Walking up to the door that opens onto the nave, I experienced the discomfort and vulnerability of being completely out of my element. Shoes were scattered on either side of the door, signaling that the congregation didn’t wear shoes inside – but should I do that? Walking in the door – shoes removed – I saw that men sat on one side of the main aisle while women sat on the other. That decision was easier for me, though still disconcerting. The Syrian liturgy and the homily were both in the South Indian language Malayalam, of which I could not understand a word: different prayers, different vestments, different order of worship, different visual art, different smells, no kneeling, no idea when to bow, when to make the sign of the cross, how to give the sign of peace, on and on. Thankfully, the congregation made me very welcome and did their best to help. Several members immediately tried to catch my eye, gesturing how to do this or that, pointing to where I should be in the missalette. How did they know immediately I would need the help? Because I was the only white person in the church.
Though so much was so different, at the end of the Holy Qurbono, when the congregants filed up to receive the Eucharist, I was able to do so too, though I am a member of the Latin Catholic Church. The surface texture of everything was so different, but we had full communion with one another in the essentials. The altar, though situated differently in the sanctuary and surrounded by ornaments with which I was not familiar, was the same altar as the one at my home parish. I was participating in the Eucharistic liturgy of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, a cognitively dissonant but spiritually rich morning. The three-hour community dinner afterward was fantastic.
Coming to today, there have been weeks of marches in protest of the murder of George Floyd around Milwaukee where I live and throughout the U.S. and the world. Like so many in the Catholic Church, I can’t help but wonder how we – the magisterium, clergy, and all the laity – can actively promote justice for everyone within our society, root out the entrenched attitudes we hold that so many are unwilling to admit fall under the category of, “racism,” and start to genuinely promote the dignity of every human person, in full-throated support of the Catechism’s teaching that “the divine image is present in every human” (Imago divina in unoquoque homine est praesens, CCC §1702).
As I’ve prayed and thought about this, as marches of protest continue to go down my street in Milwaukee, I’ve returned once more to the morning with which I began this essay and how I wound up at St. Mary’s Syro-Malankara Catholic Church for the celebration of the Holy Qurbono that day. Though my last name reveals to those in the know that my paternal great-grandfather was a Jew from the Ukraine, I am physically as white as they come – blonde hair, blue eyes, fair complexion. I was raised in a very largely white factory town in Wisconsin. There’s every reason that the culture in my home parish, founded by the Northern Midwestern descendants of European immigrants, was firmly based in European and Latin Church traditions as filtered through the American Church’s expression of Vatican II’s theology and liturgy. But that religious world in which I grew gave me a largely unconscious sense that the Catholic Church was normatively western, European, and, frankly, white. This was a culture, intentionally or not, imbued by default with what Fr. Bryan Massingale has called a “white cultural aesthetic,” the notion that what is “standard, normative, universal, and truly Catholic” derives from the western European traditions of Catholicism. I was taught that there were Catholics all over the world to be sure, but hadn’t Europeans brought the faith all those places during the Age of Exploration? Didn’t they all celebrate the Roman liturgy given to them by the Europeans who brought them the faith? It wasn’t until I had moved out of the house three days after high school graduation that I started attending masses and other devotions that opened me up to the world of inculturation, which had begun before Vatican II but was given the seal of approval by the council fathers. But even these celebrations could still fit within the unconscious framework that a European religion, practiced by Euro-American descendants, had “allowed” other cultural and aesthetic traditions into the Church – with open arms or begrudgingly depending on the parish and diocese. It wasn’t until several years later that I would learn the decisive lesson that led to my full understanding that the Latin Catholic Church is not the Catholic Church. It is a lesson that I hope and pray can help all Catholics, but especially Euro-American Catholics, embrace the equality and mutually enriching nature of all the cultural, aesthetic, theological, and liturgical traditions that comprise the Catholic Church.
I make it a point to say explicitly the “Latin Catholic Church” here, because the default assumption among many in the Catholic Church in the US who consciously or unconsciously ascribe to the “white cultural aesthetic” is that the Latin Catholic Church is coterminous with the Catholic Church. But this is not the case. The Latin Catholic Church is one “particular church” (using canon law terminology) among the twenty-four particular churches that comprise the Catholic Church. Every particular church in communion with Rome is just as much the Catholic Church as every other particular church in communion with Rome. So, for example, the Major Archbishop-Catholicos of Trivandrum, India is the head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, among whose faithful I celebrated the Holy Qurbono at the head of this essay. These faithful, with their traditions, are not Catholic “by exception” or “toleration,” by some special dispensation of western European Catholicism—they are just as much the Catholic Church as the faithful who gather in a small parish church in France or St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City. The ecclesiological knot that has primarily led to the prevalent confusion about the nature of the Church is that the head of the Latin Catholic Church (the Archbishop and Metropolitan of Rome) is also the Roman Pontiff—communion with whom is the guarantor of being “Catholic.” This is an area of dense and complex history with many political, geographical, spiritual, and accidental aspects (one larger contributing factor being that the Latin Catholic Church itself splintered into so many parts during the reformations). But the crux of the matter is that the Catholic communion is comprised of twenty-four sui iuris (self-governing) particular churches, all of whom are in full communion with the Roman pontiff (this notion of communion going back to the ancient patriarchates). The Roman pontiff just happens to be the head of one of those particular churches, too.
These churches include some that came back into full communion with Rome in the last couple centuries as well as those who never left communion, some that are Byzantine (“Greek”) and some that are Coptic, Syriac, and Armenian. I bring up the legal nitty-gritty above because often, if Euro-American Latin Catholics know of the Eastern Catholic Churches at all, they often think of these Churches simply as, “rites,” within what they call, “the Catholic Church” (But what they mean by that is “the Latin Catholic Church”). I’ve also found that many in the pews think also that these are only Eastern Orthodox folks who have come back into full communion with Rome. So many of us, including myself until my late twenties, have no idea of the immensely rich and diverse cultural, theological, historical, ethnic, aesthetic, and liturgical traditions that the Church actually embodies. The Eastern Catholic Churches are not “rites” within the Latin Catholic Church (the Latin Catholic Church itself still retains the Roman Rite, Ambrosian Rite, Mozarabic Rite, Ordinariate Use, etc.). They are particular, self-governing churches in communion with the Roman Pontiff. They also celebrate, in addition to the Byzantine liturgy, the West and East Syriac liturgies and the Armenian and Alexandrian liturgies. They recognize saints and doctors that most Latin Catholics have never heard of, though they venerate the older core of Church Fathers, martyrs, and virgins as well.They have lived out their faith as particular churches in a dizzying array of historical, political, ethnic, aesthetic, linguistic, geographic, and spiritual circumstances.
The convulsions seizing our society at the moment are of course primarily focused on the experience of black Americans, whose collective history is particular to themselves and internally diverse. And, as so many are calling for from so many platforms, the legacy of injustices inflicted on these Americans demand direct recognition and healing. So why linger on ecclesiology and the incredibly diverse array of Catholic communities from all over the world? Aside from the necessary direct solutions, racial inequality in the US poses a problem that can embrace indirect and supporting solutions as well. Within the Catholic Church, one of these solutions should be Euro-American Catholics’ de-centering of their own tradition’s entrenched sense of being normative by learning about and embracing the wide variety of traditions that call the Church home – these are our brothers and sisters in full communion, after all. If a Euro-American Catholic actually visited Eastern Catholic parish communities semi-regularly and learned from churches that have grown and have articulated the one faith in places, aesthetic traditions, and cultures from throughout Africa, the Middle East, and India, how could that person continue to think that what is Catholic is, by default, European in origin? (I realize of course that this will be more difficult for Latin Catholics in more rural areas – my own home diocese has no Eastern Catholic parishes; we will need to be creative!)
I recall attending a lecture by a nationally recognized Catholic commentator (who shall remain nameless) on the New Evangelization while I was doing my graduate work at Notre Dame. In the Q&A session after his talk, I asked the speaker why his presentation seemed to conflate “Christianity” or “the Church” with “western civilization,” given the existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches and other churches throughout the world beyond western Europe. His answer was disappointing: referring to the principle of non-contradiction, he brushed the question aside because the “Greek” churches are part of western civilization too. I didn’t want to make a scene, so I stayed quiet. But inside I wanted to push back on that answer to wonder how Christians in sixth-century Kerala, India or in seventeenth-century Iraq would have understood themselves as “Greek.” If European and Euro-American Catholics of the Latin Catholic Church continue to think of the their particular Church as the Catholic Church with some “other” communities along for the proverbial ride, how can we be surprised that for many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, the Catholic Church’s traditions will remain constrainedly synonymous with western Europe and western European culture, with all the assumed privilege that entails? Following the advice of Pope St. John Paul II, we could instead push toward a new future that recognizes the equal aesthetic, linguistic, liturgical, and theological gifts that all the historical particular churches have bequeathed to the universal communion (in communion with the Bishop of Rome as ancient ensurer of unity, not as the head of the Latin Catholic Church).
Pope St. John Paul II gave us the clearest instruction and reasoning on this count. In his 1995 apostolic letter, Orientale Lumen, St. John Paul acknowledges that Latin Catholics must help restore a sense of the Church’s catholicity precisely because they have done so much to bury it: “The members of the Catholic Church of the Latin tradition must also be fully acquainted with this treasure [of the Eastern churches’ living traditions] and thus feel, with the Pope, a passionate longing that the full manifestation of the Church’s catholicity be restored to the Church and to the world, expressed not by a single tradition, and still less by one community in opposition to the other; and that we too may be granted a full taste of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church which is preserved and grows in the life of the Churches of the East as in those of the West” (§ 1).
Bearing directly on the issues facing us so acutely right now, St. John Paul states that “true union is possible only in total respect for the other’s dignity without claiming that the whole array of uses and customs in the Latin Church is more complete or better suited to showing the fullness of correct doctrine; and again, that this union must be preceded by an awareness of communion that permeates the whole Church and is not limited to an agreement among leaders” (§20).
On this last point, the pope’s main recommendation was not for Latin Catholics to study the East’s traditions, but to encounter and listen to them in the persons of Eastern Christians themselves: “In addition to knowledge, I feel that meeting one another regularly is very important. . . . It is important that meetings and exchanges should involve Church communities in the broadest forms and ways” (§24-25). Beyond considerations of inculturation within the Latin Catholic Church, encountering the faithful of immensely diverse traditions within the whole Catholic Church will powerfully assist Euro-American Catholics to dispel that sense I was raised with: that what is Catholic is, by default, western European in origin.
Though I began this essay with an account of my participation in the liturgy of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, I in no way want to suggest that Indian American experience is the same as African American experience in this country. But my hope is that, precisely because of the ways that culture, art, thought, and religion are messily wrapped up together in human experience, we can begin to heal some of our larger divisions if the perceived western European nature of Catholicism were put into proper perspective by the lesson that ecclesiology holds out to us.
Maybe Euro-American Latin Catholics could witness more fully and readily to the full dignity of all humans made in the image of our Maker if we were to realize and integrate into our lived reality that the Catholic Church is not synonymous with the Latin Catholic Church; that the Latin liturgy (the Extraordinary Rite or the Ordinary Rite, in Latin or English or any other language) is simply one legitimate way to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy; that the Roman Rite Divine Office is only one legitimate way to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours; that European music, literature, and visual art, while masterful and tremendously beautiful in their most impressive instances, comprise only one of the legitimate aesthetic traditions of the Church; that even Latin theology is only one legitimate way of doing theology; and that whiteness and “white culture” (whatever that means!) has nothing intrinsically to do with the Good News more than any other ethnicity and culture on the face of God’s earth. The experience of participating in aesthetically, linguistically, and liturgically diverse celebrations of the faith (not only different aesthetic and ethnic traditions celebrated within the Latin Catholic Church), of hearing their teachings, and listening to their own experiences can only help de-center the privilege and self-satisfaction of the Euro-American tradition of Catholicism. In this vein, I call on Latin bishops, pastors, and parish ministers for social justice as well as Eastern bishops, pastors, and parish ministers to look for ways to foster encounters between Latin and Eastern Catholics. As St. John Paul observed, for the full flowering of the Church’s universality, Latin Catholics must learn to appreciate the riches of all the Catholic churches, and to see themselves as one cohort among many.
To close on a personal note, I want to point out that I am an oblate with the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who chants the Roman Rite Liturgy of the Hours daily using the Gregorian psalm tones. I also practice older devotions like wearing the different scapulars and chanting the Penitential Psalms with the litanies. I am a professor of English literature whose specialization is the monastic culture of the medieval west. So, in no way do I mean to denigrate the Latin Catholic Church’s traditions themselves, which I embrace and promote. On the contrary, I can claim from experience that fully realizing there are other legitimate and ancient ways of being Catholic has only helped me appreciate the specific subtleties and particular beauties of the Latin Catholic Church’s traditions that I inherited. Embracing the richness of the Church’s diverse patrimony does not necessitate an abdication of what we hold dear in our own tradition. That, like so many problems plaguing us these days, is a false dichotomy. And this false dichotomy, like so many others, stems from fear.
Learning on the ground from the worldwide communion of the Catholic Church—the vast array of peoples and cultures inculturated/-ing within the Latin Catholic Church; the Eritrean, Coptic, and Ethiopian Catholic Churches of Africa; the Armenian Catholic Church; the various Byzantine Catholic Churches of Eastern Europe; the Melkite Greek, Chaldean, Maronite, and Syriac Catholic Churches of the Middle East; and the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic Churches of southern India (all of whom have some presence in the US) can help open Euro-American members of the Latin Catholic Church to the full and equal dignity of all the particular Churches, their cultural aesthetics, and their members. Hopefully, meeting one another as equals will lead “to the full realization of the Church’s universality” and support efforts to realize genuine justice and communion within the Church, in turn promoting and supporting the same in society at large. When we support and promote the equal dignity of every human, we will have realized that “perfect love [that] drives out fear” (1 John 4:18), and we will bear witness to that tragically under-realized verse of the Prophet: “How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers dwell together as one!” (Ps 133:1).
Jacob Riyeff is a translator, poet, and scholar whose work focuses on the western contemplative tradition. His most recent book is an edition of _The Poems and Counsels on Prayer and Contemplation_ of the seventeenth-century Benedictine Dame Gertrude More. Jacob teaches in the English department at Marquette University and lives in Milwaukee, WI.
Recommended first-step resources:
-Edward Faulk. 101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches (Paulist Press, 2007).
-Pope St. John Paul II. The Light of the East—Orientale Lumen (St. Paul Books and Media, 1995).
-Aidan Nichols. Rome and the Eastern Churches (Ignatius Press, 2010).
-Joan L. Roccasalvo. The Eastern Catholic Churches: An Introduction to Their Worship and Spirituality (Liturgical Press, 1992).
-Search out the Churches themselves and introduce yourself! (All the Eastern Catholic Churches are listed on the “Eastern Catholic Churches” Wikipedia page, from which you can seek the Churches’ websites out.)