If you are a Roman Catholic, you typically cross yourself forehead, heart, left shoulder, right shoulder. For my entire life growin up I signed myself forehead, heart, right shoulder, left shoulder. I was probably seventeen when someone indicated to me that I was doing it “wrong.” The next person indicated I wasn’t doing it wrong, I was doing it Greek Orthodox.
In the month of November, Pope Benedict has issued a prayer intention:
That the Eastern Catholic Churches and their venerable traditions may be known and esteemed as a spiritual treasure for the whole Church.
For years, this has become an issue close to my heart, and I think the story is worth telling.
To the average Roman Catholic, they know there is Catholics, and Protestants. The Middle East is associated with Islam, while Europe with Christendom. Unfortunately, these perceptions are rather shallow. For centuries, since the time of the Apostles, Christianity was settling in Palestine to Iraq to India to Spain, and thrived for centuries. The Churches that developed had distinct characteristics and emphases, but were united on fundamental issues of the importance of Sacraments and Theology.
As I was returning to my own faith late in high school, I became obsessed with the person of Jesus Christ. I was staying up into late hours of the night reading through Church History. I was glancing over the Church Fathers, and reading the stories of the martyrs. I also became fascinated with Orthodox Christianity. This fascination was something of a grace, I believe, because it helped me to understand my own traditions as a Roman Catholic, as well as to be challenged by Orthodox Christianity in several ways.
I learned that the perspective of the Roman Catholic church toward Orthodox Christians differs significantly then that of other religions. The Roman Catholic Church cannot affirm the validity of the Sacraments and Orders among Protestant Christians. However, we do affirm the validity of the Orthodox Tradition, their Sacraments, and their Holy Orders. This affirmation should not be seen merely as a matter of us giving them permission, as it is a matter of affirming a significant equality with us on all of the claims that we make about our own Tradition. This only took my fascination deeper.
I think it might be because I grew up with plenty of Parishes that were minimal when it came to art. The significance of the Icons among Greek Orthodox was a further turn of fascination. The fact that Eastern Christians spare no expense in covering their walls in the Glory of the Lord and the Saints only drew more admiration.
I spent some time reading an Apostolic Letter of John Paul II on the Eastern Churches. I learned that among Christians in the East, the monk occupies a high and irreplaceable place of holiness. For every Christian, it is their goal to imitate monks, and they do so by turning to their wisdom. This stands in contrast to many recent Roman Catholic Saints who are admired to the degree that they took action in public life. This is a tension that Augustine struggles with, but even today, it is assumed that the only thing of value for the Christian is to be producing as much tangible results of holiness as possible.
However, when I began to understand the doctrine on Apotheosis, this made more sense. I think I also feel deeper in love with Orthodox Christianity that they use so much Greek to describe significant spiritual experiences. Anyways, Apotheosis can be translated as divinization, which is when the Saint begins to receive a share in God’s divine nature. Many saints are depicted with Halos, East and West, and often times Apotheosis is actually a tangible phenomenon
I have also come to see that Eastern Christianity has placed a significant role in helping Roman Catholics to broaden our perspective. One example is the Ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council is clearly influenced by the Ecclesiology of the Eastern Churches, in that the local church has received the dignity that it has always had in the East. Finally, I believe that Patriarch Bartholomew (who is the successor of Saint Andrew) has influenced Pope Benedict (the successor to Saint Andrew’s brother) in his Green initiatives in the Vatican. I must admit, I think I am influenced here as well.
I am not ashamed to admit the joy I have from learning about Eastern Christianity, and I believe I am more Catholic as a result. I think in order to experience a genuine catholicity, Roman Catholics should not be ashamed to be measured by the traditions and perspective of Eastern Christianity, because catholic does mean universal afterall. I, however, see no reason to shed my Roman Catholic identity, I stand in communion with the successor of the Apostle Peter, but I also do so fervently praying for deeper union. I may not take enough time to do it, but I feel that doing stuff like this is a necessary service for Roman Catholics.
I just so happened to develop a friendship with someone who attended the local Byzantine Rite Catholic parish in San Diego last year, so I made it a point to attend often. Since I worked on Sundays, it was difficult to make it over almost at all. I was always uplifted by the experience of Divine Liturgy, and I think it has, in a sense, become a measure in which I felt challenged. I feel inspired, as a priest in formation, to at least integrate those elements of the Roman Rite that are often downplayed, like incense and chant. It has transformed my image of the kind of priest that I want to become, because I don’t know where this is coming from, I certainly don’t like to sing all that much, (even though I like to rap)
I may just end up writing another fifteen paragraphs, but I think I will have to end it here. The unfortunate thing is that a real division exists between Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, and in order to do justice to the topic I think I will include that in another future post. My goal here, is to get all my Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christian friends to grow in admiration Orthodox Christianity.