Eastern Catholicism in the American West
by Father Christopher Zugger
photos by Cary Herz
Its not something youd expect to find in the American southwest. Here are people who trace their roots to eastern and western Europe, Africa, Japan, Latin America and the native American territories all singing traditional Slavic hymns.
Come to think of it, youd probably not expect to find that anywhere.
Enter Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Albuquerque, N.M., a Byzantine Catholic parish whose members venerate icons and worship according to Ruthenian and Ukrainian customs. A strong, quiet trend has been changing the Western Christian Churches in the western portion of the United States. Many people from a mix of religious and ethnic backgrounds are drawn to the ancient churches of the East.
This parish is a good example. In 48 of 71 households, at least one member is of a non-Byzantine background. Some come from Jewish and Protestant families, many are formerly inactive Roman Catholics brought hack to the faith by being introduced to the Byzantine Church.
Just about everyone drives long distances to the church. Our Lady of Perpetual Help covers four counties, with some people driving for nearly an hour oneway. One young couple calls the parish office to get a ride or to let the priest know that they are unable to attend Sunday liturgy. Altar servers are known to hurry their parents out the door so they can get to the sacristy early to prepare for the Divine Liturgy.
In order of importance, the parishioners name what makes them so dedicated to the parish: worship, spirituality, a rich tradition and the sense of community. It is interesting that while so many seem to mention reverence and holiness, there is no sense of being far from God. Theres a sense of the entire person being involved, one parishioner said. Its complete-mind, heart and body.
The power of involvement in worship is well-demonstrated in the youngsters. They sing the liturgy right along with their parents and neighbors, they bow and kiss the icons and are comfortable with dialogue sermons, raising their hands and answering questions. Most can sing the entire Nicene Creed and know the long Communion Prayer by heart.
One of the oldest forms of Christian prayer outside of Divine Liturgy is the Jesus Prayer, which is deeply rooted in Byzantine Christendom. A lady of Irish background makes Jesus beads and distributes them with a copy of a short article on how to recite the prayer so that it becomes a constant practice. She had given out over 1,000 sets of beads by the spring of 1991.
Besides a rich liturgical and spiritual tradition, Eastern Christianity has preserved its various ethnic roots. For Slavic parishes, that includes practices such as the use of the distinctive three-barred cross; the painting of pysanky, the ornate Easter eggs; preparing baskets of foods to he blessed at Easter; making and enjoying traditional Slavic foods like holubki, pirohi and sausages for fund-raisers; using specially decorated candles; or celebrating feasts with mystery plays handed down since the Middle Ages. All of these enrich Christian life in the community. Making holubki and pirohi for a parish festival becomes a chance to learn from older parishioners who came from Europe.
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Tags: Eastern Christianity United States Byzantine Catholic Church