Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Thoughts on Byzantine Catholicism

As I've posted before, we're Byzantine Catholic. For more explanation, see the Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Catholic Trust me, it's just easier that way.

Anyway, liturgies have always been much much smaller than Roman rite Masses, attendance-wise. It's true, there aren't very many Byzantine Catholics in the world, so it's not surprising that the numbers, when compared with Roman churches, would be vastly different.

From what our priests have said, attendance has been on a steady decline over the past few decades. (I heard the same thing when attending a Roman church, but when your numbers were always low to begin with, I guess you notice it more.) Priest's Wife wrote a post on Monday looking back at a weekend spent at both a Byzantine liturgy and a Roman Mass.

A lot of what she said reminded me of Sundays at our church. We drive a long way to attend liturgy. We are the youngest adults there and there are only 3 children attending regularly. It got me thinking about a meeting we had with our priest prior to Lent about how we could grow our church, spiritually AND getting people who had fallen away to return. Why would people want to come back? But why did they go away in the first place?

I've heard the talk, the stories (good and bad), the gossip about the priest at one church who got involved with a parishioner and ended up leaving the priesthood and is now married to that woman, but not without first closing one of the churches in the parish...wait, this might be confusing.

Here's the short version of the backstory: DH's childhood parish had two churches. One in a nearby big city, one in a suburb. The priest who left closed the big city church, per Bishop's orders, but the suburb one was kept open. A year or so goes by, we're getting pinch-hitting priests, including Ukranian rite priests, Roman priests, etc. It's pretty interesting. Finally, we get a priest. This guy is FRESH out of seminary! After he barely gets settled, the Bishop asks him to be the administrator to another church in another big city, because that priest sort of was kicked out after some disagreements with parishioners and newcomers, which turned into some thinly veiled racism. Welcome to being a pastor, indeed.

So we've got people in both places who are angry, confused, betrayed, etc. And we have some with a language barrier, which always makes things entertaining. Some people left both churches because they were upset by what happened with the respective priests and respective parishes. That's too bad though, because it shouldn't be that way.

Was this the only reason that attendance has dropped? I don't think so. I'm not a sociologist or a professional in urban studies, but there are a few things that I learned with my fancy-pants American Studies degree that I don't get to use in my real life, but they still stick in my brain. Might as well see how they apply here.

Suburbia! I think that has a lot to do with why people have drifted from (in this case) Eastern Catholicism.

The church we attend most of the time was constructed in the late 1800s/early 1900s. I'm sure that back then, the streets surrounding the church were filled with parishioners, like in many cities and towns. As time went on, people made better wages, could save their money, and started moving out the the 'burbs and "the country" as they thought it was the place to be. Look at Levittown, New York. When did that spring up? Post World War II. Guess what? The churches didn't always follow, especially where we live. (Before anyone comments about how there are Eastern churches on Long Island, shhh, we don't live there! But we know, we had a few priests from that area when we were between pastors.) You had to go back to the city to attend liturgy. Now, there might have been enough "old timers" who stayed behind to give the parish reason for remaining. Or maybe it was financially better to stay put. Looking at the Eastern Catholic churches in our state, a LARGE majority of them are in cities.

I hate to say it but people are creatures of habit and get lazy. If it is a 20 or 30 minute ride to church on Sunday, who wants to do that?? Not when there are other things to do! (Or a Roman church looks okay and is right down the road...) I realize that this is a huge blanket statement and not everyone left because of this, but when talking with people at church...they come from all over! Hardly anyone lives in the city anymore. (And I'll admit, there are many Sundays where I don't want to get up at 7am to leave the house by 8/8:15 for a 9am liturgy. What is this, a work day!? I'd much rather sleep til 8:30, roll out of bed, throw on clothes and run up the street for the 9am Mass. And I have done that. Along with not going at all on other Sundays. I'm not perfect, I don't pretend to be. I will say that the weeks I don't go to church at all are horrible, and the weeks where we don't go to liturgy just don't feel right.)

Assimilation. A large part of my degree focused on immigrants and the American Experience, what it means to be American, etc. Now I really get to use it!! Most Eastern rite churches are comprised of one ethnic group, settled by immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Over time the ethnic boundaries blurred as people moved around, but I believe that this also led to people drifting from the church of their homeland. When looking at the 1950s and HUAC in particular, is it any wonder that people might have completely left their rite? Roman Catholics had their prejudices in the 1800s, but by 1950, being Roman Catholic was much more acceptable. Hello Kennedys.

Age. Our parish is a fast-greying one (maybe I should skip to "white"), which could be another reason why attendance has dropped. Older people get timid about driving, they don't want to go too far, or don't feel comfortable navigating the highways. Add that to distance (if they live in the 'burbs) and there are two reasons for low attendance.

What about mixed marriages? Not just between Eastern Catholics and Romans, but other religions too. Maybe a family doesn't really practice ANY religion anymore, or they practice the other spouse's faith. If Roman churches (or any other house of worship, really) is closer, more convenient, prettier, friendlier, whatever, people might go there instead. This is coming from someone who is in a mixed marriage, but happens to like the Byzantine rite much better. I chose this, on my own. Turtle never said "if you marry me, we can only go to a Byz Cath church." Who knows, if I'd never met him, maybe I would have never heard of this rite and would have been not 100% happy with the Roman church, but not knowing what else to do. Have no fear, the Byzantine rite is not 100% perfect. If it were, I would not be writing this post!

With so many reasons why participation has gone down, how can we begin to work at bringing people back? Where do we start? Do people want to come back, do they even miss their old church? I know that some are so hurt and disappointed, they'd rather walk through fire than return. That's their choice, and I hope they know that they'd always be welcomed back, should they choose to return. Then there are people who are comfortable in their ways, and haven't given their old church much thought...but they might, if they got a gentle reminder. What about those people who never came to church at all because their parents stopped going (or went Roman) before they were born? I am not keen on direct evangelization; if this makes me a bad Christian, then I don't know what to say. I don't feel comfortable talking with people about religion if I don't know their background or beliefs. To me, it's like pushing--and I don't believe in pushing anyone to do anything. I wouldn't appreciate someone of a different faith trying quite earnestly to get me to join their religion; I try to practice that same respect when around others. Of course, that can seem as though I'm hiding my faith, which has its own problems.

I don't know if there is a clear answer as for what to do to solve the problems that our church is facing. There are people who care about its survival; are we enough?

1 comment:

  1. good post- I think demographics have a lot to do with it...still sad...


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