NEWS STORY: English-speaking Eastern Catholics hold first summit

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

BOSTON _ Worshippers entering the Melkite Cathedral of the Annunciation are greeted with mesmerizing Arabic chants, the scent of strong incense and an eyeful of traditional icons.

It all recalls the ancient religion brought to America by Lebanese and Syrian Christian immigrants decades ago and still practiced by their descendants, who travel to services here from throughout eastern Massachusetts.

But the English prayers, the modern brick building, the multi-ethnic congregation and the stainless-steel baptismal font indicate the church has taken root in American soil. The Melkites, with 27,000 members in the United States, represent one of 21 Eastern Catholic churches, which claim approximately 500,000 members nationwide.

Originating in homelands stretching from Ukraine to India, Eastern Catholic churches follow liturgies virtually identical to those of Orthodox and other ancient Eastern churches. But they also recognize the authority of the pope. In fact, the Vatican officially gives these Eastern rites equal status with the”Latin rite”of the vastly larger Roman Catholic Church, though tensions have often strained the partnership.

Today, new generations of Eastern Catholics are growing up with no memory of their ancestral homelands, or even of the old ethnic ghettos of their immigrant forebears.”It’s not easy to keep the tradition and yet be modern enough to appeal to younger people,”said Maria Sekula, a choir member at the Melkite cathedral.”That’s what every Eastern church is going through.” To meet that challenge, 150 bishops, priests and nuns gathered in Boston the second week of November for a rare Eastern Catholic summit, coming from throughout North America, South America and Australia. They included Ukrainian and Ruthenian Catholics _ churches with Slavic roots, totaling 300,000 members in the United States _ and smaller groups such as Armenians, Romanians, Lebanese Maronites, Iraqi Chaldeans and Indian Malankarese.

To be sure, Eastern Catholics in the United States have more freedom and money than their mother churches in Europe and the Middle East, which are struggling with such problems as the legacy of communist persecution and tensions with their Orthodox and Muslim neighbors.

But these daughter churches have their own troubles. They no longer serve as the social magnets they once were in ethnic ghettos, such as those formed a century ago by Ukrainian and Ruthenian immigrants in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Toronto and other cities. Their descendants are becoming scattered geographically and less motivated to drive 50 miles to the nearest church practicing their rite, especially when there are Roman Catholic parishes closer to home offering bushels of spiritual, educational and social programs.”We have to get our mentality out of the areas where our people were in large numbers,”said Stefan Soroka, Ukrainian Catholic auxiliary bishop of Winnipeg, Canada.

Compounding matters, Eastern Catholics suffer a shortage of priests similar to that experienced by the Roman church.

In Latin America, the situation is even more serious, said Armenian Catholic Bishop Vartan Boghossian of Buenos Aires, Argentina.”As years go by, the proper traditions of ancestors are becoming weaker and also the attachment to their church grows weaker,”he said.”In some churches, the first generation came without economic resources and got organized with great enthusiasm (and) built their beautiful temples, which are now empty.” Yet many Eastern churches in the Americas are developing ethnically diverse congregations due to intermarriages and conversions.”Our face is not Slavic, it’s American,”said Ruthenian Bishop George Kuzma, adding that only 25 percent of parishioners in his Western United States diocese are cradle Ruthenians.

Sekula grew up a Ukrainian Catholic but joined Boston’s Melkite cathedral 25 years ago because she liked the parish and found its liturgy and music was virtually identical to that of her native church. The Melkite cathedral holds two services each Sunday _ one Arabic, one English _ with a Sunday School in between. Youngsters learn popular Melkite stories such as that of St. Nicholas _ the generous bishop of Myra, not the jolly Santa of Macy’s.”We’re trying to keep the tradition alive with the children,”said member Anita Ashur Wakim.

Thomas Bird, a professor of Slavic languages at Queens College and a longtime consultant to Eastern churches, said many churches fear alienating traditionalists if they accommodate American culture too much. But he said churches must make some adaptations or risk becoming”museum pieces.””The use of the vernacular (English) may cultivate a loyalty to the rite that a stubborn adherence to the traditional language would not,”he said.

Relations with the Roman church have warmed in recent decades.”Far from being an embarrassment,”the coexistence of Eastern-rite and Latin-rite Catholics”is a reason for hope,”said Cardinal Bernard Law, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston.

But Eastern Catholics say Roman Catholics have sometimes treated their traditions insensitively. Tensions also linger from early this century, when Roman Catholic bishops sought to bring Ukrainian immigrants into the Latin rite. Scandalized that the Ukrainians ordained married men, these bishops persuaded Rome in 1928 to ban the practice in America (but not in homelands such as Ukraine).

Many Ukrainians converted to Orthodoxy, which allows married priests, and they remain wary of Rome.

Even loyal Catholics sense”that the best interests of the Ukrainian Catholic Church were sacrificed in favor of the Latin Church,”said the Rev. Basil Losten, the Ukrainian Catholic bishop for New York and New England.

The Vatican now reviews individual cases of married men seeking ordination,but Eastern Catholics are seeking full return to their tradition.


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