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Tradition Shopping

Roman Catholics increasingly feel the lure of Eastern Catholicism

Though he was raised a Roman Catholic, Christopher Zugger has been drawn to Eastern Christianity since his childhood in Buffalo, New York.

He spent a lot of time in his grandparents’ library, where he was fascinated by a book of Byzantine prayers and Catholic Near East magazine (the predecessor of ONE).

Christopher worked an after-school job at a library and checked out records of Russian Orthodox chants.

One Easter, while in high school, he attended the midnight liturgy at a local Russian Orthodox church. When he came home early that morning, Christopher woke his mother and said, “That is what I want.”

Christopher’s mother, however, did not want him to leave the Catholic Church.

“Find something Catholic,” she said.

He visited a Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish, only to discover the liturgy was in Ukrainian. Christopher wanted a liturgy in a language he knew.

Following a friend’s suggestion, he hitched a ride to a newly reopened Byzantine Catholic church in Olean, a town 80 miles away. When Christopher opened the doors to the church, he was struck by the beauty. “I distinctly heard a voice say, ‘You are home,’ ” Christopher said.

And it has been his home ever since.

After seminary, he was ordained for the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, New Jersey. Today, Father Christopher Zugger, 50, serves as pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Byzantine Catholic Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Just as many Roman Catholics “shop” for parishes within their own tradition, others, like Father Zugger, find their homes in Eastern Catholic parishes. And many Eastern Catholics in the United States also join Roman Catholic parishes.

The Catholic Church is a communion of 22 churches – with the Roman tradition predominant in the West and many smaller churches thriving in the East.

Because they are in full communion with Rome and one another, Catholics are free to receive the Eucharist in any of these churches.

Many Roman Catholics who attend Eastern Catholic churches do so because they are drawn to the mysticism of the liturgies, which consist of centuries-old chants, icons and the use of incense. They say they enjoy more access to the clergy in Eastern parishes, which are typically smaller than their Roman counterparts, and that the church-going community is more tight-knit.

“I was searching for something with less liturgical adventure,” said Leslie Watters, who found herself unmoved by some of the post-Vatican II Masses of the Roman tradition. She now attends St. Ephrem Maronite Catholic Church in El Cajon, California.

“The words of the Maronite liturgy are absolutely beautiful,” she said. “They retain something that is often lacking in the Roman rite. I was immediately struck by the mysticism. My boys took to it immediately. My 12-year-old looks forward to coming to Mass now.”

But gaining new traditions means losing others. Sometimes Roman Catholics are dismayed to find the Stations of the Cross, eucharistic adoration and the rosary not among Eastern Catholic traditions.

Father Robert Pipta, pastor of Holy Angels Byzantine Catholic Church in San Diego, says he welcomes Roman Catholics provided they accept his Byzantine parish for what it is and do not agitate for changes.

“It’s only a problem if we have people who are angry, disgruntled or doing a lot of complaining,” he said. “Or if they’re trying to get a Byzantine parish to observe more traditional Roman Catholic rituals that don’t belong in a Byzantine parish. But I find very little of that.”

Many Roman Catholics are drawn to the “spiritual rigor” of his parish, Father Pipta said. Parishioners must be registered, participate in Divine Liturgies regularly and devote additional time to the church, he said.

“These are pretty standard requirements, but it’s difficult for some families, since they have to travel so far to get to church. Plus, our liturgies are longer and they require more standing. We also fast four times a year.”

Father Pipta said he also encourages parishioners to join the church’s Eastern Christian formation program.

Those attracted to the Eastern churches’ spiritual rigor demand a similar rigor from the clergy, Father Zugger said.

“People come and they’re on a journey,” he said. “A lot of them are well-read and they come with a lot of questions, ranging from ‘Are you Catholic?’ to ‘Why are you different?’ to ‘What does this mean?’

“When people get caught up in the mystical life of the church, they want answers, and it’s an obligation on the part of the Eastern Catholic priest to know what he’s talking about,” Father Zugger said. “You need to read. You need to study. The number of converts and Roman Catholics in our parishes makes it imperative.”

Because of the Eastern churches’ liturgical traditionalism, their followers are often portrayed as politically conservative, a stereotype that does not hold true, said Father Zugger.

“If I ask someone who is politically very liberal, ‘Why are you coming here?’ the answer will be liturgy, prayer, music, experience of God, small size of the parish and access to a priest,” he said.

“The same thing draws both liberals and conservatives. It’s like St. Augustine said, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ Our church provides people a place to rest in God.”

The Camplissons, a Roman Catholic family, have been at home in Father Pipta’s Holy Angels Church for the past two years. They first came to the parish out of curiosity and were immediately drawn in by the liturgy, said Kim Camplisson, who regularly attends services with her husband and two children.

“When I used to go to Mass, it was very easy for me to daydream – I’d think about what’s for supper and whether I washed the kids’ clothes for the school week,” she said.

She finds it easier to keep focused during the Eastern liturgy, thanks to the incense, the frescoes, the demands of frequently crossing herself and the repetition of the words “wisdom, be attentive” before Scripture readings. “This space isn’t any more sacred than a Roman Catholic parish, but here I’m constantly reminded of the sacredness,” she said.

Mrs. Camplisson also appreciates the annual blessing of objects such as homes, food and flowers. “This is important to me,” she said. “It’s a constant reminder that the life of the church extends into our family life. We ask for God’s blessing and in return we use these gifts to glorify God.”

These annual blessings also draw many Eastern Catholics who primarily attend Roman parishes. According to many pastors, they see many of their Eastern Catholic flock just once a year – on Easter, when they get their baskets of bread, eggs, cheeses and sausages blessed.

Eastern Catholics generally attend Roman parishes because they marry into a Roman Catholic family, send their children to Roman Catholic parochial schools or simply because they are more convenient.

“Today, in terms of marriage, church law is much more open to moving between Eastern and Roman churches,” said Auxiliary Bishop Nicholas Samra of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts.

“In the old law, you had to follow the church of the husband, but in the new law, either church can be chosen.”

St. Jacob Melkite Mission in San Diego once served 100 families, but because the community did not have a resident priest for four years, parish enrollment dropped almost by half, said founding parishioner Hanna Maria.

Along with his pastor, Father George Bisharat, Mr. Maria is trying to get Melkite families to return to the parish.

“If you grew up in our church, it’s in your blood – the singing, the praying,” said Father Bisharat. “But we lose people daily. They go to Roman Catholic schools and the pastors there encourage parents to go to the Roman church. They don’t understand how much we suffer. If all of the Melkites stayed with us, today we’d have a much larger parish.”

This attrition affects Eastern Catholic churches throughout the United States, said Maronite Chorbishop John D. Faris, Associate Secretary General of CNEWA.

“The Roman Catholic school system has been a great blessing for Eastern Catholics, but it has also had a disastrous long-term effect in drawing numbers away,” he said.

Sana Auro is a Chaldean Catholic in El Cajon, a city with the nation’s second-highest concentration of Iraqi immigrants.

While she said she has not left the Chaldean Church, Mrs. Auro and her husband primarily attend the Church of Santa Sophia, the Roman Catholic parish where their children were educated. Though registered at both Santa Sophia and a nearby Chaldean parish, they occasionally attend Melkite, Maronite and Syriac Catholic churches too.

“When our children went to Santa Sophia, they joined the choir and we went with them to Mass,” Mrs. Auro said. “It’s not that I’ve abandoned one church for the other. But once you start getting more involved, you find community. That’s basically what it is.”

Mrs. Auro said she knows many other Chaldeans who attend Santa Sophia because their children go to school there. “But when the kids finish school, many go back to the Chaldean Church because that’s where their roots are.” Still, others stay.

Eastern Catholics who live in cities, like Mrs. Auro, are more likely to attend a Roman Catholic parish than their rural counterparts, said Msgr. Faris.

“In rural areas and small towns, the ethnic groups tend to form their own parishes and physically cluster around them,” he said. “I came from a small town south of Pittsburgh with 12,000 people and six Catholic parishes. Each ethnic group and church had its own parish. But urban areas are more spread out, and the Eastern Catholic parish may be in an old neighborhood that is run down and far away from many of the parishioners.”

“Tradition shopping” is also more common on the West Coast, said Msgr. Faris. Because of immigration patterns, Eastern and Roman communities on the East Coast are better defined, having in many cases a hundred years to forge their identities. By moving West, many lose these communal ties and, out of necessity or by choice, branch out in their social and religious relations.

In order for Eastern churches to survive and flourish, they must maintain their authentic identity as a church and admit members of any ethnicity, Msgr. Faris said.

“They are churches, and they need to evangelize and welcome people into their midst,” he said. “To say you have to be Lebanese to be Maronite is simply wrong.”

All Catholics, Eastern and Roman, should work for the survival of the Eastern churches, Msgr. Faris said. “If our Eastern Catholic traditions were no longer present here, the church would be seriously impoverished.”

Based in California, Vincent Gragnani focuses on contemporary church issues.

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