A couple of years ago, I was in a spiritual rut. I was receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist regularly, but I could tell that I wasn’t growing spiritually. Sunday Mass had become routine, just another item on my weekly to-do list. I was going through the motions, reciting the memorized responses. My mind wandered during the Liturgy of the Word; the Liturgy of the Eucharist passed by in a blur. All this changed after I encountered the Divine Liturgy of Byzantine Catholicism.
Several “sui iuris” (Latin for “self-governing”) churches in communion with Rome use the Byzantine Rite. One of the largest of these is the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church, which broke with the Eastern Orthodox Church and returned to full communion with the Pope in 1646. After a little bit of research, my younger brother discovered that there was a small Ruthenian Catholic parish a short drive from our hometown. He began regularly attending Divine Liturgy there and got to know the pastor. He even began assisting as an altar server. I was curious: What was it about the Byzantine tradition that had captured his attention? When my brother finally invited me to come along with him one Sunday, I saw it as an opportunity to get out of my spiritual rut and enthusiastically accepted.
The Divine Liturgy is very ancient and is attributed to St. John Chrysostom who was archbishop of Constantinople. Most of the liturgy (including the readings) is sung and the priest faces towards the tabernacle (a posture known as “ad orientem,” Latin for “towards the east”). Also, unlike the most common practice in the Roman Rite, the faithful do not kneel during the consecration. Instead, in the Byzantine tradition, the congregation stands throughout the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Eastern churches, the bread used to confect the Eucharist is not unleavened wafers like in the Roman Rite, but small pieces of leavened bread soaked in wine. Icons are an important feature of Byzantine spirituality. One thing you will notice immediately if you walk into a Byzantine Catholic church is that icons are everywhere!
At first, the many unfamiliar responses and rituals left me feeling very disoriented. I was intrigued, but what I was witnessing was so different that, at first, I wasn’t getting much spiritual benefit out of it. I found myself slipping into my anthropology training from college. I observed the Divine Liturgy with the kind of dispassionate detachment with which a student might study the religious rites of an exotic culture.
And yet, something about the liturgy, perhaps its antiquity and reverence, stirred my soul and kept drawing me back. Every so often over the last couple of years, on a Sunday or a major feast, I’ve returned to Divine Liturgy. I began making an effort to learn the proper responses and asked my brother about practices I didn’t understand. A whole new dimension of the Catholic experience opened up before me, as I discovered the ancient traditions of the East of which I had previously only been dimly aware. One of my favorite aspects of the Divine Liturgy is the Litany of Peace, the Eastern equivalent to the Roman Rite’s Prayer of the Faithful. As I joined the congregation in chanting “Lord, have mercy” after the various petitions, I felt a keen awareness of lifting my prayers, along with those of the priest, up to God. I felt less like a spectator and more like an active participant.
Meanwhile, back in my home Roman Catholic parish, something wonderful began happening at Sunday Mass! My whole perspective on the familiar words and rituals of the Roman liturgy was transformed. The Divine Liturgy, a mode of Catholic worship that was at the same time radically different and surprisingly familiar, had invited me to become more acutely aware of the supernatural drama taking place on the altar. I now say the responses (the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Creed) with feeling and deliberate purpose. Instead of zoning out during the Eucharistic Prayer and the Consecration, I meditate on the wonderful mystery of Christ offering his Body and Blood for the remission of our sins.
In his 1995 encyclical “Ut unum sint,” Pope St. John Paul II famously said that “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!” — that is, the Western and Eastern Rites. By periodically immersing myself in the Byzantine tradition, my love and appreciation for my native Roman Rite has been reinvigorated! If you are curious about the Byzantine Rite, I would urge you to find out if there is a parish in your area and discover the riches and beauty of Eastern Catholicism for yourself.