An Opening Remark on the Ways of Greek Catholicism in the West

My childhood, like the childhoods of many persons, was a mixed bag, though on the religious level it was, perhaps, better than most. Despite some understandable ignorance, if not perfectly normal confusion, concerning both the state of Catholicism and what it meant to be Catholic, I benefitted, for a time, from the insularity of a Greek Catholic existence, one that intersected with both the Melkite and Ukrainian/Ruthenian traditions. Part of that was quite by accident since I spent a number of years living on a military base where the chaplain happened to be a Melkite adorned with bi-ritual faculties. Had he not been stationed there it is entirely possible, even likely, that I would have lived out those years as an impressionable adolescent in a standard, run-of-the-mill Roman milieu with all of the highs and lows that typically entails at this period in human history. Identifying as I did with Greek Catholicism, both liturgically and ecclesiastically, I wrestled at times with having too much pride in my tradition — pride that would sometimes spill over into looking down on the much larger Roman world which surrounded me. Attending a Roman Catholic school will do that to people, especially later when I began to realize that there was nothing authentically “Catholic” about my time in parochial schools, except for the tuition which my mom and her husband often struggled to pay.

Much of what I had internalized during those early years on into my teens fell by the wayside. Or, rather, I fell by the wayside by the end of high school, enchanted as I was by ideas I could barely comprehend and the possibility of experiences which I knew I was never supposed to have. Still, throughout my college years — “dark years” judging by some out of the outcomes they produced — I never entirely lost sight of my Greek Catholic background or the many ways it showed me what holiness and beauty were meant for. When God came back into my life, which is to say when I allowed God back into my life after fruitlessly warring against the possibility out of a mixture of haughtiness and shame, it seemed far more natural to attend an Eastern Orthodox parish than a Roman Catholic one. The truly natural step for me at that time would have been to return to the local Ukrainian Church of my youth, but I didn’t have the nerve for it. Even as a child I knew perfectly well that Eastern Catholics were, at best, an exotic attraction among contemporary Catholics and, at worst, Rome’s red-headed stepchildren who should be tolerated just long enough for them to splash their faces with holy water and wakeup from the dream that they would ever be what every Roman Catholic is by birth: legitimate members of the Corpus Mysticum.

It seems to me that this realization, which was fixed so firmly in my mind when the time came to choose either a return to Catholicism or a conversion to Orthodoxy, is held by many Greek Catholics living in the West today, particularly among my generation or the one now coming up. They love the Church, but they also know that history has not been kind to their authentic traditions. At the same time Greek Catholics — often referred to disparagingly as “Uniates” — know that they are detested by the Orthodox who often perceive them as automatically inferior. The Greek Catholic Church, by Orthodox lights, is an inferior communion riddled with contradictions and compromises. In a well-intentioned effort to overcome this perception, a few too many Greek Catholics have adopted what I would call an “Orthodox posture”; they do not want to be Orthodox in a full communal sense, but they see, through rose-colored glasses, an idea of Orthodoxy that they would make their own in order to both combat Roman chauvinism and Orthodox triumphalism.

As much as I deeply sympathize with the current Greek Catholic impulse to fully recover their full theological, spiritual, and liturgical patrimony, I find it hard not to be bothered by what seems to me to be a dangerous inferiority complex, one that seems to yield a defiant stance against Rome and a subservient position vis-à-vis Orthodoxy. Instead of serving as a bridge between (ecclesiastical) East and West, some Greek Catholics in the West today (or converts to Greek Catholicism) invent problematic categories for themselves, such as the “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” phenomenon — a pick-and-choose approach to ecclesiology and dogma worthy of the worst excesses of Protestantism. How this pathological mentality can be fully identified, exposed, and refuted seems to me to be an urgent enterprise if Greek Catholicism is to maintain a positive role in the preservation of Christianity in a geographic-political space which is now militantly secular. Going hand-in-hand with that endeavor should be an even more urgent one, namely to refresh what it means to be a Greek Catholic in a manner which is wholly traditional without sacrificing forward-thinkingness and the imperative to evangelize the masses with the light of the Christian East.