From ONE Magazine

O Joyful Light: The Faith of Russian Catholics

It is 7:30 on a Saturday evening in a tiny Russian Catholic chapel. The priest, wearing vestments dating from the time of the Czars, opens the royal doors of the iconostasis, or altar screen. He incenses crosswise the four corners of the “throne,” as the altar is called, and the icons of the Savior, the Mother of God, St. Michael the Archangel and St. John the Baptist. All the while the choir sings Psalm 103:

Blessed are you, O Lord, in wisdom you have created all things.

There follows a litany of petition for the spiritual needs of God’s creation, and then a collection of the first psalms that depict the life of man before the Fall:

Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly.

Fragrant clouds of incense again fill the chapel as the choir mournfully recalls the sin of Adam and of Adam’s sons to this day:

To you have I called, O Lord, hasten to me. Let my prayer arise as incense before you.

As the choir intersperses hymns in honor of man’s ultimate restoration through Christ with psalms reflecting man’s desperate hope of salvation, the priest comes out of the altar area into the darkened nave of the church. With a cry for spiritual attentiveness, the lights are raised as the choir sings the ancient hymn of the evening, “O Joyful Light.” The promise of salvation is lovingly traced through the Old and New Testaments by prayer, hymn and gesture.

This celebration of the All-night Vigil is not taking place in some remote corner of Russia but in the building where the chancery office of the Archdiocese of New York was once located, next to Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street. For the past 45 years this building has housed St. Michael’s Chapel, the home of the Russian Rite Catholics of the New York metropolitan area. For most of those years their priest was the founder of the church, Protopresbyter Andrew Rogosh. During the week Father Andrew attended to his duties as Assistant Secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, but on Saturday evening and again at 10:30 A.M. on Sunday morning he donned the magnificent robes of the Eastern Church to lead in prayer the hopeful remnant of the Russian Catholic Church in their struggle for deification: that process by which man becomes a sharer in the Divine Nature.

Over the years many non-Russians, the present writer included, were attracted by the spiritual vision of the Russian Church and its liturgy and chose them as the means for receiving the gift of salvation. Nor is there anything strange about the powerful attraction that the liturgy has on outsiders. When Christianity was first brought to the city of Kiev, in the region of Russia known as Rus’, its majestic liturgy followed the tradition of Constantinople. According to popular legend, when the emissaries of Grand Duke Vladimir reported to him what they had seen, they said:

“When the Greeks led us to the place where they worship their God, we did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations, for we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.” Thereupon St. Vladimir accepted baptism and decreed the acceptance of Christianity in its Eastern form for his people. From these beginnings have arisen the Ukrainian, Russian and Byelorussian Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, now resplendently arrayed in the purple raiment of martyrdom.

As Christianity penetrated into Russia from Ukraine, so too the Catholic Church of the Russian Rite owes its organization to the saintly patriarch of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the servant of God Metropolitan Andrew Sheptitsky, who served as archbishop from 1901 to 1944. When Metropolitan Andrew inquired about the liturgical norms that should be observed by Russian Catholics, Cardinal Merry del Val replied that they must be identical to those of the Orthodox Church – nec plus, nec minus, nec aliter. (No more, no less, no differently.) Metropolitan Andrew realized that many of the latinizing practices that had crept into his church’s liturgical life were actually hindering the work of reconciliation with the Orthodox.

During his entire episcopate he strove to purify his rite from these popular yet alien practices. Now, at least in the Russian branch of his Church, he could foster ritual purity as a basis for a shared liturgical life with the Orthodox.

Thus it was that the Russian Catholic Church received its organization, with Exarch Leonid Feodorov as its leader. Its members are perhaps more numerous today outside of Russia in scattered communities throughout the world: Sao Paolo and Santos in Brazil; San Francisco and El Segundo in California; Montreal in Canada; Boston, Massachusetts and St. Michael’s in lower Manhattan.

For nearly half a century St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Chapel has dispensed the treasures of the pure Eastern tradition to those who, whether by birth or by choice, have been attracted to these truly soul-satisfying means of salvation. The Byzantine rite makes use of all the senses in its striving “to restore the image of the fallen Adam.” The holy icons and sacred vestments gratify the sense of sight, while the choral music and clouds of incense sanctify the senses of hearing and smell. The fluid motions of the faithful during the services – veneration of icons, prostrations, anointings, the signs of the Cross – elevate the sense of touch to Divinity. But the sense of taste, the means of man’s fall in Eden, becomes the richest channel of grace in the New Paradise as it receives the Divine and Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ under both forms of leavened bread and wine.

Monitors of the Soviet scene confirm reports that despite grinding persecution – or perhaps because of it – the spiritual life of the Russian faithful is thriving. Deprived of virtually all supports of religion, they must nourish their souls on the liturgy alone. That they have continued to exit and even flourish under Communism is surely due to the fact that “God dwells there among men.”

The little flock at 226 Mulberry Street understands this truth from its own experience.

Father Romanos is Director of the Office of Educational Services of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts.