Eastern Rites and Orthodox

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Eastern Rites and Orthodox

ROME, 21 JULY 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q1: Is there a real division/separation between Catholics of the Latin rite and Catholics of Eastern rites? Is a Catholic of the Latin rite debarred in anyway from participating in the liturgy of an Eastern-rite Catholic church? Does a Latin-rite Catholic have to follow a procedure before he can participate in the liturgy of an Eastern-rite Catholic church? — H.W., Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Q2: May a Catholic attend Mass in an Orthodox church? Is not the Orthodox Church schismatic? — E.T., Mairé-L'Evescault, France

A: Since these two questions are related I will take them together.

First, there is no division or separation between the Latin rite and the more than 20 Catholic Eastern Churches. There are, however, many differences and distinctions.

These multiple distinctions give each Church its characteristic identity within the one fold which is the Catholic Church.

The most obvious distinctions are external. Each Church uses a distinct ritual for Mass, the sacraments and sacramentals.

For those Churches where there is a corresponding Orthodox Church (for example, the several Byzantine or Melkite Churches, the Coptic, and the Syro-Malankara), an outsider would be hard-put to distinguish between the two celebrations. One key difference with the Orthodox: The Eastern-rite Catholics mention the Pope in the anaphora, or Eucharistic Prayer.

Compared to the Latin-rite Church, the Eastern-rite Churches differ in their internal organization. This is evident, for example, in the guiding role of the patriarch or major archbishop, the means of selecting bishops, and in some cases the presence of married priests.

None of these differences, however, constitute a separation of faith or of communion with the See of Peter.

Because of this, any Catholic may attend, receive Communion, and fulfill the holy day precept at any Catholic rite.

There is no formal procedure required before attending, but the ancient principle of "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" should be diligently applied. Thus a Latin Catholic who wishes to attend one of these rites should acquaint himself with the basic practices and demands of the rite and adapt himself accordingly. For example, most Eastern rites remain standing for most of the celebration and do not kneel for the consecration; a Latin should respect this tradition. Some rites have stricter fasting rules before receiving Communion, and as far as possible a Latin should follow suit.

Frequency in attending an Eastern celebration does not inscribe a Catholic to that rite, just as an Eastern Catholic who habitually attends the Latin rite does not automatically become Latin. To formally switch rites in a permanent manner requires a formal procedure.

The question is somewhat diverse for the case of Orthodox Churches, which are not in full communion with Rome but which enjoy the apostolic succession and all seven sacraments. While full communion is lacking, the Catholic Church no longer considers these Churches as being in a formal schism or as being excommunicated.

From the Catholic standpoint, a member of the faithful who is unable to attend Mass because there is no Catholic celebration available, may, if he so wishes, attend and receive Communion at an Orthodox Divine Liturgy.

Likewise, an Orthodox Christian in a similar situation is allowed to receive Communion and some other sacraments in any Catholic rite. Such an attendance is always optional and is never obligatory, not even in order to fulfill a festive precept.

However, not all Orthodox Churches accept this, and some take a dim view of any form of intercommunion. Once more it is incumbent upon Catholics not to impinge on others' sensibilities and limit themselves to what is acceptable to each particular Church.

* * *

Follow-up: Eastern Rites and Orthodox [8-18-2009]

With respect to our July 21 comments on attending Mass in Eastern Catholic Churches, a question on file from a reader in New York raised an interesting point.

Our correspondent wrote: "I want to ask a question about Catholics of the Roman rite attending liturgies of the Eastern rites. I've noticed that some committed, serious Catholics regularly attend other rites (Maronite and Melkite, for example) for what it seems to me to be purely aesthetic reasons. I'm sure it's uncharitable for me to be whining about such people, and I'm not  totally unsympathetic — we've all attended Masses that, while valid and licit, were not exactly reverent and numinous. But it strikes me as odd to abandon 'your' rite because you like the music and rituals of another. Is there anything 'wrong' with this?"

I would be hesitant to condemn such people, as each person's spiritual journey can take many paths, some temporary and others permanent. Attending another rite for aesthetic reasons might seem superficial, but there is no way of knowing if that is not Providence's way of leading someone toward a deeper understanding of the underlying mystery.

It is also true that experiencing other rites is usually a positive experience. On the one hand it opens up the treasure trove of the universal Church's unity-in-diversity. On the other hand it can also lead to an appreciation of one's own rite when properly celebrated.

I believe this last point is important because there is sometimes a hidden bias against the Roman rite, especially in its ordinary form — a bias that sees the venerable Eastern rites as being somehow intrinsically more authentic, more reverent, and with a deeper sense of the sacred.

This is most likely the case with aberrations of the Roman rite as mentioned by our reader. It is also probably true that the inherent flexibility of the Roman rite makes it more easily subject to poor-quality celebrations than the relatively unchanging Eastern rites.

When the Roman rite is properly celebrated, however, it can be as spiritual and as reverent as any Eastern rite. It will be briefer, to be sure, and it will also be more sober in its expressions, but then brevity and sobriety have always been characteristics of the Roman liturgy.

I have met many Eastern Catholics who expressed great appreciation for the Roman rite. Some esteem the sense of participation of the faithful, which is less present in some Eastern rites. Others cherish the sublime beauty and variety of the Gregorian chants for the ordinary of the Mass compared to the relative invariability of their tones. Thus aesthetic appreciation can run both ways.

Therefore it is not a case of one being better than the other but of each one being a legitimate and holy effort to offer up a worthy sacrifice to the Lord.

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