The Eastern churches within the Catholic communion of churches initially spread through the Middle East, Asia, India, Eastern Europe and Africa and a great evangelization took place. Western Europe was evangelized by the Roman Church, and both East and West flourished, as they spread the Gospel throughout the world.
The Western Hemisphere was evangelized mainly by the Roman Church, until the mid-to-late 1800s, when major emigrations occurred from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and more recently from India. The Christians from these societies took with them their spiritual heritage. They enculturated into their new Western societies and retained their precious Eastern Christian traditions and spirituality.
It was common for the first generation of immigrants to mingle with each other, feeling comfortable among family and friends of the same cultural and religious background. The Eastern Christian spiritual heritage — Catholic and non-Catholic — was seen by many as an ethnic issue. This issue manifested in the Orthodox churches in North America. There was an attempt, around the beginning of the 1900s, to gather all the Orthodox communities of the Byzantine tradition in one jurisdiction, but it failed and gave way to a multitude of ethnic jurisdictions, such as the Antiochene, Greek, Russian and Serbian churches. The Russian churches in the West fractured further after the Bolsheviks consolidated their power.
Second and third generations witnessed intermarriage, and many families were lost from our Eastern churches as ethnic bonds diminished. So many Eastern Christian parishes dwindled to a few families as ethnic priorities overtook spiritual heritage.
Many immigrants came to Canada and the United States with the intention of building wealth and hopefully returning to their “motherland.” Certainly, this did not happen. The Eastern churches became rooted in North American society, just as the Roman Church did. If home is where the heart is, Canada and the United States became their homes.
North American Catholicism, especially in the United States, became a mosaic of many churches in communion with each other and here to stay. The Eastern churches — having preserved many traditions from the early church when the churches of the East and West were united fully — are complementary to the Roman Church. And, with the Second Vatican Council, some of these early church traditions were reinstituted in the Roman tradition, which had lost them over a long period of time. I give as examples: Communion under both species for the laity as well as the clergy; use of the language of the people in worship; the development of synods of bishops in guiding and growing the church; as well as diocesan synods involving clergy and laity; and concelebration of the liturgy with more than one priest.
The rites of initiation — baptism, chrismation (confirmation) and Eucharist — remained integral in the Eastern churches. Now, the Roman Church is reconsidering uniting them again in its practice. Again, these traditions and customs existed throughout the church, including the Roman, in the first centuries of Christianity. Now they are being revived as West encounters East. In this encounter, Catholics in North America can now also witness the church as one body, as St. John Paul II stressed: “The church [Body of Christ] must breathe with her two lungs” (“Ut Unum Sint,” 54).
Despite this complementarity, Eastern churches in the United States especially suffered the loss of their faithful to what was considered the more “American” church — the Roman Church — which still holds the majority of the Catholic faithful.
When speaking about the patrimony of the Eastern treasures of liturgy and spirituality, among other aspects, the late Archbishop Joseph Tawil, who served the Melkite Greek Catholic eparchy in the United States from 1970 to 1989, reminded his faithful that the Second Vatican Council put an end to a provincial view of the church. The Catholic Church was not solely Roman. Rather, the Roman Church was one church family among 21 others at the time — now 23 — which were formed and developed in the East.
In his pastoral letter for Christmas 1970, titled “The Courage to Be Ourselves,” he stated clearly that Melkite Greek Catholics cannot live with a ghetto mentality, dealing only with people of the same ethnic heritage.
“If the parish lives upon the ethnic character of the community … when that character disappears, the community dies and the parish dies with it,” he wrote. “Our churches are not only for our own people but are also for any of our fellow Americans who are attracted to our traditions, which show forth the beauty of the universal church and the variety of its riches.”
It is clear we Eastern Catholics must take seriously the command of Christ: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). We, too, are called to be an evangelizing church. The simple core message of the Gospel, the mission of Jesus Christ, is the proclamation of the Good News: Christ’s vision is our vision.
Yes, my Melkite Church has to minister and care for its native-born Melkites and teach them that the Gospel message goes beyond just “our people.” Our Eastern traditions kept us alive under great persecution and oppression in the Middle East under Islamic governments, just as the Slavic churches were severely oppressed by Communist, atheistic rulers. These “living” churches now reach the Western Hemisphere and have the right and duty to share and evangelize the Catholic faith.
There would never be a reason to close a parish if we were really living the Lord’s command to make disciples of all nations. My own Melkite Greek Catholic Church is not just for native-born Melkites. It is for anyone who chooses to practice their Catholic faith according to the Melkite tradition. Many people are finding a home in our church. Some are “unchurched” people who happen to visit, possibly during a parish festival when church tours are given, receiving “welcome” brochures introducing our Eastern traditions. Some are Roman Catholics looking for smaller and more intimate communities. They are attracted by Eastern spirituality, liturgical practices and prayer life. They feel a real sense of belonging.
Since the time of Archbishop Tawil, who witnessed the universality of our Melkite Church, many of our vocations to the priesthood and diaconate have come from non-native-born Melkites. Steeped in our tradition, they found a spiritual home and accepted the call of God to minister to his people.
We are a Catholic church in America, of America and for America, regardless of our ethnic origins. Evangelizing opportunities are all around us. We need to revitalize ourselves and be converted to Christ. If we know and love Jesus Christ better, we can serve him better and then, and only then, bring to him those who have strayed, as well as those who have never known him.
In my own eparchy, I have witnessed parishes open their doors to diverse people and grow. Where Melkite parishes focused just on their native Middle Eastern culture, we have seen decline and recently a more rapid decline of third- and fourth-generation Melkites. Some move out of their hometowns for work and new living opportunities; most times, they do not relocate close to a Melkite parish. Others find a home in the Roman Church, especially if they were educated in Roman Catholic schools or have married non-Melkite spouses.
Our Eastern churches fit well in North America, especially within the diversity of its many peoples and traditions. Our nearly 200-year encounter with the Roman Church in the West, however, entails more than just a meeting of some kind.
When Christ was 40 days old, he was taken by his parents to the temple and offered to the Lord. The feast commemorating this event is called “Hypapanty” or Encounter in the East. There, in the temple, Jesus encountered his people in the persons of the elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna. Simeon met Jesus and recognized him as Redeemer and Savior and proclaimed: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people of Israel” (Lk 2:29-32).
When our Eastern churches came to the West, they encountered the Roman Church already present in America. Meeting each other, they came to know each other better and respect the diverse traditions within the Catholic communion of churches.
As with the aged Simeon, we, too, proclaim Christ as our salvation and with boldness accept the Lord’s command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:19-20).
Bishop Nicholas J. Samra is the eparchial bishop of Newton, the eparchy of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the United States.