Breathing with Both Lungs

Tonita M. Helton

How can we be fully credible if we stand divided before the Eucharist, if we cannot live our sharing in the same Lord whom we are called to proclaim to the world?
Orientale Lumen, John Paul II

John Paul II stood on an elevated platform before the shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa and celebrated the Holy Mass before a crowd more than one million strong. The date was August 15, 1991—a day of triumph and joy. This was the first time ever that large numbers of young Eastern Europeans were able to participate in World Youth Day. In addressing the Eastern pilgrims, the Holy Father thanked them for the “precious treasure” of their Christian witness, a witness for which they often suffered persecution, death, and imprisonment behind a geopolitical wall that created “nearly impassable borders.” The collapse of communism in the East, however, had ushered in a new era and he rejoiced that “the Church in Europe [could] now breathe freely with both of her lungs.”

This now-famous metaphor was one that the late pontiff often applied to the question of the Church in her distinctive Eastern and Western traditions and his great longing for complete reunification of the two spheres. He viewed the social transitions in Eastern Europe as an important opportunity for the Christian communities to work together, not only to rebuild the faith in Eastern Europe after the catastrophe of atheistic communism, but also to begin building a bridge over an ancient and lasting divide. To be sure, the communist experiment in Europe set the East against the West politically and isolated and marginalized Christian communities that were left to face persecution behind the Iron Curtain. Even so, division and isolation among Christians has not always come through forces inspired by a foreign creed. Indeed, the oldest and deepest fissure that runs through the heart of Christ is organic and attributable solely to Christians themselves. The Great Schism, as it is often called, rent Eastern Christendom from Western via mutual excommunication and created an open, gaping wound in the Body of Christ that remains nearly a millennium later. The passage of so many centuries may encourage a numbing of our senses in contemplating the great depth of this tragedy and invite apathy toward a division that may seem irreparably torn. Yet if we honestly reflect on Christ’s vision of the Church as “one body,” the long march of time should increase, not lessen, our desire to mend the ancient rift. Viewed in this light, it is the division that is deeply aberrant, and reunification is necessary as simply a return to normalcy.

The result of the Schism, of course, was the rise of Orthodoxy—which means “true belief”—in the East, and Catholicism—which means “universal”—in the West. Orthodoxy developed into a loose federation of national churches, each headed by its own patriarch, while the Catholic Church developed into an international hierarchy, headed by the Bishop of Rome. Each had its own tradition and liturgical worship and each claimed unrivaled legitimacy as the one true Church. With some noteworthy exceptions, the division has not generally been marked by deep or insurmountable discord on theological matters. Besides social, cultural, and ethnic differences, the most significant contrasts are liturgical in nature, as Eucharistic worship takes notably different forms in the Eastern and Western traditions. Even so, over the centuries crucial parts of the Orthodox community courageously crossed the Tiber and returned to full communion with Rome.

As it now stands, there are twenty-two Eastern Catholic ritual churches that fall into five historical groups: Byzantine, Alexandrian, Armenian, Antiochene, and Chaldean. Of these, thirteen follow the Byzantine tradition, which is the largest and most widespread of the Eastern traditions. Latin Rite Catholics are by far in the majority, with Eastern Catholics numbering only twelve million of the estimated 1.1 billion members of the Catholic Church. For several reasons, Eastern Catholics often find themselves in difficult circumstances. Liturgically, they are much closer to the corresponding Orthodox churches than they are to their Latin brethren. Many of the Orthodox, however, view Eastern-rite Catholics more as traitors than kinsmen. On the other hand, Roman Catholics, if they even know of the existence of Eastern Catholics, often see them as strangers within the Church. Complicating this further is a tendency to “Latinize” the Eastern Churches and their worship, a trend that is properly resisted by Eastern Catholics in their desire to preserve their legitimate tradition and worship. Benedict XVI knows the importance of the liturgy to both the Eastern Churches and their Orthodox counterparts, and his promotion of the ancient form of the Roman Rite, with its greater similarities to Eastern practice, can be understood in this context as an ecumenical gesture.

Even with these difficulties, however, the presence of Eastern Christians within Catholicism is not only a testament to the universal desire for unity but points out the way that must be trod down the path toward reunion. John Paul II, in Orientale Lumen, explored the challenge of reunification with an ardent plea to Christians of both traditions to develop a spirit of mutual respect asserting that full “union must be preceded by an awareness of communion that permeates the whole Church and is not limited to an agreement among leaders.” He also predicted that, while “unity will be achieved how and when the Lord desires,” it “will require the contribution of love’s sensitivity and creativity, perhaps even going beyond the forms already tried in history.”

In downtown Denver, in the heart of the diocese, at least one Catholic community has taken this challenge and invitation seriously. With the blessing and support of Archbishop Charles Chaput, St. Elizabeth of Hungary Roman Catholic Church welcomed a small Byzantine Catholic community to share their holy space. The Eastern community continues to thrive beside the much larger Roman congregation. The community, in an intentional reference to the mission of promoting unity between East and West, chose the name of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Russian Byzantine Community, after the ninth century missionary brothers who John Paul II referred to as “apostles of unity.” Led by Fr. Chrysostom Frank, the two communities have taken the remarkable step of using the same physical space for their Eucharistic worship and now share a common altar. While this may seem a simple, or even obvious, innovation, it is nevertheless unique—perhaps singular—in the universal Church for the very simple reason that the physical, spatial requirements for the separate rites are quite different. Until recently, it was normative for clergy of both the Roman and Eastern Rites to face the altar during the Mass or the Divine Liturgy, “ad orientem,” meaning “to the east,” referring to the symbolic direction of Christ’s second coming. While most mainstream Roman parishes and a few Eastern-Rite ones have discarded this practice in favor of celebration facing the people across the altar, it remains commonplace in the Divine Liturgy, and a permitted option in the Novus Ordo Roman Mass, even if seldom seen.

An even bigger—and more ancient—difference lies in the fact that the Divine Liturgy requires an iconostasis, or icon screen, placed between the nave and the sanctuary. The icon screen bears images of Christ, the Mother of God with the infant Christ, and other prescribed or optional icons, designed to assist the congregation in contemplating the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice and heighten the reverence which is its due. This is similar to the cancelli of the early basilicas and the massive crucifix-topped rood screens of medieval Europe. However, western practice since the Counter-Reformation has encouraged an open altar in view of the congregation, pursuing a greater intimacy with the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist consecrated before the people.

St. Elizabeth’s solved the practical problem of offering the Ordinary Mass and the Divine Liturgy in the same physical space, and on a common altar, via the ingenuity of a retractable icon screen. The screen is framed with wood, encasing exquisite icons depicting Jesus, the Madonna with the Infant Christ, Saints Elizabeth, Cyril, and Methodius, and St. John the Baptist. The far right and left icons are of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, respectively, and remain fully visible at all times, even during the Roman Mass. For the celebration of the Mass, the remaining portion of the screen swings backward on each side to open the altar to full view of the congregation. The aesthetic impact of this feature upon entering the Church is unusual, but quite beautiful. The space itself remains identifiably Roman, as evidenced by the architecture, statues, and other design features. Even so, the presence of the icon screen lends an Eastern character that deeply enriches the beauty of the physical space.

On Sundays, the Holy Mass is offered at 9:00 a.m. at St. Elizabeth’s and the Divine Liturgy at noon. Fr. Frank, who is “bi-ritual” and able to offer both services, encourages members of both communities to occasionally attend the other service to develop a greater understanding of its tradition and worship. While the same basic outline frames the two forms, the Mass and the Divine Liturgy each offer characteristic experiences for the participant.

At Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is usually offered for the Eastern Catholic community. The most striking difference that a Roman Catholic will notice between this ancient liturgy and a mainstream Western Mass is that nearly the entire service is sung. The Novus Ordo Roman Rite liturgy may be chanted nearly start-to-finish; but, sadly, this is very seldom encountered at the parish level. The musical contribution remains of central liturgical and theological importance in the Eastern service. The homily is not sung, of course, but even the epistle is ordinarily recited in chant by the lector, as is the Gospel by the priest or deacon.

Other differences will be noticed as well. In the West, it became the social and cultural custom to show respect to royalty by kneeling or genuflecting. As a result, Roman Catholics typically honor their Lord, the King of Kings, by genuflecting before the tabernacle upon entering the Church, and kneeling during the consecration of the Eucharist. In the East, however, honor was bestowed to royalty by standing and bowing from the waist at appropriate times. As a result, the Eastern liturgical custom is to stand during the consecration and bow deeply at prescribed times throughout the service. Communion is received differently in the two services as well. In the Eastern service, communion is received in both species, with the consecrated bread and wine mixed together. Communicants approach the priest with arms folded across their chest, tell the priest their names, and receive communion in the mouth. Because of commingling of the two species, it is not possible to receive communion in the hand in the Eastern tradition. It is interesting to note, though, that for different reasons communion in the hand is not a universal practice in the West, and permitted only in certain places by special indult.

The challenges faced in achieving unity between Eastern and Western traditions in Catholicism are not limited to the practical questions of separate spatial requirements for worship. In fact, they mirror some of the difficulties impeding ultimate union between Catholic and Orthodox communities. Part of the problem seems to be a lack of understanding and appreciation for the legitimacy of other authentic, liturgical traditions. While the various forms of Catholic worship are undoubtedly distinct, they all offer validly the holiest of sacrifices through the consecration of Christ’s body and blood. As Father Frank put it, “forms are not unimportant, but they are not ultimate. And we are often shaped by the form, to the detriment of the ultimate.”

It is virtually certain that any particular Catholic is likely to prefer one form of Eucharistic worship over another due to his or her background, theological formation, and aesthetic preference. The challenge, then, is not to dismiss our attachment to certain distinct liturgical forms (whose differences in approach are more than superficial), but, in humility, to look beyond them to see the ultimate value in the other’s worship and tradition. This is important not only for the sake of unity, but for the sake of claiming the fullness of our own faith, as all these traditions belong to us as our common heritage. They are a gift, not a threat, and far from compromising the unity of the Church, the diversity of authentic forms gives added dimension and meaning to the very notion of the universality of the Church.

The unique efforts underway at St. Elizabeth’s seem to center around the personality and vision of Fr. Frank, who has taken deeply to heart the challenge to pursue understanding and unity between East and West. Fr. Chrys, as his parishioners call him, is articulate, well-educated, and a gifted homilist. He graciously spent over an hour with me after Liturgy one Sunday afternoon, sharing his wisdom and insight, and defined for me the main contours of the challenges faced—both within Catholicism itself in terms of improving relations, and at the broader level of ultimate reunion with the East.

According to Fr. Frank, the arrangement at St. Elizabeth’s is an intentional, and novel, step towards both goals. The two distinct communities were joined in the same parish with the express intention of creating a space within Catholicism where the two traditions could meet in the realm of liturgy and worship. While inter-community dialogue has begun and understanding and fraternity have developed in a myriad of ways, sharing the same altar highlights poignantly the identical reality shared in both services, despite the differences in form. Although it may not be a model for the entire Church, this parish has made a novel contribution, and has created, at least for those involved, an “awareness of communion that permeates the entire Church” and permits this little parish to “breathe freely with both lungs.”

Tonita M. Helton is a graduate of Drake University and the University of Iowa College of Law.


  1. says

    Very nice article! As a Byzantine Catholic myself, it’s heartening to see our Latin brethren eager to learn more about the Eastern tradition. Thanks so much for posting this.