“When the Most High descended and confused tongues, he scattered nations. When he distributed the tongues of fire, he called all to unity. We also, with one voice, glorify the Most Holy Spirit.” Kontakion of Pentecost
Throughout its history, generations of immigrants have come to the United States in successive waves. Each group of people came at a unique point in time from a wide diversity of ethnicities and cultures, and this country’s melting pot character has found a fulfillment through an even wider breadth of these ethnicities and cultures living together. This offers the possibility of a New Pentecost where many ethnicities praise God in their own unique genius and through their own particular rites, but it could also be a New Babel whereby the differences between ethnicities and “tribes” has led to jealousy and strife. This essay explores the ways in which history shows that assimilation and the loss of ethnic identity have served to both benefit and harm Eastern Catholics in the United States. By considering the history of Americanization in Eastern Catholic Churches and contrasting them with resistance to such calls for Americanization, a complex picture emerges whereby assimilation per se is neither good nor bad. Instead, I argue that the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the faithful is the common ground of goodness which both transcends and fulfills ethnic identity.
Early Eastern Catholic immigrants to the United States were called to conform to “Americanism” in multiple ways. In some ways, this pressure provided a source of strength for these Eastern Catholics. The first that we shall consider is the fact that our prayer services were translated from Church Slavonic into English, and our own liturgical life was brought into this country’s vernacular. Rather than allow the words of our faith to become incomprehensible to the successive generations which would stem from the original immigrants to this land, Americanization of our faith strengthened it for the future. Additionally, as ghettos tended to end and the rest of American society was able to be exposed to our faith and traditions, Eastern Catholics were enabled to share their faith with the rest of the world. For example, this brought a spiritual home to Roman Catholics who were not at peace with the changes in their Church which came about through the Second Vatican Council, and even allowed those who did not have a link to the Apostolic Faith (from Protestants to the unchurched) to find a home in Eastern Catholic parishes. Our doors have become more open to other people who do not share an ethnic connection to our Church, and this has happened because our services are in English, and because our identity is not intrinsically Slavic (or Arab, etc.). A third way in which Americanization has helped us is that Eastern Catholics from different ethnicities have come together in some ways. Melkites, Romanians, Ukrainians, and Ruthenians all coexist in the same land, which highlights the greatness of a melting pot notion. Our exposure to each other’s chant style, the ability to interact and collaborate, are all things which could not happen outside of the American model.
Despite these positive traits in Americanization, there are also negative signs that conformity and loss of ethnicity led to a weakening of Eastern Catholic Churches. First, in being near Roman Catholics, many Eastern Catholics left their own Church. If our Church is in communion with those Churches following the Latin Rite, one could ask: Why not abandon one’s heritage and become Roman Catholic? This was an especially alluring concept when geographical proximity and infrastructural integrity made membership at a Roman Catholic parish more desirable. At other points, finding a husband or a wife that was Roman Catholic and unacquainted with the Byzantine Catholic way of life meant sacrificing an Eastern Catholic life to appease one’s future spouse. All of these cases are instances whereby if one had remained in a homogenous village in the Old Country, there would be no driving force to leave one’s heritage. The drive of being American in this instance has led to countless family members who are ethnically linked to our Church, but no longer so in their hearts.
Additionally, Americanization has changed our Church, even for those who have remained. First, our concept of vocations and priesthood has been radically altered. Americanism meant conformity to the larger Latin Rite, and their mandatory priestly celibacy was such that our married priests were forbidden from serving in this country, in many cases. Had a stronger isolation prevailed, perhaps these priestly vocations would not have been suppressed because our isolation would keep Roman Catholics from the “scandal” of our married clergy. Even among those priests who have remained because their vocation to the priesthood was accompanied with the call to celibacy, many Eastern Catholics hierarchs have driven Americanization for those who have stayed. The architecture, vestments, religious traditions, fasting practices, and more were altered in Eastern Catholic churches, such that our way of life was made to mimic Roman Catholics. This general principle, known as latinization, was strengthened by a thinking that to be truly American Catholics, one must resemble the majority Roman Catholics in the United States in the way that we pray. Thankfully, strong statements from Rome have spoken of our equal dignity and the need to preserve our ancestral traditions both here and in other countries, and this has been echoed by our own bishops and priests. But putting this into practice after decades of viewing our distinctive practices as ethnic oddities that are better lost for the sake of the melting pot is an ongoing struggle.
As the negative aspects of Americanization could be sensed even from the beginning, some Eastern Catholics have responded to defend their sense of identity in positive ways. As mentioned above, documents such as Orientalium Ecclesiarum and Orientale Lumen have spoken against such “second class” status that may have been desired by some American Roman (and Eastern) Catholic bishops. But even from this beginning, many of our faithful have defended our traditions. Through offering financial support and a sense of community, organizations such as the Greek Catholic Union were established. Events such the Uniontown pilgrimage to Mount St. Macrina brought faithful from multiple cities together, and our light of the East was allowed to shine. Even Roman Catholic bishops who were amiable to our tradition, such as Bishop Fulton Sheen, would be in attendance. Our voice from the Spirit was allowed to speak, and it would speak loudly. As mentioned above, different ethnicities of Eastern Catholics have been brought together in this country, and as such, resistance to a watering down or Latinization of our faith has been made through publications such as God With Us. Instead of allowing our voice to die, these are unified calls to live faithfully, where American Eastern Catholics have fought against the drive to lose our distinct identities by positively constructing new works such as the Light for Life series, which defend and explain our Eastern Catholic heritage. All of this resistance to Americanization has strengthened our Eastern Catholic Churches in the United States.
Resistance per se can also be something which weakens those involved in the struggle. In the history of Eastern Catholic Churches in the United States, there are several cases in which this is true. First, in the matter of priestly celibacy, the large defection of many priests and faithful into the Orthodox Church has weakened our Eastern Catholic Churches because we have lost so many of our own. While the “right side” of the priestly celibacy debate may be those who saw the holiness and reality of a religious vocation in their married priests and seminarians, the net result for our Church was one of loss and weakness. Second, there may be a sense that our Eastern Catholic is intrinsically Slavic, and as such there have been instances of resistance to newcomers. This feeling that those who are visiting are not welcome but are threats to “water down” the faith can weaken our Church’s ability to speak from her voice. Instead, the accommodation of our faith to the point where our baskets are blessed with meats from other ethnicities, but we still have our parish ethnic foods for sale (and for consumption!) is one where we keep our music and our practices, but those of us who are not Slavic ethnically can be just as much of a member of the Church as the cradle Byzantine Catholic. Lastly, resisting Americanization can lead to a poor relationship with the rest of the world. Bitterness and distrust over past scandals between our Church and American Roman Catholic Churches can lead to a poor relationship between Eastern Catholics and Roman Catholics. Instead of shining with our own light, many Eastern Catholics may either be embarrassed to live their faith, or bitter towards those who do not share their way of life. In our modern day and age, the Internet has exploded the amount of bitter comments that Catholics have made to other Catholics, not to mention intra-Church fighting over liturgical practices and the like. In all of this, a sense of identity leads to a sense of self-defense. This insularity and judgment of one another is a far cry from our Lenten Prayer of Saint Ephrem. In addition to problems between Roman Catholics and Eastern Catholics, resistance can lead to a bitterness to our Orthodox brethren, particularly those whose ethnic roots are as Eastern Catholics who left over the celibacy disputes.
Eastern Catholics have walked a fine line of assimilation versus standing out in distinction in American history, largely because each of these approaches are both good for our spiritual life, yet harmful for our spiritual life. Thus, one cannot advocate a hard line path of either assimilation or sticking to an ethnic enclave. Instead, one must constantly conduct an examination of conscience for ourselves and for our Churches, and ask whether we are being true both to be ourselves and to love our neighbor. Without either, our spirituality will be lost (in the case of assimilation) or dead formalism (in the case of strict resistance). Early Christians traveled throughout the Roman Empire, and it is clear that men such as Pope Gregory the Dialogist spent great amounts of time in New Rome as well as in Old Rome. If Blessed Pope John Paul II was able to construct a metaphor of East and West as two lungs, and yet neither side can love and accept each other in this country, it does not bode well for a larger Catholic/Orthodox reunion throughout the world. Through the Holy Spirit enlivening His people and strengthening them to live out their religious genius which is intrinsically linked to ethnicity, our expression of faith will be vibrant and strong. Without the Holy Spirit, there is no hope for our Churches, even if all of the past obstacles were to fall today. With Him, our own identity will include and yet transcend ethnicity, and it will bring life and light to the whole world in a New Pentecost.