Breathing With ‘Two Lungs’ at Wyoming Catholic College

An interview with chaplain Father David Anderson

Father David Anderson chants the Gospel for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross at Wyoming Catholic College.
Father David Anderson chants the Gospel for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross at Wyoming Catholic College. (photo: Courtesy of subject)

In his apostolic letter Orientale Lumen, Pope St. John Paul II called upon all Catholics to pursue the path of unity between East and West so the Church can once again breathe with her “two lungs.” Wyoming Catholic College has taken this exhortation to heart by becoming the first Roman Catholic college in the nation to have a full-time Byzantine Rite chaplain. Register correspondent Sue Ellen Browder recently spoke with Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest Father David Anderson (a well-known translator of patristic texts who served as a parish priest for 36 years) about his new apostolate at the college in Lander, Wyoming.


Pope St. John Paul II said we should have “no second thoughts” about pursuing the path of unity between East and West because we all come from the same tradition. What did he mean by that?

All the Catholic Churches, East and West, began with the apostles in Jerusalem in the Upper Room. That’s where Christ instituted the Eucharist and appeared on the day of his resurrection, saying, “You shall be my witnesses first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Sumaria, and then to the ends of the earth.” As the early Church Fathers like to say, when the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost, the apostles came from that Upper Room as a baby comes from the womb.

And from there, the apostles fanned out in all directions?  

Yes. The three big cities in the Roman Empire were Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. St. Peter went to Antioch before he went to Rome. Because of its location in Syria, Antioch became a center from which the Gospel spread in a number of directions — to East Syria, India and Asia Minor (which today is Turkey). Even Palestine and Jerusalem were under Antioch’s jurisdiction until the fifth century. All the churches that began in these places — both in the Latin-speaking Western half of the Roman Empire and the Greek-speaking Eastern half — came directly from the apostles. When he spoke of the universal church, St. Ireneaus of Lyons (one of the early Church Fathers) liked to use the phrase “From Syria to Spain.”


So are you saying the Catholic Church is not just one church but many churches? 

No. The Catholic Church, as she defines herself in canon law, is  not one or many, but both one and many. That’s an important distinction. Just as God has revealed himself to be both one and three (one God in three Persons), so the Catholic Church is both one (singular) and a communion of many particular churches (plural). So the Catholic Church is many churches in one, like brothers and sisters in the same family. The Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest of the apostolic Churches, but there are 23 others.


Did these many-in-one Churches founded by the apostles all have the same liturgy?  

One of the miracles of early Christianity is that while the liturgies of these particular Churches weren’t exactly the same, they all had the same basic shape. So whether you’re speaking of the Roman Catholic Mass or what Eastern Catholics call the Divine Liturgy, you have the gathering of the people to be the Church, the proclamation of the word of God (often based much on the service common in Jewish synagogues at that time), the offering of the Eucharist, the communion of the faithful, and so forth.     


What happened in the Great Schism of 1054, when the Western and Eastern Churches broke apart? 

The importance of the Great Schism of 1054 is often exaggerated. There was an unfortunate incident in Constantinople in 1054 during which Cardinal Humbert (a representative from Pope Leo IX) excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople, and the patriarch, in turn, excommunicated Humbert and his diplomatic envoys. So it was certainly a dramatic moment. And there was eventually a schism between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church that continues to this day. But to imagine that all the Churches in the East and West no longer received communion together from 1054 forward is simply not accurate; there are many examples of intercommunion that continued for centuries. The apostolic Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon (which came from the Upper Room via Antioch and uses the Antiochene Rite) has never been out of communion with Rome.


But the Eastern Orthodox Church is out of communion with Rome. So how do the Eastern Orthodox churches relate to the Eastern Catholic Churches?  

If you find this having its confusing elements, you’re right! In a series of unions that began in the 16th century and continued for several hundred years after that, a number of Orthodox Churches not in communion with Rome entered back into communion with Rome — and these are the Eastern Catholic Churches of today.


You frequently draw a distinction between the words “church” and “rite.” Please explain that to us.

People often say, “I’m Roman Rite,” or “I’m Byzantine Rite.” Well, a person isn’t a rite; one doesn’t “belong” to a rite. One belongs to a particular Church that uses one of the historical rites. Twenty-four particular Churches make up the Catholic Church; each of these churches uses one of six rites. A “rite” is simply the expression of a particular Church “being herself.”  


You grew up attending a Roman Catholic parish. Now you’re a priest in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which (along with 13 other churches) uses the Byzantine Rite.

Yes, that’s true. I’m descended from Eastern Catholics who emigrated from Austria-Hungary to the United States before 1900. But when my parents moved to upstate New York, there was no Eastern Catholic church where we lived. So we went to the Roman church.


What would you say the churches of the East have to offer the universal Church?

One great gift the Eastern churches have to offer is stability of worship. The liturgies in the Eastern Churches today are basically as they were 1,500 years ago. That’s not to say things have been frozen in time and haven’t changed at all. But the changes have been very slow and organic.


The spiritual and theological formation of the Eastern Churches also continues to be rooted in what is called the Patristic Age, the age of the early Church Fathers.

Yes, that rootedness in the lives, teachings and examples of the Church Fathers is still central to the Eastern Churches, and that's another gift that can provide a lot of ballast to the universal Church during these difficult times.  Pope St. John Paul II also said that “the words of the West need the words of the East,” and we must listen together to the cry of those who want to hear God’s entire word.


An intriguing thought! You’ve said the Churches in the East and West are not in conflict with each other, but complementary.

Yes, the great beauty of our faith is that things can be seen from different angles and through different colored windows without a need for any tension. All Catholics agree concerning the Church’s most central doctrines, such as the Trinity, creation and our salvation through redemption by Christ’s death and his resurrection. But also all Catholics, depending on their particular tradition, have different ways of expressing their faith. That’s why Pope St. John Paul II used that now-familiar metaphor of the “two lungs.” We don’t compromise our own tradition by immersing ourselves, occasionally or for a certain time in our life, in another equally Catholic tradition. We are enriched by this exercise of what I like to call “respiratory therapy.”


You’ve taught many classes on what's called liturgical theology. Why is the liturgy so important? 

For the Eastern Catholic, the experience of church life is the liturgy. The liturgy is everything. Whereas the West tends to emphasize certain popular devotions, which are given great attention by many of the faithful (the Stations of the Cross during Lent, for example), the Eastern Christian goes to the liturgical services revolving around the feasts and the fasts of the year. I’m not portraying these different ways as somehow being at war with each other. I’m simply trying to present the contrast.


St. John Paul also said unity between East and West “is the cry of all Christendom … the cry of the New Evangelization.” What are you hoping to bring to Wyoming Catholic College students, faculty and staff that they haven’t experienced before?

The presence of the Byzantine tradition in as much fullness as we can manage, which is not only for Eastern Catholics, but for the formation and broadening of Roman Catholics, as well.

One final question: The Byzantine Rite uses many icons. You set icons on stands, kiss them and venerate them. But one thing that fascinates me is that you also talk about viewing time itself as an icon. Would you explain that?  

I often like to use an illustration from the great Jewish rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said in his book The Sabbath that modern people have come to think of and use time simply as some sort of fuel to be burnt up, in order that we can exercise our control over “my” little bit of space — or what I call “my life.” But in Scripture, the lives of the saints and the Tradition of the Church, time becomes the doorway into eternity. That’s what liturgical worship, and its visible portrayal in icons, is for: It frees us from the prison of chronological time and opens the door into eternity.   

Sue Ellen Browder writes from Lander, Wyoming.