Melkite Eparchy Celebrates 50-Year Milestone of Evangelizing in America

The Eastern Catholic traditions rooted in the ancient Church of Antioch have blossomed in the U.S. since the close of Vatican II.

They Divine Liturgy for the 50th Melkite National Convention in Quincy, Mass.
They Divine Liturgy for the 50th Melkite National Convention in Quincy, Mass. (photo: Gracia Skaf/Melkite Eparchy of Newton)

MIAMI — St. Jude’s Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Miami is an icon of how the Church is growing in the United States — Byzantine style — as the nation’s Melkite eparchy marks a jubilee year celebrating its founding 50 years ago.

At St. Jude’s, hundreds gather for the Divine Liturgy celebrated three times in English, Arabic and Spanish throughout Sunday in the church, where icons of holy men and women decorate the walls, candles burn and the icon screen before the sanctuary symbolizes the division of earth and heaven. During the week, the parish hosts adult faith-formation nights in English and Spanish. Many pack the church on Wednesday at noon to receive Communion and an anointing for their sicknesses at the “Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts.”

Father Damon Geiger, St. Jude’s pastor, told the Register that many people, particularly Latinos, are drawn to the church due to their “great devotion to St. Jude.”

But many people have made the church their home by finding fulfillment in a Catholic tradition steeped in the spiritual treasures of the East.

The Melkites’ Eastern Catholic liturgical and mystical traditions provides people a spiritual balm.

“In the East, everybody is called to mystical union with God,” Father Geiger said. The Melkites’ Eastern Catholic mystical tradition reflects the teaching of St. Athanasius, who said, “God became man, so that man might become God.” Father Geiger explained that the Church’s Byzantine tradition heavily engages all senses to invite people to draw closer to God while living fully the human experience.

After all, Father Geiger said, “The saints are the most human of all people.”


Jubilee Year

Melkite Catholics in the United States are celebrating a jubilee year in 2016, as they mark 50 years of having their own eparchy and their own bishop. Bishop Nicholas Samra, who presides over the Eparchy of Newton, Mass., which covers the entire United States, told the Register that the Melkite Catholic Church is growing, with a “major evangelization” under way: Many evangelicals and other Protestants have embraced the Catholic faith through the Church, fallen-away Catholics have returned, and both are drawn by the Melkites’ ancient Catholic patrimony rooted in the apostolic churches of Antioch and Jerusalem. He added that many Latinos have also returned to the faith, creating a demand for more Spanish liturgies.

The Melkite eparchy began in 1966, with 23 parish communities serving a Melkite population estimated at the time to be 23,000 — today the Melkites have 45 parishes with an estimated 30,000 officially registered parishioners out of 100,000 Melkites spread throughout the United States. The eparchy is studying how it can establish more than 25 new outreaches to serve Melkite populations and evangelize surrounding communities.  

“The spirituality of the East is a hands-on spirituality, and it attracts a lot of people,” Bishop Nicholas said.

He pointed out that Melkite Holy Week liturgies are based on the Holy Week liturgies at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which encompasses Jesus’ crucifixion site, the preparation site of Jesus’ body and the tomb. At St. Jude’s, the Spanish liturgy for the Glorification of the Death of Jesus has to be done twice, because the church is packed to overflowing.


Vatican II and Melkite Renewal

The vision for the Melkite Catholic Church’s evangelization in the U.S. emerged clearly in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which called upon the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches, with 1964’s decree on Catholic Churches of the Eastern rite, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, to restore their ancient patrimony and recognized them as co-equal sister Churches to the Latin Church. The Council’s decree corrected a pervasive error in the Church that the Latin rite was superior to the Eastern rites or that the Catholic Church was to be identified with the Latin Church.

Although Melkites had been in the U.S. since the 1890s, without their own bishop to lead them, many of their parishes faced varying pressures to abandon their traditions and culturally conform to Latin-rite practices: such as replacing icons for statues, as well as forgoing the (Marian-devotion rich) Akathist service for Stations of the Cross and not giving infants holy Communion upon their baptism and chrismation (also known as confirmation). In 1966, less than a year after the Council’s conclusion, the Melkites in the U.S. finally had their own bishop in Bishop Justin Najmy.

Their second bishop (and later archbishop), Joseph Tawil, a participant at Vatican II, proclaimed in his 1970 letter “The Courage to Be Ourselves,” that Melkites had a mission to evangelize the entire U.S. and could neither be “ethnic parishes … unless we wish to assure the death of our community,” nor could sacrifice witness to the Orthodox by losing their identity through assimilation. They were called to spread the Catholic faith in fidelity to their Eastern patrimony:

“Our Churches are not only for our own people, but are also for any of our fellow Americans who are attracted to our traditions, which show forth the beauty of the universal Church and the variety of its riches.”

Bishop Nicholas explained that Archbishop Tawil threw himself energetically into building the eparchy’s institutions from scratch and beginning the restoration of Melkite traditions in the laity and clergy.

Bishop Nicholas told the Register that the archbishop developed the annual national Melkite convention, which was modeled on the social Syrian-Lebanese clubs of the time, into a diocesan assembly complete with workshops, liturgical services and socials as a way to unify Catholics in the Melkite tradition.

“Archbishop Tawil sensed the U.S. could grow and be independent as an eparchy,” he said.


Growing Steadily

The eparchy is growing. Bishop Nicholas said that while he closed two tiny Melkite communities this year, new parishes opened in Houston and Allentown, Pa., which has seen a large influx of Melkite Catholics from the Valley of the Christians in Syria.

Pope Francis has given Bishop Nicholas a new cathedral in California, as well. The bishop anticipates that within 10 years, a second Melkite eparchy will be built on the West Coast, which already has 11 communities and will likely be establishing more outreaches.

Pope Francis’ restoration in 2014 of the right of Eastern Catholic bishops outside their traditional patriarchal territories to ordain married men to the priesthood — a key part of the Melkite’s Eastern tradition — has also helped him ordain more priests.

In most of the Eastern Churches, married men may also be ordained priests — it is the exception rather than the norm in the Latin Church — and their families tend to produce both married and celibate priestly vocations. However, in both the Eastern and Latin Churches, priests cannot get married after ordination; they must remain celibate if their wives predecease them, too. Only celibates may be ordained to the episcopate.

Bishop Nicholas said he chose deacons with proven pastoral talent and the same level of education as his celibate priests, to fully staff his parishes.

He has also been cultivating seminarians called to live out their priesthood as celibates.

The bishop’s key partner in supporting Melkite priestly vocations is the National Association of Melkite Women, also founded by Archbishop Tawil. Carol Caven, the treasurer of the women’s association, told the Register that they work in their parishes to raise monthly stipends for their seminarians and write them notes assuring them of their prayers and support. When these men become priests, the Melkite women buy them chalices and part of their vestments. Fittingly, the women’s patrons are the Myrrh-bearing women who anointed the body of Christ.

Caven explained that they try to help their parishes, large and small, realize that every sacrificial gift to support their seminarians builds up their Church’s vocations and their future.

When the seminarians come back to the parishes and share how much the support meant to them, it encourages the parishes to do more.

“At some parishes, this really changed their whole thought process,” she said.

Bishop Nicholas said he has been encouraged that one of his Melkite flock is entering a Latin Church order of nuns in Texas, while maintaining her spiritual heritage. Further down the road, he would like to see the founding of Melkite monasticism, both for women and men.


Living Spiritual Traditions

The 50th annual National Melkite Convention, held June 29-July 3 at the Boston Quincy Marriott Hotel in Quincy, Mass., indicated that Archbishop Tawil’s spiritual vision is alive and well. Bishop Nicholas recalled how, decades ago, the congregation would just listen to the cantor sing their parts in the Divine Liturgy. But at the convention, they had a packed room of 500 people singing the Divine Liturgy with the cantors.

“The hotel roof felt as if it were being lifted,” he said

One aspect of liturgical renewal that the bishop plans to initiate is an adaption of the parochial Byzantine office from the eighth century, so that Melkite Catholic men and women can gather to pray the Church’s morning and evening prayer with each other. The office currently is geared toward monks, but the new “parochial office” will enable the laity to integrate these prayers in their lives and reap their Church’s rich spiritual tradition through the week.

According to Father Hezekias Carnazzo, the eparchy’s director of the Office of Catechesis and Evangelization, the secret to the Melkites’ success in the New Evangelization depends on tapping into the apostolic spirit, which “lit a fire in the heart of the early Church, as it burst out of Jerusalem and converted the Roman Empire.”

“Authentic evangelization in the Church must always return to her roots; it must return to Jerusalem and to an encounter with the resurrected Christ,” he said. The priest, who also leads the northern Virginia-based Institute of Catholic Culture, told the Register that he believes the Eastern Christian spirituality of the Melkite Church feeds hearts in today’s Western culture hungering for an encounter with Jesus Christ.

In terms of catechesis, the Melkite Church in the United States is employing the latest online educational tools (web conferencing and live broadcasting, etc.) to unite people in a live educational experience that meets the demands and challenges of modern society.

The key to evangelization is to spread the visible Christian witness in daily life, added Father Hezekias. The plan is to focus on building up the faith of the domestic church by making the prayers of the Melkite Byzantine liturgy part of family prayer life and culture, particularly through singing.

“The kids respond to that in a big way,” he said. A number of conferences will be held throughout the country to help people integrate the Church’s liturgical calendar, with its times for fasting and feasting, into their daily lives, and to give them strength to withstand “the influence of radical secularism.”

The idea is that a Melkite who lives his Catholic identity seven days a week will be “revitalized and renewed again” when he returns for Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. And that person can share the gift of Jesus Christ, who is inviting others to share in his divinity.

“To be evangelical is to give what you’ve received to others,” Father Hezekias said. “A Christian who is engaged in faith will be an evangelizing Christian.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.