This past Lent and Easter I spent a lot of time at a Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic parish near my home. As someone who often gets up between 4:30 – 5:30 am for work, making daily Mass is typically pretty hard to do on the average weekday. That’s why I was blessed to have this parish nearby which offered the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified twice a week throughout Lent, as well as devotions such as Matins and the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.
A Byzantine Easter Weekend
While I myself am a Latin Rite Catholic, my maternal grandmother’s side of the family belongs to the Byzantine Rite, specifically the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC). I’ve always felt that I’ve grown up with the best of both worlds. But now, with a Byzantine Rite parish so close to my home, I find myself drawn to this form of worship more and more. This is a rite in the Catholic Church which has not lost its traditions, as we have painfully seen in many Latin Rite parishes throughout the world.
It can be rightly argued that we as Latin Catholics have an identity crisis; the Byzantines do not. On the contrary, many Latinizations that have been acquired in the last several generations are disappearing in many Byzantine parishes. Yet, despite all this, I wish to stick with the Latin Rite. I want to help, in whatever small way I can, to regain our Latin traditions as the Byzantines have.
Now, in addition to attending Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite quite often during Lent, I also found myself missing out on the washing of the feet at Holy Thursday Mass in my Latin Rite parish, as well as the Mass of the Presanctified on Good Friday. Instead, as I was off from work both days, I took advantage of a Ukrainian tradition I used to enjoy as a child. I was able to meet up with my family in a predominately Ukrainian neighborhood where we bought ethnic food for Easter dinner.
Easter with the Eastern Catholics
But I arrived early for Divine Liturgy at the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral on Holy Thursday morning, and on Good Friday evening (after attending Stations of the Cross at a Carmelite monastery around 3 pm) I attended Great and Holy Friday Vespers with the Procession of the Burial Shroud at the Byzantine Catholic parish near my home. It was a beautiful experience, and my wife and I decided to spend Easter Sunday at this parish.
What a great decision this was! It was the first time we had ever been in a Byzantine Catholic church for Easter, and it was truly joyous. The church was packed, and everyone was legitimately happy. “Christ is risen!” yelled the priests and deacons over and over again as we all came to venerate the Cross during the Divine Liturgy. “Indeed He is Risen!” we all repeatedly yelled in reply. The smiles on the faces, the deep embraces everyone was sharing, the palpable elation that could be felt throughout the church … it was a wonderful feeling.
And perhaps for the first time, I had thought to myself, “This is what true Easter joy feels like! This is what the Apostles and St. Mary Magdalene felt when they realized our Lord was risen!” But as we were leaving, I soon thought to myself, “Why don’t we feel this elation in the Latin Rite?” I’m sure that many have seen their churches that are about half or three-quarters of the way full on an ordinary Sunday are packed to the brim on Easter Sunday. And sadly, the body language of many people during the Mass show that the people attending would rather be anywhere else.
The Law of Prayer
Now, I do give these people that show up only for big feasts like Easter some credit; something is moving them or their families to come to Jesus still. But despite that, I have never felt the excitement and joy in a Latin Rite parish during Easter in quite the same way I felt it during this past Easter. The closest I’ve come to it is when I used to attend my former parish that offered the Extraordinary Form (EF). I believe there’s a reason for this correlation: the way the liturgy is conducted.
The phrase lex orandi, lex credendi comes to mind. It means “the law of prayer is the law of belief”, and since the Mass is the highest and most perfect form of prayer, the way we offer that Sacrifice forms our belief. In the EF of the Latin Rite and in the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Rite, we see the Sacrifice of the Mass offered in a way that is reverent, transcendental and beautiful. The traditions of each of these rites are made very apparent throughout the Holy Sacrifice.
That’s not to say our Latin traditions are not seen in the Ordinary Form (OF) of the Mass, but one must acknowledge the fact that several of our liturgies in the OF have become whitewashed and banal, and have followed a false “spirit of Vatican II” which actually, in quite a few ways, contradicts what was prescribed by the Council Fathers. So how do OF parishes (which are the overwhelming majority of Latin parishes) regain their traditions? Maybe we should look East to the Byzantines for some guidance.
In his 1995 Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen, Pope St. John Paul II exhorted Eastern Catholics that retaining their traditions was of the utmost importance:
It has been stressed several times that the full union of the Catholic Eastern Churches with the Church of Rome which has already been achieved must not imply a diminished awareness of their own authenticity and originality. Wherever this occurred, the Second Vatican Council has urged them to rediscover their full identity, because they have ‘the right and the duty to govern themselves according to their own special disciplines. For these are guaranteed by ancient tradition, and seem to be better suited to the customs of their faithful and to the good of their souls. (OL § 21.2)
I have a few cousins who have been ordained to the priesthood in the UGCC. Shortly after one of them was ordained, my cousin was able to have a brief audience with St. John Paul. I’ll never forget what the saintly pope told my cousin: “Keep your traditions.” A simple command, but what a profound one! This certainly applies to Byzantine Catholics who are recovering from various Latinizations, but I believe St. John Paul’s words can apply to all Catholics, including Latin Catholics.
Latin Rite Traditions
It’s interesting to observe that at the same time many Eastern Catholics have begun to rediscover their identity, many Latin Catholic parishes have lost their identities to modernization and/or a saccharine “protestantization”. We must keep our traditions, otherwise, our children and their children will forget about them and will forget what they signify and point towards. Our sacred rites and practices should not be reduced to the lowest common denominator as we see in various Latin parishes throughout the Western world. We shouldn’t forget about Gregorian chant, kneeling for Communion, using Latin in the liturgy, sacred art, altar rails, patens, bells and incense during the Mass and so on.
In Byzantine parishes, you can tell that their traditions are an important part of their worship. And that’s because these traditions lead them closer to Jesus, the principle focal point of every Divine Liturgy. Our traditions in the Latin Rite have the same effect. So why have they been purged from such a great number of our parishes in the last fifty years?
Since I personally see this re-emergence of authentic tradition working for not only those Catholics in the Byzantine Rite but also in the Antiochene (or West Syrian) Rite, I greatly desire to see a re-emergence of the authentic tradition of the Latin Rite in parishes across the board. Now there’s only so much I can do, but during those moments when I’m sitting in a Byzantine Catholic parish, looking in awe with mouth agape at the beautiful artwork and Divine Liturgy before me, I think about how I’ve felt that same feeling during the EF of the Latin Rite. That same feeling and the same sense of wonder and awe can be felt in the OF as well!
All the Grandeur and Mystery
That’s one of the reasons why (despite what people say to me about attending the Byzantine Rite quite often) I would never consider abandoning the Latin Rite; there’s work to be done! The Latin Rite is my patrimony!
My generation thirsts for authenticity, and there is nothing more authentic than the venerable traditions of each rite of the Catholic Church. We don’t want a hokey, watered-down, trite “service”. We want the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in all its grandeur and mystery, and I’ll do all I can in ensuring that my children and the next generation of Catholics are not deprived of that beauty as my generation and the previous generation so often were. All I have to do is look to my Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters for an excellent example.