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CONTRIBUTIONS OF THE EASTERN RITES TO CATHOLIC CULTURE

John Paul IIDuring the Second Vatican Council many liturgical reforms were proposed for the Latin Rite. Among the important points of discussion were: the use of the vernacular, Communion under both species, concelebration, and a married diaconate, all in use in the Byzantine Rite today. Ideas, which seemed to many of the Fathers new and revolutionary in the West, turned out to be old and traditional in the East. Oriental usage was quoted so often that the bishops soon realized that the East was not as decadent as some would make her. In the early Church, there was a great inter-contribution of Christian-Hellenic culture (in times when communication and travel were difficult and slow compared to our present standards). Why should this interchange of ideas cease at this time, a glorious time indeed, when all the Fathers met in Rome at this historic Council of Vatican II? All the ecclesiastical arts and sciences can be enriched by research in these rites.

The United States, particularly, is a young country in which the heritages of immigrating peoples may mutually enrich one another; discarding outworn animosities and antipathies, which rest like an incubus on life in the "old country," especially if that country be behind the Iron Curtain. Similarly in the Church, ancient animosities and ignorances can be overcome, the Latin tradition enhanced, theologically as well as in other ways (union of all the Eastern Churches separated from Rome will never be accomplished except by means of the Catholic Rites corresponding to the same rites used in these Churches); provided of course, that the Oriental Rites develop an integral, vital life of their own in constant contact with their brothers of the Latin Rite.

Easter LiturgyHowever we must not consider the Eastern Rites exclusively as attractive links to win over our separated Orthodox brethren. They have their own right to exist in the framework of the Catholic Church. They are not simply to be tolerated; on the contrary, they should be encouraged to contribute their own ritual richness to the treasury of Catholic culture. A whole new field of Liturgical theology, actualizing the theology of the Eastern Fathers of the Church, can be brought to the attention of Catholic scholars. This theology of the Fathers is protracted in a living and constant manner, through the medium of liturgical and traditional formularies. Sacramental theology, intimately connected with the ceremonies of Christian worship, could certainly be understood more fully by a profound study of the Eastern Rites. Newly discovered and varied aspects of basic truths could enlighten and deepen our appreciation of them.

A variety of poetic prose and hymnology forms a literary, liturgical heritage not to be underestimated. St. John Damascene and St. Ephrem are typical of the Eastern bards who have embellished the Divine Office of these rites.

The devotional spirit of these rites reveals the solid asceticism of the early saints and martyrs. Each rite offers a manual of devotions; an anthology of Christian virtue and religious life. This devotion is linked not only to the liturgy and the doctrine of the early Ecumenical Councils of the Church, it is bound to the very essence of Christian piety; the whole framework of creation and redemption forms its basis.

A Missionary Future [top]

WorshippersThere is an opening of a whole vista of missionary opportunities for rites, which were once considered fossilized; the reunion movement gives an encouraging future to the Byzantine Rite in this country. Bishop Sheen, at an Eastern Rite convention in Birmingham, Alabama, stated that in his opinion the Byzantine Rite was the rite for Catholics in Africa and Asia.

The whole mission psychology of the Byzantine Rite (accentuating the active participation of the congregation in the vernacular) adapts itself to Protestant mentality. We all know that Protestant mentality. We all know that Protestant congregations love to sing hymns together. They would certainly be attracted by Communion under both species. A married clergy would also be more acceptable to them. The magnificent ceremonies, symbolism, and pageantry of the various Eastern Rites would surely appeal to the Negro temperament. The Byzantine Rite in particular, could be modified and shortened, adapting itself for the Americas. A rite is for the people —it expresses them; the people are not for the rite.

There are over two million Catholics of the Byzantine Rite in the Americas and there are five million American Orthodox, all using the same rite. How can we deny them a future in a world so conscious of the need of Christian unity? The Ecumenical Council, having treated this problem, will be a living symbol that there will be a flourishing future for the Eastern rites in the universal structure of the Catholic Church and particularly in this country, the haven of so many exiles from countries where freedom of worship is interfered with.

Influence Of The Byzantine Rite On The Roman Rite [top]

Chi-RhoA great liturgist of the Roman Rite, Ildefonso Cardinal Schuster, Archbishop of Milan, wrote in his Sacramentary the following comment: "Rome has borrowed from the East, the region whence we receive light, whether in the order of nature or in that of grace. By this wise electicism, the Apostolic See has given the world a further proof of her truly cosmopolitan character, which, enabling her to expand beyond her seven hills, has caused her to adopt all that is good and beautiful wherever she finds it; without needing to shut herself up within a barrier of narrow and repellent nationalism, as so many lesser Churches have done" (Vol. III, Chapter I, pp. 13-14).

Many of the early Popes came from the East and many of the papal representatives sent to the East returned to Rome imbued with Eastern culture. This would indicate that a certain Byzantine influence would be normal. In the eighth century, the influx into Europe of many Eastern monks fleeing the Iconoclastic persecutions illustrated this influence. Returning crusaders during the thirteenth century reinforced it when they brought back with them relics, art objects, and customs borrowed from the East. The "Eternal City" maintained her efforts to unify Christendom and never forgot that it was from the East that she received her faith. The solemn chanting of the Nicene Creed in Greek (Greek was the language of the Roman liturgy until the end of the second century) at all great ceremonies in St. Peter's, the vesture of the Sovereign Pontiff, and certain liturgical usages illustrate her attachment to the East.

The Primitive Roman Church [top]

St. EvaristusSt. Evaristus, a Palestinian born in Bethlehem reigned as Pope from 97 A.D. to 105 A.D. Noted for his great administrative ability, it was he who first divided Rome into parishes and organized the clergy of Rome. He ordered that all bishops, when preaching, should be accompanied by an entourage of seven deacons. A later Greek Pope, St. Telesphorus (126-136 A.D.) introduced into the Roman liturgy the Midnight Mass and inserted the beautiful Gloria in Excelsis Deo in the Roman Mass (the substance of this doxology is found in the Byzantine Office of Little Compline). Pope Theodore I (642-649 A.D.), a Palestinian, born and reared in Jerusalem, put the feast of the Assumption on the Roman Calendar recalling no doubt the great devotion to this tradition in Jerusalem from Apostolic times.

However, it was really Pope Sergius I (687-701 A.D.), a Sicilian of Antiochene heritage, who really characterized his reign by borrowing from the East. He solemnized the celebration of the four principal feasts of the Blessed Virgin: the Nativity, the Purification, the Annunciation, and the Dormition, and he introduced into the Latin liturgy the prayer Agnus Dei at the moment of the breaking of bread. This same Pope originated the practice of torchlight processions on the solemnities of the Mother of God, a practice that originated at Antioch and was brought to Constantinople by St. John Chrysostom. The feast of the Purification with the lighting of candles was borrowed from Jerusalem; influence from Constantinople certainly caused the introduction of the Feast of the Conception of St. Anne (celebrated by the Byzantines on December 9) into Ireland as early as the ninth century. This liturgical practice soon spread all over Europe. The Church of S. Silvestro in Capite in Rome has a list of anniversaries of the saints whose relics Pope Paul I (757-767 A.D.) enshrined in this church; their enumeration has been made according to the Byzantine Calendar.

Greek liturgical poetry has strongly influenced the Christmas cycle despite the fact that the feast of December 25 appeared in Rome (as a solemnity of the Nicene dogma) before it appeared in the East, where the solemnity of the Epiphany was in vogue.

A Spanish pilgrim to the Holy Land, Etheria, described at Rome the dramatic character of the liturgical functions of Holy Week at Jerusalem. Consequently, the Romans began to reproduce this drama. The Lateran basilica of St. Savior replaced the Holy Sepulcher while that of S. Croce (built by St. Helen and given a relic of the true Cross by her) came to be known as "Jerusalem." St. Helen most likely intended to reproduce the sanctuary of Golgotha in this latter church. The Roman blessing and procession of palms are clearly derived from fourth century Jerusalem as well as the impressive rites of Good Friday (the Adoration of the Cross took on a more solemn form from Greek influence, especially that of Southern Italy). Even the Roman blessing of the Easter Candle seems to have come from this region, thoroughly Hellenic in its customs.

"All these foundations in Rome," wrote Cardinal Schuster, "could not but exercise a strong influence on the liturgy of the Apostolic See, and they contributed to the preservation of that international, or rather Catholic, character in the widest sense of the word, which has always distinguished the Papal Court, and does so still to this day."

Art [top]

Jesus ChristIt was Constantine I (708-715 A.D.), a Syrian, who first wore the tiara of Eastern origin. The plumed fans carried in Papal processions were probably derived from the Byzantine "ripidia" (fans) used at the Byzantine court and later used in liturgical processions.

Two great Popes: Gregory III (731-741 A.D.), a Syrian, and Zachary (741-752 A.D.), a Greek, were champions against the Iconoclastic heresy (which condemned the veneration of images) and influenced the art of the Roman churches of their times. Gregory III, in 743 A.D., commissioned many Greek artist monks to decorate his churches as a reply to the Iconoclasts. He likewise founded the Vatican Library in collecting many ancient manuscripts illuminated in the Orient. Rome can truly claim to possess the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics in the world, alongside those of Ravenna and Palermo and Monreale; this is due to the efforts of these Popes and their predecessors.

Rome is not only the heart of Western Christendom, but liturgically and artistically she is a symbol of the meeting of East and West. Pope John XXIII himself was a personification of this when he historically celebrated Mass and consecrated a bishop in the Byzantine Rite. Pope Paul VI has not only met with the Patriarch of Constantinople but he has returned various important relics to their original sanctuaries in the Near East. Certainly when he included several Eastern Patriarchs within the College of Cardinals (without minimizing their patriarchal dignity) he destined them for his Synod of Bishops who with him would help govern the universal Church.

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