Many years ago, when I was living in Montreal, I attended a very beautiful Anglican Church in the heart of the city. This particular church was very popular among a host of groups, and particularly certain types of Roman Catholics who passed through by way of taking shelter from the appalling disregard for the sacred they had experienced in their own parishes. These were thoughtful people on the whole, who could well articulate what it was they felt they had lost in the post-conciliar Roman Catholic Church, and not ‘merely’ aesthetic things either. In fact, there was one ecclesiastical refugee who had written a great deal on the loss of the ancient propers and lectionary of the Western Church to the bland platitudes of the then-translation of the new Missal and its concomitant three-year Sunday, two-year weekday athematic tour through Scripture. I mention this, though, not to make digs at some of the more unfortunate aspects of post-conciliar liturgical reform, but to lay the groundwork for a more important point. For I learnt something at that Anglican parish I will never forget: to a Roman Catholic woman who came by the parish one day as a stop on her spiritual journey, the Anglican parish priest said, ‘you may certainly come here on your way back to the Church, but this is not your home, and you must eventually return to your Mother, the Catholic Church’.
The great lesson in this for me was in learning that people had their own, proper spiritual homes. An Italian Roman Catholic so born and raised, for example, unless he had some kind of authentic spiritual experience that led him to a new place, would not belong in a non-Roman Catholic Church (and certainly not in a Protestant community!). So it came to really bother me, when, as Anglican myself, my Protestant brethren accepted Catholics into their midst without sending them straight back to their rightful Christian family, and I made it my own practice to inform any Orthodox or Catholic person who, for whatever reason, joined my parish for a service even once, that they were not to get too comfortable, for they had their own Church with which to reconcile.
Now, I proffer this by way of analogy only, for the real issue at hand is not an issue of Catholic or Orthodox versus Protestant, but rather ancient, Eastern Christian, versus Roman Catholic.
I have often called my Roman Catholic brethren the Americans of the Church: they mean well, but they are simply so numerous and their ideas so prevalent on the intellectual landscape that they hardly notice anyone else and frequently step on others’ feet. As a result, I am never surprised when my own, Ukrainian Greek Catholic, Church gets described as ‘not proper Catholic’, or Orthodoxy as some kind of exotic, incomprehensible Protestantism. On a personal level, actually, I am deeply fortunate in terms of my relations with the local Roman Catholic archdiocese, insofar as the archbishop has been nothing short of encouraging both of me and of my small parish; yet across the country more generally, it is clear that in the absence of glittering onion domes to stimulate their curiosity, the Eastern Churches are not something average Roman Catholics – lay or ordained – have entertained as a reality warranting any attention.
The reason this is of concern brings me back to my initial story. Modern Britain is a cosmopolitan place. The United Kingdom plays host to countless cultures from around the world, some of which have no more connection to the Roman Catholic Church than a Samoan woman might to America because her country hosts a McDonald’s. They may be Christians of an ancient tradition, but unfortunately, those who already inhabit the country to which our newcomers have just come will never know, as the people with funny accents will quickly become absorbed into the dominant Church with nary a question asked.
We see in Scripture that human traditions are of intrinsic value. In fact, they are more, hallowed as they are by God the Word having taken them upon himself as part of his recapitulative service. Human traditions, be they linguistic, artistic, culinary, or religious, stand alongside other facets of humanity’s physical substance as things that have been given new meaning. And if this is so, then it follows that when human beings leave the land that has nurtured those traditions, carrying them with them, then we in the Church have a responsibility to recognise and encourage both the people and their cultural and spiritual treasures when they arrive amongst us.
In ecclesiastical terms, I would think the best way to do this is by pointing such people in the direction of the Church that most closely corresponds to their original tradition. (Read: Eastern Christians to an Eastern Church.) Unfortunately, however, many of our more vulnerable communities – communities that need protection and encouragement – are precisely those that get overlooked. I have come across numerous families whose origins lie in the Middle East, and whose traditions span Melkite to Maronite to Chaldean to Syrian Orthodox, yet who have been absorbed into a Roman Catholic Church, and whom everyone just assumed were meant to be there. Unfortunately, though, research suggests that when you separate a group from their traditions, they lose not only their traditions, but their faith as well, within a single generation.
When my old Anglican parish priest told a Roman Catholic that she had to return to her true alma mater, he did something brave, if necessary, and profoundly charitable. He not only stopped a Catholic from becoming separated from the Church; he saved her from a loss of personal cultural identity, and he saved the world from losing another French-Canadian Roman Catholic (no jokes, please). In response, I submit that it is incumbent on every British parish priest today to do likewise with the Lebanese, Indians, Romanians, Ukrainians, Greeks… whoever it is that has joined a community that is not naturally their own. At the very least, it would be helpful for all concerned if the passive drifting of one person or family into the Latin Rite was challenged by a well-considered and well-directed pastoral question. Then, if the person concerned has had a genuine conversion experience, she can be left alone; but if she has simply sought to become part of the British mainstream, or worse, merely slipped in quietly while no one was looking and gotten used to having lost her inheritance, then she should be pointed in the direction of her natural spiritual home.
The Church, after all, is like a tapestry: it is made up of many distinct and beautiful threads reflecting many traditions. There may be a dominant colour, but in the absence of all the other threads, the tapestry would be irreparably diminished. It seems to be that, in this cosmopolitan world, threads are woven into parts of the tapestry they had not been before, and we can respond in one of two ways. We can either overwhelm the isolated, dislocated thread with the dominant surrounding colour and so render it invisible, or we can draw it together with other similar-coloured threads in the section and watch as, combined, they add something altogether new to the tapestry.
As a priest of a small, but growing, Ukrainian Church in a region predominantly made up of Roman Catholics of Irish background, I would like to offer a home – or at least some support – to the many Christians from Eastern Church traditions that have immigrated here over the last century. My interest in this regard is the Church’s interest, which is that all her children should be nurtured in a spiritual language they understand. For this to happen, though, my brother priests in the Latin Church need to recognise when there are sojourners in their midst that may not belong there, to remember that there is more to the Church than the Latin tradition, then to urge such folk in a suitable direction. The same is true globally. To this end, I would make a plea to all Roman Catholics to learn more about the sister Churches in their own communion, as well as the Orthodox Churches that Rome recognises as such, and to be attentive to the fact that in our contemporary world there will be many who should be availing themselves of these Churches’ ministry.
A failure to come to terms with the broader nature of the Church – aside from the historical implications this entails – would also stand to endanger the faith of countless people who have already made the brave decision to leave their homeland in search of a new one. It certainly endangers their culture. And in the end, what endangers both culture and faith can only serve to bleach the tapestry, leaving it but a pale souvenir of what the Holy Spirit ignited at Pentecost.