodox consider the Eastern Catholic churches as existing only to convert Orthodox believers to Catholicism, the rebirth of Eastern Catholic communities in the former Soviet Union has caused bitterness among some Orthodox Christians, the bishops pointed out.

“The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches has passed from the dialogue of love to the dialogue of truth,” they stated. “The reality of the Eastern Catholic churches are part of this truth and they have a unique role to play in the ecumenical movement.”

Because of the number of Catholic and Orthodox Christians in Australia, opportunities for ecumenical dialogue at every level are unique. Their similar pastoral concerns favor cooperation and dialogue even at the grassroots level.

Today, approximately a century and a half after the first Eastern Christians arrived in Australia, the Eastern churches play a significant role, bringing to that commonwealth the spiritual insights of the East. Although the challenges are great, these Eastern churches face a hopeful future. As they continue to grow in faith and charity, they remain alive and well down under.

Peg Maron is Production Editor of Catholic Near East magazine.

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