In Defense of Uniate Idiosyncrasy

by Justin Shaun Coyle

Synthesizer Keyboard

Recently I made up my mind to visit Eastern Catholic parishes. Though canonically Roman Catholic, I have long known my theological portion to fall with Origen and his heirs. But for reasons now dark to my gaze my theological predilections did not translate to liturgical ones. Until anyhow they did—not least due to the compelling (if inadvertent) advertising campaign for the Eastern Catholic Churches pitched by Adam A.J. DeVille’s Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed (Angelico Press, 2019). Resolved, I flick through some Robert Taft books on the history of the Divine Liturgy  and tell my children (7, 5, 1) to steel themselves for “a long Church.”

I visit the Melkite parish first. Its white brick climbs skyward, its motion stymied only by a golden dome outfitted with a Greek cross. No Latin parish, this. Perfect.

Then began the liturgy, and quite without Orthros as overture. In place of a lead cantor stands a choir of three or four whose collective voice is drowned in the icy waters of an accompanying synthesizer. Now, I count among my friends enough Greeks to know the skandalon of parishes sheltering an organ. But a synthesizer? From there things only grow curiouser and curiouser. An octogenarian priest swings a censer barren of incense. He mumbles more (and at a clip) than he chants. He and his retinue risk only a truncated Great Entrance whose path from the chapel of prothesis to the altar scrupulously avoided the faithful by cutting directly from the north door to the holy doors—and this outside its otherwise appropriate context within a presanctified liturgy. At length the final blow falls. The anaphora sees the synthesizer return, its jangly-setting tinkling a tune familiar to me. Only from where? No sooner did the answer arrive than did I suffer all of Kübler-Ross’s grief-stages. Last came acceptance: I was hearing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in the middle of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

Matters improved with the Ukrainian Greek Catholics, the largest of the sui iuris churches in communion with Rome. Their parish, crowned with the pear-dome distinctive to Kyivan baroque, is at first blush indistinguishable from the Ukrainian Orthodox parish with whom it shares, in near perfect Girardian burlesque, not only a street corner but also a patron saint.

Inside differences are more apparent. Unlike their neighbors (though like the Melkites), the Ukrainian Greek Catholics serve neither vespers nor matins. This owes less, I suspect, to latinization than to practical lack. The parish’s infinitesimal congregation shares its priest with another infinitesimal congregation an hour away, meaning vespers and matins would require tonsured readers or subdeacons that both parishes seem to lack. (Also among the parish’s lacks is a synthesizer, Slava Bohu.) On the sundays without a cantor two elderly babbas carry the liturgy atop cartiganed shoulders while seven or so other parishioners struggle to follow. I chant what I can, sloppily exploiting the similarities between the Greek alphabet (which I can read) and the Cyrillic (which I cannot). I am at turns stung by the funereal graces of Galician chant smuggled and kept and intoned by emigrant families of a martyr church. I wonder if I, innocent of this community’s painful memory, am worthy of chanting its tones. I try anyhow.

Still there is no choir to speak of. And this priest too abbreviates the Great Entrance.

Far be it from me, a Roman Catholic whose liturgical life was nurtured in the soil of felt banners and the “Gather” hymnal, to turn up my nose at liturgical indelicacies among Eastern Catholic kin. There are, I know, deep historical wounds—some of which fester still—behind these sometime liturgical derivations. Giuseppe “The Butcher” Valerga, clergy arrests by Polish police, forced latinizations—history has not infrequently attempted to place the inconvenient witness of Greek Catholicism under erasure. Many of the Eastern Catholic Churches have “with heroism and often by the shedding of their blood,” as St John Paul II has it (Orientale Lumen 21), preserved their traditions, liturgies, spiritual disciplines. And many have endeavored with vim and vigor to “rediscover their identity” (ibid; Orientalium Ecclesiarum 5), one parish I visited going as far as manually scratching over the filioque line in their pew books with pen. Still a question nagged me: was it the Orthodox liturgy these parishes served?

Rubrically speaking, of course, with mild derivations, yes. But these mild liturgical derivations puzzled me exactly because they were mild and therefore needless. “It just wasn’t Orthodox,” an Orthodox priest friend once observed about the Ukrainian Catholic liturgy. “They just don’t do it right,” another Orthodox friend warned. Why not, I wondered, just do it right?

Weeks later the answer arrived in ictu. The Eastern Catholic churches don’t “do it right” because such presumes that these churches are already unproblematically Orthodox without remainder, bearing no difference from the Orthodox sister churches of their historic jurisdictions. But it isn’t so. Despite His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk’s courageous insistence (against the Kremlin’s slanders) that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church be “an Orthodox Church, with Orthodox theology, liturgy, spirituality, and canonical tradition,” his flock remains wide of communion with the three Orthodox churches in Ukraine (who’ve trouble enough maintaining communion). Shy of full communion with their Orthodox kin, it is meet and right, however tragic, that some Eastern Catholic liturgies are not what they could be. How could they be, after all, if the churches that serve them aren’t yet who they truly are? (Are any?)

Do not misunderstand: I’m not advocating that the Eastern Catholic Churches actively and intentionally vitiate their services with more synthesizers or liturgical corner-cutting. Neither am I suggesting that the Eastern Catholics immolate their own rich histories, traditions, and spiritual habits on the altar of an ecumenism of resorption sine conditione by Orthodox patriarchates. I mean only to note that the idiosyncrasies of the Eastern Catholic Churches, like everything else here below, yield a gift-curse. They’re a gift to the extent that they signal an irreducibly particular way of being Christ’s body in a way no other can (1 Cor. 12:14-20); and they’re a curse because they remind us that that body is divided yet (1 Cor. 3:3-4).

Some months ago, before COVID-19 shuttered parishes the world over, I sat alone in a back pew during a Panakhyda, a memorial prayer-service for the dead. I wept; I wept Irish tears for a Ukrainian man I had never met, whose story I had not heard, whose grieving family I did not know. Liturgical idiosyncrasies that mark ecclesial division will, I thought, in time’s fullness (Gal. 4:4), fade from memory. But the idiosyncrasies of persons will not. Vichna pam’yatʹ! Memory eternal! As we chanted, it struck me that this, liturgical idiosyncrasy and jurisdictional irregularity aside, is who the Church is: that cult of whose dead we keep memory, refractory in our conviction that divisions—Latin rite from Byzantine, Eastern Catholic from Orthodox, even the dead from the living—cannot name the final truth of things.

When parishes open again, I have an appointment with an Eastern Catholic priest to learn to serve the liturgy, idiosyncrasies and all.

Justin Shaun Coyle (PhD, Boston College) teaches theology at Mount Angel Seminary outside Portland, OR.