Conversations with Bertha: Eastern Catholics

“Conversations with Bertha” is a new feature that will appear from time to time in Archbishop’s Pettipas’ letters. These tales are of a purely Catechetical nature, and any resemblance between Bertha and any person known to the reader is purely coincidental.

Conversations with Bertha – #2
by Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, C.Ss.R.

I love pancake breakfasts.  When I see the sandwich board out that announces the Knights are having one after the Masses, I whisper a “Great!” under my breath.  I look forward to such occasions not only to have an elaborate breakfast (at least more elaborate than I cook for myself), but also just to meet people.  So a few weeks ago, that’s just what happened.  After I had filled my plate with pancakes and sausages, butter and syrup, and scrambled eggs, I wandered between tables looking for one that had one too many chairs for the people seated.  Lo and behold, Bertha was sitting next to any empty chair.

After an exchange of niceties with everyone at the table, Bertha turned to me and began.  “Your Grace, you know the Boychuck’s that live across the street from us … they say they’re Catholics as well.  But they don’t come to our parish; they go to the Ukrainian Church across town.  What’s that all about?”  As usual, I felt I needed to give some historical background to this.  My high school English teacher had more than once drilled this thought in my head: “any text without a context is a pretext.”  So I tried my best.

This conversation begins at a parish pancake breakfast, hosted by the Knights of Columbus.

“Well, Bertha, we have to see this from the perspective of the world in the first centuries of the Christian Church.  The Roman Empire was the dominant force from before Christ’s birth until a few centuries after.  They had followed upon the Greek Empire, so even though the Romans ruled much of the world around the Mediterranean, most of these people still spoke Greek and followed Greek customs.  The Roman Empire, in effect, had two centers of power: Rome, and Constantinople.  These came to be understood as the western empire (Latin speaking) and the eastern empire (Greek-speaking).  The Catholic Church was being established throughout both parts of the empire, but because their language, customs and ways of thought were different, the local Churches (or dioceses) were gathered around different patriarchates within these two arms of the Roman Empire.

“As the early Churches developed, they formed around specific cultures and languages which gave shape and form to their liturgies and some other practices.  These we still have in the Catholic Church as “rites”.  Of the 24 or so different rites in the Church, the largest and most extensive is the “Roman Rite”, which is found in most of the world.  Other rites also known to us in Canada are the Ukrainian, Syro-Malabar (from Kerala in India), Maronite (from Lebanon), and Chaldean (from Iraq and Syria) Churches.  Because the Church embraces so many, it is appropriately called “catholic”, which means universal.  In this sense, the Catholic Church is both local (in its diocese and its parishes) and universal (throughout the world).

Divine Liturgy celebrated by Ukrainian Catholics. Photo by Lincoln Ho

“Pope John Paul II drew our attention to this variety of Churches within the one Catholic family by stating that, “The Church needs to learn to breathe again with its two lungs – its Eastern one and its Western one.”  In his effort to bring together the East and West, the Holy Father issued two distinct challenges. Because Eastern Catholics are a minority, they must faithfully preserve their tradition and not be tempted to “Latinize” their practices.  By the same token, Roman Catholics should become more familiar with the liturgical and theological expressions of the Christian East.”

Bertha jumped in.  “So what have you done, Your Grace, to become more familiar with the Eastern part of the Church?  Have you ever gone to those places … Lebanon and Kerala and Syria?”

“Not all of them”, I admitted.  “But these days, many communities of these people now live in Canada.  We have many Ukrainian Catholics in western Canada; in fact, in our diocese there are Ukrainian Catholic churches in Grande Prairie, Hines Creek and High Prairie.  I’ve been to several of their Divine Liturgies – they call it that, rather than ‘Mass’.  But I have also attended liturgies offered by these other Churches.  When all the bishops in Canada gather at the end of September each year for our plenary assembly, those bishops are also with us, and one of our Masses or other prayer periods at the plenary will be conducted by those bishops.  While we Roman bishops don’t understand everything they’re saying, which is often in their own language, we recognize one another as full members of the one Body of Christ.”

Divine Liturgy celebrated by Ukrainian Catholics. Photo by Lincoln Ho

“You know, Your Grace, this is all so very interesting.  You open up my mind to so many things when we have these talks like this.  I thought all along that all Catholics are the same.  But I guess this isn’t true.

“Exactly, Bertha.  It’s especially amazing to realize that we can be so different in the Catholic Church, yet still be bound together in Jesus Christ by our faith, hope and love.  Our different rituals and languages are not barriers, but actually call us to love one another because we are both different and united.”  “I wish the whole world that we could be more like that”, Bertha offered.  “So do I, Bertha.  So do I.”

That’s when the Knights got everyone’s attention, and asked those who could to help put away the tables and chairs.  It was obvious that our pancake breakfast was over.  Some of us had fed on pancakes and sausages; others were fed with words and images.

Stay tuned for future installments of “Conversations with Bertha”