The importance of understanding Eastern Christianity

by Anthony T. Dragani

For the past several years I have witnessed an ongoing crisis of identity within the Roman Catholic Church, which is evident even on the campus of Franciscan University. Often reduced to the battle between “Conservatives” versus “Progressives” or “Traditionalists” versus “Charismatics,” the issues involved are multifaceted and complex. I have tried to make my own contribution to this debate, with varying degrees of success. Now I’d like to address it from a new perspective, i.e. as a kind of outsider, for that is indeed what I have become.

I am an Eastern Christian. While gladly submitting to the authority of the Pope, in my spiritual and liturgical life, I strive to live out the tradition of the great Eastern Fathers: Ss. Ireneaus, Nicholas, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril and Methodius, and many others. For those unacquainted with Eastern Christianity, we are the people responsible for all of the beautiful icons, such as Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which Western Christians sometimes venerate. Of course, there is a great deal more to us than just that.

Some Historical Background

Christianity originated in the East. Western Catholics should not lose sight of this fact. Jesus carried out his ministry in the Middle East, and most of the Apostles were martyred in the East. Even Ss. Peter and Paul established numerous churches throughout the East before dying in Rome. As Christianity grew and flourished, the churches planted by the Apostles in the East grew into the great Eastern Christian Tradition. It was in the East that the first seven Ecumenical Councils were held.

Unfortunately, due to political and geographic circumstances, a gradual estrangement developed between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. The Western Tradition, which was grounded in the theology of Western Fathers such as Ss. Augustine and Jerome, developed its own distinct theological perspective. The Western and Eastern branches of Christianity developed different forms of liturgy, spirituality, ecclesiology and theology. Nevertheless, both sides were fully “Catholic,” and remained united as one Church for a thousand years. The Eastern and Western Fathers approached theological and ecclessiological issues in very different, yet complementary ways (see the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism, nos. 14-18.) This was the era of unified Christianity when, as Pope John Paul has said, “the Church breathed with both lungs.”

Tragically, due to political, linguistic, and theological difficulties, unity was ruptured between East and West in the middle of the Eleventh Century. As the famous Roman Catholic theologian Yves Congar has frequently emphasized, this breach was the result of a progressive estrangement, as the Eastern and Western clergy and laity knew increasingly less about one another. This situation was exacerbated by the “Roman Catholic” pillage of Constantinople in 1204, which was in reality orchestrated by greedy Italian merchants, although some Western bishops unscrupulously benefited from the conquest (cf. After Nine Hundred Years: the Background of the Schism Between the Eastern and Western Churches, by Yves Congar, O.P.)

Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, large groups of Eastern Christians re-established communion with Rome, and organized themselves as Eastern Catholic Churches. These Eastern Catholics in no way saw themselves as abandoning their Eastern heritage, but as re-establishing communion with Rome as it existed during the first millenium. Hence, we have the vast array of Eastern Catholic Churches, which are sometimes erroneously referred to as “rites.” In reality, they are particular Churches with their own hierarchies, spiritualities, and theological perspectives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this nicely:

“From the beginning, this one Church has been marked by a great diversity which comes from both the variety of God’s gifts and the diversity of those who receive them… Holding a rightful place in the communion of the Church there are also particular Churches that retain their own traditions. The great richness of such diversity is not opposed to the Church’s unity” (CCC no. 814).

According to the Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Catholic Church is actually a “communion” of Churches, composed of particular Churches such as the Melkite, Byzantine, Ukrainian, Roman, Maronite, and many others, with the Pope of Rome serving as the guardian of unity (LG 13). To refer to these Churches as “rites,” although usually done with the best of intentions, is today inaccurate and somewhat misleading.

I am a member of the Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Church of Pittsburgh. We are the only particular Eastern Catholic Church to be based out of North America, with our leader, Metropolitan Judson, residing in Pittsburgh. Although established initially by Eastern European immigrants, we now have countless members from all ethnic and racial backgrounds. We are no longer an “ethnic” Church, but an American Church that proudly lives out our Eastern Catholic heritage.

The Eastern Alternative

Since the split of the eleventh century, despite the reunion of numerous Eastern Catholic Churches, the Roman Catholic populace has been largely unaware of Eastern Christianity. To many in the Western world, Christianity is composed of Protestants and Roman Catholics; they are not even aware that there is an entirely distinctive and legitimate Eastern tradition.

Nonetheless, by Divine Providence, there has always been an elite circle of Roman Catholic theologians and Popes who were well acquainted with the Eastern Churches. Among them is our own Pope John Paul II, who in his wonderful apostolic letter, The Light of the East, affirms that “the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church” (OL 1, emphasis mine). This saintly Pontiff exhorts all Roman Catholics to become acquainted with the Eastern Tradition (OL 24). He especially calls for “appropriate teaching on these subjects in seminaries and theological faculties, especially to future priests” (OL 24).

Although millions of Eastern Catholics are currently in communion with Rome, there are over 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians who are still separated from the Pope. These Orthodox Christians are identical to Eastern Catholics in almost every way, and also have the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The Catechism teaches that a certain communion does exist between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, and that “with the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist,” (CCC 838).

A re-establishment of communion between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox has been a top priority of the last several Popes. Pope John Paul II has recognized the Orthodox and Catholics as “sister Churches,” and has taught that the goal of dialogue with the Orthodox is “perfect, total communion which will be neither absorption nor fusion but encounter in truth and love,” (Declaration of the joint International Commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, no. 14; cf. Slavorum Gentes, I., 27.)

The re-establishment of unity between Orthodox and Catholics was an important goal of the Second Vatican Council, which laid a good foundation for reunion in its documents (cf. The Decree on Ecumenism, no. 18.) Father John Meyendorff, a well-respected Eastern Orthodox theologian, made the following observation concerning Vatican II in his book Rome, Constantinople, Moscow:

The council documents, without solving all the problems, reaffirmed an ecclesiology based on the local Eucharistic community; a theology of the episcopate, focused on conciliarity; a conception of the laity as the “people of God.” All these were common ground for a dialogue with the Orthodox Church… The rapprochement with Orthodoxy—which undoubtedly was among the basic conciliar motivations—was swamped by a kind of new triumphalism of “modernity,” through which the (Roman Catholic) Church tended to lose its identity… As these dramatic processes were developing, the Orthodox Church appeared remote and irrelevant to most Western Christians. Its theological witness was too weak to be heard. Only some specialists were aware of the Orthodox alternative to Western trends. This absence of Orthodoxy was, in fact, as tragic as in the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation, when its presence would have helped to transcend the dichotomy between Rome and Protestantism. (Meyendorff, 1-2).

Many of the major changes in the Roman Catholic Church initiated by Vatican II were actually modeled after the practice of Eastern Christians: communion under both species, liturgy in the vernacular, permanent deacons, standing while receiving communion, a free-standing altar (apart from the wall), and increased participation by the laity in the Liturgy have all been the norm in Eastern Christianity for two thousand years. The Fathers of Vatican II were consciously borrowing from Eastern Christianity when they mandated these changes. (The great liturgical movement, which resulted in Sacrosanctum Concilium, was largely inspired by a renewed interest in the liturgy of the Eastern Churches. (See Klaus Gamber, Reform of the Roman Liturgy. Harrison, NY: Una Voce, 1993. p. 4.)

It is in the matter of liturgical change that the lack of familiarity with the East is most tragic. In the ongoing liturgy wars occurring in the Roman Church, neither side, whether “progressive” or “traditional,” is usually well acquainted with Eastern Christianity. Yet it was largely from the Eastern Christians that the Fathers of Vatican II received their vision for a renewed liturgy. Before Vatican II, in the Roman Church, the liturgy was full of beautiful sights and sounds, such as incense, chant, ornate vestments, bells, and visual images galore. But there was an acute problem, which troubled the Fathers: there was virtually no participation by the congregation. The priest performed the liturgy, but the people sat in the pews as mere spectators. Often the laity prayed the Rosary or read meditations during Mass, with little understanding of what was occurring in the sanctuary.

In the Christian East, in contrast, the laity participate actively and vocally in the Divine Liturgy. The entire liturgy is sung from beginning to end, with responses constantly going back and forth between the priest and the congregation. The laity are expected to sing all of the responses, which virtually never cease. There is never a time in the Eastern Divine Liturgy in which the congregation is a mere spectator (apart from the homily); the participation by the laity throughout the liturgy is continuous. Nonetheless, despite all of this participation by the congregation, all of the “traditional” elements of Christian liturgy remain present: the priest faces East together with the people, incense is used in abundance, icons and elaborate vestments please the eyes, and beautiful chant pleases the ears. It is a complete sensory experience. So here, in the Eastern Liturgy, we have the traditional elements that so many “traditionalists” long for, and the active participation that many “progressives” and “Charismatics” crave. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Pope John Paul II praises the Eastern Divine Liturgy “for involving the human person in his or her totality,” (OL 11). He comments on how “the lengthy duration of the celebrations, the repeated invocations, everything expresses gradual identification with the mystery celebrated with one’s whole person. Thus the prayer of the Church already becomes participation in the heavenly liturgy, an anticipation of the final beatitude,” (OL 11). Of course the Eastern Christian tradition has far more to offer the West than a mere model of liturgy. Western Christians could also benefit greatly from exposure to Eastern Christian theology, ecclesiology, spirituality, and culture.

My Challenge to Franciscan University and Sister Colleges

Since my arrival at the campus of Franciscan University, I have been blessed with many wonderful opportunities. The school is truly a center of Roman Catholic renewal, with an overall excellent faculty, staff and student body. I have been deeply enriched by the positive spiritual climate present on campus. Nonetheless, I desire to see Franciscan University become a center of “Catholic” renewal in the truly universal sense, in which the future leaders of the Roman Catholic Church become acquainted with what the Pope calls “the spiritual treasures of which the Eastern Catholic Churches are the bearers,” (OL 21).

Catholicism is far more than merely the Roman Church, and the “tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church,” (OL 1). With numerous Eastern Catholic parishes nearby, and a large and dynamic Byzantine Catholic community in Pittsburgh, Franciscan University has every opportunity to acquaint its students with the fullness of the Catholic Church. In summary, I am challenging the entire university community, out of a spirit of love and gratitude, to meditate on this exhortation by our Holy Father:

...conversion is also required of the Latin Church, that she may respect and fully appreciate the dignity of Eastern Christians, and accept gratefully the spiritual treasures of which Eastern Catholic Churches are the bearers, to the benefit of the entire catholic communion; that she may show concretely, far more than in the past, how much she esteems and admires the Christian East and how essential she considers its contribution to the full realization of the Church’s universality. (OL 21).

Anthony Dragani, who recently completed an MA in Theology at Franciscan University, is now studying for a PhD in Theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.