Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Caring for Eastern Christians

Here's an unusual item on my to-do list, which I've been working on, on and off, for several weeks.

Several weeks ago, I had a family approach me about becoming Catholic. They are Greek Orthodox.

Inside my head, a little bell goes off. "This requires special care."

Here's what I mean--because this delves into some less well known aspects of the Church.

If a member of an Orthodox Church seeks "to be Catholic," this is very different from a Protestant, or a non-Christian, doing so. Why? Because the Orthodox already have the right faith, but there are some differences that have to be dealt with.

The Roman feeling is that these differences are relatively narrow; sometimes, among the Orthodox, the feeling is they are major. Being Roman, I approach this situation from the Roman perspective.

So first, I have to think about what topics have to involve some instruction. Not nearly as many as others approaching me to enter the Church.

Another little-known fact. If an Orthodox believer wishes to enter into full communion with the pope, he or she does not become Roman Catholic; he or she becomes a member of the Byzantine Catholic Church, which is a distinct "rite" or branch of the Church, in communion with Rome.

Why is this? Because the various Eastern branches of the Church are not eager to be absorbed into the Roman Church--but to maintain their distinct spirituality and traditions. Same Faith; different form and expression. So strict is this rule, that only the Holy Father can make an exception.

So...these folks approaching me would not become Roman Catholics, but Byzantine Catholics--only they didn't know that. I had to explain what that meant. That means I had to do some homework.

Before I explore that, you might wonder, well, why did they come to you?

Because there is no Greek Orthodox Church nearby; nor is there a Greek Catholic parish nearby. So they came to the Catholic church.

So my concern--which I expressed to them--was that in attending Mass at a Roman church, and sending their children to a Roman school, their Eastern traditions would be lost. Also, even if they attend Mass here, which they can, they will nonetheless be members of the Byzantine Catholic Church. If their son seeks ordination, it needs to be in that church; when their children seek marriage, they can only be married in the Latin rite if they marry a Latin Catholic.

So what else does this mean for this family?

1) Eastern spirituality is different; it's important for them to retain that and connect with it.
2) The way Eastern Churches understand some doctrines is slightly different--not in substance but in formulation. For example, the Holy Spirit's "procession" from the Father, "and/through" the Son.
3) The disciplines of the East are different. Eastern Christians fast more, but it is not under "pain of sin."

Anyway, you might think it would be easy to find things for them to read and study. Not so much. Most of what I could find is written for theologians, not regular folks.

Also, along the way I sought advice from the pastor of the nearest Byzantine Catholic parish, insofar as they will become his parishioners if I receive them into the Church, even though they'll routinely attend Mass here.

Well, I finally put together a plan, and I called the mother today, and we will be getting together soon. I won't claim I did the best job on this so far; I have done what I can, amidst other responsibilities.


Anonymous said...

I confess to being confused by this. Why can't an Eastern Orthodox become a Latin-rite Catholic????

I mean...what if they *wanted* to?


Fr. Peter said...


Thank you for your Pastoral Sensitivity on this issue. It is very rare that you find a priest willing to go that extra mile. As much as I hate to see these folks leave it sounds as if they will be in good hands. Blessings.

Anonymous, Rome wants folks to keep their liturigcal and spiritual heritage. They will become Roman Catholic just of a different rite is all.

Fr Martin Fox said...


It's a delicate issue I'll attempt to explain briefly.

The Church, as it has spread, took root in many cultures; and this has become part of how the Deposit of Faith is handed down to us. The Church includes many traditions: Roman, Greek, Slavic, Middle Eastern, etc.

Thus the Catholic Church (not to speak of our Orthodox brethren for the moment) is made up of 22 distinct Churches, all in communion with the successor of Peter. The Latin Church is only one of these 22. Each is apostolic in origin; most of these churches are terra incognita to those of us who are Roman.

Because these churches, in most parts of the world, are tiny in number in comparison to the Roman Church, the risk is that their traditions and identity will be absorbed and disappear. The Church as a whole does not desire this to happen.

Thus the law was put in place that I referred to; if a member of the Orthodox Church seeks to enter into communion with the pope, s/he becomes a member of that Church, within the family of Churches, that corresponds: i.e., the Byzantine Catholic Church.

Ideally, the separation between Catholic and Orthodox would never have happened; or would be speedily healed. Until that day, this is the best solution the pope and the bishops have come up with.

Does that help?

Fr Martin Fox said...

Father Peter:

Thank you for your kind words.

We didn't go looking for these folks, but when they came to me, I wanted to do what I could for them.

They were welcome, for example, to enroll in our school, regardless of changing their religious affiliation.

They are welcome to attend Mass--again, without any change in their religious affiliation.

I am planning to meet with the family several times, and over those meetings, I'm going to stress to them the importance of their Greek and Eastern heritage. Whatever they decide, I truly believe they must keep this. If their children stay in our school, I'd be delighted to have them share that with the other children.

Also, it is my conviction -- following the actions of the Apostles described in Acts 15 -- that I cannot ask any more of them than the minimum necessary.

There can be no question of the validity of Orthodox sacraments and worship; no question that the Orthodox have preserved the Faith.

Obviously, the Catholic Church has pursued some questions, and developed its governance, apart from our Orthodox brothers and sisters, and this must now be dealt with in dialogue. We all pray for the day all our bishops can gather in communion as once happened! May there be a third council of Nicea! May it happen soon!

I am going to do my level best to explain the Catholic understanding of such issues as the primacy and infallibility of Peter and his successors, the filioque, Mary's conception and her sinlessness, and her dormition and assumption. These are issues I am aware of as points of contention; I know there are others but I'm not sure how much stress to place on them.

After all, I am reluctant to pretend to give an Orthodox perspective; that's unfair.

Finally, not to be contentious, but if they do make a profession that effects their communion with the Catholic Church, they will be Byzantine Catholics, not Roman.

In practice, this won't make a lot of difference to them. They can still receive the sacraments and attend the Mass in a Latin Rite parish, but it would affect the administration of sacraments for any future children, as well as ordination and/or marriage for their children. Their young children, for example, have already been chrismated (confirmed) and made their first communion; they will not be barred from continuing to receive, and they won't be confirmed again.

I've attempted to explain these distinctions to them, which are obscure to most folks. If they really want to be Roman, only the Holy Father himself can grant that. I've never written such a letter!

Anonymous said...

Father Martin,

This is the first time I read your blog. I found this post interesting because I am a former Greek Orthodox Christian who converted to the Catholic faith 16 years ago. Last year, for the first time, I learned that when I converted I became a member of the Byzantine Rite, not the Latin Rite. I was told by a canon lawyer that I could petition the Greek Catholic bishop in order to change rites. That's easier said than done since my official bishop is in Greece and I'm in the US. There is no pressing need for me to switch rites. Since my husband is Latin Rite, my situation will not affect our children. They are considered to be part of the Latin Rite.

When I converted there was a part of me that missed "Byzantium." Now, because of canon law, I have learned that I didn't really put the East behind me.

Thank you for helping out that family as you did. It was good of you to go the extra mile. If I had known then what I know now, I still would have converted and made the Latin Rite my home. While the East is beautiful and where I officially belong, the West is my home.

Andonia said...

You might also need to have a talk with them about contraception, abortion and divorce.

eulogos said...

How far is the nearest Byzantine Catholic parish?

Because it would seem very strange, if someone grew up in the Roman rite, to suddenly get married as a Byzantine. And if the young man wanted to become a priest, he would have to learn a very different way of celebrating the Eucharist, all chanted, in chants he wasn't familiar with. He might love it, or he might find it very alien.

I have been attending a Ruthenian rite parish for five years now and have come to feel somewhat at home there, but it really took a while.

If it is only 30 or 40 miles it seems to me it would be worth it to them to make the trip. Of course, that is their decision.

By the way, do you know if I, as a Latin rite Catholic, but a member of a Ruthenian parish, can be buried in in that rite? I'd hate to think that after years of singing Vichnaya Pamjat for others, I would have to be buried to Eagles Wings!

Fr Martin Fox said...


The nearest Greek church in communion with Rome is in Dayton, about 30 or so miles south of here.

I don't know about the rules regarding your funeral; my guess--only that--is that you can be buried in the ritual and church of your choice, if the church is willing to do it. I would ask the pastor of the church you attend.