Go East?

There has been a fair amount of chatter on social media concerning John Burger’s Aleteia piece, “Go East, Young Man.” In it, Burger discusses his reasons for switching from the Latin Church to Greek Catholicism, mooring his decision in primarily aesthetic and sentimental terms. That’s fine. Ask most people why they choose Eastern Orthodoxy and they will largely say the same thing, even if they feel compelled to dress-up their decision with some vague references to “the Fathers,” “Holy Tradition,” and “the Ancient Faith.” Burger, being Catholic already, didn’t need to undergo some half-baked quest for the “one true Church,” nor does it sound like he is trying to flee any troubling ecclesiastical developments in his former wing of the Catholic Church. He just really likes Byzantine Christianity generally and the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom specifically. Good for him.

While I wish Burger all the best, I do sympathize with those who are uncomfortable with some of the factual errors contained in his article. For instance, the author seems unaware of how much the Divine Liturgy has changed since the days of Ss. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great; the idea that this liturgical form has remained static for over a millennium is patently ridiculous. Moreover, even a cursory glance at the various Eastern churches which use the Byzantine Rite reveals local variations and practices which cut against the notion that the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in the same manner at all times and places. Like any liturgical rite, the Byzantine has developed considerably over the course of many centuries and has even undergone several top-down reforms which were anything but minor. To ignore this reality is to present a picture of the Byzantine Rite which happens to be overly-romantic and ultimately false.

With respect to Burger’s comments comparing the Byzantine and Roman rites, he also appears to be unaware of how the Novus Ordo Missae’s radical expansion of the lectionary represents a break with the once-shared tradition of both rites using a set lectionary for the liturgical year. Surely Burger should know how, particularly during Great Lent, the readings for each Sunday dovetail with the hymnography of Vespers and Matins. With respect to the traditional Roman Rite, the lectionary is intimately connected with each Sunday’s Propers; the readings, prayers, and chants make up an integral whole which guide the faithful through the liturgical year. And as for the idea of giving the faithful “more Scripture,” let’s be honest. Very few Catholics today attend Mass outside of Sundays and perhaps Holy Days of Obligation.

Now, some have expressed dismay that Burger left the Latins for the Greeks in the first place. For what it’s worth, I don’t begrudge a single soul who, through frequent attendance at an Eastern church and careful reflection, applies for a canonical transfer. This is not an innovation; it has been going on for centuries. (For example, the Servant of God Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was born a Latin Catholic and transferred to the Greek Church when pursuing his religious vocation.) My concern with Burger’s piece is that it turns the venerable Byzantine Rite into an aesthetic preference while failing to account for the larger theological and spiritual heritage of Greek Catholicism (be it Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Melkite, and so forth). Burger’s instincts may have been in the right place when he wrote the article, but his execution is noticeably off.

One comment

  1. «And as for the idea of giving the faithful “more Scripture,” let’s be honest. Very few Catholics today attend Mass outside of Sundays and perhaps Holy Days of Obligation.»

    And aside from the point about Mass attendance: in what world is “more Scripture” necessarily a good thing? One wonders just how much the faithful understand readings from the Pauline epistles, or Revelation, etc. (or how much they care), without guidance from the Fathers, Doctors, and the theologians, in their commentaries and expositions of Scripture. (I know a lot of it goes over my own head, which is why I’m so glad those saints are there to help enlighten my poor understanding.) Scripture is often very obscure and difficult, and its proper interpretation likewise, and unless one is possessed of a deep knowledge of Scripture and of theology, sometimes “more Scripture” can have the opposite effect that is intended: it confuses, perhaps sows doubts, discourages, encourages erroneous interpretations, etc. I would say that, in the absence of reliable and frequent Bible studies enriched by the expositions and comments of the saints on the texts, “more Scripture” is not necessarily the good that the reformers and apologists for the reform claim it to be.

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