Opinion: Let a thousand rites bloom and flourish! – Catholic World Report

The diversity with the Eastern Catholic churches is not a weakness or point of division, but one of strength. It illustrates catholicity in a far richer way than the mania for uniformity one finds in the West.

Opinion: Let a thousand rites bloom and flourish! – Catholic World Report
The Chapel of the Holy Trinity in Lublin, Poland, showcases a unique mix of Eastern and Western architecture and art. The chapel was built in under King Casimir the Great in the 14th century and decorated with Byzantine-Ruthenian frescos. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

This month marks the eleventh anniversary of the death of my beloved spiritual father, Archpriest Robert Anderson of blessed memory. I first met him in the summer of 2001 in Ukraine where we had both gone to teach in the English-language summer school of what was then called the Lviv Theological Academy and is today the Ukrainian Catholic University. Though we lived down the road from each other in Ontario, we had to go around the world to meet.

Having met overseas, our lives became intertwined in all sorts of ways once we were both back in Ottawa. He lived in a charming little house in Quebec’s Gatineau Hills, atop Chemin de la Montagne, allowing some plausibility in claiming to be a Greek monk living on a mountain! There he, a polyglot, read voraciously. He had thousands of books in English, French, Greek, Ukrainian, Syriac, Armenian, and some of the more obscure languages of the Christian East.

Fr Bob, notwithstanding his very WASPy name, was descended from Turkish and Greek grandparents and grew up on Staten Island, making him an unrivaled font of what he called “useless trivia” about all five boroughs of NYC. After high-school in Brooklyn, he studied in Paris, traveled all across Europe and the Middle East, and was ordained in Nazareth (yes, that one) by the Melkites. Not long after, he found himself pastoring a small Ukrainian Greco-Catholic (UGCC) parish in North Dakota. Later, he spent decades teaching French and theology in Catholic high-schools and pastoring parishes in southwestern Ontario.

But his international experience, and his unrivaled ecumenical eye, surveyed and understood the wild and stubborn diversity in the Christian East on a scale that most Catholics in the West-Roman Church (as he always insisted on calling it since those of us who follow the Byzantine tradition are East-Romans) can scarcely imagine. At the same time, he did not have a romantic bone in his body, and thus could see more clearly than anybody the flaws in Eastern Christian thought and practice.

Fr. Bob was an adept at aphorisms. This is perhaps clearest in a hilarious list of heresies he once drew up. This would vary slightly with each telling so I will reproduce only a few of them:

  • Greeks believe that salvation comes from Hellenism.
  • East-Slavs believe that salvation comes from language and ethnicity.
  • Americans believe salvation comes from money and guns.
  • Calvinists believe salvation comes from hard work.
  • Lebanese believe salvation comes from the French.
  • And Roman Catholics believe salvation comes from the pope!

Whatever the merits of the first five, the last one has copious evidence to hand (some of it amassed in my 2019 book on the abuse crisis). The modern fixation on the papacy used to drive him to apoplexy. He found it unfathomable that the pope should be attempting to micromanage so much, including the liturgy.

It is on this vexed question of the worship of the Latin Church that he may have something to offer Roman Catholics today in the ongoing aftermath of Traditionis Custodes. Let me illustrate this by means of his aphorism, “In the East, everything is local custom.”

I find the phrases “the Eastern rite” or “Eastern rite Catholic” bothersome and even misleading, as though there is only one rite and that one phrase can simply sum it all up. But even those relatively few Latins who know more than this—who can tell you that within the East there are the Byzantine, Armenian, Alexandrian, Syriac, Maronite, and Chaldean rites—usually cannot fully appreciate that within each of those liturgical traditions there is an almost riotous diversity. The Alexandrian is sub-divided into the Coptic and Ethiopian (and the Eritrean more recently). The Syriac and Chaldean admit of significant geographic differences. The Maronite, of Syriac provenance, is in some ways a peculiar hybrid of ancient practices and modern Latinizations. And the Byzantine tradition contains more than any other: millions of Greeks, Romanians, Ukrainians, Russians, Melkites, Bulgarians, and still others.

Within the same ritual tradition one finds different liturgical languages and numerous highly developed chant systems as well. But it does not end there. Even within one family in one region—indeed, one eparchy—there can sometimes be such diversity that Fr Bob used to say that, de facto, we had to admit of multiple rites within the same church. One does not even find the same calendar in use from parish to parish, nor, sometimes within the same parish!

Fr Bob argued that among Ukrainian Greco-Catholic churches in Canada (who ostensibly all use the Byzantine rite) there was a Western-Canadian Byzantine rite found west of the Ontario-Manitoba border. In the western provinces you rarely found an iconostasis but did often find such peculiarities as recited liturgies (entirely in English) in churches bedecked with stations of the cross and having recitation of the rosary before liturgy. In Ontario and environs eastward, you frequently heard Ukrainian or, for a time, Slavonic, and sometimes a smattering of French; liturgies were almost always sung in churches with icon-screens. Similar diversity is historically to be found in different eparchies in Ukraine itself for over a century.

And then there were the Basilians, whom he regarded as constituting a rite of their own within the UGCC. The Ukrainian Basilians (OSBM), for those not up on hybrid religious orders, were a significant force in the UGCC in Ukraine and elsewhere. They were at one point ‘reformed’ along the lines (and with the assistance) of the Jesuits, which meant, notoriously, that their understanding and practice of the ars celebrandi was poor and perfunctory, marked by abbreviations and Latinizations some purists find distasteful.

Such an awareness of enormous liturgical diversity even in the same church in the same territory, along with Fr. Bob’s experiences among the Greeks (he had Orthodox cousins in Greece he would visit each summer), the East-Slavs, and the Melkites confirmed for him again and again that only a fool hazards sweeping generalizations about the Christian East, especially her maddeningly unsystematic liturgical practices. The safest generalization he would hazard is, again, In the East everything is local custom.

And yet it all works and holds together. That diversity is not a weakness or point of division, but one of strength. It illustrates catholicity in a far richer way than the mania for uniformity one finds in the West.

Most Latins who look East find this diversity and liturgical complexity bewildering at best, nightmarish at worst. As an anthropologist manqué, I find it thrilling and liberating. Why can’t Latin Christians celebrate several rites and recensions, in Latin or a thousand other languages? Whom does that harm?

In search of arguments to justify Traditionis Custodes its apologists have trotted out the fatuous claim that the real issue is a difference in ecclesiology. On this they are right—but in completely the wrong way.

The ecclesiology of liturgical reform emanating (ostensibly) from Vatican II is the same as in Traditionis Custodes: a maximalist papal centralization that has often harmed the Church from 1870 onward. But few will say this out loud; fewer still know the history to realize what a modernist invention such papal overreach is.

Plainly stated: the bishop of Rome has liturgical jurisdiction over his diocese and, as metropolitan, his province. That’s it. He exceeds his brief by trying to tell bishops of all the other dioceses—even in Italy—what to do in each of their parishes. A fortiori he exceeds his authority if he dares to tell any of the dioceses outside Italy or, worst still, the Eastern Churches how to celebrate their manifold liturgies.

The ecclesiological vision behind Summorum Pontificum (as I suggested here on CWR just over two years ago) is the far better of the two on offer since Vatican II. The vision behind the emeritus bishop of Rome’s motu proprio was rightly concerned with getting his office out of parish and diocesan decisions, and thereby striking a blow for local freedom. The rightful anxieties of the previous pope about the centralizing tendencies of Rome are documented in his book-interviews published over the years, and in his lovely (if frustratingly incomplete) memoirs published as Milestones.

Benedict XVI, being cautious, was not prepared to make huge changes to the liturgical culture of the Latin Church, but seems to have thought that he could at least get the ball rolling. Unfortunately, that ball seems to have been seized upon by his successor who, in that amusingly ironic way he has, has changed the rules on how it may be kept in play. He has made the game much more needlessly restrictive and is causing grief to a such a tiny handful of Latins that even we few Eastern Catholics outnumber them by several millions. Whatever else one may say of Traditionis Custodesit does not show up in the dictionary as an example illustrating such entries as Synodality, Generous Pastoral Accompaniment, Dialogue, etc.

That is not to say that I regard all of the recent papal talk about synodality as disingenuous or hypocritical. I think Pope Francis is, rightly, moving the Church in this direction and we must wish such efforts every success for they are overdue. It is doubtful that the efforts will run so far that future liturgists and anthropologists, gazing upon Latin liturgical culture a century or two hence, will be able to say, “in the West everything is local custom”. But we should hope that the vision granted unto them will be more along those lines than that of another motu proprio like Traditionis Custodesor a rogue conciliar commission covertly arrogating unto itself the supposed authority of an ecumenical council.

Either way, most of us will be cheerfully dead before serious synodal or liturgical reform is set into place. On the topic of death, I want to leave the reader with one final aphorism, the most profound one Fr. Bob coined. I have used it with my students over the years, as Fr Bob did with his: Christianity is a way to survive death. If, after your labors in the pulpit or classroom are ended, this is all people will remember, it will still allow your name to be placed in the pantheon of apostles and evangelists for that is the most cogent summary of the gospel I know.

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