Monday, April 23, 2018

The Roman Apologist and the Uniate

The Catholic Church of our day is being dominated by the culture of “Roman” apologetics. I say “Roman” because the ethos of the modern Catholic apologist is built around the Pope and the superiority of Rome’s theological tradition. I’m sure this type of apologetics is helpful when someone like Jack Chick knocks on your door. However, it is totally unhelpful when it comes to the relationship between Rome and the Eastern churches. Rome’s theological and ecclesiological traditions are not the superior models for the rest of the Church. When they are presented in this fashion they are actually contradicting the official relationship that Rome has established with the Eastern churches.
Back in 2016 Pope Francis said that Catholics should not convert Eastern Orthodox Christians. He basically said it would be a grave sin against the ecumenical relationship we have with the Eastern churches. By saying what he did, he sent a shockwave through the culture of Roman apologetics. I recall reading all kinds of wild explanations of what the pope really meant or just how wrong he is, with of course the explanation of papal infallibility to reassure the apologetics community that the pope can be wrong. Unfortunately, the people writing these things failed to see that their version of Catholicism does not represent the Roman church on the official level.
This wasn’t the first time the pope upset the culture of Roman apologetics. In 2014 he said to an Orthodox church, “to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith”. Like in the other instance, what he said here was immediately opposed. However, what some in this culture got right was that this was not always the case. There was a time when Rome called for conversion to reach unity. The historical sins that led to the schism between the East and West brought about a pseudo-tradition, which was Rome believing it was the only Church. Consequently, the idea of the “uniate” church came out of this pseudo-tradition. To this very day, the “uniate” churches have been the bane of many Ecumenical talks between Rome and the Orthodox churches. On the other hand, unbeknown to many the so called “uniates” have been the greatest blessing to these churches.
There will be no more uniate churches. This is the official position of the Roman church, as witnessed in the comments of the pope and also in what is known as the Balamand Document. As a so called “uniate” I believe that my church has a special place in the history of the Church. As Fr. David Bird once expressed, “the "uniate" churches, under the Providence of God, are not so much a means of outreach by the Catholic Church to the Orthodox to convert them, but they are really a means by which the eastern interpretation of our Faith can reach the understanding of the predominantly western mind of the Catholic Church.  They are being used by the Spirit as a means of bending the western understanding of the Catholic Faith to understand the Eastern expression of the same faith”.  As he says, I believe Eastern Catholics have a special role in helping others to discover a theological diversity that can once again be realized in the Church.
Like what Fr. David expressed, the retired Patriarch Gregory III, of the Melkite Catholic church once said that the Eastern Catholics need to help “the Western mentality to mature”.  Its no secret that there is still the mentality to convert us and to convert the Orthodox. To tolerate us as Eastern as long as it conforms to what is being expressed in the culture of “Roman” apologetics. I believe apologetics can be beneficial but not when it’s based on the pseud-tradition of Rome being superior. When speaking about the Eastern Catholic churches Pope Benedict XVI once said, “the union they have already achieved with the Church of Rome must not cause the Eastern Catholic Churches to lose an awareness of their own authenticity and originality”. What he is saying here is something we need to strive for. I believe the future of the Church depends on that.

Friday, April 20, 2018

When Christianity Died

When I was younger I was introduced to the philosophy that all religions are basically the same. Having met Christ in a personal way as a young adult, I refused to accept this. However, this philosophy seemed to be the prevailing thought everywhere. For instance, I was at a local Catholic retreat and one of the speakers was a life insurance salesman. He explained that at his work he sells the same thing others do but in a different package. He then related his work to how religion is. In response to the philosophy, I discovered answers in the culture of Catholic Apologetics. I found a community that helped me to argue against this. On the other hand, even though I had the right answers, I discovered I was living no different than what the other religions offered. Consequently, the philosophy that I rejected was the same one that I was personally living, I just wasn’t aware of it.

All major religions of the world offer in some way how to live right, a moralism. In the moralism that I experienced I learned how to be a good Catholic, a conservative Catholic. A conservative Catholic is one that is in all the right groups and accepts all the right teachings.  Some, like I was, can be really good at conservatism. I did my best to excel in what conservativism offered. I became an apologist and even went on to finish my graduate studies at one of the most conservative Catholic colleges in the US. The problem with all these positive things is that my faith was on the verge of death. I was very good at my religion but in the end, I had nothing different to offer in terms of what other religions were offering.

At some point, I began to recall an experience that I had of Jesus Christ. This happened at a shrine to St. Photios. I walked into this shrine and it was like walking into another world. Christ was there and He showed me that there was so much more to experience of Him in this life. He showed me that my faith in him was reduced to basically trying to be a good person, a good Catholic. He showed me where my Christianity died. I had been deceived. I had all the right answers, the right teachings, the right groups and ideas, but I did not have Him. Thankfully, in discovering Byzantine spirituality I had found where I went wrong, specifically in the tradition of Hesychasm. The fathers of my tradition showed me that right belief is not a bunch of ideas that provide a right way of living, which is pretty much what all religions offer. Instead, right belief is an experience. It is an encounter with Christ and right living is growing in that experience. The fathers showed me that Christianity is not moralism, it’s an encounter.  It’s an encounter that we are called to share with others.

According to fathers ,we are not a religion of moral ideas that shares these ideas with the world. We are a religion of encounter that shares the encounter with the world. As I said to someone once, right belief is not some kind of dead principles or guidelines set up so we can do the right thing. Real Christian belief is an experience of God and right living is growing and sharing that experience. In my case, it was an act of grace that rescued me from moralism. As someone who has been rescued I see it everywhere. It dominates the churches of today and is killing what can be known of real Christianity.  It is my hope in sharing this that others will ask: is my Christianity dead? Am I just living a moralism that helps me to get by, one that is the basic fruit of all religions? Or am I living in such a way so that I can experience more of Christ? Jesus Christ did not die on the cross so that we can be just like all the other religions. He died so that we could become partakers of the divine nature. He died so that we can experience God and so that we can continue to grow in that experience. If we are not living in a way as to experience more of Him we have missed the very essence of what it means to be a Christian.

God is not interested in what moralism offers. Moralism produces good people, it does not produce saints. He is interested in people who want to know and experience Him, who want to become saints. Moralism says you have to be a good person to be a saint. As the moralistic saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves”. This is the lie that creates the framework for how people understand the Church today. In contrast, God says while we were still sinners Christ died for us. No matter what we have done or where we come from God has invited us through Christ to be reconciled. He knows we might not have what it takes to be that “good person” but instead he wants to give us the power for "being good" at loving Him.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Being Orthodox in Communion with Rome

My common response to those that ask me where I go to church is that I belong to an Eastern Orthodox church that’s part of the Catholic Church. Its just a quick response to what sometimes would be a long conversation. I understand that this might not be acceptable to some but its an easy way to describe my tradition. On the other hand, is it far from the truth?

My church came into communion with the Roman church as an Orthodox church. For those that oppose this description I would like to know what does it mean to be an Eastern Orthodox Christian? Is it the prayers? The fasts? The theology? Is it a staunch ecclesiological philosophy  that opposes Rome? The reason why I ask is because the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence.

I have seen people convert out of my church to the Orthodox church and I have been personally told that I need to convert. I want to know what is needed to convert to? I don’t understand? I don’t live any differently than what’s traditionally practiced at other Orthodox churches. In addition, my church (Ruthenian) was started by the Apostles to the Slavs, Sts. Cyril and Methodius. My church never broke off from another church when it entered into communion with Rome and I don’t think there was ever any intention to sever ties with Constantinople.

My church’s union was a product of the times, a political move, but one that ensured that our spiritual traditions stayed intact. Just as we did 500yrs ago we recite the same creed and celebrate the same liturgy that was given to us from Constantinople. So, what is it that I should leave behind? How will converting change me. Sure, I won’t have to put up with Latinizing Catholics that portray the pope as our roman task master. The truth be told these people rarely  exist at the parish level. Even historically, when latinizers tried to have their way in our churches there was always a resistance.  

Most people in our parishes are just concerned with how they can follow the teaching of Jesus Christ, as I am. Is there something better to gain in that regard? If there is, I would gladly convert. On the other hand, as I see it I am an Orthodox Christian that’s in communion with Rome. I am living faithfully the Constantinopolitan tradition. No one can take that from me. As the Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III once proclaimed, “We are an Orthodox church with the little or big plus of communion with Rome”. I believe the same thing about my church.

I don’t believe the grass is greener on the other side. This kind of thinking in my opinion is diabolical and needs to end. It gives you the sense you will get something, but in reality you get nothing. Its a false hope that replaces what’s really needed, which is surrendering ones whole life to Christ. So, don’t expect me to convert anytime soon. I have found Jesus Christ in my church, in the people, and in our traditions. There is no other place Id rather be.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Church with the Funny Mass

      The Eastern churches in communion with Rome are the hidden treasure of the Catholic Church. I say they are hidden because many Catholics, as well as protestants, have never heard of them. In terms of being hidden, there are people that would prefer that we would stay hidden. For those that know our history, it is no secret that the Eastern Catholic churches have faced hostility from other Catholics.  Consequently, in trying to avoid this hostility some of our churches gave up their identity and tried to become more like the Roman churches.

      In some cases, the Eastern churches became so Roman that they were stereotyped as the Catholic church with the funny Mass. However, thanks to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council you won’t see much of this anymore. The Council called Eastern Catholics to return to their ancestral traditions and to preserve their rites. Unfortunately, even with all the changes since the Council the  hostility from other Catholics remained. Before I go on, I want to state that not all Catholics are this way. The hostility we face is more like a historical movement in the Church that never seems to be devoid of followers. Among these followers, some come under the guise of the Eastern Churches greatest supporters. What they will do is support us to the extent that we look like them.

      These “so called” supporters will tolerate our different liturgies. On the other hand, express any other deviation and you will see their hostility manifest. For example, just recently on an Eastern Catholic Churches social media page a Byzantine Catholic priest I know was publicly insulted. The priest was trying to educate the administrator of the page about the Byzantine theological traditions concerning the Theotokos. He told the administrator that we do not have a Dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the Byzantine tradition. 

     The priest explained that in our Byzantine tradition its theologically unnecessary to define Mary in this way. As he stated, Byzantines believe her to be the Panagia, the All-Holy. We did not have the struggles like the Roman church did with the Augustinian theology and inherited guilt. This is sometimes difficult for people to grasp, as it was for the administrator. In response to the administrator’s frustration the priest tried to tell him that were not the Catholic church with the funny mass. He wanted to emphasize to the administrator what the Second Vatican Council called us to be. At that point the administrator called him a “disgrace” and told him that he needed to convert and become a real Catholic.  

      The irony of these actions is that the social media page I mentioned boasts about unity and churches in communion. However, the unity as it is witnessed is more like a uniformity. Uniformity has always been the driving force of the hostility that the Eastern churches have experienced. It makes a great decoy for true unity, but its fruit is always violence. As you heard, the priest was called a “disgrace”. In the name of uniformity all basics of Christian charity are cast aside.
     Now, I don’t know what’s in the heart of that administrator. Sometimes we go astray and fall into temptation. However, when it comes to the differences that we have, Eastern Catholics bear the greater obligation. As, His Beatitude Patriarch Gregory III of the Melkite Catholic church once said we, have to speak up, to discover the real Eastern ecclesiology and to develop it, and help the Western mentality to mature in that regard”. Its important that we stay true to what we are and to help others understand the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given us through our traditions.

      As the Second Vatican Council instructed us, “All members of the Eastern Rite should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life, and that these may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement. All these, then, must be observed by the members of the Eastern rites themselves. Besides, they should attain to an ever greater knowledge and a more exact use of them, and, if in their regard they have fallen short owing to contingencies of times and persons, they should take steps to return to their ancestral traditions”.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Killing Death

There is an interesting story in the Old Testament about a bronze serpent. Moses was commanded to make a serpent and put it on a pole. It was used to heal those who were being killed by the venom of snake bites (Numbers 21:4-9).  St. Gregory the Theologian taught that this bronze serpent did not heal just because the people believed in it. If that were the case, Moses could have just raised his staff up and told people to believe for their healing. Rather, the bronze serpent healed because it was dead on the pole and because it was dead its power to kill was also dead.

Imagine if you could take the source of what causes death and kill it. The problem for us is that the source of death is in us. We die because we sin and sin because we die. We are all born with a condition that kills(James 1:15). Even God, as St. Maximos the Confessor teaches, in the mystery of becoming a man, submitted to this condition that we are in. He took upon himself the same flesh that we have. In doing so, he assumed all our imperfections and limitations, the greatest being death. All though he never sinned, he did not hide from the damage done to our humanity from sin. As we all know, he died on the cross.

Death is our greatest enemy. It is the power the devil wields over us. As I said, we die because we sin and we sin because we die. No human being has ever been able to kill this cycle of death. However, God did kill death by sending his own Son who became like us in everything but sin. When death came to consume the body of Christ it encountered God. Death had no power over Christ. He rose from the dead. As St. Gregory of Nyssa describes it, the humanity of the Lord was like the bait on a fishing hook. When death came like a fish to swallow the bait it encountered the hook, which was the Lord’s Divine Nature.

The bronze serpent was nailed to a pole to kill the power of the venom. Christ was nailed to the cross to kill the power of death. The serpent had no power to kill because that which gave it power was destroyed by its death. Our fallen nature no longer has the power to kill us because what gave it power has been destroyed by death. For this reason, St. Gregory the Theologian exclaims, “what is the fitting epitaph for it from us?“O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” You are overthrown by the Cross; you are slain by Him who is the Giver of life; you are without breath, dead, without motion, even though you keep the form of a serpent lifted up on high on a pole”.

The Author of Hebrews once said, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil”. We were all once under the power of death and in slavery to the devil. Christ has freed us from this power by his death. As we soon will  proclaim in the Byzantine tradition, “Christ is risen from the dead, By death He trampled death, And to those in the tombs He granted life”. We were all headed for the tomb, hopeless, in bondage to the evil one, but Jesus Christ has set us free. Christ has killed death by his death. It no longer has any power over us. We will all face it! However, when it comes for us it will be killed once more by Christ who is in us, the hope of Glory(Colossians 1:27).

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Parishioner Satan

He just might be the most faithful member of your church. He never misses the holy day of obligation. In addition, he believes in God and probably more than the average person since he has seen him. Yes, I am talking about Satan. His commitment to the Church will put many of us to shame.

He knows all the prayers, theology, and is a master of apologetics. In fact, he might even be that silent partner in your church’s evangelization committee, you know the one that talks about evangelization and never does it. In addition, no one can come close to how well he puts on that religious face. I mean he literally lives a contradictory life to the gospel, but when we live like that it can be a challenge sometimes to look religious.

Maybe we have things in common with him or maybe we don’t. The fact is, if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9). Believing in God does not make you a Christian. The devil also believes ( James 2:19). Going to church, even faithfully does not make you a Christian.  The devil also goes to church, in fact the scripture teaches that some of his best followers are there (John 8:44). Being good at religion does not make you a Christian. Like the devil, you can master looking the part, but in the end,  you won’t fool God (Matthew 7:21-23).

Don’t be deceived! If you have no desire in you for Christ, you don’t belong to him. Desire is the fruit of the Spirit of Christ working in your life. As the Apostle Paul taught, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you--unless, of course, you fail the test(2 Corinthians 13:5)”? Did you pass this examination of the apostle Paul? If you did Jesus Christ should be someone whom you desire to please every day. Belief, church attendance, and our religious practices only becoming meaningful when our everyday desires are centered on Christ.

As St. Symeon the New Theologian would say, “The aim of all those who live in God is to please our Lord Jesus Christ…... If this aim and this activity is lacking, all other labour is useless and all other striving is in vain. Every path of life which does not lead to this is without profit.” According to him, Jesus Christ should be the center of your life. Our Lord's teachings should be on forefront of every action and activity that you are involved in. This is the only thing that gives belief, church attendance, and our religious practices meaning. Jesus Christ needs to be the center of our life. If he's not, its possible to end up looking no different than parishioner Satan.

If Jesus Christ is not the center of your life its not too late to change things. You just need to be honest with yourself and repent. The Lord said once, “I stand at the door and knock”(Rev.3:20). He was saying this to people who were in a church. He wanted them to let him in. He was just waiting for them to repent. He might be standing now at our door knocking. We just need to let Him in. I guarantee that if you do your life will never be the same.