A couple of weeks ago I decided to attend a Saturday-evening liturgy according to the traditions of the Ruthenian Catholic Church; although something I had wanted to do for some time, the decision was not particularly well thought out. Yet, the experience was an enriching one for me, and, I think, for those younger Catholics poised to live in era of greater diversity, both in the United States and the Church. Attending the Eastern liturgy became cause for a reflection upon the intrinsic diversity contained within the universality, the catholicity, of the Church itself.
The Mass was both a welcoming and an entirely alien experience. From the iconostasis to the continually-sung nature of the sacrifice, I felt very other. Only the prayers for the pope and the general structure of the liturgy reminded me that this was, in fact, a wholly-valid representation of my faith. I couldn’t even say (or should I say “sing”) the Creed because the translation was different (including an omission of the Filioque). When it came time for the Eucharist, I noted that the Body was dipped into the Blood with tongs (and then put into the recipient’s mouth with the deacon’s sash underneath his head to ensure that the Host didn’t touch the floor). I felt wholly untethered.
After attending the Mass, I decided to begin reading a Byzantine-rite Catechism, a three-part series called Light for Life. While I’m nowhere near done with the books, the ideas are both familiar and foreign, leaving me a mixture of embraced and alienated. Saints, about whom we Westerners rarely think, are central to its work of catechesis. Accompanying this diversity of figures is a difference of emphasis as regards reason and faith. The beginning of the catechism instructs against anything like a scientific understanding of faith, instead emphasizing the truth beyond human reason in the realm of faith. None of this is, of course, at odds with our Western understanding, but the points of inflection are different, with theosis hinted at in a way not often discussed in our tradition.
Needless to say, it’s an odd feeling to be in between familiarity and otherness. But this experience seems important to the future of the Church and its many members. Recent synodal debates have pitted Africans against Europeans and conservatives against liberals, but have paid less attention to the less antagonistic (and likely more instructive) diversity contained within our liturgical rites. The U.S. itself has a long tradition of ethnic churches and concomitant tensions, a fact that isn’t simply going to go away. In this regard, the sui iuris Churches have much to offer those of us practicing in the largest tradition of the Church. Here, the teachings of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II are helpful in getting a general grasp on the issue.
With a diversifying electorate in the United States and an increasingly heterogeneous catholicity within the Church, such an experience invites reflection upon the various ways in which people can come to know God, and not in easy or vapid terms. The Eastern Churches have a long and difficult history, a history which might offer insight into the Great Schism itself. Dialogue is difficult; faith is difficult. But to engage in dialogue about, and reflection upon, that faith is, perhaps, the most difficult of all. Our Eastern brothers and sisters offer us an opportunity for fulfilling reflection, as well as a means of appreciating diversity, beyond our American (and even Latin) Catholic bubble.