Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why Try Byzantine? – For Anyone Wanting to Know Reasons to Try The Eastern Catholic Church

My friend wrote me and wanted to know what I like about the Eastern Rite, because her family is considering attending an Eastern Liturgy on a regular basis. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I never knew there was an Eastern Catholic Church before college. Once I discovered it, I felt as though I had been lied to my whole life (I will explain this deceit later). I had heard of Orthodox in passing from my parents. But, I had gone to Catholic school and attended Catholic Education at our church while in public high school and no one had taught about this part of the Church. None of what follows is meant to be negativity toward the Roman rite, because we are all a part of the same Church—the left and the right lung. I was raised Roman and found faith in the Roman Church, but these days I consider myself Eastern and will raise my children Eastern.

Many of those who attend Eastern Catholic parishes in the United States come from Roman rite, or former Orthodox. So, if you are coming to this rite from either, you are not alone. Most parishes have a small percentage of parishioners who it is not only their religion it is also their culture, and or ethnicity. As you may have noticed when you come across Eastern Catholic churches, they specify their cultural origin: Ukrainian, Greek, Syrian, etc. There are 22 Eastern churches under Rome. Under no circumstances do you need to be culturally or ethnically Ukrainian. However, being a part of the church it is fun to learn some of the culturally based traditions, like pysanky and pyrogies.

Growing up in small town Wyoming, there was no opportunity to be exposed to the Eastern Church. My parents certainly knew about the Eastern Church and they chose not to expose their children. I suppose because they were enamored with the new Roman Church. Further, in all my years of Catholic education there was not one mention of the other lung of our beautiful religion. However, the main reason that I felt cheated upon learning about the Eastern Church is because the Eastern Liturgy is the oldest form of the Liturgy. It is the original. Call me a purest, but it seems to me that the closer one can get to how things were when Christ lived, when He handed the Church to the Disciples, the more true your worship of the Most Holy Trinity will be.

The Liturgy and Tradition of the Eastern Church is so rich. Honestly, I have had no complaints about the Eastern Liturgy. There is far too much to talk about here. The Eastern church we have attended in Irving, Texas has a wonderful website that explains a lot about the Tradition (

Some highlights of the Liturgy and Tradition are:

-As I said before, the richness of the Liturgy, which you will need to discover yourself, with the help of those who already know it well. You will likely recognize every part of the Liturgy from the Roman rite.

-Everything is chanted; every moment is a prayer; there is never silence; which means that there is no lull at any point (where children might get bored); there are no strange transitions into the musical segment of the Liturgy, because it is all music; the music/chant does not vary drastically from church to church (like at each different Roman church the music changes to the music director’s tastes, i.e. hippie 70’s peace/love music, old Anglican style, Latin, Gospel.)

-One thing that I think is REALLY important is that all the Sacraments/Rites of Initiation are done at once, which means that no grace is denied to the recipient. I told my husband that when I was growing up, the fact that I had first Communion, and Confirmation/Chrismation separate at different phases of my life were two really important moments for me that I am glad I can remember unlike those who receive these all at once. But, after listening to my husband speak about why you would want these graces all at once, especially from a young age; I realized that my “memories” were not as important as the grace. Further, when a baby (or adult) receives these sacraments before the whole parish we are all there to partake in this bestowing of grace. In the Eastern Church, no one is left out—especially not children. Children are as responsible for their faith as adults.

-One final point that I think is a marvelous benefit to the Eastern Church is the sincere fellowship. After Liturgy, everyone stays and shares a meal, or at least snacks. It is an opportunity to share faith and lives with those who worship with you. This is very different from the Roman Church in which everyone bolts out the door the minute Liturgy ends and sometimes right after Communion. If it is a really friendly Roman church folks may exchange hellos and pleasantries for a few minutes afterwards, but it could not be considered fellowship. The Eastern Church is truly a community.

Andrew Wrote a Byzantine Church Survival Guide for a friend of his. At first it is a little uncomfortable learning the chants and sometimes other languages like Ukrainian. But, you will catch on quickly and find yourself chanting as you wash your dishes, make dinner, or put the kids to bed. This is what I was told after my first experience at the Byzantine church and I did not believe it. I thought the chants were so awkward, but soon I was chanting these beautiful hymns throughout my day.

Andrew’s Byzantine Survival Guide

Let me share what I know about the Ruthenian Rite from my experience. There is a difference between Ruthenian (which is more or less Ukrainian) and Ukrainian but in any case, I wouldn’t be surprised if they share the exact same liturgy and translation/language. I say this only because the Ruthenian Rite/Family is so prevalent in America. It basically comes down to the Ruthenians (Ukrainian of a sort), Maronite, and Melkites as the three main groups in America.

As far as survival tips go (that’s an excellent way to put it), there are a few things I can say. The first is when in Byzantium do as the Byzantines do:

Stand when they stand, sit when they sit, etc. Though kneeling is accepted, since Pope John Paul II allowed the Eastern Churches to return to their traditional liturgical practices, nearly every parish has gone back those practices which include a lot of standing with some sitting, no kneeling.

Secondly, realize that each person has a slightly different way of worshiping in the liturgy. You’ll see people at different times venerating icons or crossing themselves and at first it will seem really uncomfortable. However, there are a few things that are traditionally highly encouraged. It is proper to venerate the icon on the tetrapod, just before the iconostasis, before and after liturgy. When venerating the icon, the most important thing to remember is to kiss the feet of the saints and not their faces. There is usually a three-bar cross beside the icon that is usually venerated too. You will want to cross yourself before and after veneration at the table. (I’ll attach a site with some more specific tips on this below). Some people will also touch the icon on their way to receive Holy Communion. If you are extremely uncomfortable with approaching the tetrapod at first, a deep bow (sometimes called the profound bow) is accepted before you enter or as you exit your pew. Genuflection simply isn’t the practice in the East. For a bow, just bend at the waist at about a 90-120 degree angle and cross oneself.

Thirdly, as I am sure you are aware, Easterners cross themselves backwards from the Roman Catholics. This isn’t an essential thing, but it’s worth remembering. One crosses oneself right to left, not left to right. Again this isn’t a big deal.

On this point, major arguments have ensued about the way one uses his fingers when making the sign of the Cross. The traditional way of making the sign of the Cross is to put your thumb, index finger, and middle finger together as the three fingers that touch your body as you make the sign. The ring finger and pinky simply rest inside the palm of your hand. This symbolizes the two natures of Christ and the Holy Trinity. There are other ways to do it, but this is the most common way.

Fourthly, Communion, is taken under both “species” on a spoon. The practice is to go up if you are prepared to receive and to stay in the pew if you are not. The priest will either ask your name before you receive, or he will simply say a prayer and then give you the Sacrament. Note that he says Amen for you. Just don’t bite down on the spoon, and bend your knees slightly and you will be fine. If he is much taller than you, you may not need to bend your knees at all. Other than that, it is much like the Roman Rite. However, when you return to your pew, the practice is to stay standing and either to pray standing upright or sing the Communion hymns. There is a sung prayer of thanksgiving that immediately follows after everyone has received. While Communion is very solemn in the West, it is a time of joy in the East. To oversimplify, the Roman Rite tends to focus on the Crucifixion and the Byzantine Rite tends to focus on the Resurrection.

From what I can tell, in some parishes, most parishioners will cross themselves (with both hands on the chest as though just to receive a blessing in the Roman rite) and in other parishes, this is uncommon. The crossing of oneself here symbolizes many things—xristos and the wings of cherubim. It’s rich, beautiful and meaningful. My parish in Spokane was full of parishioners who did this, but we had quite a few people from Ukraine. The parish I have been visiting in Irving hardly does this at all.

Lastly, stay after church and talk to the congregants. The fellowship that follows Divine Liturgy seems to be a big deal to the Eastern Rite Catholics for a variety of reasons. The parishioners will love to talk with you and share details about the rite, parish, etc. Admittedly, this is extremely awkward at first, but my wife (who was once totally unfamiliar to the other “lung” of the Church) found this sort of full immersion process immensely rewarding and edifying.

I hope that helps.


Anne said...

I love this post! I'm going to post it to my blog for my readers, too :) LOVE!

Kayleen said...

Oh, finally I can comment (I've been having issues with your blog and posting comments...) Anyway, yes I agree with Anne, great post! I recognize that church :)It was there that I first experienced a Byzantine Liturgy. I was hooked! Now I've got a Byzantine husband and a Byzantine baby (proudly recieving communion) Good stuff.