In the 50 years since the promulgation of Orientalium Ecclesiarum, the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern rite, this document has made noteworthy progress toward its goals — yet much waits to be done, according to Church observers and specialists on the Council.

Maronite Bishop Gregory Mansour, who heads the Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn, N.Y., said these 50 years have been “graced years, and Eastern Catholic Churches are closer than ever before in a good union with the Latin Church.”

He said the Eastern Churches in general — Catholic and Orthodox — are closer to a deeper and abiding unity than in the past.

“I think Orientalium Ecclesiarum was a wonderful success,” Bishop Mansour said, noting that it was the beginning of “a great new hope for all the Church and for us to live well our Eastern traditions in union with the See of Peter in the person of the pope.”

Stephen Hildebrand, professor of theology and director of the master of theology program at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, pointed out that one main purpose of Orientalium Ecclesiarum was to inform the Church of the importance of Eastern-rite Catholic Churches.

Another foremost objective was “to articulate and appreciate legitimate diversity in ritual in the Church,” he said, adding that “it goes beyond ritual to theology and canonical matter. They have their own code of canon law.”

Hildebrand called this step one of the major accomplishments of the Council, and acknowledging and emphasizing this Code of Canons of Oriental Churches was “a great milestone” in the implementation of the document.

“The Eastern Church doesn’t have to have a Latin way of doing things, a Latin set of laws, in order to be fully Christian and Catholic,” he explained. “I see it as a wonderful statement of legitimate diversity — this is diversity ordered toward unity.”

 

Distinctive Yet Unified

Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, author and host of EWTN Live, sees a major impact from the document in the renewal of scholarship in the Eastern-rite liturgy and theology, as well as an updating of Eastern canon law.

He is in a favorable position to see all aspects of Orientalium Ecclesiarum from both sides because he is trained to celebrate both the Latin rite and the Maronite rite of the Mass.

According to Father Pacwa, “The document makes clear it is very strongly emphasizing two elements. One is union with the whole Church, but, secondly, remaining distinctive as individual Eastern rites. That’s the main thrust of the document.”

As a result, he said, a number of the rites have been “rediscovering their own distinctive liturgical vestments and actions.”

His own sense is that “this has helped the relationships with the Eastern Orthodox Church, because it makes it clear that the goal of ecumenism is not the ‘Latinization’ of the rites of the Eastern Churches. That’s not at all the Church’s goal. It’s, rather, unity that cherishes the distinctiveness of each Church.”

 

Equal in Dignity

For Bishop Kurt Burnette of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, N.J., the document brought out as one of its main points that “the Eastern Churches were equal in dignity to the Western Church.”

“I think the whole document was done to honor the East,” he said.

While some might ask if that has changed the status of the Eastern Churches, he observed, “In my experience, we’ve always been treated with respect by the West.”

At the same time, he also pointed out that the Second Vatican Council ordered Eastern Churches “to remove any kind of Latinizing, where we had imitated the Latin Church, and to restore our liturgy to its original state. That’s a slow process, and that’s still going on.”

One noteworthy place where the transition has taken place is in the sacraments of initiation. The Eastern rites had stopped giving Communion and chrismation (confirmation) at baptism.

“We returned to giving Communion at baptism,” Bishop Burnette said. “There now is baptism, chrismation and Communion all at the same service.”

 

Return to Traditions

Father David Petras noted that, from the perspective of his Church, in these 50 years, there has been a substantial return to Eastern traditions.

For quite a while, changes were slow in coming, then, “in the mid-’90s, we began making a lot of corrections,” he said. “I think the most prominent is the reform of the liturgy and the return to many traditions,” such as the restoration of Communion to infants at baptism.

For two decades, Father Petras was professor of liturgy and director of spiritual formation at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh. Since 1983, he has served with the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation.

“Rome has been faithful to the document in allowing the Eastern Churches to return to their traditions,” he said. “It’s also true sometimes the Eastern Catholic Churches are not active in doing that.”

Still, he observed, “There has been a remarkable change in the last 50 years, and there is much more pride in being Catholic and having a different tradition.”

At the same time, Father Petras felt that the Vatican decree on the Eastern Churches is one that has been most neglected, noting that it has not been the subject of several following decrees, as have been other documents from the Vatican Council.

However, he pointed out the news of Nov. 14: The Congregation for the Oriental Churches announced that the Holy See had accepted new norms for married priests in the Eastern rite. Earlier in June, Pope Francis approved the document Pontificia Praecepta de clero Uxorato Orientali, which allows ordination of married priests of the Eastern Catholic Churches outside of their traditional territories.

Traditionally, in Latin-rite countries, Eastern-rite priests were required to be celibate ostensibly, so as not to sow confusion among the large number of Latin-rite Catholics in the United States. Father Petras believes this was formerly one of the biggest obstacles in the continuing implementation of the decree.

 

Catholic-Orthodox Divide

“One of the implications of dealing with Eastern Churches inevitably raises the question of the Church’s relations with Christian Eastern Churches who didn’t come in,” Hildebrand said, referring to the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches and their permutations that are not in communion with Rome.

While much remains to be done, “Orientalium Ecclesiarum is a giant step along a very long road,” he affirmed.

Father Petras also noted that work has to be done in this area. “The ultimate fulfillment [of Orientalium Ecclesiarum] will come about only with a reunion with the Orthodox,” he said.

“One of the big problems that remains is still the problem of the Eastern Catholic Church in the face of Orthodoxy,” Father Petras explained.

He contended that while the majority of Orthodox are willing to accept the Eastern Catholics if they are faithful to their traditions, there are other Orthodox simply opposed to the Eastern Catholic Church under any conditions.

For example, after the Soviet Empire fell, as Catholic Churches were restored, there was a crisis among the Russian Orthodox, as many people returned to the faith of their birth — Catholicism — now that they were free. The Russian Orthodox Church had been installed as the state religion in Soviet-bloc countries, and the Ukrainian, Byzantine and Ruthenian Churches were suppressed.

Hildebrand concurred. He said that an Orthodox group can be upset with all kinds of sensitivities about missionary efforts. “If we go into a largely Orthodox population and try to set up an Eastern counterpart, it’s not received well.”

Yet, he said, on the whole, our appreciation of Eastern-Catholic rites is a movement toward full communion with the separated Churches.

 

Models of Firm Faith

Orientalium Ecclesiarum came at a critical moment in history. Father Pacwa described the scene in the 1960s during the Vatican Council. The Byzantine Catholics, especially in the former Soviet Union, were being greatly persecuted for their faith. This persecution under the communists had begun just a little under 50 years earlier, in 1917.

He said the various Eastern-Catholic rites, and also Eastern Orthodox and Greek Catholics in the old Soviet Union, also suffering horrendously, received the brunt of atheistic attacks on the Church.

He noted that, in the last 100 years, 40 million people died, mostly under communist and nationalist governments like the Nazis.

Father Pacwa said we need “to take a close look and realize this is the backdrop going on 50 years ago, when the document was written. Now, the focus of persecution has shifted south to the Christians of the Middle East.”

“Today, the Eastern Churches of the Middle East are the victims of the brunt of the persecution by the Muslim radicals,” he said, noting we have to be very alert that the waves of atheism and the waves of radical Islam are slamming on those shores.

They Eastern-rite Catholics there “have tremendous numbers of martyrs and ongoing suffering and loss, yet maintain their Catholic faith,” he said, emphasizing their courage and the firmness of their faith.

“Looking at this document should highlight to Western people how important the Eastern Churches are,” Father Pacwa said. “We can’t afford to neglect the importance of these Eastern Churches. We Westerners too easily think of them as quaint oddities from far away, whereas, in fact, they are on the front lines in the violent attacks on the Church.”

“If anything,” he concluded, “the Western Church needs to look at them closely for models of how we might have to deal with persecution and steadfastness of faith for where we live. They are truly the models.”

Joseph Pronechen is the Register's staff writer.