Replanting a Great Tree: Learning from the Experience of the Byzantine Catholic Church

By Thompson, J. Michael | Pastoral Music, February/March 2007 | Go to article overview

Replanting a Great Tree: Learning from the Experience of the Byzantine Catholic Church


Thompson, J. Michael, Pastoral Music


As the Roman Catholic Church in the United States increasingly finds itself dealing with the challenge of multicultural liturgy as part of the process of inculturation called for by the Second Vatican Council, the experience of the Byzantine Catholic Church in the U.S.A. (formerly the Greek-Catholic Church) may be instructive. Our church came from an area where the culture supported liturgical practice to an area where the culture challenged that practice. It came from a place where the experience of church was similar, if not uniform, from one town to the next into a place where being Catholic could mean several things and where the dominant form of Catholicism celebrated a liturgy and a devotional life that was at best unfamiliar and, at worst, simply odd. How the Byzantine Catholic Church adjusted to life in the United States and how it faced and resolved some of the cultural and religious challenges that life here offered may offer lessons that are instructive to Roman Catholics in facing some of the challenges of multicultural life and liturgy in this land.

Here's a scenario for you: The church building stands in the middle of the village somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains. The life of the village revolves around the services of the church. The rhythms of life on the farm through the changing seasons are intertwined with the fasts and feasts of the Year of Grace. The home, seen as a family church, is consecrated with its icon corner and the lamp which burns there: Days begin and end with prayer, and each meal is made sacred with the grace before and after meals. The life of a family begins with the blessing of the betrothal and then the celebration of the crowning of the couple, continuing with the procession to the house of the couple to bless their marriage bed. When a child is conceived, the woman comes to church to receive the blessing of an expectant mother; after the birth, there is the naming ceremony and then the baptism and the churching of the mother. The fields which the family works are blessed each year, as is their house during the celebration of the Theophany of the Lord in January. Christmas and Theophany Eves are also celebrated at home with the special "Holy Supper" fasting meals that begin with the sighting of the first star. The entire village stops working (as much as any farming village can, of course) to celebrate the feasts of the church.

During the Great Fast in preparation for Pascha, the entire tenor of life in the village changes. People are in church much more, eating prayer instead of the foods they give up during the Fast. During Great and Holy Week, everything else is laid aside so that the entire populace can enter into the celebration. The night of Pascha is luminous during the procession with the New Light, and everyone carries to church the baskets of paschal foods which are solemnly blessed after the paschal Divine Liturgy and then feasted upon in the early paschal morning. And when one of the community falls asleep in the Lord, he or she is laid out in the home, and the first service is held in the home, before the body is carried to the church for the waking (with the Psalter being chanted so that the body is never left alone) and the solemn funeral services, followed by the burial in the village cemetery next to the church. Those graves will be solemnly visited and blessed on St. Thomas Sunday, the week after Pascha, in affirmation of the resurrection of the dead.

Coming to America

That is the kind of environment that Byzantine Catholics shared in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1880s before they came to the United States. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, whole villages of men were hired by steel mills and coal mines to leave their villages and come to the United States. Since work in the villages amounted, for the most part, to subsistence farming, people leapt at the chance to make a decent living for themselves, their wives, and their children. …

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