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we belong to a church

We belong to a church

Article written Fr Brian Kelty

Occasionally some people speak about the Church as if it is an exclusive social club (preferably for Ukrainians). Some priests even go so far as to question the presence of “English” clergy in our church. “What are they doing in our Church?” Today the reality is that the social mix in the Ukrainian Catholic Church, both in the home country and in the so called diaspora is ethnically diverse. Over the years marriages between Ukrainians and others has increased this diversity.

Although our Divine Liturgy is now most frequently celebrated in the Ukrainian language, nonetheless it expresses its own unique adaptation of the Byzantine Rite which has an immense attraction to people. Its poetic richness, its intensity, its a capella tonality, its tightly-woven unity of ritual celebration and setting are manifest, when one attends the celebration of this liturgy. The impact of this liturgical experience is enshrined in the legend of the delegation sent to Constantinople in 987 by Prince Vladimir of Kiev. The emissaries were led to Hagia Sophia for the liturgy. On returning home they reported what they had experienced in memorable terms:

We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.
The Primary Chronicle

All this is precisely summarised by eminent liturgist Father Robert Taft SJ when he writes: “One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Byzantine Rite is precisely its intimate symbiosis of Liturgical symbolism (ritual celebration), liturgical setting (architecture/iconography), and liturgical interpretation (Mystagogy)” (The Byzantine Rite: A Short History, 1992, 18).

When we are confident about the integrity and beauty of the ritual celebration of the Byzantine Liturgy there will be no need for invidious comparisons with other rites such as the Latin Rite. Each rite has its own distinguishing characteristics and integrity.

What this adds up to is a church membership of many ethnicities tending toward ever greater multi-culturalism. Within the Ukrainian Catholic Church the Divine Liturgy is now celebrated in Cantonese, Dutch, English, French, German, Irish-Gaelic, Italian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish, as well as Ukrainian. Languages bring people and cultural nuances with them. That means that the cultural life of our church is undergoing development and change. Some might say that this is to the detriment of Ukrainian heritage and culture. Which culture do we mean when we say this? Ukraine itself is a country of diverse cultures and languages. It is not as if there is one unified source from which everything flows.

The presence of others in our church—I dare not say outsiders—may seem unsettling to some. However, the very idea of inclusivity is a fundamental building block of the foundation of Church. The final commandment in the gospel of Matthew tells us: “So you must go and make all the nations into disciples” (Matt 28:18). To a large extent this is exactly what has happened amongst our people and the clergy. There is a long tradition of Roman Catholic clergy in many parts of the world transferring their efforts to assist in priestly ministry in the UGCC. The example of Belgian Redemptorists going to serve the mission to Ukrainian Catholics in Canada and the Redemptorist Fr John Bowden who served for so many years as a missionary and protosyncellus in Australia serve as stellar examples. But essentially these priests learnt and immersed themselves in the Ukrainian diaspora, where life was often lived in isolation from the wider ecclesial society. The following words elucidate some of the problems found in such a strategy:

“In a ghetto life is closed in upon itself, operating only within itself, with its own ethnic and social clichés. And the Parish lives upon the ethnic character of the community; when that character disappears, the community dies and the parish dies with it … One day all our ethnic traits—language, folklore, customs—will have disappeared. Time itself is seeing to this. And so we cannot think of our communities as ethnic parishes, primarily for the service of the immigrant or the ethnically oriented, unless we wish to assure the death of our community. Our Churches are not only for our own people but are also for any of our fellow citizens who are attracted to our traditions which show forth the beauty of the universal Church and the variety of its riches.”

These forceful sentiments were expressed by United States Melkite Catholic Archbishop Joseph Tawil in his Christmas 1970 pastoral letter. In the 46 years that have transpired since he wrote these words not a great deal has changed. Furthermore similar sentiments could be used to sum up the situation of most Eastern Catholic Churches in Australia; the ethnic character of such communities still dominates the life of the parish especially with regard to language, folklore and customs. Any sense that our Church exists both for our own people and for our fellow Australians who are attracted to our traditions is confused by the misguided thought that those “Australians” who join our church wish somehow to become Ukrainians, thus missing the point that our Church is in fact an uniquely Australian locus of the UGCC.

What we have here in Australia is a Ukrainian church with a limited understanding of what it is to be a Byzantine church in the Kyvian tradition. Indeed for some even the word Byzantine is rejected as some foreign notion that might better apply to the Orthodox. Ukraine is understood in terms of regionalism. The following understanding of Ukrainian national identity in the diaspora was put to me recently. “They never really accepted the fact that Ukraine is a bigger country than Halich and that most ‘real’ Ukrainians speak Russian and that fact doesn’t make them any less Ukrainian than ‘we’ are. I’m afraid your great ‘nationalists’ are really only ‘regionalists’”. The opinion was also expressed that “thanks to Mr Putin regionalism is rapidly breaking down here (in Ukraine).”

This leads us to ask two questions. First, what does it mean to be a Catholic of either sort (Roman or Eastern)? Second, what is the church? Probably the most authoritative statement available today and drawn from both Eastern and Western sources is the Constitution on the Church, otherwise known as Lumen Gentium (The Light of the Nations), proclaimed at the second Vatican Council in 1964. The Ukrainian Bishops under the leadership of Cardinal Slipyj after 1963 attended and engaged in the discussion and voting sessions at this Council. Metropolitan Maxim Hermaniuk, C.Ss.R. participated in the conciliar commissions from 3rd October, 1960, when he began to study the plan and program of the Preconciliar Theological Commission (see his Second Vatican Council Diaries). Many of his interventions are approvingly remarked upon by Yves Congar, O.P. in his council Journals. His gift to the universal church was to alert the Council Fathers to a more acute understanding of the Eastern principal of Synodality, which found its way into the Constitution of the Church. The following extract, although lengthy, illustrates in part what I have just described:

  1. The one people of God is accordingly present in all the nations of the earth, and takes its citizens from all the nations, for a kingdom which is not earthly in character but heavenly. All the faithful scattered throughout the world are in communion with each other in the Holy Spirit so that “he who dwells in Rome knows the Indians to be his members” (St John Chrysostom). . . . The universality which adorns the people of God is a gift from the Lord himself whereby the catholic church ceaselessly and effectively strives to recapitulate the whole of humanity and all its riches under Christ the Head in the unity of his Spirit (St Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses). . . . Again, there are, legitimately, in the ecclesial communion particular churches which retain their own traditions, without prejudice to the Chair of Peter which presides over the entire assemble of charity, and protects their legitimate variety while at the same time taking care that these differences do not diminish unity, but rather contribute to it. (St Ignatius Martyr Ad Rom.).

The bolded section above draws attention to the relation between universality and the particular churches, of which the UGCC is clearly one. The church emerged from the Jewish understanding of the God of Israel to become a people built on the understanding of universal divine presence. Recorded in the Acts of the Apostles we have Peter’s speech to Cornelius in Caesarea:

Peter took a deep breath and began.

“It’s become clear to me,” he said, “that God really does show no favouritism. No: in every race, people who fear him and do what is right are acceptable to him. He sent his word to the children of Israel, announcing peace through Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all!

The early church at first struggled with the presence of gentiles. The mission of St Paul is described as the mission to the Gentiles. It is clear that the earliest Jewish Christian communities were transformed by the second century into broadly diverse communities based on the theology of redemption-salvation enunciated by St Paul most especially in his letter to the Romans. A contemporary description of what the church became and continues to be was recently articulated by the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean when they said:

The particular church is fully church, but it is not the whole church. It is the concrete embodiment of the mystery of the Universal Church in a particular place and time. Hence it must be in communion with all other particular churches and under the supreme pastoral care of the pope, bishop of Rome, who presides over all these churches (Aparecida, 166).

At this point it is helpful to use theological insight to arrive at a description of the reality that is the church of God. Cardinal Kasper in his recent book, The Catholic Church: Nature, Reality and Mission (2015, 174) made the following summarizing statement:

Today, when we speak of the ‘catholic Church, it occurs usually as a name for a denomination. We then understand ‘Catholic’ as distinct from the Orthodox and Protestant churches and church communities. Naturally, as the early symbols are in fact jointly ecumenical until today, such a denominational understanding aiming for distinction is alien to them. In the original literal meaning ‘catholic’ did not have a distinguishing connotation, rather it meant the whole and total which is more than the sum of its parts. ‘Catholic’ meant wholeness in the sense of fullness.

These are challenging words. What does it mean to be a Church living in the distinctive tradition of self-governance with its own byzantine theology and liturgical life while at the same time being Catholic in the sense of fullness? Kasper concludes on a Christological note, when he adds, “Jesus Christ is the fullness and the church is Catholic insofar as it participates in this fullness.” Could that mean that commitment to the Vision 2020 program, a thorough study of the new catechism: Christ Our Pascha, the implementation of the Adult Catechumenate, the development of the biblical apostolate and praying the Scriptures through Lectio Divina are the building blocks necessary to building a church which will survive? Patriarch gave a strong message of encouragement to such sentiments on his recent visit to
Australia when he said:

We have to be vibrant enough to incorporate our tradition into the culture we live in; to incarnate our tradition into the culture we live in. Your challenge is to answer the question, “What does it mean to be an Eastern Christian in Australia?”

Why would priorities such as these now replace the cultural and linguistic priorities of the recent past? I suggest it is simply the realism demanded for any faith community to face modern Western culture with its emphasis on science and technology. Some time ago Fr David Petras addressed the same issue when he wrote:

We can no longer separate the question of being Byzantine and believing in Christ as our Lord and Saviour. If our faith is to survive, we can no longer just focus in on our minor differences from other traditions of faith, or make superficial accommodations to Western devotions, or identify religion with ethnicity. The health, and indeed the very life of our souls is in the balance. When we separate scientific knowledge and faith knowledge into two compartments, then the danger is that our faith knowledge will be drained away. Since faith knowledge is not important for business or technology, we often forget to think with our souls and to reflect on our interior life. This emptiness is then filled up with a consumer mentality: entertainment, noise and addictions. This is why it is so very important that we begin to appreciate God’s revelation as it has been given to us in very concrete ways: through the written word of Scripture, to the living witness of the church and to the action of the Spirit in our worship.

This is a long answer to the question this essay seeks to answer, but the reality is that the future holds sectarianism and eventual extinction if fundamental questions of development and growth in the context of the modern world are not addressed.

This post is also available in: Ukrainian

About Ivan Mysiv

Fr. Ivan was born in Lviv, Ukraine in 1988 AD. He graduated from the Lviv Holy Spirit Seminary in 2013 AD after he completing a Master's degree from Ukrainian Catholic University in 2012. On the 13th of October 2013 he received diaconal ordination from Bishop Benedict, the auxiliary Bishop of the Archeparchy of Lviv. On the 23rd of February he became a priest by the laying on of hands by Bishop Ken, Eparch of New Westminster for Ukrainian Catholics in British Columbia and Yukon in Canada. He arrived in Australia in December 2014 AD.