Catholicism Right to Left: Latin Reflections on the Eastern Rite
I took a field trip today. Two friends, one a fellow Latin-Rite Catholic and one Lebanese Orthodox, and I trekked down US 23 to St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Columbus for Mass. It was, in short, an interesting experience – I shall endeavor to relate it to you. (Disclaimer: with a few exceptions that should be readily evident, the details of this account are confined to this particular church, and are not intended as judgments on the entirety of the Byzantine or other Rite)
We ran a little late, duing to our having to borrow a car from a friend who is not a morning person on weekends. Comparing the Order of the Liturgy to the time Mass was scheduled to start and the time we got there, it is difficult to say how much we missed – these things do not seem to match up. Either it started earlier than it was supposed to, or they left things out, or the first chunk went VERY fast. We got settled in, I think, right before the Prokemen, prior to the Epistle. The Byzantine Rite, like the Latin Rite prior to the post-concilar reforms, do not read from the Old Testament during most liturgies. The first thing that struck us was that the church was surprisingly small, disappointingly wanting in exterior architecture, and astonishingly beautiful on the inside. Had the church been Latin, it would have been exceedingly ugly almost without fail – the stained glass was rather hideous, and the floor plan (a short but very wide nave bisected by a center aisle where what I would call an ambo stood together with a small table of uncertain use holding an icon) would have made traditional Latin ecclesiastical decoration very difficult. Rather, the iconostasis and the paintings on the walls of the sanctuary (to the extent these were visible through and over the iconostasis), together with less extensive paintings applied to and hung on the other walls and ceiling, leant beauty to the church interior.
Of course, even beginning to talk about the Divine Liturgy (the Eastern term for the Eucharistic sacrifice) has linguistic problems: we call this celebration "the Mass," from the age-old pronouncement at its conclusion: "Ita missa est," "it is ended." That development, a kind of etymological litotes, is only possible of course when you’re using Latin. So I will say "the Mass" or "the liturgy" and mean that celebration and sacrifice that we in the West know as the Mass, and those in the East as the Divine Liturgy.
The differences in expressive culture between East and West shone forth both first and most strongly. The entire Mass was sung – a much longed-for situation for many in the Latin Rite. However, problems arose. Most notable, from our perspective, came the fact that Byzantine hymnody has very little in common with Latin hymnody – not only were the words and notes different from what we were accustomed to, but the entire sound was as well (just look at Byzantine neums sometime – they look more like Arabic than western notes). Having been raised in a certain ecclesiastical musical culture (even one that suffers from severe maladies), you acquire a feel for how things are supposed to sound, and can anticipate tonal changes – certain words go with certain sounds. Move outside that musical culture, however, and everything you think you know about how things sound becomes not only worthless, but a hindrance. This problem of unfamiliarity was compounded by the lack of a full choir, the absence of any instrumentation (the organ is a Western invention and has never been introduced liturgically in the East), and the fact that the notes being sung by the cantors rarely corresponded to the notes printed in the missalette.
The lack of strong musical leadership, the complex (but inherently beautiful) quality of the music, and the very protracted nature of many of the responses (especially the Thrice Holy Hymn, a sort of Sanctus cum Gloria that is sung three times in a row, and which like a Gloria or a Responsorial Psalm tends to lose people as it proceeds) gave the whole affair a vaguely atonal and chaotic air that is not, I feel, a universal element of the Rite.
Structurally, the liturgy is made up largely of a series of litanies with hymns, processions, and readings interspersed. The proper includes prayers said by the congregation, the Tropars, Kondaks, and Prokemen, the last being a sort of antiphon for the Epistle. We managed to miss the handout that had the ones for this week on them, so I can’t tell you what they are like. The liturgy seemed to have less structural demarcation than the Latin Rite. That is, it was not as abundantly clear at most times where in the Mass one was, and the beginning and end of the liturgy had many elements in common. Most notably, the liturgy includes a litany of peace, a litany of supplication, a litany of the offertory, and a litany of intercession, all of which include very similar (not identical, and not indistinguishable, but very similar) prayers. The exception to this generalization about demarcations involved the iconostasis – when, after the elevation, the priest closed the doors to the iconostasis (and some folks think Communion Rails are excluding!) and drew its curtains (something our Orthodox companion said he had never seen done in his mostly immigrant Cleveland parish), one could tell that something different was happening here. Remember, of course, that the Eastern Churches maintain that the consecration occurs at the epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit following the elevation. However, at St. John’s the forcefulness of even this separation was mitigated by the absence of kneelers; not only did we stand during the Canon, we stood (some sat) after receiving Communion.
The absence of kneelers was one in a series of unfortunate elements that diminished, in this instance, the potential of the liturgy. The first, of which the no kneelers is a part, was the lack of clear liturgical poise on the part of many present: not being able to kneel (the pews were too close together to make "rebellious" kneeling practical) left the congregation somewhat off center. And while the priest himself carried out his carefully choreographed movements with full care and attention, the servers and altar attendants (there were many, several of which of an unsure designation) displayed a notable lack of poise. For most of the liturgy they remained completely concealed behind the iconostasis, but they came out and stood somewhat lackadaisically in front of it during the Communion of the People (with the exception of the two assisting the priest), and watched, with their hands at their side, as everyone else filed past. Is the folding of hands not part of the Eastern tradition of liturgical posture?
The second difficulty was that the entire affair seemed terribly rushed. I’ve always been a little apologetic of priests who can speed-pray, but priest, servers, cantor, and congregation seemed determined to get through this whole affair as efficiently as possible. As a sole example, the Great Entrance, in which the priest, holding the chalice and diskos (more or less a paten), with crucifers and tapiers and company, processes out of the sanctuary and around the church (not unlike the Holy Thursday procession to the altar of repose), was performed at a brisk trot somewhat unbecoming its nature. Our Orthodox companion, for whom the liturgy was more familiar, remarked that it ended much more quickly than he expected.
Finally, Father himself didn’t help. We’re all used to a quick announcement or two immediately preceding the final blessing. We forgive these at times because they are normally very brief, very concise, and the final blessing itself is very brief – besides, because Mass concludes with Father processing out of the church, he can’t very well tell us these things after it’s all over. Well, the same thing happened today, except the transition (which in the Latin Rite tends to be somewhat smooth – you come back from Communion, pray, there’s some silence hopefully, it takes a few minutes to get everything purified on the altar, people sit down, THEN we have an announcement and a blessing) was astoundingly abrupt from Communion to announcements, and the announcements themselves were very long and involved. The concluding Rite, for its part, was likewise long and involved (although we were somewhat relieved when it came, not truly believing that the Mass could have ended with as little fanfare as had preceded the announcements). In it, however the Byzantine Rite does seem to have a cure for the leaving-after-Communion infection among Catholics: people don’t spill out of their pews and go their one ways, they dismiss by row, process to the front and venerate a crucifix, and THEN leave. I don’t know that my fellow Roman Catholic had been to enough Good Friday celebrations to avoid being a little weirded out by this.
Of course, under the heading of unusual and different, there is Holy Communion itself. A word to the wise: do not attempt to swallow leavened Eucharistic species in the same fashion you swallow it when unleavened. I had done some reading before we went and knew that the Byzantine Rite used leavened bread and intinction (via a really cool spoon), and our Orthodox companion was used to the same from his tradition, but our other Catholic friend was taken completely off guard and it was fortunate, especially for her, that we sat in the back and got to get a good look at what was being done before we received. And despite reading up ahead of time, I nearly killed myself trying to swallow without any chewing.
In terms of a general opinion on the liturgy and Rite, it’s hard to give one. I don’t know that I got a very representative sample, for starters. What we saw was definitely recognizable as the Mass – there was not any doubt that we were partaking in the Eucharistic sacrifice. However, it was very difficult to try and pray and be mindful of Christ’s presence while attempting to adapt on one’s feet to an entirely different liturgical tradition. Thus, for us as Latin-Rite Catholics the Byzantine Mass was not, and probably could not be without much effort, as spiritually nourishing as it is for the Byzantines themselves. That’s not a normative judgment, of course: it cuts both ways. Crossing oneself "backwards" was not nearly as difficult as I imagined it would be (I tried to at least do this so as not to look quite as out of place), and the habit of crossing at every mention of the Holy Name to be a worthwhile tradition, one that probably would have many efficacious advantages if it could be recovered in practice in the Latin Rite.
The truth of the matter is that these people and their faith are exactly what their history suggests they are: a people of mixed traditions, living in a shadowy place in between two worlds. Nobody knows they exist: neither my Catholic nor my Orthodox friend knew anything of the existence or history of any of the Eastern Rite Catholics. Long viewed with suspicion by Rome and regarded as blood traitors by Constantinople, their life has not been a pleasant one. The fact that their tiny congregation is housed in an architecturally lacking building in a less-than-wonderful part of Columbus only seems to reinforce their unfortunate status. Were the schism to heal, they would find themselves reunited with their cultural brethren and be greatly amplified. Until then, however, I think we should try to ameliorate their lot somehow, for they do a great service to the Church. They prove that Catholicism is catholic, that the ways of the faith can be expressed by men in ways befitting their own history and ways of thinking, even while retaining the inherent qualities shared everywhere. They maintain beautiful prayers and an inspiring and liturgically expressed devotion to the Blessed Virgin (I’ve always like the term Theotokos). Myself, as an American of Irish-Italian-Danish heritage have no reason to become Byzantine. I am Western, and I read Latin alphabets and tie up my thoughts about the world, man, and God with the workings and heritage of Western Europe. But for the millions of men and women whose history and culture gravitates towards Constantinople, Alexandria, or Kiev, we have the Eastern Rites. How do you write "Deo gratias" in Old Slavonic?