Lessons From the Christian East

The twentieth anniversary of St. Pope John Paul II apostolic letter "Orientale Lumen" is an occasion to reflect on what can be learned from Eastern Catholics

Twenty years ago, in his apostolic letter Orientale Lumen (May 2, 1995), the late St. Pope John Paul II called on Roman Catholics to deepen their knowledge of and love for the Christian East. I was thinking of his exhortation as I recently returned from a colloquium in Canada on the future of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC) in North America. Many, perhaps most, Catholics in North America are unaware of the UGCC and the other nearly two-dozen Eastern Churches in communion with the bishop of Rome and therefore with the much larger Latin or Roman Catholic Church. 

Though collectively Eastern Catholics are tiny—perhaps 20 million around the world compared to well over a billion Latins—it occurs to me that we may have learned some over-sized lessons of immediate relevance to Roman Catholics today. Here are three of those lessons.

I. Persecution

Some people, including the recently deceased cardinal-archbishop of Chicago, Francis George of blessed memory, have begun to think seriously about the increasing pressure on and outright persecution of Catholics in North America, not least at the hands of the LGBT crowd and their friends in media, academia, and government. Whether their machinations portend a sustained and systematic campaign of increasing persecution of the entire Church cannot be said just now, although plenty of learned commentators fear the worst. But if it comes to it, Eastern Catholics, especially those in the UGCC, have long and painful experience here of refusing to buckle to ideological enemies.

Until 1990, the UGCC was the largest banned religious body in the world. Existing in the underground in Ukraine after having been officially eliminated by Stalin in 1946, this church saw most of her bishops sent to the Gulag or shot outright, along with many of her clergy and religious. (Dozens of these were beatified as martyrs by Pope John Paul II in Ukraine in 2001.) Those who remained had to meet secretly in apartments and houses for liturgy, baptize at night in ponds in remote forests, hear confessions while hewing rocks in a labor camp, and catechize children and train priests in covert ways.

Every such act—liturgical, sacramental, catechetical, prayerful—was enormously risky and could result in the infamous 3:00 a.m. knock on the door as people were arrested and never seen again. It was a brutal, bloody time, with millions killed, but Ukrainian Catholics persevered. Why? Because of their loyalty to the Gospel and to the bishop of Rome as an embodiment of the Church’s refusal to be compliant to any worldly tyrant.

Other Eastern Christians—especially today in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq—have more recent experience of persecution and execution, as many of us are aware from ISIS-inspired headlines of the past year. Collectively these churches have learned costly lessons after surviving for decades (in the case of Ukraine under communism) and centuries (in the Middle East under Islam) as persecuted minorities. Christians in North America, please God, will face nothing nearly as serious and lethal as communism or Islam, but today’s increasing pressure and persecution, even in more attenuated forms, is an unfamiliar experience for many of us on this continent. Eastern Catholics, however, have learned important and costly lessons about how to survive persecution in many forms. What are those lessons?


Nobody is willing to die—or be hounded out of a job by gangs on Twitter and Facebook—for a question mark. If Christians today are facing increasing pressure and persecution, they can only survive by knowing the faith deeply and living it daily. “Sunday Christians” are Monday’s apostates. Shoddy catechesis, in short, will be deadly: in difficult times, there is a great winnowing that happens as Christians who are lukewarm, ignorant, or otherwise non-committal fall away. It is much easier to deny Christ, whom one does not see, than to defy the bullies whom one does see and who threaten one’s job or family or life.

Those who are willing to remain and suffer do so because they have a deep understanding of the faith and a deep formation through frequent reception of the sacraments. For them, Jesus is not a sunbeam but the suffering servant and tortured Son of God who is with them intimately even as they are being starved or water-boarded. For them Jesus is the very model par excellence of someone falsely and unjustly arrested, tortured, and executed. God himself has experienced all these horrors before and in person, and thus he shows Christians not only how to persevere, but how the story ends: with the death of death itself.

Community and Communication

When the UGCC emerged twenty-five years ago it did so not with a few dozen or few hundred or even few thousand surviving members. When it began pouring out of the underground, nobody—not the KGB, CIA, or the Vatican even—could foresee the hundreds of thousands and eventually millions who would emerge. Today the UGCC has about 5 million members, mostly in Ukraine but also many in North and South America, Western Europe, and Australia.

How could so many survive in Ukraine under the many-eyed totalitarian monster of communism? They did so frequently in very small, tight-knit communities. With no visible hierarchy (though bishops in the underground took great pains always to ensure at least one man with apostolic succession in Ukraine survived), and no way to receive direction from a pope of Rome (in an era before cell phones, Twitter, e-mail, and Facebook), they had only themselves for direction. Having been deeply grounded in the faith, and availing themselves of the sacraments—especially Confession and the Eucharist—whenever and wherever they could find them, they were given the strength to persevere.

Today we have advantages those in the Soviet Union did not, especially in the realm of communication: it is easier to stay in touch with people whose help and support we need. But we must not make the mistake of relying only on technology. As embodied worshippers of an incarnate God, we cannot baptize, ordain, or commune by texts or tweets. We need to gather in person for support and sacramental grace.

I have often thought that Catholics have much to learn from the Amish in living a life of deep faith and personal accountability in a local, tight-knit community that is largely self-sustaining economically. The Amish deliberately keep their communities both small in size and close to the earth through farming. That is no small advantage: as the UGCC priest-theologian Andriy Chirovsky likes to point out, when you are very small and humble (a word whose root means “on the ground” or “close to the earth”), not only do you please God, but you make yourself a much harder target for the giants to hit!

Some Catholics already understand the need for such community. I think of organizations such as local associations of home-schooling Catholic families. Or more clearly organized groups like Opus Dei or “third-order” associations. Or even groups like the City of the Lord in Arizona and California: a group of “charismatic” Catholics who live in the same neighborhood and have a deep community life together. We need groups like this who will keep their structures very low and simple, their reach very local, but their roots very deep.

II. Liturgy and Beauty

Though I support many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, I share the critiques of many—e.g., Joseph Ratzinger, Jonathan Robinson, Aidan Nichols, Louis Bouyer, and Catherine Pickstock—that things were done that ought not to have been done in changing the Latin liturgy. Here I share Pickstock’s critique (see her brilliant 1997 book After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy) about the structural defects in the Novus Ordo. As she has put it, the Vatican II reforms, far from being “progressive” or “liberal” in fact “participated in an entirely more sinister conservatism. For they failed to challenge those structures of the modern secular world which are wholly inimical to liturgical purpose: those structures, indeed, which perpetuate a separation of everyday life from liturgical enactment.” The particular aspects of anti-ritual modernity that need challenging, according to Pickstock, include “such anachronistic structural concepts as ‘argument,’ ‘linear order,’ ‘segmentation,’ ‘discrete stages,’ and the notion of ‘new information’ outside ‘linguistic redundancy’ or repetition” (After Writing, 171-75).

Eastern liturgies of all traditions—the Byzantine, Armenian, Alexandrian, and Syrian traditions—have never undergone a massive revision at the hands of experts the way the Latin tradition did in the 1960s. Eastern liturgy today remains stable, traditional, and conservative, with inbuilt structural repetitions that are in fact welcome, healthy, and necessary for they correspond to how real people really pray—by stuttering, stumbling, and starting again and again and again. It was precisely these rich, elaborate, conservative, and repetitive liturgies that were so deeply sustaining to Christians in the catacombs of Ukraine, and elsewhere in the Middle East. As the Catholic anthropologist Mary Douglas has shown in her 1970 book Natural Symbols, “thin” rituals have no staying power and no power to transform peoples and cultures; only “thick” traditions can do that.

For Latin Catholics still struggling to re-pristinate their liturgical life, the East has gifts to offer. The very liturgical culture and ethos of the East offers much that the West has often lost but needs to find again: a culture of transcendence, awe, and staggering beauty such that, as with the embassy of Grand Prince Vladimir in Hagia Sophia, we may say of the liturgy in all our churches: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth; but we know that God dwells there among men. For we cannot forget that beauty!”

Calendar and Fasting

The East also has much to offer about related matters, including a liturgical calendar not pockmarked by such bizarre inventions as Ascension ThurSunday; and retention of a cycle of four major fasts each year. The loss of fasting in the West has, in itself, been a source of untold damage.

III. Married Clergy and Elected Bishops

Last October, many Catholics got an experience of the messiness of synodality—an experience that will be repeated this autumn in another session on marriage, re-marriage, divorce, and annulments. For those who prefer that all decisions in the church be made in a tidy, dry, quick fashion by a pope simply issuing a decree, this was a rude wake-up call. But, in fact, messy synods and chaotic councils are the norm, not the exception. Anyone who knows the slightest thing about the ecumenical councils of the first millennium—from Nicaea I in 325 through Nicaea II in 787—will know that they were not composed of clubby men sitting around in scarlet silk sipping sherry and tidily disposing of all disagreements with a quiet nod of the head and puff of the cigar. They were fractious, raucous affairs not excluding outbreaks of fisticuffs.


The Eastern Churches today continue to be governed by such synods (though fist-fights are, thankfully, rare). Such synods are a part of their churches’ more decentralized structure, a structure that, in part, allowed them to survive persecution, especially in case of the Armenians. Synodal structure allows for things like the local election of bishops without waiting around for a functionary in Rome to send the name of someone he’s never met to the pope for Francis to “promote” to a diocese he’s never heard of.

As I have been asking, in diverse places, for more than a decade: if election of bishops is good enough for Eastern Catholics, why is it not good enough for Roman Catholics? (For those who don’t know the history, the papal monopoly on episcopal appointments is a wholly modern invention, placed into the 1917 code of canon law and having no theological warrant whatsoever.)

Synods and elections do not, of course, in themselves guarantee any better quality of leader or process of governance. But they do give people a much greater sense of ownership over their own local ecclesial affairs. If the commission Pope Francis has appointed for reorganizing the Curia and restructuring the Church recommends, as seems likely, much greater decentralization and much more frequent synodality, Roman Catholics will not have to re-invent the wheel in either case, but have centuries of Eastern experience to draw on.

Married Clergy

Finally, if Pope Francis—who recently changed an obscure and unjust rule on this very point—decides that married men can be ordained priests more widely in the Latin Church than they already are, once again Roman Catholics need not panic and see this as some bizarre or extraneous tradition: it has been part of the East (as it was of the West until early in the second millennium) from the beginning. Where properly lived and supported it works very well, though it presents certain challenges at the same time. (I address these joys and challenges in a book coming out late next year on married Catholic priests, including Eastern Catholic priests and Latin priests in the Anglican ordinariates.)

Twenty years ago, when he Orientale Lumen first appeared, some commentators said that the late Pope John Paul II had written a “love letter to the Christian East.” In the intervening two decades, how many of us have fallen more deeply in love with—or at least knowledge of—the Christian East? Her liturgies, synods, married priests, and histories of persecution are just some of the treasures Western Christians will find. Eastern Catholics, to be sure, don’t have all the answers—far from it. But their lessons from the past may well offer much wisdom for our shared future today.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).