Are We on the Verge of an Eastern Catholic Moment?

The Eastern Churches will have much to contribute to the Synod and Synodality and the National Eucharistic Revival

St. Paul’s Melkite Basilica stands in Harissa, Lebanon
St. Paul’s Melkite Basilica stands in Harissa, Lebanon (photo: Fotokon / Shutterstock)

“The light of the East has illumined the universal Church, from the moment when ‘a rising sun’ appeared above us (Luke 1:78): Jesus Christ, our Lord, whom all Christians invoke as the Redeemer of man and the hope of the world.” —Pope St. John Paul II, Orientale Lumen

The Second Vatican Council was a very good moment for the Eastern Catholic Churches. The promulgation of Orientalium Ecclesiarum put the Christian East again in the spotlight as a “tradition that has been handed down from the Apostles through the Fathers and that forms part of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church.”

Before the Council, the Churches of the East were often treated poorly in the Catholic Church. Various Latinizations, and often outright persecution by local Latin-Rite hierarchs, made us feel like “second-class citizens.” 

Vatican II set about correcting that attitude by highlighting the venerable and ancient Eastern tradition. Pope St. John Paul II furthered that theme in his apostolic letter Orientale Lumen. In it, the Pope sought to highlight various positive aspects of the expression of the Faith found in the East for the edification of the entire Church. Since then, although there is still a long way to go in terms of the East illuminating the West (as John Paul II desired), things are markedly better in our communion. We are, as John Paul II was fond of saying, “Breathing with both lungs, East and West,” a bit better. 

At present, two major conversations are occurring in the Church — the “Synod on Synodality” and the National Eucharistic Revival. Until recently, it appeared that the Eastern Catholic Churches were going to be shut out of the conversation on synodality, which would have been a scandal. However, the recent release of the Instrumentum Laboris and the full list of synodal participants has given some signs of hope that the lived experience of the Eastern Churches will be brought to bear on the Synod.

The list of synodal participants released July 7 names as ex officio members the heads of all of the Eastern Catholic Churches. This is significant and encouraging. For those who may not know, many of the Eastern Catholic Churches are themselves synodal Churches. All of the Patriarchal Churches of the East are synodal. They include the Coptic Catholic Church of Alexandria, the Maronite Catholic Church, the Melkite Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Armenian Catholic Church. There are also major-archiepiscopal Churches, like the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which also function with a synodal structure. 

Unlike some Catholic commentators, who seem to completely miss what authentic synodality means in favor of a centralized ecclesiology, genuine synodality has produced some wonderful things for the local and universal Church. For example, the publication of Christ Our Pascha was a synodal work. Christ Our Pascha: the Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church was published in Ukrainian in 2011 (and shortly afterward in English) after a lengthy synodal process. The 300-page Catechism presents the treasures of the Catholic Faith as expressed through the liturgical, theological and lived experience of the largest Eastern Catholic Church in communion with Rome.

Beyond this, the election of new bishops (even patriarchs), particular law, and the establishment of new feasts and new liturgical texts, are commonly completed at the synodal level. In this way, a synod, especially of a particular sui iuris Church, exemplifies the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that the concerns of a local Church ought to be taken care of at the lowest level of governance possible. We see so few examples of true subsidiarity. If it’s a principle in Catholic social teaching, why can it not be a principle of our ecclesiology? 

The Instrumentum Laboris of the Synod has 23 references to the Eastern Catholic Churches. Again, this is encouraging and significant. Let me draw on a few of these references to highlight the call of the Latin West for the light of the Christian East:

It is desired that we might better hear and recognize the different traditions of specific regions and Churches in an ecclesial and theological conversation often dominated by Latin/Western voices. The dignity of the Baptized is recognized as a key point in many contexts, similarly for many members of Eastern Catholic Churches in particular, the Paschal Mystery celebrated in the Sacraments of Christian Initiation remains the focus of reflection on Christian identity and the synodal Church.
[T]he Eastern Catholic Churches have a long and distinguished experience of synodality, shared with the Orthodox Churches, a tradition they wish attention to be given to in the discussions and discernment of this synodal process.
[L]ikewise, there are specific and particular realities that Eastern Christians in diaspora face in new contexts, together with their Orthodox brothers and sisters. It is desired that the Eastern Catholic Churches in the diaspora are able to preserve their identity and be recognized as more than ethnic communities, i.e. as Churches sui iuris with rich spiritual, theological and liturgical traditions that contribute to the mission of the Church today in a global context.

These points highlight precisely what the lived experience of the Eastern Catholic Churches can bring to bear on the Church’s discussion on synodality. The rootedness of our Eastern ecclesiology in our common baptism, our long experience (along with our Orthodox brethren) with the synodal process, and the lived experience of the Christian East in diaspora are all essential areas wherein the Eastern Churches have much to illumine for the West. 

The “questions for discernment” that follow this section in the Instrumentum also demonstrate an openness to the “light of the East.” For example:

  • By what gestures could all local Churches show hospitality towards each other to benefit from the mutual exchange of ecclesial gifts and manifest ecclesial communion in the areas of liturgy, spirituality, pastoral care and theological reflection? In particular, how can we facilitate an exchange of experiences and visions of synodality between the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Latin Church?
  • How could the Latin Church develop greater openness to the spiritual, theological, and liturgical traditions of the Eastern Catholic Churches?
  • How can the Oriental Catholic Churches in diaspora preserve their identity and be recognized as more than just ethnic communities?

These questions represent the fruit of Vatican II and the encouragement of Pope St. John Paul II for mutual enrichment within our Catholic communion. Could it be that we’re on the verge of a new phase of strengthening our ecclesial communion by the Latin West actively listening and learning from the Christian East?

Personally, I still have many reservations about the Synod and serious doubts about its outcome. However, if these points of reference and questions are taken seriously, and if the Eastern Churches are allowed to lead the conversation surrounding these questions, then we can have a legitimate hope that this synod will bear fruit. 

As an aside, but an important one, I’d like to recommend that all people of good will pray for the intercession of Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh for the synod. He was the Patriarch of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church and a Father of the Second Vatican Council. It was due to his interjections during the Council that the rights of the Eastern Catholic Churches were secured, and the dignity of his office as patriarch and his patriarchal Church were respected.

If the Eastern Catholic Churches are going to be given a prime seat at the table, as the Instrumentum Laboris indicates, we need our Eastern Catholic bishops to hold the line and present the authentic and robust Eastern tradition without exception, and we need the Spirit to open the Latin West to listening. Pope St. Paul VI and the rest of the Council Fathers walked away with a renewed appreciation for the light of the East — let’s pray the same thing happens again! 

A second conversation that the Church is currently having is the National Eucharistic Revival in the United States. The abysmal poll numbers concerning belief in the Real Presence, among other reasons, led to the U.S. Bishops calling for a Eucharistic Revival. Now, two Eastern Catholic bishops sit on the Advisory Group for the Revival efforts — Bishop Frank Kalabat (Chaldean Catholic) and Bishop Andriy Rabiy (Ukrainian Catholic). It remains to be seen what Eastern Catholic elements the organizers will bring to the catechetical efforts of the Revival or if any Eastern Catholic liturgies will be held in connection to the Eucharistic Congress.

The full roster of speakers for the Congress is yet to be published. One may hope that at least a minority of speakers would be from the Eastern Catholic Churches. 

It is understandable, as the Latin Church is much larger than any of the Eastern Catholic Churches, that the Eucharistic Revival will be heavily influenced by Latin Eucharistic devotions and catechesis. And, generally, it has been the West that has seen a degradation of faith in the Eucharist, so they are in more need (generally) of “revival.” However, it would be unwise for the organizers of the Revival not to draw inspiration from the rich liturgical and theological tradition of the East.

I asked Father Deacon Anthony Dragani, professor of Religious Studies at Mount Aloysius College and creator of the very helpful, for a comment on the East’s approach to the Eucharist. He writes:

In the Eastern Christian tradition, the Eucharist is usually viewed as spiritual medicine to be consumed. For that reason, the practice of Eucharistic adoration, where the Eucharist is exposed for worship apart from the liturgy, never developed in the Byzantine tradition. In Eastern Christianity, the instinct is to veil what is sacred, rather than to expose it. Nonetheless, the Eucharist is very much a focal point of Eastern Christian spirituality, just as much as in the Latin Church.

This common Eucharistic focus should lead us to mutually contemplate the rich liturgical and theological traditions of East and West. However, if the East is not invited to be an active and equal participant in the dialogue, then how effective can any “revival” be? If we do not “breathe with both lungs” concerning “the source and summit of the Christian life,” what meaningful progress can be made?

Do not mistake my intention in presenting this article. I do not believe that the East is somehow objectively better than the West. Both traditions are apostolic and deeply rich.

Are there criticisms that I could make about the ecclesiological and theological approach of the Latin Church? Sure, but I have not made them. Are there criticisms that we can make of the Eastern approach? Yes, indeed!

My point is that the Catholic Church is a communion of Churches with a diversity of theological and liturgical expressions. The diversity in the Church enriches the overall expression of the Faith. In this important time, when we are having a conversation about shifting our ecclesiological model, it is a scandal to ignore the Churches within the Catholic communion with the most to say on the subject because of lived experience.

Additionally, to attempt to revive the Eucharistic faith of Catholics in the U.S. without bringing the Eastern tradition to the table for mutual enrichment is a fatal error of omission. 

As an Eastern Catholic, it is a very trying experience to meet Latin-Rite Catholics who have no idea who you are. We’re mistaken for Orthodox (or Catholics with a funny Mass) and summarily dismissed. The Christian East is so much more than that, and the magisterium of the Church of Rome says it is so.

It is time that we take this seriously. It’s time that the East is listened to, not as some odd appendix sewed onto the superior body of the Roman Church, but truly as “the other lung,” equal in dignity and value to the Latin tradition. 

Pope St. John Paul II, in using the analogy of the East as the “other lung,” did so intentionally. The Eastern Catholic Churches have the breath of the Holy Spirit within them. We breathe his Divine Life in our theology, in our sacraments, in our lived ecclesial experience. That Divine Life can oxygenate the lifeblood of the entire Catholic Communion.

For too long, we’ve suffered from the disease of ignorance and a lack of the virtue of fraternal charity. Now is the time for an Eastern Catholic moment! We just need to be afforded the opportunity. We need to be brought to the table of Catholic fellowship and listened to as the authentic apostolic tradition that we are. My hope is that anyone involved in these conversations will consider the value of the Eastern tradition and call on us to participate in a spirit of fraternal charity.

(I have written elsewhere about the Eastern contribution to our understanding of the Eucharist — you can find that article here.)