A Reflection on the Dormition of the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary

Glory to Jesus Christ! It is good to be here to celebrate this most special feast. This feast of the Dormition is special for many reasons. Our Byzantine Tradition actually provides the foundation of the historical event that we celebrate in the Universal Church today. When the Church wanted to demonstrate the truth that the Mother of God, after completing the course of her life, was bodily assumed into heaven by God, it was our Byzantine tradition that was used by Pope Pius XII to show this truth. He would quote Eastern Fathers like St. John of Damascus to drive home the point that we believe that after Christ ascended, He would not leave His mother’s body in her grave. No, her falling asleep (which is what Dormition means) was followed with her Body being assumed into heaven. In the Church year which ends at the end of this month, this is the last big feast that we have. We have the tradition of fasting from August 1st until today, which makes one of four fasts that follow the feasts of Pascha, the Nativity, and the Holy First Apostles Peter and Paul. Today is perhaps the peak of our year, as our church year ends this month and a new Byzantine year begins in September. But there is more than the Church year and the joy of this last solemn feast of the Church year. Because the Theotokos’ body was assumed into heaven to be united with her soul, and because the apostles found fragrant flowers in the tomb, we have the joy of having flowers and herbs to be blessed on this joyful day. This is our final feast of the year but from an even more mystical angle, we could say that this feast is the final feast period in all of our life in Christ. This is the feast that testifies to the Completion of salvation history. Let’s take a journey through the icons in our church to see how that is true.

Let’s start up to your left, and what do we see? The fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. What is under the tree? A skull. Death. But who else do we also see in the icon? It’s an image of the Theotokos. This brings our minds to the words of God after the fall. In speaking to the hardships that befell mankind after the sin in the garden, there is a promise of hope. A promise of salvation. In Genesis 3:15 we hear what scholars call the “protoevangelion”, the first Gospel. The first good news to us from God after the ancestral sin was: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” That’s right, in the first book of the Bible we are told that the offspring of Eve will vanquish the head of the serpent. The main icons along the sides of our church are even more clear in telling the continual story of salvation as a long thread. What is the first one that we see? The nativity of the Theotokos, which we celebrate on September 8th, and is just at the beginning of our Byzantine Church year. Let’s continue from there to her Entrance into the Temple, to the Annunciation, to the Visitation of Elizabeth, to the Nativity of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, to His Holy Theophany, and we continue to the account of Christ’s life of ministry that crosses all of the way to the back of our nave and across to the “south side” of the nave as we call it. The icons on this side of the Church brings us closer to the Holy Passion of our Lord with his entry into Jerusalem, and eventual crucifixion (note the skull is here yet again) and resurrection. But that is not the end of the chain of salvation history, and it’s not the end of the icons on the south side of our nave. No, let us continue to see the story of Christ from resurrection to Ascension, we see the story of the Apostles, the splendor of Pentecost, and what do we find at the bottom, at the very end of this chain of history? It is the icon of our feast today. This is such a beautiful story that we see right before our eyes every time we come to worship, which I hope we can grow to appreciate more and more as we grow in our faith which is so deeply linked to things like icons and blessings. After the Feast of Pentecost our eyes move to the icon in the bottom left from my view, as the completion of this chain of events. Christ is truly Risen but at the same time this is the proof that it’s not just his ascension. It’s not just the power of the spirit at Pentecost. No. Our journey through salvation history ends with a woman who is both lying at her tomb, and resting safely in the arms of her son. But now in an almost mirror image of the Icon of the Nativity, she is the little one held in His arms, because her soul is home. She is restored as her body is eventually raised and the angels and Apostles who look on are in awe, because she has fallen asleep. The next time they will come back to the tomb with the Apostle Thomas and there will only be the aroma of flowers, and there will be no body. That is the sign that our salvation is seen most clearly in this special feast. And this is also why in our tradition that we say “O Most Holy Theotokos, Save us.” She is the first one saved by Christ in terms of priority, and like anyone who is filled with love, this salvation is shared to those who cry out to her. We say the words “O most holy Theotokos, save us” to attest to this beautiful chain of redemption that comes to us on this feast. Her Dormition is a sign that when we die united to Christ and His Church, we will have that same salvation which is manifested to her.

Scripturally, our Old Testament readings, apostolic reading and Gospel passage speak in harmony to this same fact. The readings from Genesis tell us that the Theotokos is the ladder from heaven that allows heaven and earth to meet. She is also the unopened door leading into the holy temple of God. She is full of the wisdom of God, who is in His presence listening to His words and keeping his commandments, which is the highest blessing of all. Perhaps even more striking is our reading from the letter of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Philippians. Here he speaks of how Christ humbles Himself in becoming Man, and that in this same humility it allows him to come to the Cross, but that God the Father exalts him so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. When I hear the words of Christ on the Cross and being exalted, I tend to think of Pascha as opposed to some Marian feast. Did the Church make a typo in pointing us to these words from St. Paul on this Feast, which is also the Apostolic reading for the Birth of the Theotokos? I argue NO, this is very intentional to think of Christ’s humility and exaltation on this feast. There is a genius here, for if Christ is to be humbled and live, he would have to come down to earth from the ladder, this door to heaven, who is His mother. And if he were to be risen from the dead but she were to live a normal course of life and not be with him in paradise in body AND soul, he would be of all sons the most sad.

Liturgically, our last day of the Church year speaks to this same fact. August 31st commemorates the deposition of the cincture of the Holy Theotokos. We remember the clothing that the Theotokos wore because there are no claims to having relics of the body of the Virgin Mary’s body, unlike many saints. That’s right, there are no remains of the Theotokos’ body on earth claimed from the over 2000 years of Church history, so don’t let the date of the dogma deceive you. The Dormition has been upheld throughout the centuries because of the importance of this feast. More importantly, this demonstrates that God’s love for her is a sign of love for us. But what about you and me? Will we fall asleep in the Lord and be assumed? Is that true of the graves that we visit, that the bodies have been assumed into heaven? After all, we should be visiting the faithful departed, praying for them both in Church particularly at anniversaries and on all souls Saturday’s. Is this beautiful promise only for the select few who are assumed? No, because we know that their souls will dwell among the good, as the prokeimenon for the faithful departed tells us. We also know that at the final resurrection, all of us will be integrally human, with our souls and bodies united just as is the case in this feast. This feast attests to the words of Christ who said that if one believes in Him, that person will not die. The Theotokos shows us that these words are not speaking of our physical hearts stopping to beat. This tragically befalls all of us, but in stark contrast to this tragedy we have the reality of life in Christ. We have the firm conviction that Christ trampled death by death. One of the most beautiful ways to see this is not just with special callings like that of Elijah who passed over physical death. No, the most beautiful way to see the victory of Christ over death is to see the story of His Mother. Her life on earth ended not as a bow of defeat, but as an affirmation and entrance into the eternal life of the presence of Her Son who trampled death. Her son, holding his Mother in his arms, calls us all to our destiny. He invites us to a deeper faith in His call to salvation by showing us that He loved His mother so deeply that He welcomed her to that life in the kingdom that he inaugurated.

So let us take this occasion of the Feast of the Dormition to see how deeply Christ loves us. He loved us enough to suffer crucifixion and to let His all pure mother pass from this earthly life, because this fleeting existence pales in comparison to the divine light of union with the Holy life-creating Trinity that never ends. May we journey ever more deeply into it so that we may one day be held by Him as we see Him with His Mother in this occasion of her Falling asleep in the Lord. She intercedes for the whole Church and so let us say together with these words, “O Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us.”

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The Mystical View of the Scriptures in the Akathist to the Theotokos

The richness of the Byzantine liturgical life of prayer has overwhelmed many, particularly those of us who are tasked with leading singing the multitude of services and musical tones that undergird it. The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi dictates that the prayer life of the Byzantine faithful will also influence perspective and faith in the Scriptures. From a Biblical perspective, there is a deeper foundation beyond the musical complexity of the Byzantine rite that can be a blessing to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. This Biblical foundation is so central and yet so often overlooked that at many times one may spend a great deal of time ignorant of its depths and splendor. By reflecting upon some of the Biblical references in the Akathist hymn, I argue that the Bible is deeply foundational to the mystical perspective which pervades Byzantine spirituality.

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The Akathist hymn to the Theotokos is attributed to St. Romanos the Melodist, who is said to have composed it in the 6th century. This hymn leads those who pray it through the life of the Mother of God and the prophetic foreshadowing of her life from the Annunciation to the Birth of Christ. Why does this matter in terms of Scriptural interpretation? As we shall see, the mystical viewpoint of the Byzantine Christian Tradition comes to life in this hymn. Parallels between the Old and New Testaments are made in ways that seem shocking to the perspective that literal Biblical fulfillment is the height of good exegesis. Instead, the perspective of Old Testament fulfillment and interpretation is centered upon mystical foreshadowing that is larger than the strict message of a given text. For the purpose of this essay, we will reflect on the sixth Kontakion and Ikos, which are below (online source: http://www.orthodoxa.org/GB/orthodoxy/spirituality/AkathistMotherGodGB.htm) .

Kontakion 6 Having become God-bearing heralds, the Magi returned to Babylon. Fulfilling Your prophecy, and having preached You as the Christ to all, they left Herod as a trifler, who knew not how to chant: Alleluia.
Ikos 6 Having shed the light of truth in Egypt, You expelled the darkness of falsehood; and unable to bear Your strength, O Saviour, her idols fell; and they that were set free from them cried to the Theotokos: Rejoice, Uplifting of men. Rejoice, Downfall of demons. Rejoice, you who trampled upon the delusion of error. Rejoice, you who censured the deceit of the idols. Rejoice, Sea which drowned the symbolic Pharaoh. Rejoice, Rock which refreshed those thirsting for life. Rejoice, Pillar of fire, guiding those in darkness. Rejoice, Protection of the world, more spacious than a cloud. Rejoice, Nourishment, successor to manna. Rejoice, Minister of holy joy. Rejoice, Land of promise. Rejoice, you from whom flows milk and honey. Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.

First, let us note that the kontakion provides the context of the rejoicing in the subsequent Ikos. In the midst of the narrative of the Annunciation and Nativity, we reflect in the 6th section upon the Magi departing from Bethlehem in a new direction. Instead of going back towards Herod, they perceive his unbelief and journey to Egypt. The Ikos too then focuses on Egypt and speaks to the Mother of God in the light of her being the Mother, as well as in relation to the people of the Old Testament. While it is true that she sojourned there with the young infant Jesus and His foster father Joseph, the words relating her to Egypt and salvation in general shed light on the Byzantine view of Scripture.

After describing the Theotokos in general terms indicating that she brings light and salvation ultimately through her Son, the Ikos places her into the contexts of the Exodus of Moses and His people from Egypt. This key section of the Ikos proclaims that Mary is a great variety of salvific events and supernatural things from the Exodus account. In sum, she is called the sea that drowned the symbolic Pharaoh (Exodus 14:28), the Rock which brought forth water (Exodus 17:6), the pillar of fire which guides those in darkness (Exodus 13:21), the protection of the world that is symbolized by the cloud (Exodus 13:21), the successor to manna (Exodus 16:4), the minister who brought joy (here the connection is somewhat unclear to Exodus, likely Moses and/or Aaron), and lastly the Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey (Exodus 3:17).

There is so much that can be said about this mystical perspective on the book of Exodus given to us in the Akathist. We are given explicit terms such as “symbolic Pharaoh” and “successor to manna” which look beyond the times of Moses and his people to consider how the Old Testament is fulfilled through Christ and His Mother. At the same time we hear about terms such as the rock and the pillar in unqualified terms as though Christ and His Mother were present in Egypt during the times of Moses; this is less difficult to consider with Christ as the Eternal God, as compared to His Mother. What is this hymn teaching us through its own “lex orandi”? From these titles given to the Mother of God, we see that the nature of Old Testament fulfillment in the New Testament is not linear. We do not look at the Exodus event and attempt to find multiple means of protection and salvation in the Akathist’s rejoicing. In other words, John the Baptist is not the Sea, Mary is not the rock, Joseph is not the pillar, Jesus is not the manna, and heaven is not the Promised Land, in this narrative at least. Instead, we are praying to and focused on one person in all of the imagery, and the Theotokos is seen as the entire bridge from Egypt to the Promised Land for the people of God led by Moses, with all of the distinct aspects of each title that she receives in her Motherhood of Christ and His Body, the Church.

In terms of the first title, she is the one who defends and even destroys the Pharaoh who attacks us. As a rock flowing with water, successor to manna, land flowing with milk and honey, she is the one who nourishes us. As a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, she is our guide and shelter who takes us through our wanderings and journeys towards the Promised Land. As a minister, she leads and instructs us, as did Moses and Aaron (and their successors). And as Promised Land itself, she is our home.

This vision painted by just one of the Ikoi in the Akathist gives us a sense that as we read the Scriptures, we encounter salvation in a multifaceted sense. We do not look for one to one correspondence between Old and New Testaments, nor do we necessarily need to consider all things typology. Instead, we can be wise and see parallels between Old and New Testaments as we pray. And when we read the stories from the Old Testament which may seem difficult to compare to our life in Christ, we can pause and be silent if we have not been given eyes to see by the liturgical tradition which nourishes us, or through prayer and beseeching the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, the greatness of the Byzantine Tradition is that its complexity offers the one who prays with it a wealth of inspiration. Taking the Akathist as one example, we can approach the Bible with a mystical eye that sees hidden treasures that are brought forth as we think about how the Old and New Testaments compare to one another. We can see Christ and His Mother in so many aspects of the salvation of Israel, and thus in our own salvation. Space cannot allow us to also consider other aspects where these comparisons are made in the rest of the Akathist hymn, or the ways that the lectionary’s readings for Vespers paints a similar picture between the Old and New Testaments, or the way in which Psalms are chosen for Feasts, Vespers, Matins, the Hours, and the like. In each of these, the point is reinforced: the Bible is applicable to all of our life, and we only need to enter into this wealth of beauty with eyes of faith to grasp it.

Self Identity Seen in the Establishment of the Byzantine Ruthenian Metropolia

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Know Thyself! This challenge echoes in our ears when we consider words of great philosophers who uttered these words. It is perhaps even more resounding in our ears when we reflect upon our religious identity, particularly for those of us who are Eastern Catholics. We understand that the flow of time has highlighted more mainstream religious groups in the United States, and yet we appreciate quite vividly that our identity is tied to our uniquenesses that are less well-known. Our history includes some painful moments of strife with fellow Catholics of the Latin Rite who did not quite understand those uniquenesses. Should Eastern Catholics imitate their Latin Rite brethren to lose the practices that are seen to be sources of confusion, or should their identity be grounded in faithfulness to their traditions? The establishment of a Metropolitan Church for the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholics was an important event in the history of Eastern Catholics answering the call to know who we are. By learning more about the historical context of the time when the Metropolitan Church in Munhall (or Pittsburgh, as it would later be designated), we can understand the vision and calling that Eastern Christians in communion with Rome have been called to, and as we will see this is the same viewpoint to which we have been called to, and it is the perspective that will continue to call us as we journey on the path to authentic Christian spirituality.
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On 1% and Memes

Memes can be powerful tools to convey messages. Their succinct nature combined with striking images can have a profound impact. However, with all brief communications they can also be misunderstood. To that end, I wanted to clarify on some of my own paltry contributions to the internet meme world.

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This picture was put together back when there were protests against the richest 1%. Using the verbal meme of the 99% vs. the 1%, there is a basic sociological fact that the richest 1% continue to get richer while the rest of us are either getting poorer/less wealthy. But I feel that there is something about this meme that could be missing if we focus too much on numbers as numbers, versus numbers as memes.

When I wanted to compare Eastern Catholics to this meme of the 1%, the goal was in some senses to encourage the smallness of our numbers so that we might one day become the 2%, etc. It may have been perceived as a “we’re small but this is where we are”. But really my deepest intent would be to ask us to realize our own wealth as Apostolic Christians, as opposed to a meditation on our numerical smallness.

His Grace, Bishop John of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma was interviewed last year (along with many other great servants of the Church) on our Churches and vocations, and I find his comments here to convey this message in a deeper manner than any meme could. Please watch his comments, in addition to the priests who also answered this question on the hopes for Byzantine Catholics (and all Eastern Catholics/Christians, by extension):

So going back to the meme of Eastern Catholics as the 1%, the deep questions I would like to ask are:

1) Where do we see our deepest spiritual wealth?

2) How do we share this spiritual wealth?

3) Are we sharing our spiritual blessings, or holding them in?

4) What more can we do to share this treasure?

I think that as long as we are asking these questions versus raising our hands in despair or blame, we are on the right path.

Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us!

 

Eastern Catholics and the New Evangelization

It appears that some of my recent prayers have been answered with either a “Not yet” or a “No”. I recently learned that the second series in Fr. Robert Barron’s series entitled ‘Catholicism’, which focuses on the New Evangelization (see here for one review) will be coming from an exclusively Roman Catholic background. This was the case in the first general overview DVD series on Catholicism, which led me to write this post.

In brief, I argued that it is incomplete to speak of Catholicism if one does not speak to its diversity amidst unity. This was true before the schisms of the Apostolic Churches, and can be highlighted again today as Eastern Christians in communion with Rome (and Roman Catholics!) live together in harmony despite having their own particular genius expressing their faith and devotion to God. This motivated holy fathers such as Blessed Pope John Paul II to write of the importance of the Eastern Churches, such that he stated this in Orientale Lumen:

“Since, in fact, we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each.

Our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters are very conscious of being the living bearers of this tradition, together with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. The members of the Catholic Church of the Latin tradition must also be fully acquainted with this treasure and thus feel, with the Pope, a passionate longing that the full manifestation of the Church’s catholicity be restored to the Church and to the world, expressed not by a single tradition, and still less by one community in opposition to the other; and that we too may be granted a full taste of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church(2) which is preserved and grows in the life of the Churches of the East as in those of the West.”

Two points stand out: one cannot be fully acquainted with something if one does not know that it exists, and it’s unfortunate that this series has not helped Roman Catholics (and the world) know about these treasures from the East.

Second, I am so thankful that the Holy Father mentions the sensitivity of Eastern Catholics towards this issue. It sometimes seems like it is of little importance to most Catholics, but it clearly was not the case for this Polish Pope who had a Ukrainian Greek Catholic grandmother. Coincidence? You can judge. 🙂

In summary, I’ve tried to emphasize that the Church is not very Catholic if she does not include these authentic Traditions of both East and West. A series like the ‘Catholicism’ DVD series is more aptly title ‘Roman Catholicism’-the problem with such an appellation is it doesn’t sound very Catholic. But that returns to my point mentioned above, and leads me to ask God for mercy on all of us.

With all of these criticisms borne in mind, I wasn’t intending to write this to complain. Nor was I only hoping to call others (and myself!) to prayer that East and West appreciate each other more. That’s all well and good, and worthy of a lifetime of prayers.

What comes to mind as I reflect further on the absence of Eastern Catholics in a ‘Catholicism’ series today is to ask why this is the case. There are doubtless multiple answers to this that are possible, and likely some of them are true in actuality. The Prayer of Saint Ephrem states, “let me see my own sins and not judge my brothers…”, and to that end these meditations and questions come to mind, as to the why of our absence.

Have we reached out to the world to evangelize with the Light of the East, or are we content to live in a small world of like-minded Eastern Christians?

How often do we reach out to those who are already our Brethren? Do we invite Roman Catholics to our liturgies so that they can understand us better?

Do we accept invitations (or just show up!) to Western Catholic services to visibly exemplify the fact that we are in communion with each other, despite belonging to distinct particular Churches?

Can we identify ways where the faith is growing due to our prayers and evangelization as Eastern Catholics, that might inspire others to look more into what it means to be an Eastern Christian?

Are we living the depth and fullness of our Tradition, or does our Eastern Christianity appear to simply be “a different Mass”?

These and other questions come to mind, but at the end of the day I think it’s safe to say that we can consider ourselves to blame. It didn’t seem like a big omission to not talk about Eastern Catholics in this series  (at least at this point in the series) because our presence does not seem like a critical part to telling a complete story.        

We are either too insignificant or our differences which highlight the beauty of the Church are not clearly seen. Perhaps that’s our fault because we live in such a way. May God grant more fervor and zeal to the Eastern Catholic Churches and their Faithful, that such a perception goes away through our living out the New Evangelization! It reminds me of this old ‘meme’ that I made awhile back. We may be small in numbers, but if we love our faith we can have a lasting impact on the world, as did the Apostles.

Through the prayers of our holy fathers O Lord Jesus Christ Our God, have mercy on us!

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‘Roman Catholicism’-a New DVD Series

Recently, a good friend of mine lent me a copy of the new documentary series by Fr. Robert Barron which is  entitled ‘Catholicism’. Despite being a fan of much of what Fr. Robert Barron is doing and saying in our modern world, I offer this critique with regard to a key aspect of this epic series.
At the outset, I must also say that while these episodes are wonderful, with nearly ten hours of gripping narratives, beautiful visuals, and a broad story about the truth of the Catholic Church, there is a gaping hole in the whole narrative that could leave a bad taste in the mouths of those of us who are Catholic but not Roman Catholic.

For in constructing a documentary series called ‘Catholicism’, what the viewer is confronted with is the fact that this whole series is centered on Roman Catholicism. And when I say that it is centered on Roman Catholicism, let me be clear:

Other than capturing beeswax candles and icons onto film, the narrative, hagiography, and theological perspectives in the ‘Catholicism’ series is written from a Roman Catholic perspective. One could watch all ten hours and never know that over 10 million Catholics aren’t Roman Catholic-we pray differently, think differently, and yet love our Western Brethren and our Catholic faith, all coming from a unique lens and way of life.

As an Eastern Catholic, none of this is to say that the Roman Catholic perspective is wrong or bad. We are, in fact, in full communion with Roman Catholics, and we see much that is complimentary to our own perspective and patrimony in the West. But it is certainly not catholic to be only Roman Catholic, in the sense that catholic means “kata holos”; i.e., according to the whole. The Church is a communion of Churches, with their own culture, patrimony, liturgy, style, art, theology, and perspectives. To make a video on Catholicism and not reflect this even by way of saying, “The Church is even bigger than being Roman Catholic, as there are other Catholics out there who aren’t even Western Christians”, is to sell short the breadth, depth and catholicity of what it means to be Catholic.

The whole of Catholicism is not found in a full orbed understanding of the West, just as much as it is not a matter of only understanding the East. Instead, Catholicism should be a grasping of the whole Christian community. Unfortunately, the 10 episodes in the ‘Catholicism’ series do not mention how Eastern Christians pray, or that we even exist. Again, there is the intro scene that shows beeswax candles, but our way of prayer, our saints, and our very existence are sadly not mentioned.

For these reasons, I would have much preferred that this beautiful series be renamed ‘Roman Catholicism’, as the viewer will spend ten hours and not learn about any Catholicism other than that of the Latin Rite. This may be a beautiful rite, and it may be the Ritual Church of the Pope of Rome himself, but it is not Catholic to solely focus on the Latin Rite. After all, 22 other particular Churches in the one Catholic Church are simply not Latin. We have a Light of the East (cf. Orientale Lumen), and it would have been wonderful to see it portrayed in a DVD series on Catholicism. Because it was not portrayed or even mentioned in the ‘Catholicism’ DVD series, I would much rather have preferred to watch this series under the qualified title of ‘Roman Catholicism’.

With all of this being said, I would still recommend the series to people, especially if one understands where it is coming from in its depiction of the Catholic faith. But if Fr. Robert Barron were to ask me for a word of advice for a bonus episode, I would unhesitatingly offer the criticisms above, not in a spirit of bitterness but in a spirit of admiration for his ability to tell a wonderful story, which currently stands somewhat incomplete.

May God help us all to grow in a mutual understanding and appreciation of each other, and may He unite those of us who are not in full communion with each other.

2012 Eastern Catholic Encounter West Coast-Final Talk

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After meeting at a conference center in El Segundo on Friday night and Saturday, the Sunday portion of the Eastern Catholic Encounter West Coast was held at St. Andrew’s Russian Catholic Church in El Segundo. There, Bishop Nicholas Samra of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton gave the final talk. I was blessed to participate in the liturgy presided over by my own Bishop, His Grace Bishop Gerald of the Holy Protection of Mary Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix, and you can see one photo from the liturgy above.

We had a wonderful liturgy and agape meal together, and we then reconvened for Sayedna Nicholas’ talk.

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As was the case with the other speakers, I’d like to focus on three key messages in Sayedna Nicholas’ talk. The message began by asking this question:
Who are we as church leaders?

This question is not answered by producing a spiritual “org chart”-instead, we believe that holy orders serve to serve all people. Without the people, ministry has no meaning. Who is being ministered to, otherwise? Ministry is a servanthood, and we have to have someone to serve as ordained and lay leaders. We are part of the priesthood as other Christs, even as lay people who are leaders in the Church. Instead of seeing lay people versus the ordained as those in contrast, the ministerial priesthood that is unique to Holy Orders and Royal Priesthood which is from our common Baptism work together, hand in hand. To truly be Together in Christ, we must embrace this synergy between all Christians.

The second point I’d like to focus on is Sayedna Nicholas’ reflections on 1 Corinthians 3:9-10, which states,

“For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.”

From this reflection on us as co-workers in God’s building, Sayedna Nicholas reflected that there are three types of builders:
Architects, contractors and carpenters.

Paul is sometimes an architect, planting churches.
Paul is sometimes a contractor, passing ministry on for others to exercise leadership in those Churches.
Paul was also a carpenter, doing the actual baptisms and preaching.
Leadership is connected to being in the image and likeness of God, and we all play our part as different members in the Body of Christ. Not all of us will be as St. Paul, who built up the Church in such diverse ways. But if we are living in accordance to our calling to serve the Body of Christ, we will build up the one building that is the Church.

The last point that I wanted to emphasize in Bishop Nicholas’ talk was his reflections on the future of Eastern Catholic Churches in America. We came together, he said, but if it ended on that day, it would lead to little fruit. Long range planning is discerning strengths for the future. We have to ask what our strengths are so that we can expand and build on strengths.
For example, if our parish has good liturgy/cantoring, we must be faithful to sharing videos, recording music, and the like.
In essence, we must use our strengths to build up God’s vision.
On a practical note, Sayedna encouraged us all to take our excitement home and continue to consider how we can do things together.
The weekend can’t end, we need to follow up.
One text which was recommended to think about the importance of this was Fr. Anthony Coniaris’ book-The Eye Cannot Say to the Hand. I can testify from having read it that this is a wonderful work which shows the need that we have for each other, which runs so contrary to the individualism of our day.
He also recommended that we consult supplementary readings on the Eastern Catholic Encounter Website. If I’m following the website correctly, the link is here.

He then encouraged those of us who live near Eastern Catholics of other jurisdictions to get our communities together, planning to move forward, trying to get resources to build each other up.

In closing, I think this last point makes for a good reflection on ways Bishop Nicholas’ talk could be improved. Mostly, the improvement for which I hope can be found through all of us who have yet to live out this vision laid out in the talk. I do not feel that this follow up is actually happening on a large scale-perhaps this is only a matter of impatience or blindness on my part, but I sincerely hope that this vision can be truly lived out by all of us, so that the Body of Christ may be built up more and more.

Grant This, O Lord!