Recently, I was thinking about how I came to be Byzantine Catholic, and I realized that the easiest way to explain it is that it’s an accident of geography. My dad’s maternal grandparents came to America from a part of Europe that was Slovakia at the time and settled near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; they eventually ended up in the metro Detroit area where my Byzantine Catholic grandmother married my never-baptized but ostensibly Protestant grandfather and had four children. (Happy side note: My grandfather was baptized in a Byzantine Catholic Church about a year ago at the age of 92. I still get teary-eyed with joy thinking about it.) Then, my Byzantine Catholic father, the youngest of those four children, married my Roman Catholic mother who embraced the Byzantine Catholic Church, my brother and I were born, and they raised us to know and love that Church.
There’s a lot that feels a bit random in that narrative. My dad’s grandparents happened to be from a Byzantine Catholic region of Eastern Europe. Give or take a few miles, and they’d have been Orthodox or Roman Catholic. But by what some might call an accident of geography, they were Byzantine Catholic. I don’t know how strong the catechesis of my ancestors was. I don’t know how much they understood about their faith, but that doesn’t matter. They continued the motion of a chain of events that led to me being Byzantine Catholic.
The reality is that none of this is random. God doesn’t deal in coincidences or accidents. It was not actually due to an accident of geography that I was born into a Byzantine Catholic family. I was born into this family and this Church because it was where God wants me. There is a reason that I was born into this Church and not into the Roman Catholic Church or an Orthodox Church, and that reason is the will of God.
In my experience, the Eastern Catholic Churches sit in a complicated position. Not everyone loves our existence. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked when I’m going to get off the fence and become Orthodox or Roman Catholic. I’ve been told that it would be easier to just become Orthodox. Perhaps it would. But easier isn’t always the best option or the right one. God has a purpose for the Byzantine Catholic Churches. In a talk he gave last September, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church defines the Byzantine Catholic Churches as living out the spirit of the first Christian millennium; that is we live out an Orthodox spirituality and theology while living in communion with the See of Rome. He sees us as living out the call of Christ for His people to dwell in full and loving unity. Diversity ought to be allowed, accepted, and embraced.
I could go on about that for ages, but that’s a digression. I believe that the Byzantine Catholic Churches have a beautiful purpose in our world. I believe that we need to be vocal in showing the world the beauty of our Church. We are a living and active representation of heaven on earth, and we must live that out in a way that radiates into the lives of those around us. I firmly believe that we are called to show the beauty of unity to the world by our lives. Yes, we hold a complicated position, but it does not follow that this position ought to be abandoned because of difficulty.
There is beauty in this difficulty. I’ve talked before about the difficulty of being an Eastern Catholic both in an ecumenical environment and in strictly Catholic environments. It is not easy to be the minority or the other. And at times it does feel as though some obnoxious accident of geography put me in this place. But it wasn’t an accident that put me in this place. It was God, and if God put me here, then there is beauty in this complicated place.
It may not always be obvious beauty. It may not always be easy to look past external complications. Yes, Byzantine Catholicism is aesthetically pleasing. I love the sensory experience of my church. It is is a gorgeous place to be. The music is beautiful. The people (at least in my experience) are wonderful. However, the disunity of the Christian body can be discouraging and ugly.
It is hard to know leaders of other Churches believe that my Church is the greatest obstacle to unity between the Christian East and Christian West. It’s hurtful to be called a “uniate.” On the other hand, I can understand that it is hurtful to other Churches that my Church reestablished communion with the See of Rome several hundred years ago. Yes, we acted from political reasons more than religious/spiritual, and I can easily see why that’s hurtful to others. We have to accept that and work with it; we cannot ignore the hurt in the hopes it will go away. The wounds need to be acknowledged and discussed.
Christian unity is a complex thing. Yes, we are called to unity, but we are called to unity in diversity as St. John Paul II said. It’s important to highlight our common ground, but it’s also important to acknowledge our differences and discuss them. We need to embrace our brokenness and take it to the Cross, to the One who heals all wounds. Christ alone can heal the brokenness of our Church. He can bring great goodness into this situation and out of it.
In closing, it is the beauty of geography that made me Byzantine Catholic rather than Roman Catholic or Orthodox. The geography that wrought this situation is beautiful because it was made by God. God the Father may not have willed the brokenness of His Son’s body. He may not rest well pleased with the wounds within the Church. But that absolutely does not mean that He will abandon His Church, the Bride of Christ to perish in brokenness. No, Jesus comes to make all things new (Rev. 21:15), and He will use anything to do that. He will use politics, geography, humble prayers, conversations, ecumenical action…God will use anything that comes from a sincere desire to serve His Kingdom to make this thing new.
And maybe we won’t see the Church fully restored on this side of Paradise, but we have not been abandoned. He is a God of restoration and renewal, not a God of accidents. He makes beautiful things out of us. He wants this Church, His Church to be whole. And to do that, he’s going to use all of us-Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Byzantine Catholics, Protestants…we’re all called to this table. We’re all called to unity. We are called to be One as the Trinity is One.
Father God, heal and restore Your Church. Make us One as the Trinity is One. Renew and restore Your people. Break down walls, and heal wounds. Give wisdom to Church leaders, and give hope to Your people. Father, make us one.
(This is the other well-known article about the region of Europe from which my ancestors came. March 15, 1939 was our big day; we should celebrate that more.)