McLEAN, Va.—For many Roman Catholics, Eastern-rite churches have a great appeal.

Take William and Connie Marshner, for example. They enthusiastically describe the Divine Liturgy — the Eastern term for the Mass — at Holy Redeemer Church in McLean.

It's crowded with people of all ages and races. Separate choirs for adults and children stand on either siade of the front altar, in front of the iconostasis, the wooden screen separating the congregation from the sanctuary.

Priests, deacons and acolytes resplendent in embroidered robes stand before the gates of the iconostasis, chanting. Everyone sings vigorously, babies cry, children run up and join the children's choir and then slide back to their parents at whim, but no one seems distracted.

“It's so mystical and yet accessible,” said Connie Marshner. She called her first introduction to the Liturgy at her new parish, “the fact the whole congregation sang was just so dynamic. Everyone was 100% there. Automatically, you were part of a community.”

She and her husband, formerly Latin-rite Catholics, have made that parish their own. Across the country, more and more Roman Catholics are looking eastward.

George and Ann Lally are two Irish Catholics who joined Sts. Cyril and Methodius parish in Carey, N.C. They were attracted by “the sense of community, tradition and reverence,” of the Divine Liturgy said George Lally.

“Father Rick [Richard Roher] does an exceptional job of explaining things we'd taken for granted about both rites,” added his wife.

In a typical situation, Stanley Budzinkski became interested in the Eastern churches when he began dating his future wife, a Ruthenian Catholic. He “fell in love” with the rite and even underwent training to become a cantor at his church in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He added that he treasures the rite's many ancient litanies and devotions to our Lady.

Father Mark Melone of the Melkite parish of St. George in Sacramento, Calif., notes that 50% of the priests in his diocese are former Roman Catholics. He attributes this to Eastern Catholicism's “integrated spirituality” as well as to the fact that they were the first to use English in their liturgies in this country.

“We tend to have smaller communities, and everyone gets involved.”

In Full Communion

The words “Byzantine” and “Greek” in the past have been used to describe these Eastern churches, which consist of 17 various churches, all in full communion with the Pope. The largest ones are the Ruthenian (Eastern Europe), Melkite (many countries of the Middle East), Maronite (Lebannon), Ukrainian (Russia), and Coptic (Egyptian) churches.

Eastern rites usually have a counterpart among the Orthodox churches, which have not been in communion with the Roman Church since the Great Schism of 1054. Some of the Eastern Catholic rites have never been separated from Rome, while others are known as “uniates” for having re-established communion with Rome within the last few centuries.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the churches and rites this way: “The liturgical traditions or rites presently in use in the Church are the Latin (principally the Roman rite, but also the rites of certain local churches, such as the Ambrosian rite, or those of certain religious orders) and the Byzantine, Alexandrian or Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite and Chaldean rites. In ‘faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that Holy Mother Church holds all lawfully recognized rites to be of equal right and dignity, and that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way’” (No. 1202).

The Orthodox and Catholic churches share the same seven sacraments, including a common understanding of the priesthood and of the Eucharist. The liturgies of the Eastern rites are almost identical to their Orthodox counterparts. The rites are characterized by sung liturgies, elaborate vestments, incense and icons.

Changing rites from Roman to Eastern used to be near-impossible. Under the new Code of Canon Law it is somewhat easier, but still an involved process. Most Roman Catholics who switch rites attend an Eastern church for years before considering making the change. And there are others who never switch.

The catechism explains that “the law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. … For this reason no sacramental rite may be modified or manipulated at the will of the minsiter or the community” (No. 1124-25).

This process can't be called “conversion” because the Catholic Church — whether Eastern or Western — contains the fullness of the truth as revealed by Christ. Catholics who switch rites are embracing a different expression of that fullness.

Malcontented Romans?

While many Eastern priests are enthusiastic about the addition of Westerners to their formerly exclusively ethnic congregations, not everyone sees the situation as positive. Father Joseph Amar, a Maronite priest who teaches classics at Notre Dame University, doubts that the rite-switchers have “an authentic attraction to the Eastern rite.” He suspects that many of them are “discontented traditionalists” yearning for the Tridentine rite. “The Eastern churches aren't some kind of pristine Christianity,” he said. “People who expect that are in for some real surprises.”

Father Richard Roher has encountered some “Roman malcontents” in the early years of his new Ruthenian parish of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Carey, N.C.

But “they didn't stay,” he reported. “Once they realized the parish wasn't going to ever look like a 1950s Roman Catholic church, they left. We make it clear that we love the Church and they won't find a sympathetic ear.”

John Mallory, director of religious education for the Latin-rite St. Ambrose parish in Annandale, Va., has long been a devotee of the Eastern rites, whose liturgies he still occasionally attends.

But he has no desire to leave the Latin rite, and he said he hopes that those who do will do it “as a sign of love and unity with the whole Church and because it's a real call from God,” and not because of dissatisfaction with the Latin rite.

Mallory, who holds a masters degree in Early Christian Studies, pointed out, “First of all, there's no canonical reason to switch rites. The Roman Catholic is free to partake of the sacraments in any Catholic church freely, without any kind of canonical additions,” he said.

Mallory said that those who do switch might face what he has in his forays into Eastern Catholicism. Speaking of his love for the feast days and celebrations of the liturgical calendar, he said, “Without denigrating the eastern calendar, it would take me some doing to absorb [it].” It's celebrations and “Eastern” saints would be unfamiliar to most Americans.

Besides, the West has riches of its own, he said. “One who loves the Church for the traditions of the Church does not have to leave the Roman Catholic Church to find those traditions. The Latin rite has maintained and preserved traditions that date all the way back to the apostles and even back to Christ.”

—Regina Doman writes from Front Royal, Virginia.