I have been to Heaven because I have been to a Divine Liturgy.
In order to explain what a Divine Liturgy is, we must start with the acknowledgment that the Catholic Church is not limited to the Roman Catholic Church. The universal Church also includes the Eastern Catholic Churches, which are in full communion with the pope and are in every way as “catholic” as the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Catholic Churches are those churches which began in the first generations after Christ in lands of the eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Near East where Latin was not the main language.
The Divine Liturgy is the celebration of the Eucharist, which is not called Mass in the Eastern Catholic Churches because the English word Mass comes from Latin. The word liturgy comes from Greek.
In 987 AD, Vladimir, the pagan ruler of Kievan Rus’ (the region that now comprises Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Russia), sent emissaries to explore the religions of the peoples around him. His emissaries had unflattering things to say about Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam. However, after they attended a Divine Liturgy in Constantinople in the church of Hagia Sophia, his emissaries gave this report to Vladimir:
[W]e knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.
On July 15th of this year, I attended a Divine Liturgy for the first time, but I am much surer than Vladimir’s emissaries about what I experienced: I know I was in Heaven.
Please keep in mind that I love the Mass, as I tried to express in an earlier column. I go to Mass almost every day. In fact, I prefer the Ordinary Form of the Mass (the Mass most familiar to Roman Catholics, also called the “Novus Ordo”)—when it is done well and according to the rubrics—to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (also called the “Traditional Latin Mass”). When performed validly, the Mass is the Mass, the Word of God is the Word of God, and the Eucharist is the Eucharist—regardless of the quality of the homily or the music, the minor (if annoying) liberties taken with the rubrics, or anything else.
At Divine Liturgy, there is no question that God is absolutely majestic and supremely holy. There is no question that God is God and we are not Him. There is no question that the people assemble there in order to worship and adore God or that the liturgy belongs to God and not to the priest or the people. Yes, Mass is the source and summit of Roman Catholic life, but the Novus Ordo Mass is ritually and liturgically (not theologically or metaphysically) impoverished in light of the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Catholic Churches.
The setting of holiness
The Divine Liturgy I attended was the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom at the Cathedral of Saint Josaphat in Parma, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. The Cathedral serves the Ukrainian Eparchy (Diocese) of Saint Josaphat, which was established in 1983 by Pope St. John the Paul the Great. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the largest of the twenty-four Eastern Catholic Churches.
The Cathedral building itself is exceedingly beautiful, both inside and out. The most magnificent feature of the exterior architecture is the central golden dome surrounded by four somewhat smaller golden domes. Each of the five domes is crowned with a cross. There is also a huge and impressive icon of Saint Josaphat kneeling before Christ with angels on either side.
Once inside, I was almost overwhelmed by the glorious artwork everywhere throughout the cathedral. Although construction only began in the 1980s, the Cathedral of Saint Josaphat does not have the austere or ugly interior of so many newer Roman Catholic churches. I was first struck by the icon screen, called the iconostasis, separating the nave and the sanctuary, especially its two central icons of Christ and of the Virgin Mary. Everywhere I looked, there were sacred images—on the walls and inside the domes. I was reminded how utterly mistaken is the theory that sacred art inside a church distracts us from the Word and the Eucharist. On Saint Josaphat’s Facebook page, there is a video that aptly captures the beauty of the Cathedral’s interior.
A majestic contrast to the Novus Ordo Mass
There is so much in the Divine Liturgy that pays homage to the ineffable majesty of God. One example is the innumerable times the Trinitarian nature of God is invoked—not only in words, but also in actions. There are many prayers acknowledging the Trinity, such as the “Hymn to the Only-Begotten Son”:
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
now and forever. Amen.
Only-begotten Son and Word of God, You are immortal,
And You willed for our salvation to be made flesh
of the holy Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary,
And without change You became man.
You were crucified, O Christ our God, and trampled death by death.
You are one of the Holy Trinity.
Glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, save us.
Prayers are often recited three times to symbolize the Trinity. The Trinity is often mentioned by the priest, deacon, or people; and at each invocation everyone makes the Sign of the Cross. Blessings are given three times and with the three-candled trikirion to acknowledge that God is Three-in-One.
No musical instruments are played during Divine Liturgy, and yet there is glorious music throughout. The acapella music is supplied by the people, the choir, the deacon, and the priest. Most of the prayers, including those of the people, are sung. Even the Scripture readings are sung. The chant is both easy to learn and very beautiful. While I have always loved the congregation’s chant of the “Our Father” at Roman Catholic Mass, the chant used for the “Our Father” during Divine Liturgy is even better. The choir at Saint Josaphat did a magnificent job.
From a strictly theatrical point of view—that is, in terms of the Mass’ liturgical “flow”—the reception of the Eucharist in the Novus Ordo Mass has always seemed somewhat anticlimactic to me. Mass always seems to end too abruptly after Communion. In the Divine Liturgy, however, there are many more post-Communion prayers than in the Novus Ordo Mass. Among these are the “Blessing with the Holy Gifts,” the “Litany of Thanksgiving,” and the “Ambon Prayer.” This is my favorite, which the people pray aloud:
Many years, O Master! We have seen the true light. We have received the heavenly Spirit. We have found the true faith. We worship the undivided Trinity for having saved us.
In addition to that, the Divine Liturgy does not end abruptly as does the Novus Ordo Mass.
A moving experience of grace
There were other ways I was moved during the Divine Liturgy. I particularly appreciated the many times (perhaps twelve) that the deacon, in song, commanded the people, “Be attentive!” or “Stand aright!” These commands are often accompanied with the exclamation, “Wisdom!” Yes, we should be attentive! Yes, we should stand aright! Yes, we are hearing wisdom!
Also moving was the “Prayer before Holy Communion” said by the people:
I believe, O Lord, and confess that You are truly Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. Accept me this day, O Son of God, as a partaker of your Mystical Supper. I will not tell the mystery to Your enemies, nor will I give You a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief, I confess to You:
+Remember me, O Lord, when You come into Your kingdom.
+Remember me, O Master, when You come into Your kingdom.
+Remember me, O Holy One, when You come into Your kingdom.
May the partaking of Your Holy Mysteries, O Lord, be unto me not a judgment or condemnation but for the healing of soul and body.
+God, be merciful to me a sinner.
+God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
+I have sinned without number, forgive me, O Lord.
The deacon then sang, “Approach with the fear of God and with faith.” The people replied, “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord, God the Lord has appeared to us.”
I was also moved by the “Hymn to the Most Holy Theotókos.” Theotókos means “God-bearer” in Greek so it is a title for Our Lady. Christ must be pleased that in the Divine Liturgy there is a prayer to His beloved mother.
My first experience of Divine Liturgy was immensely more blessed in that it was also the occasion of a friend’s ordination to the priesthood. The Liturgy was actually a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy because it was celebrated by a bishop. In this case, it was His Grace, Bohdan Danylo who ordained Andrij Hlabse. Words cannot express how inspiring it was to see ordained to the priesthood a man who will most assuredly put Divine Revelation ahead of his own (brilliant) thoughts, emotions, and desires. And his entire exemplary Catholic family was there to support him.
Breathing with both liturgical lungs
Is there some way to synthesize the best of the Eastern Rites and the best of the Latin Rite? Only time will tell. Until then, I ask God’s blessing on all Roman Catholic bishops, priests, and deacons who strive to do justice to the unbounded majesty of God in the context of the Catholic Mass. God bless Roman clergy who do not consider themselves the stars of the show. I am speaking of the priests who incorporate incense; who have bells rung at the Epiclesis and Consecration; who forbid silly and saccharine music and forbid musicians to act as prima donnas; who include chant; who elevate the Host and the Chalice at the Consecration and give us enough time to adore them; who administer Holy Communion reverently and require Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist to administer the Precious Body and Blood reverently; who lead a “Hail Mary” after the General Intercessions or before the dismissal.
Vladimir heeded the report of his emissaries. He converted to Eastern Catholicism in 988. Done were his pagan days of having eight hundred concubines and seven wives, murderous treachery against his political opponents, and participation in ritual human sacrifice. Vladimir built churches, spread the Faith, expanded educational and judicial institutions, and personally performed acts of charity for the poor. His kingdom developed more peaceful relations with its neighbors. He is now rightfully known as Saint Vladimir the Great. It was on his feast that I attended the ordination of my friend and my first Divine Liturgy. (Historical note: After the 1054 AD Great Schism between churches faithful to Papal Primacy and those rejecting it, the Kievan hierarchy tried to reconcile Rome and Constantinople. In 1596, the Kievan Church formalized its fidelity to the pope as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.)
I have experienced for myself what Pope St. John Paul the Great was fond of saying: “The Church must breathe with her two lungs!” (Ut Unum Sint, 54). That is, the “two lungs” of the Eastern Church and the Western Church. I encourage all to experience Heaven in the Divine Liturgy.
Yes, I have been to Heaven.