Ephemera VII

The Byzantine Texas web-log is not always known for its edifying discussions, but sometimes they can turn interesting. Take, for instance, the ongoing back-and-forth between “Jake” and “Peregrinus” (and others) concerning Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk’s recent remarks that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is “a fully Orthodox Church with Orthodox theology, liturgics, spirituality, and canonical Tradition, which strives to live this Orthodoxy in the spirit of first-Millennium Christianity — that is, communion with Rome.” After all of the theological, ecclesiastical, and metaphysical dust settles, it seems to me that the real issue here is who has a “right” to use the term “Orthodox”? By conservative Orthodox lights, the Greek Catholics are misappropriating the term, even though the use of “Orthodox” as an exclusively confessional designation is of rather recent vintage. To the best of my knowledge, no Catholic kicks up much dust that Eastern Orthodox liturgical and theological texts still use the word “Catholic.” It is fairly plain to see that when Patriarch Sviatoslav and other members of the UGCC refer to themselves as “Orthodox,” they do so because they see themselves as the authentic continuation of Byzantine-Slavic Christianity which emerged in Kyivan-Rus’ at the close of the first millennium. Of course the Eastern Orthodox don’t accept this, but why should that matter? The UGCC, as a sui iurius patriarchal church in communion with Rome, needn’t seek the approval of the Orthodox when defining itself or carrying forth the Gospel in lands still reeling from the devastating aftereffects of atheistic communism.

The ongoing young-Catholic fascination with Marxism reminds me of the larger young-Christian fascination with the works of Giorgio Agamben a few years back. Without bothering to pay much attention to what Agamben was up to, Christians of various stripes were citing him left and right simply because he happened to write about Christian themes, including St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. None of this is to say that people shouldn’t read Agamben, though it seems to me that there are diminishing returns in doing so. Had 9/11 never happened and Carl Schmitt never became vogue, Agamben’s notoriety and influence in Anglophone circles would probably have remained modest. As for the self-professed “Catholic socialists” who embrace Marx, I have to wonder how many of them have read Marx or later Marxist thinkers and what insights do they believe this ideology has for Catholicism today? It’s easy to lift a handful of Marxist terminology from one’s Philosophy 101 notes; it’s exceedingly more difficult to apply those concepts in an intellectually rigorous manner. Then again, maybe the Marxist rhetoric in play among the “Catholic socialists” right now is just that: rhetoric. But wouldn’t that mean this whole “Catholic socialism” thing is little more than posturing? In other words, could it really be that primarily white, Ivy League priv-kids are co-opting something they really don’t understand in order to feel self-important? That’s never happened before, has it?

A friend of mine sometimes asks me about points concerning Byzantine liturgy, either among the Orthodox or the Greek Catholics. I feel like my answer is always, “It depends.” Despite the myth of uniformity that some Orthodox like to promote, the on-the-ground reality is that most Orthodox parishes, depending on jurisdiction, are hardly uniform. In fact, it’s not even that surprising to see parishes within the same jurisdiction or diocese (e.g., Orthodox Church of America’s (OCA) Diocese of the Midwest) do things slightly different based on the particular parish’s history, the priest’s training and temperament, and the desires of the faithful. I have been to OCA services conducted in the exact same manner as a UGCC service and OCA services which are quite consciously trying to ape the high Synodal practice found in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Most local variants are pretty harmless and unnoticeable to untrained eyes, though some aren’t. Greek Catholics in America have struggled mightily for decades to correct a whole host of liturgical abuses that crept in both before and after the Second Vatican Council. Still, for reasons I don’t fully understand, there remains a desperate, and ultimately silly, pursuit of “purity” among far too many Eastern Christians (Catholic or Orthodox), as if there was ever a time in ecclesiastical history where the liturgy was codified and practiced perfectly.

In closing, let me just note that this phenomenon is not exclusive to the East. Most readers know by now my general position on the “liturgical wars” that rage among Latin Catholics concerning changes made to the Missale Romanum and Breviarium Romanum from the mid-1950s until the early 60s. To me, that seems so secondary compared to the prevalence of what Pope Benedict XVI called a “low-Mass mentality.” I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a majority (or at least roughly half) of all Sunday Tridentine Masses are low, i.e. they are not sung. Accompanying this unfortunate development is the near-total eradication of the Divine Office from Latin parish life. Although this process began long before Vatican II, it is regrettable that the fight to maintain liturgical orthodoxy within the Latin Rite has not been accompanied by an equally vigorous fight to restore this rite to its full splendor. Some will likely argue — with justification — that the deplorable state of the Roman Church in the 1970s and 80s made it extremely difficult for Catholics to find the Tridentine Mass at all; prudence dictated that matters of liturgical solemnity should be put on hold. Well, while things are far, far from optimal in the Roman Church today, there now exists numerous resources for priests and laity alike to begin celebrating the traditional Roman Rite as it was meant to be. So what’s stopping them?


  1. Three observations:

    First, the apparent and real diversity of liturgical praxis within Orthodox is largely apparent. This is to say, there are a great number of differences which are due to regional style, ethnicity, chant, language, dialect, etc. What unites them all is a commonality of the Byzantine hymnography and liturgical texts, which remain remarkably constant and consistent. And what unites that commonality is a veneration of and fidelity to the Scriptures, Holy Tradition, and the Councils. The diversity we see within Orthodoxy is simply a consequence of Pentecost.

    Second, I have noted a double tendency within hierarchical churches: control reaching down from the hierarchy to the people, and support of or resistance to that control coming up from the people. Ideally, those two tendencies should act in symmetry, or synergetically. But, on occasions when the hierarchy have largely abandoned the faith (as with the Arian crisis) or worse, forgotten that faith (as with the current Modernist crisis), the only thing that has saved the Church has been the resistance of the people.

    Third, as Fathers Taft, Schmemann and other liturgiologists have remarked (as opposed to ill taught liturgigogues), ornate liturgies and offices find their source in cathedral and monastic practice. Where there are few RC monasteries that pursue the old ways, and fewer cathedrals, it should not be expected that masses be anything other than ‘low’ in most parishes, or that the choral saying of the Office be other than almost nonexistent. If faithful RCs would wish to change liturgical praxis in those regards, while it would be a good idea to act locally, it would also be a good idea to restore the cathedrals and the monasteries to their former glory.

    1. What you say about monasteries is dead on.

      Also, lay liturgical formation is totally different in the Latin Church, especially versus those Eastern churches with strong full-congregation choral traditions. In general the Latins have a much more liturgically passive laity. Sometimes it only takes one bad actor in Latin authority to wipe out decades of local tradition.

      There are a lot of structural and cultural obstacles to the Latins being able to maintain an *organically* traditional, high church liturgy, unfortunately.

    2. I am skeptical about some of what you say in the third paragraph. Prior to the 1960s, all Catholic parishes save perhaps some mission parishes would have had at least one sung Mass (and that Mass may have even been a full High Mass w/ deacon and subdeacon). The idea that the Sunday Mass should be a low Mass, bereft of chant, is a novelty. While the practice of low Mass has been around for many centuries and makes sense in most settings as the normative Mass during the week (except for major feasts like Assumption), its prevalence on Sundays is the only Mass offered is an aberration.

      With respect to the office no longer being recited in choir, a lot of that has to do with two phenomena: (1) Jesuits; and (2) Revolutionary upheavals in Europe.

      On the first point, the Jesuits were — to the best of my knowledge — the first religious order dispensed from saying the Office in choir due to their missionary nature. While Jesuits were encouraged to attend the Office at other churches when available, they were not required to. The result is that the Jesuits abandoned saying the Office in common for the most part, a decision which had real consequences for the areas they worked in as missionaries. New church buildings started to be constructed without choir stalls and the idea of saying the Office in common faded away (though it wasn’t wholly lost).

      On the second, government measures taken against religious orders and clerics helped drive the Office out of the public sphere altogether. The practice of churches at least reciting some of the Office in common started to fade out and it never really recovered, even in Europe. However, even as recent as the mid-20th Century, it was not unheard of for larger parishes to still recite Vespers in common for Sundays. In fact, most Missals printed up until the 1962 liturgical reforms provide the order for reciting Vespers on Sundays and major feast days, along with the common and proper elements of Mass.

      1. Gabriel,

        I would agree with you that the practice beginning with the Jesuits and proceeding into most of the rest of the order has had its effect in making the Office into a vestigial organ within the body of Christ. I would also agree that state persecution has also had its effect. And most definitely, it used to be the case that many parishes recited vespers in association with Sunday Mass.

        But that was then, and this is now. State persecution and private recitation of the Office have each had their effect. The result is what we see around us now. You were speaking of means of changing that. I was suggesting that, in addition to local efforts in local parishes to restore the Office and beauty in Liturgy, that efforts to restore the founts of the Office and that beauty might also be warranted. That’s all.

  2. I’d like to think that exchange served as a case in point. It appears I am not worthy of the name “Orthodox” since, clearly, all Orthodox would accept the historical hack-job of a Romanides or the pneumatic nihilism of a Vlachos. The gate is indeed narrow. Such is the new Eastern rite Calvinism.

    1. I often just call it “Eastern Rite Protestantism,” but it’s really the same thing.

      What’s funny to me in all of this is that for a couple of centuries after Brest, the Greek-Catholic churches eliminated the word pravoslavie from their liturgical books in order to avoid being confused with the Orthodox. It was only in the 19th and early 20th Century, when there was a push to restore the Greek-Catholic liturgical books to how they were around the time of Brest, that pravoslavie (Orthodox) returned. Interestingly, in some Greek-Catholic prayer and liturgical texts translated into English that I have from the mid-20th Century, they substitute “right believing” for “orthodox,” and if they do use the word “orthodox,” they never capitalize it.

      1. Yes, Eastern rite Protestantism works. I imagine we could draw a Jansenist connection as well. I employ Calvinist here in the sense that Orthodoxy, especially in America, presents as kind of a post-Protestant phenomenon wherein one must be sure to be “in” with the elect, as there is often a clear delineation of who’s out. . . though this is usually determined on the basis of a pietistic mob mentality, glibly characterized as the “phronema.” Sobornost, thus characterized, reduces “catholicity” for the Orthodox to groupthink.

        I wonder if any of the eastern churches ever took any measure to strike “C/catholic” from their service books after a fashion similar to the UGCC and “O/orthodox”?

        1. In regard to the second paragraph, I read somewhere, years ago, that the Slavic word in the Creed for “Katholiken Ecclesian,” soborniyu, is a relatively late, perhaps late Medieval, for a Slavonicized version of the Greek “Katholikos/e.” I’ve never investigated the truth of this, though.

          1. Dr. Tighe, I have heard the same thing and it occurred to me almost immediately as I posted that comment. But I am of course ignorant as to whether this is true, and if so why it happened.

            I also do not mean, in my comment, to discredit “sobornost” entirely. I think it’s a useful word and a beautiful idea (divorced from its slavophile, proto-fascist roots, that is). Still, it is seemingly modern with respect to ecclesiology.

        2. I think that you are spot on. I would also add that most American Orthodox who express this Calvinism sentiment are either converted from Protestantism (and never ditched their anti-Catholic sentiment) or ex-Catholics who loathe their former tradition. I think that “Jake” over at byztx is the latter rather than the former, but I could be wrong.

          1. Yeah, I don’t think it’s a strike against Orthodoxy to say so either. The problem is that unraveling the cultural and historical conditions of Orthodoxy from what is permanent and obligatory, if this can even be done without lapsing into “historical docetism,” requires a balanced ecclesiology, which you can’t have when your criterion for Orthodoxy is basically just hagiography. It’d be best if all of us Orthodox would just stop pretending that we do not live in the midst of an absolutely profound epistemological crisis. This, if nothing else, is reason for expressing solidarity with Catholics. Taylor’s “buffered self” always comes to mind here, as does Lonergan’s closing paragraph in his essay on Meaning (which I do not have ready at hand, but is always worth quoting or rereading in moments of epistemic despair!).

      2. The Ruthenian Church in the US translates pravoslavie as “Christians of the True faith.” I would personally prefer if my church used the term Orthodox/orthodox.

        1. On occasions when I am feeling particularly uncharitable, alas, I think to myself that the Ruthenians are ‘Stan Lee’ Orthodox, from the Marvel Comics days when Lee would write to fans as ‘True Believers’.

      3. Interestingly the 2011 ICEL translation of the Roman Canon deliberately avoids translating word “orthodoxis” as “orthodox.” Hence “et omnibus orthodoxis atque catholicae et apostolicae fidei cultoribus” is rendered “and all those who, holding to the truth, hand on the catholic and apostolic faith.”

        1. Felix,

          You know, that never occurred to me, but you’re right. Interesting.

          I wonder if any Orthodox translations of their texts into English ever deliberately replace the word “catholic” with, say, “universal.”

          1. “I wonder if any Orthodox translations of their texts into English ever deliberately replace the word ‘catholic’ with, say, ‘universal’.”

            The Scandinavian and German Lutherans do this – or else they replace “catholic” with “christian” (which, to be fair, can also be found in some pre-Reformation German popular translations, or renditions, of the Creed).

  3. As you rightly note in the comments, Gabriel, the Jesuits and the disruption of the Revolution are vital in explaining why the Divine Office in common became rare in the Roman Church. A certain rationalistic hatred for the Office in common is also partly to blame: the explicitly “enlightenment” and “rational” government of the Emperor Joseph II, for example, while still officially a Catholic government, actually banned the singing of the Office in common due to trumped up medical fears about the healthiness of singing for such long periods.

    My parish actually recite (though, sadly, do not sin) Lauds together every day, and it is well attended. I think one of the main barriers to wider use of the Office is the four week psalter in the new Roman Rite. The four week cycle makes it impossible for the faithful to fully familiarise themselves with the psalms in the way they could previously. If Sunday vespers has five psalms which are always the same, it takes very little time at all to become very familiar with them.

    That and evening Masses mean that Sunday evening is generally taken up with another Mass. Vespers-sermon-benediction (or rosary-sermon-benediction in the smaller, poorer parishes) was almost universal before evening Masses were permitted. Since then, however, evening Masses have made the clergy reluctant to make more work for themselves by timetabling yet another liturgy on Sunday afternoon.

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