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The Rite Switch:
why Roman rite Catholics become Eastern rite

Published in the National Catholic Register, 1999
This text is the author's copy and may vary slightly from the publisher's copy.

The words "Byzantine" and "Greek" in the past have been used to describe the Eastern Catholic Churches, which consist of seventeen churches with roots in particular countries, all in full communion with the Pope. The largest ones found in America are the Ruthenian (Eastern European), Melkite (many countries of the Middle East), Maronite (Lebannon), Ukrainian (Russia), and Coptic (Egyptian) churches. Eastern rite liturgies are characterized by sung liturgies, elaborate vestments, small congregations, and varied ethnic customs, reflecting the traditions of the different countries of the rite.

The Eastern churches draw their membership mainly from their home countries, with a small representation in America. In the "melting pot" of America, a slowly growing trickle of Roman Catholics, when exposed to the Eastern churches, find something they'd like to make their own.

Changing rites (as the process is sometimes called) 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 many never switch.

This process can't be called "conversion" because each Catholic church - whether Eastern or Western - contains the fullness of the truth as revealed by Christ. Catholics who switch rites are merely embracing a different expression of that fullness.

Author Connie Marshner had grown up in a nominal Catholic home. When she returned to the practice of her faith as an adult, a friend brought her to a Byzantine parish, and she was immediately hooked. "It's so mystical and yet so accessible. The language so beautifully captured me." The liturgical environment also drew her in. "The fact the whole congregation sang was just so dynamic. Everyone there was 100% there. Automatically, you knew you were part of a community."

Marshner and her husband are long-time members of Holy Redeemer Melkite Church in McClean, Virginia, a new congregation with many former Westerners mixed in with its Arabic population. The exterior of the church is unassuming, but the interior is rich with wood trim and original icons, including a huge painting of Christ the Pantocrator (Supreme Ruler) set into a recess in the drop ceiling.

Divine Liturgy on Sundays is crowded with people of all ages and races. Two choirs, one for adults, one for children stand on either side of the front altar, in front of the iconostasis (a wooden screen separating the congregation from the sanctuary). A crowd of priests, deacons, and acolytes resplendent in embroidered robes stand before the gates of the iconostasis, chanting. The servers - mostly young fathers - carry incense and golden ceremonial fans - ripidia -- representing the wings of cherubim. Everyone sings vigorously, though few songbooks are in evidence. 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.

Marshner loves the way children are incorporated in the liturgy. "It's very easy for children to take to the Byzantine liturgy because it involves all the senses - the incense, the vestments, the singing, the processions. A mother with lots of small fussy children has a much easier time." "There are no cry rooms," she notes. "If you have a crying baby, you just walk up and down the aisles and let them stare at the icons and the candles and they quiet down. Besides, no one really hears them because of all the singing. The only long quiet time is during the homily."

Consideration for his children also impelled her husband, William Marshner, a Lutheran convert, to switch rites. Marshner, a theology professor at Christendom College, explains, "I'm a theologian. I get my satisfaction out of dogma. But I couldn't expect my children to do so. I wanted my kids to have a very strong flavor of the sacred. I knew it would draw them back to the Church despite any troubles they might have."

Melkite priest and former Roman-rite Catholic Fr. Constantine Belisarius sees the recent influx of Westerners into the Eastern Churches as perhaps correcting a historical imbalance. He notes that in the New World, the Western Church was quick to declare its supremacy, and often Eastern Catholics were proselytized away from the rites of their birth into Roman Catholic churches. "There was ethnic tension. Some Eastern Catholic immigrants remember as children being told by Roman Catholic peers, 'You're not really Catholic.' That hurts."

Such tensions, most often fueled by misinformation, persist today. Fr. Constantine knows of a Ruthenian-rite Catholic who, while hospitalized, was refused Communion by the visiting Eucharistic minister. "You're not Catholic," she was informed. Fr. Constantine laments, "This is plain ignorance on the part of Roman Catholics. It's costly ignorance for the Catholic Church."

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. Fr. 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. People who expect that are in for some real surprises."

Fr. Constantine admits, "Angry Roman Catholics can be a real millstone around the neck of an uneducated Eastern rite pastor. But if you can educate them, if they're willing to embrace the Eastern tradition, you can get them beyond being reactionary." He says he knows people who initially came to an Eastern rite church because they were angry "but they aren't angry any more."

Fr. Richard Roher has encountered some "Roman malcontents" in the early years of his new Ruthenian parish of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Carey, North Carolina. But "they didn't stay. Once they realized the parish wasn't going to ever look like a 1950's Roman Catholic church, they left. Folks don't stay here long if they're angry with the Church. We make it clear that we love the Church and they won't find a sympathetic ear here."

Around 70% of his congregation are former Roman rite Catholics, and he himself switched rites six years ago. "When I first got here, there had been some 'Latinization' of the church, but I phased those traditions out. I'm very, very Byzantine," he says. Most of the switchers, he admits, "are young families with children. The children are very involved in the liturgy, and that keeps the parents coming. Parish members have told me they've gone from dragging their kids to Mass to cutting vacations short because their kids insist on being home for Divine Liturgy!"

The church also attracts Protestants, who are the majority in the area. "The best compliment I've gotten was from a Baptist who said, 'This is a Christ-centered church!' after she'd been here once. Our emphasis on Scripture and the patristic tradition attracts them." Some have even begun taking instruction to become Catholic.

George and Ann Lally are two Irish Catholics who joined Fr. Roher's parish. They were attracted by "the sense of community, tradition, and reverence. Fr. Rick does an exceptional job of explaining things we'd taken for granted about both rites." Their children love the church, particularly their son, who serves at Divine Liturgy. The whole family has "grown spiritually" because of the Church. They switched rites six months ago.

In a more typical situation, Stanley Budzinkski became interested in the Eastern churches when he began dating a Ruthenian Catholic. "I had gone through Catholic school all the way through and never heard of the Eastern Churches," he confesses. "It was a big mystery to me when I first started dating Jenny." But investigating the Ruthenian rite of the Church brought him to "fall in love. It was so much to my liking. God works in so many different ways."

Budzinski married his girlfriend and became a Ruthenian over twenty years ago. Later he underwent training to become a cantor in St. Mary of the Dormition Church in Wilkesbarre, Pennsylvania.He treasures the rite's many ancient devotions to the Virgin Mary, including the moleben service and the akathist - a sung litany of Mary's titles.

Rev. Mark Melone of the Melkite Parish of St. George in Sacramento, California, 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. "In a sense, our tradition is more personal and less cerebral. We tend to have smaller communities, and everyone gets involved."

He himself became Melkite in his college years, before becoming a priest over twenty years ago. For himself, the Melkite church resonated with his Italian background and upbringing. "I found the Byzantine rite expresses my Mediterranean Christianity a lot better."

Another new Melkite parish is run by Fr. Daniel Munn, an Anglican-turned-Catholic priest. He and his wife and four children entered the Catholic Church sixteen years ago. He hastens to say, "Now, I didn't become a Melkite because of their married clergy, which is what everyone thinks." His varied life as a "failed atheist" married to a Southern Baptist took him in and out of the Episcopal church and into Catholicism. The Eastern tradition had attracted him for a long time. "I'd always thought I'd join Greek Orthodoxy if I left Episcopalianism," he admits. "But that's not what God had in mind."

Recounting the bureaucratic hurdles he had to leap to become a Catholic priest, he says, "The Eastern Church has a definite gift for spirituality, but you can't beat the Roman Church when it comes to administration." In the end, it was easiest for him to enter the church via Roman Catholicism and be granted bi-ritual faculties. "All I had to do was encourage a latent schizophrenia," he jokes.

Although he is pastor of St. Ignatius of Antioch Melkite parish in Augusta, Georgia, he still celebrates the Western liturgy in a local Roman-rite parish every week. "I love everything about the Catholic Church in a way that someone not reared in it does, but there's something very special to me about what Eastern Christianity has preserved and makes alive. So asking me which rite I like better is like trying to decide which one of your kids you love better."

Regarding the status of the Eastern churches in America, he says, "I think the Eastern Church serves a good purpose in reminding the Roman part that Catholicism really is a universal Church embracing more than just Roman Catholicism." He adds, "I always tell my Roman rite friends that they have to go to Divine Liturgy at least one time before they die so that when they get to heaven, they'll know what God is doing."

In recent years, the Pope has called attention to the treasures and contributions of the Eastern Churches in his 1995 encyclical "Orientale Lumen" (Eastern Light). "We believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ's church … the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each."

Fr. Joseph Francavilla, pastor of Holy Redeemer, says that the Eastern Churches are richly gifted with their very ethnicity, a balance to the universality of the Roman rite. "The Church is important not just because it is universal but because it is particular. In the Eastern Church we rejoice in the fact that the Church is mine." In addition, they are an almost prophetic sign of unity. The Eastern Churches are "monumental proof that the Church doesn't have to be Roman in order to be Catholic. We remained in charity and communion in Church in Rome without being Roman."

Fr. Constantine agrees, "The Church realizes that people stand before God in different postures. It's one of the great strengths of the Church and it's too bad that people aren't familiar with it. My feeling has been that if we fostered the Eastern Rites in America we could convert the whole country."

copyright Regina Doman, 1999. This document is available for republishing only after the author's permission has been obtained. Click the top button for an email link to the author.

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