Congregation centennial: Supporting Eastern Catholics against all odds

IMAGE: CNS photo/Laura Ieraci

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Vatican is celebrating the 100th
anniversary of the establishment of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, an
office that supports the Eastern Catholic churches and strives to ensure that
the universal Catholic Church treasures its diversity, including in liturgy,
spirituality and even canon law.

Coincidentally established five months before the Russian
Revolution, the congregation continually has had to face the real persecution
and threatened existence of some of the Eastern churches it was founded to fortify.

Until 1989-90, many of the Byzantine Catholic churches — including,
notably, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the largest of all the Eastern
churches — were either outlawed or severely repressed by the communist
governments of Eastern Europe, said Archbishop Cyril Vasil, a member of the
Slovak Catholic Church and secretary of the congregation.

No sooner had the Soviet bloc disintegrated and
once-persecuted churches begun to flourish, then the first Gulf War broke out. And
then there was the invasion of Iraq. And the turmoil of the Arab Spring across
North Africa. Then the war in Syria. And Israeli-Palestinian tensions continue.
The Chaldean, Syriac Catholic, Coptic Catholic, Melkite and Maronite churches
have paid a high price.

“In all of this, the Eastern churches suffer the most because
they find themselves crushed in the struggle between bigger powers, both local
and global,” Archbishop Vasil said in mid-August. Even those conflicts
that are not taking direct aim at Christians in the Middle East make life
extremely difficult for them, and so many decide to seek a more peaceful life
for themselves and their families outside the region.

One impact of the “exodus,” he said, is the greater
globalization of the Catholic Church. While 100 years ago, when the
Congregation for Eastern Churches was established, only a few Eastern churches
had eparchies — dioceses — outside their traditional homelands, today they
can be found in Australia, North and South America and scattered across Western

“In Sweden today, a third of the Christians are
Chaldeans or Armenians,” he added. “In Belgium and Holland, where
Catholicism has suffered a decline, communities are reborn with the arrival of
new Christians, which is a reminder of the importance of immigrants bringing
their faith with them.”

In countries like Italy, where thousands of Ukrainians and
Romanians have come to work, they add ritual diversity to the expressions of
Catholicism already found there, he said.

The growing movement of people around the globe means that
part of the congregation’s job is to work with the Latin-rite bishops and
dioceses, “sensitizing church public opinion” to the existence,
heritage, needs and gifts of the Eastern Catholics moving into their
communities, the archbishop said. Where an Eastern Catholic hierarchy has not
been established, the local Latin-rite bishop has a responsibility “to
accept, welcome and give respectful support to the Eastern Catholics” as
their communities grow and become more stable.

The idea, Archbishop Vasil said, is to help the local
Latin-rite bishop seriously ask himself, “How can I help them free
themselves of me and get their own bishop?”

Although it has only 26 employees — counting the prefect,
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, and the receptionist — the Congregation for Eastern
Churches works with 23 Eastern Catholic churches and communities, fulfilling
the same tasks that for Latin-rite Catholics fall to the congregations for
bishops, clergy, religious, divine worship and education. It supports the
Pontifical Oriental Institute, which offers advanced degrees in Eastern
Christian liturgy, spirituality and canon law. And it also coordinates the work
of a funding network known by the Italian acronym ROACO; the U.S.-based
Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Pontifical Mission for Palestine are
part of that network.

The congregation’s approach in some areas is different than
its Latin-rite counterparts because it follows the Eastern Catholic traditions
and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. For instance, some of the
Eastern churches ordain married men to the priesthood.

And, like the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for
Eastern Churches helps prepare the nomination of bishops by Pope Francis, but
only for dioceses outside the Eastern churches’ traditional homeland. The
Eastern Catholic synods of bishops elect new bishops closer to home and submit
their names to the pope for his assent.

But the congregation’s primary concern is the survival of
the Eastern Catholic churches, which is an issue not only in places where
Eastern Catholics are threatened with death or driven from their homelands by

Archbishop Vasil said others risk losing their Eastern
Catholic identity through assimilation.

Some of the blame, at least before the Second Vatican
Council, lies with the Vatican and the Latin-rite hierarchy and religious orders,
who, for decades encouraged Eastern Catholics to be more like their Latin-rite
brothers and sisters.

Vatican II urged a recovery of the Eastern Catholic traditions,
liturgy and spirituality. But, especially for Eastern Catholics living far from
their churches’ homelands, uprooting vestiges of the “Latinization” can
prove difficult, Archbishop Vasil said.

Using his own Slovak Catholic Church as an example, he said
parishes have been asked beginning Sept. 1 to return to the Eastern Catholic
tradition of administering baptism, chrismation (confirmation) and the
Eucharist together at the same liturgy, even for infants. In Slovakia, as in
some parishes in North America, Eastern Catholics adopted the Latin-rite
church’s practicing of withholding the Eucharist until a child is about 7 and then
celebrating the child’s first Communion.

Especially for Eastern Christians whose ancestors immigrated
two or three or four generations ago, the archbishop said, maintaining their specific
identity as Chaldean, Ruthenian or Syro-Malankara Catholics is a challenge.

“The greatest danger in the coming years is
extinction,” Archbishop Vasil said. “We don’t know what history has
in store for us, but we must make sure we have done everything possible to
avoid this danger.”

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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