Fulfilling a Tradition

by Jerry Patterson
photos by Jeff Graves

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“The Catholic Eastern Rites should not be a stumbling block to Christian unity.”

These are the words of Father Andriy Chirovsky, a young American-born Byzantine-Ukrainian Catholic pastor and teacher. He disputes the often repeated belief that the Church’s Eastern Rites already are the link between East and West.

“Our Eastern Churches eventually could become the link that helps reunite Eastern and Western Christianity,” Father Chirovsky points out, “but first we must return to the pure customs and traditions of the Eastern Fathers of the Church, as Vatican II and all the recent popes have urged us to do.

“Slowly and carefully, but persistently, we must remove from our churches the Western influences that have diluted a system of worship which is most powerful when it can function in real integrity.” he continues. “Orthodox Byzantines look at Eastern Catholic churches that are an incompatible mixture of Eastern and Western customs and art, and assume this is what would happen to them if they returned to communion with Rome. But this most assuredly is not Rome’s intent. Vatican II made it clear that the Catholic Church does not want hybridism in its rites.”

Father Chirovsky is determined that his own parish, St. Joseph’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on the outskirts of Chicago, will stand among the most integrally Byzantine churches, Catholic or Orthodox, in the Chicago metropolitan area. He says the decoration and remodeling now underway at the nineyear-old church must be completed before the 1988 millennium, the 1,000th anniversary of Ukraine’s conversion to Christianity.

Father Chirovsky is also an instructor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and director of religious education for the Ukrainian Catholic Diocese of Chicago, which stretches from Detroit to the Pacific Ocean. He has been the pastor of St. Joseph’s for two years.

Father Chirovsky has commissioned Sorin Belciu, an iconographer who studied Byzantine religious art in his native Rumania, to decorate the interior of the church. Belciu has worked at about a dozen Byzantine churches in Rumania, Greece, and Canada, but St. Joseph’s is his first assignment in the United States. His wife Simona, an expert at working with gold leaf, is assisting him.

Father Chirovsky insists on purity in the tradition, whether in liturgy or in the decoration of the church, because “liturgy is a language.”

“It is a language of divine-human communication,” he explains. “If you’re going to speak to God, speak well. Mixing Eastern and Western traditions is not unlike speaking broken English. People can get quite used to it, but it is impossible to pass on to your children the grammatical rules of broken English.”

And so the 28-year-old pastor, supported by St. Joseph’s parish council, has begun the often difficult task of carrying out the directives of Vatican II on restoring the fullness of the Eastern tradition. The gray and white walls of the church are coming alive with warm and vibrant colors as they are decorated with meticulous attention to Byzantine iconographic canons. A new Byzantine chandelier has been hung in the church. Some of the purely Western art forms, including statues and modernistic Stations of the Cross which were placed in the church temporarily, are gradually being relocated.

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Tags: Unity Eastern Christianity Art Icons Revival/restoration