A Note on Latinizations

Today is the Feast of St. Charbel Makhluf, a Maronite monk known for his life of contemplative prayer and Eucharistic Adoration. Were he alive today and inclined to visit certain “Eastern Catholic” or “Byzantine Catholic” websites, he might be surprised to learn that piety toward our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament should not be emulated by Christians of the East, but rather reviled as a “Latinization.” That at least is the fashionable opinion of some Internet loudmouths who stumbled upon Eastern Christianity the day before yesterday and have now anointed themselves adjudicators of the “authentic” when it comes to the theology, spirituality, and liturgy of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome. They’re an obnoxious lot, but it seems their numbers may be on the rise as more and more boutique religious consumers, already bored with the fruits of Summorum Pontificum, seek ever more exotic and mysterious rituals to dabble in before either growing wise to their shallowness or, as has already happened with some notable liturgical fetishists out there, exiting the Catholic Church altogether. A large part of me wants to say, “Good riddance!,” but charity compels me to still hope they’ll recover some sense of what it means to be a Christian once their incense high wears off.

Now, let me be clear. There’s nothing wrong with de-Latinization per se. It’s the ahistoricism and triumphalism which is often attached to de-Latinization which is nauseating. There is a world of difference between leaders in, say, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church trying to steer their church back toward the normative liturgical praxis which abided at the time of the Union of Brest and Anglophone liturgical refugees trading horror stories about parishes with the Stations of the Cross attached to the walls. Most of these folks who uncharitably assail Latinizations have never been in a so-called Latinized environment. Moreover, they make the cardinal error of equating a lack of “liturgical purity” (by their lights) with a lack of “spiritual purity,” as if centuries of Eastern Catholics were trapped in darkness, unable to work out their salvation because the Divine Liturgy was missing a few minor litanies.

It doesn’t help that many de-Latinizers subscribe to a rather simple, but in many ways false, narrative that at some point in the dark past a bunch of conniving Jesuits, Basilians, Redemptorists, or whatever tricked backwards Eastern peasants into adopting a bunch of alien liturgical and para-liturgical practices that were fundamentally at odds with the “true spirit” or “authenticity” of the Eastern rites. Sure, sometimes Latinizations were brought in from the top down, but the truth is that sometimes Latin practices were adopted freely because they were seen as good in themselves. Further, such adoptions were not always done out of ignorance or simply stapled onto existing practices in a thoughtless manner.

Take, for instance, the importation of the Feast of Corpus Christi into the Ruthenian Catholic Church. In an excellent and very detailed paper, “The Latin within the Greek: The Feast of Corpus Christi in 17th-18th Century Ruthenian Practice,” Maria Takala-Roszczenko shows how the Ruthenians adopted Corpus Christi without losing sight of their Byzantine liturgical patrimony. Instead of simply translating extant Latin Corpus Christi hymns into Church Slavonic, the Ruthenians created new hymns which drew on existing Byzantine themes while maintaining consistency with many of the Biblical texts and themes that were already a part of the Latin liturgy for Corpus Christi. Similarly, a brief perusal through any old Ukrainian Catholic prayer book reveals orders for the Stations of the Cross, Rosary, and Benediction which are uniquely flavored with Byzantine liturgical elements; they are not carbon copies of Latin forms.

Of course a lot of this stuff is already looking like ancient history. With the exception of a few pockets of resistance here and there, there is no concentrated movement in any of the Eastern Catholic churches for re-Latinization. Some, naturally, want to hold on to some of these Latin practices, arguing that through centuries of use they have become an integral part of Eastern Catholic liturgy and spirituality. I agree. As one blog commenter mentioned on the old Opus Publicum, it’s rather absurd to tell old ladies throw away their Rosaries, grab some prayer ropes, and become hesychasts now. While I suspect that Latinizations within many of the Eastern churches (with the possible exception of the Maronites) will remain on the fast track to extinction, I still have fond memories of the (lightly) Latinized Ukrainian and Melkite environs of my youth and the real, three-dimensional human beings I shared the pew with each Sunday. May there be more of them throughout all of the corners of the Catholic Church. Today they are sorely missed.