Eastern Churches in the Western World: Roots, Growth, Future
Excerpts from an address given to the Encounter of Eastern Churches Bishops of America and Oceania in Boston, November 1999.
by Chorbishop John D. Faris
Why are there Eastern churches in the West? The dispersion of Eastern Christians to the New World reflects the tragedies of the 20th century two world wars, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian and Soviet empires, economic disparity and Middle East turmoil and the promises of peace and prosperity in a new world.
The emigration of Eastern Catholics began in the latter half of the 19th century. Once established in the Americas and Oceania, it was common for these immigrants to band together and form social clubs and societies. In some cases a priest would visit periodically and celebrate the Divine Liturgy. These communities, however, were not yet churches since they lacked episcopal ministry, a crucial element in the realization of an ecclesial community.
As Eastern Catholics left their homelands, the issue the Holy See had to address was whether to appoint Eastern Catholic bishops to serve them. The alternative would have been simply to commit all the Eastern Catholic faithful to the pastoral care of the local Latin ordinary. This would have been in keeping with the ancient principle more often observed in the breach that for each church there is only one bishop.
Beginning with this principle, it was commonly deduced that there could only be one church in any locale because church was defined in terms of territorial circumscription. In its definition of a particular church, however, Vatican II is silent regarding territorial circumscription. Rather, the council fathers defined the church as a portion of the people of God entrusted to a bishop. Church is defined in terms of persons, not territory, therefore making it possible for more than one church to occupy the same territory.
Greek Catholics of Ukrainian and Ruthenian descent were the first Eastern Catholic community to become a church in North America when, in May 1907, the Holy See appointed Basilian Father Soter Ortynsky as bishop. Subsequent Eastern Catholic eparchies were not created, however, for another six decades. Unfortunately, many of the Eastern Catholic faithful were by then affiliated with Latin Catholic parishes or had become Orthodox or Protestant.
When eparchies were finally erected, one of the tasks facing bishops was to forge in the faithful and clergy the notion of an Eastern Catholic Church and to create a sense of unity among communities dispersed over vast distances.
Some of the faithful were of the second or third generation and had little knowledge of their heritage except for a few ethnic foods and colorful expressions. Bishops often found that local ethnic social clubs rivaled the parish for community attention. And the clergy was not always supportive, since some priests would have preferred the supervision of the Latin bishop who treated them with benign neglect.
Rites. The faithful who immigrated to the New World brought with them a rite, a liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary heritage. This rite was not a static, unchangeable relic but a living organism, influenced by the cultures and historical circumstances of the new land.
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