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Opinion: Let a thousand rites bloom and flourish!

The diversity with the Eastern Catholic churches is not a weakness or point of division, but one of strength. It illustrates catholicity in a far richer way than the mania for uniformity one finds in the West.

The Chapel of the Holy Trinity in Lublin, Poland, showcases a unique mix of Eastern and Western architecture and art. The chapel was built in under King Casimir the Great in the 14th century and decorated with Byzantine-Ruthenian frescos. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

This month marks the eleventh anniversary of the death of my beloved spiritual father, Archpriest Robert Anderson of blessed memory. I first met him in the summer of 2001 in Ukraine where we had both gone to teach in the English-language summer school of what was then called the Lviv Theological Academy and is today the Ukrainian Catholic University. Though we lived down the road from each other in Ontario, we had to go around the world to meet.

Having met overseas, our lives became intertwined in all sorts of ways once we were both back in Ottawa. He lived in a charming little house in Quebec’s Gatineau Hills, atop Chemin de la Montagne, allowing some plausibility in claiming to be a Greek monk living on a mountain! There he, a polyglot, read voraciously. He had thousands of books in English, French, Greek, Ukrainian, Syriac, Armenian, and some of the more obscure languages of the Christian East.

Fr Bob, notwithstanding his very WASPy name, was descended from Turkish and Greek grandparents and grew up on Staten Island, making him an unrivaled font of what he called “useless trivia” about all five boroughs of NYC. After high-school in Brooklyn, he studied in Paris, traveled all across Europe and the Middle East, and was ordained in Nazareth (yes, that one) by the Melkites. Not long after, he found himself pastoring a small Ukrainian Greco-Catholic (UGCC) parish in North Dakota. Later, he spent decades teaching French and theology in Catholic high-schools and pastoring parishes in southwestern Ontario.

But his international experience, and his unrivaled ecumenical eye, surveyed and understood the wild and stubborn diversity in the Christian East on a scale that most Catholics in the West-Roman Church (as he always insisted on calling it since those of us who follow the Byzantine tradition are East-Romans) can scarcely imagine. At the same time, he did not have a romantic bone in his body, and thus could see more clearly than anybody the flaws in Eastern Christian thought and practice.

Fr. Bob was an adept at aphorisms. This is perhaps clearest in a hilarious list of heresies he once drew up. This would vary slightly with each telling so I will reproduce only a few of them:

  • Greeks believe that salvation comes from Hellenism.
  • East-Slavs believe that salvation comes from language and ethnicity.
  • Americans believe salvation comes from money and guns.
  • Calvinists believe salvation comes from hard work.
  • Lebanese believe salvation comes from the French.
  • And Roman Catholics believe salvation comes from the pope!

Whatever the merits of the first five, the last one has copious evidence to hand (some of it amassed in my 2019 book on the abuse crisis). The modern fixation on the papacy used to drive him to apoplexy. He found it unfathomable that the pope should be attempting to micromanage so much, including the liturgy.

It is on this vexed question of the worship of the Latin Church that he may have something to offer Roman Catholics today in the ongoing aftermath of Traditionis Custodes. Let me illustrate this by means of his aphorism, “In the East, everything is local custom.”

I find the phrases “the Eastern rite” or “Eastern rite Catholic” bothersome and even misleading, as though there is only one rite and that one phrase can simply sum it all up. But even those relatively few Latins who know more than this—who can tell you that within the East there are the Byzantine, Armenian, Alexandrian, Syriac, Maronite, and Chaldean rites—usually cannot fully appreciate that within each of those liturgical traditions there is an almost riotous diversity. The Alexandrian is sub-divided into the Coptic and Ethiopian (and the Eritrean more recently). The Syriac and Chaldean admit of significant geographic differences. The Maronite, of Syriac provenance, is in some ways a peculiar hybrid of ancient practices and modern Latinizations. And the Byzantine tradition contains more than any other: millions of Greeks, Romanians, Ukrainians, Russians, Melkites, Bulgarians, and still others.

Within the same ritual tradition one finds different liturgical languages and numerous highly developed chant systems as well. But it does not end there. Even within one family in one region—indeed, one eparchy—there can sometimes be such diversity that Fr Bob used to say that, de facto, we had to admit of multiple rites within the same church. One does not even find the same calendar in use from parish to parish, nor, sometimes within the same parish!

Fr Bob argued that among Ukrainian Greco-Catholic churches in Canada (who ostensibly all use the Byzantine rite) there was a Western-Canadian Byzantine rite found west of the Ontario-Manitoba border. In the western provinces you rarely found an iconostasis but did often find such peculiarities as recited liturgies (entirely in English) in churches bedecked with stations of the cross and having recitation of the rosary before liturgy. In Ontario and environs eastward, you frequently heard Ukrainian or, for a time, Slavonic, and sometimes a smattering of French; liturgies were almost always sung in churches with icon-screens. Similar diversity is historically to be found in different eparchies in Ukraine itself for over a century.

And then there were the Basilians, whom he regarded as constituting a rite of their own within the UGCC. The Ukrainian Basilians (OSBM), for those not up on hybrid religious orders, were a significant force in the UGCC in Ukraine and elsewhere. They were at one point ‘reformed’ along the lines (and with the assistance) of the Jesuits, which meant, notoriously, that their understanding and practice of the ars celebrandi was poor and perfunctory, marked by abbreviations and Latinizations some purists find distasteful.

Such an awareness of enormous liturgical diversity even in the same church in the same territory, along with Fr. Bob’s experiences among the Greeks (he had Orthodox cousins in Greece he would visit each summer), the East-Slavs, and the Melkites confirmed for him again and again that only a fool hazards sweeping generalizations about the Christian East, especially her maddeningly unsystematic liturgical practices. The safest generalization he would hazard is, again, In the East everything is local custom.

And yet it all works and holds together. That diversity is not a weakness or point of division, but one of strength. It illustrates catholicity in a far richer way than the mania for uniformity one finds in the West.

Most Latins who look East find this diversity and liturgical complexity bewildering at best, nightmarish at worst. As an anthropologist manqué, I find it thrilling and liberating. Why can’t Latin Christians celebrate several rites and recensions, in Latin or a thousand other languages? Whom does that harm?

In search of arguments to justify Traditionis Custodes its apologists have trotted out the fatuous claim that the real issue is a difference in ecclesiology. On this they are right—but in completely the wrong way.

The ecclesiology of liturgical reform emanating (ostensibly) from Vatican II is the same as in Traditionis Custodes: a maximalist papal centralization that has often harmed the Church from 1870 onward. But few will say this out loud; fewer still know the history to realize what a modernist invention such papal overreach is.

Plainly stated: the bishop of Rome has liturgical jurisdiction over his diocese and, as metropolitan, his province. That’s it. He exceeds his brief by trying to tell bishops of all the other dioceses—even in Italy—what to do in each of their parishes. A fortiori he exceeds his authority if he dares to tell any of the dioceses outside Italy or, worst still, the Eastern Churches how to celebrate their manifold liturgies.

The ecclesiological vision behind Summorum Pontificum (as I suggested here on CWR just over two years ago) is the far better of the two on offer since Vatican II. The vision behind the emeritus bishop of Rome’s motu proprio was rightly concerned with getting his office out of parish and diocesan decisions, and thereby striking a blow for local freedom. The rightful anxieties of the previous pope about the centralizing tendencies of Rome are documented in his book-interviews published over the years, and in his lovely (if frustratingly incomplete) memoirs published as Milestones.

Benedict XVI, being cautious, was not prepared to make huge changes to the liturgical culture of the Latin Church, but seems to have thought that he could at least get the ball rolling. Unfortunately, that ball seems to have been seized upon by his successor who, in that amusingly ironic way he has, has changed the rules on how it may be kept in play. He has made the game much more needlessly restrictive and is causing grief to a such a tiny handful of Latins that even we few Eastern Catholics outnumber them by several millions. Whatever else one may say of Traditionis Custodes, it does not show up in the dictionary as an example illustrating such entries as Synodality, Generous Pastoral Accompaniment, Dialogue, etc.

That is not to say that I regard all of the recent papal talk about synodality as disingenuous or hypocritical. I think Pope Francis is, rightly, moving the Church in this direction and we must wish such efforts every success for they are overdue. It is doubtful that the efforts will run so far that future liturgists and anthropologists, gazing upon Latin liturgical culture a century or two hence, will be able to say, “in the West everything is local custom”. But we should hope that the vision granted unto them will be more along those lines than that of another motu proprio like Traditionis Custodes or a rogue conciliar commission covertly arrogating unto itself the supposed authority of an ecumenical council.

Either way, most of us will be cheerfully dead before serious synodal or liturgical reform is set into place. On the topic of death, I want to leave the reader with one final aphorism, the most profound one Fr. Bob coined. I have used it with my students over the years, as Fr Bob did with his: Christianity is a way to survive death. If, after your labors in the pulpit or classroom are ended, this is all people will remember, it will still allow your name to be placed in the pantheon of apostles and evangelists for that is the most cogent summary of the gospel I know.


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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 107 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).

16 Comments

  1. Pope Paul V believed it should only be in Latin, the language of the empire in which the early Church mostly existed. In a Bull, he declared: “It shall be unlawful henceforth and forever throughout the Christian world to sing or to read Masses according to any formula other than that of this Missal published by Us.”

      • Yes, thanks Margaret. At the time of writing that post, I was also thinking about adding a statement from St Pope Paul VI, who revised the Missal published by Pope Pius V. Pius V did an excellent job and his work was relevant for his time and the composition of the Church as it existed then. Following Vatican 2, Pope Paul VI said: “Since then, however, more ancient liturgical sources have been discovered and published and at the same time liturgical formulas of the Oriental Church have become better known. Many wish that the riches, both doctrinal and spiritual, might not be hidden in the darkness of the libraries, but on the contrary might be brought into the light to illumine and nourish the spirits and souls of Christians.”
        And so it was believed that “”the rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, can be more clearly manifested, and that devout and active participation by the faithful can be more easily accomplished.” https://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_p-vi_apc_19690403_missale-romanum.html

    • Since Pius V’s Bull was ignored during Vatican II, a future pope can ignore Francis’ Traditionis Custodes, just as Francis ignored Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum.

      It is obvious that since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church has been in steep decline. That is not just Francis’ fault. It is the fault of every pope and bishop since Pius XII. The pedophile scandal and its cover-up; the lack of vocations; the closing of parochial schools, hospitals, and parishes; and the very low attendance rate at Mass – in some places less than 10% of Catholics attend Sunday Mass – all prove this fact. The Catholic hierarchy – popes and bishops – created this mess and the laity were the ones who paid the price. Sad.

  2. There is no uniformity even in the West. One can find liturgy hardly different from ancient tradition in one church, and liturgy revolving around iconoclasm, deconstructionism and newspeak embracing anti-trinitarianism in another church, both accessible during single afternoon trip.

    What we are witnessing these days is something different. It is just plain nasty bullying of people by mediocre prominences. There are root causes, no doubt – dissenting religious orders, caste of smart, conceit theologians, and so on. But it is impossible to speak about some general West tendency of uniformity, since there is no link among Francis hate and – say – German ecclesiastics opposing saints Cyril and Methodius (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methodius_of_Thessaloniki#Great_Moravia).

  3. Dr. DeVille,
    Thank you so much for this very large pre-Christmas gift, brimful of numerous delights. First, my condolences on the loss (11 years in depth) of Archpriest Anderson. His list of five heresies is a hoot because of its depths of wonderful truth. I hope to meet the man in the afterlife. Thank God for your writing about him.

    “The modern fixation on the papacy used to drive him to apoplexy.” Totally understandable and applicable to this Latin Catholic TLM-preferent. To help lessen my fixation and put the stumbling block behind me, God seems almost to have answered prayer: A beautiful Greek Catholic Church is here in my vicinity, beckoning as a viable option. My Godmother was Greek Catholic, I carry her first name as my second, and that is the same given to the Theotokos. My sense of welcome-belonging seems somewhat justifiable.

    Perhaps the Eastern rite churches (who understand and find diversity worthy of logical humor) would welcome an onslaught of priests- and laity-preferring-TLM within its doors. Would we be welcome? Could we be at home? The ONE Church could certainly accommodate all her beautifully diverse children, could it not? Or are we to be rejected everywhere?

    • It depends on what you’re looking for. Think of it this way: If you’re visiting your sister’s house for a week that’s fine. If you’re going to your sister’s house to live permanently without a really serious reason (e.g. your house burned down and have no money to rebuild it), your sister won’t be very happy, especially if you start rearranging things around the house.

      The same principle applies to the Eastern Catholic Churches. We welcome visitors who want to learn more about “the other lung” (PJPII) of the Church. However, to make a permanent change (i.e. make a canonical change from the Roman to the Byzantine Catholic Church) is waaayy different. It means giving up one’s liturgical patrimony and adopting a whole new one. We have different practices (DL vs. Mass, Rosary vs. Akathist), different days of fast & abstinence, different Holy Days etc.

      I’m Ukrainian Greek Catholic yet ~ 20 years ago I’d occasionally attend the TLM. It was different (I still can’t understand why one has to kneel during the Gradual/Alleluia!) but it helped me appreciate my own Byzantine Tradition.

      Does that help?

      • We are open to everyone, but on the basis that the TLMer accepts that we have our own fair share of problems, that we are not anti-Vatican II, and that we don’t exist solely as a refuge. If people feel called to our mission and wish to fully embrace the East, then yes, welcome!

  4. A good general if he has a battle plan will ensure troops are well trained to march and maneuver in unison and under competent command. That is why Julius Caesar trained his Corps relentlessly prior to combat with the Gauls for the decisive battle of Alesia [Alise-Sainte-Reine] that Napoleon established Saint-Cyr Military Academy, and Stalin recalled the Siberian Army progeny of the Tsar’s 1st Siberian Corps to defeat the Germans at Moscow.
    +Catholics belong to an army of sorts, of sorts in that its hierarchical structure is based on the Roman military design. But we’re in comparison rather a motley army from different quarters of the world, diverse ethnicities and culture. All for good reason. We’re not at all efficient Nazi assault troops trained Prussian style at the Bundeswehr who swept across Europe with relative ease. We’re supposed to be like Christ, a motley caravan of Apostles, friends, women who financially cared for their needs prepared meals travelling here and there at Christ’s ad hoc decision. It worked quite well. Even the old Jesuits were missionaries to the ends of the world, professors, professional students [much maligned by Francis Xavier].
    +Now it seems His Holiness desires such a Prussian military, everyone crewcut, marching in precise order obedient to Vatican orders. Following Kantian moral imperative ethics rather than conscience. And to conquer what? George Soros, Bill Gates, Joe Biden, the UN, already have us as allies to promote Zeitgeist globalism. Liturgy [uniformity well under way], Religious life [contemplation oppressed] parish life [bland Zeitgeist sermons well established universally] all increasingly conformed and uniform. Must it be to conquer the ghost of Christmas past?

    • Actually father, we have always been in battle. Our enemy is the evil one – and his supporters – who revolted against God. He is doing all he can to hurt Man who has the privilege of being created in the likeness of God. Paul warned us: “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
      God gave us Abraham, Moses and the prophets to guide us, but we, believing ourselves to be wise, ignored the guidance, warnings and commandments. Then Jesus came. He spoke with authority. He gave commandments and warnings, and also a “Rock” on which he established His Church. But we still want to do things our way. This is why we are slowly losing the battle.
      But here’s the thing, father. You and I know that Jesus confronted our enemy, fought the battle and emerged victorious. It is only in, with and through our Lord and His Church will we too be victorious. On our own, we will definitely fail.

    • I fully expect that the Society of St. Pius X will be initiating a campaign to build many more and larger churches to house the influx of Catholics fleeing from what I now refer to as “The Great Bergolian Jihad.”

  5. I find that my religion as defined by what I get out of it (eternal life) to be as facetious as the concept of loving parents only for what I can get out of them, which is anything but love, and quite the opposite.

  6. The essay is quite good, but with all due respect to the much-esteemed Dr DeVille, now that this newest abomination has been published, it seems pretty clear that “all of the recent papal talk about synodality” is, in point of fact, completely disingenuous or hypocritical. A synodal, listening, decentralized Church does not issue a fatwa pretending to micromanage even the contents of parish bulletins.

    • I think the problem with the recent papal talk of synodality is that it is involving the wrong category of people in the Church. However, top marks for your last sentence!

  7. i’ve seen UGCC liturgies said with guitar accompaniment, I’ve seem them chanted with choir and iconostas. There is still more variety among West Roman liturgies. most of it is to be regretted. It’s not the sort of diversity found in the East.

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