Bethlehem, Make Ready

Christmas music is on the radio. Christmas trees are in houses. Santa is at the mall.

And it’s November 30. When my students ask me if my Christmas tree is up, I say no. It’s not going up until December 23. (I tell them that it’s because that’s the last day of school before break, so putting up my tree while listening to The Muppet Christmas Carol soundtrack and sipping hot chocolate is the perfect start to break for me.) They ask why I didn’t put it up last weekend or some time this week.

Because it’s November freaking 30. It’s not winter yet. We had a predicted high of 58 degrees today. Yes, the next few days will cool off, but it’s too warm for Christmas in my mind. It’s too early for Christmas. Besides, before we can have Christmas, we need to prepare for Christmas.

Preparing for Christmas isn’t just about shopping or baking or cleaning your house. You also need to prepare yourself for Christmas. On Sunday, I put out three “Christmas” decorations. I put out my Nutcracker music box/snow globes that are more about winter than Christmas for me, and I set up the Nativity scene. Jesus is NOT in the manger yet; he’s chilling in my jewelry box. The Magi are looking through a stable window because they have a long way to come. It’s a long trip from Persia to Bethlehem; we aren’t at Bethlehem yet. But like Bethlehem, we need to prepare ourselves for the coming of our King.

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It’s the feast of St. Andrew today. One thing that I’ve always enjoyed about the Fast of Philip/Advent is the way that the Church gifts us with the feasts of certain Saints who point us towards Christ in a special way in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Andrew invites each of us as he invited his brother, Peter, to come and see the Lord. (John 1:40-42) Several Old Testament prophets have their feasts in the next few weeks; each stands as a reminder of God’s love for people. St. Barbara (December 4) reminds us of the sacrificial nature that our love for God ought to have. St. Nicholas (December 6) reminds us that we are called to give of ourselves both to God and others. (He always reminds us to punch heretics in the face.) A few days later, the Conception of St. Anna reminds us of the faithfulness of God’s promises to us.

And so on…there are many feasts to point us to the coming of Christ. I love the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patroness of the Americas) for many reasons. St. Lucy whose feast falls eight days before the Winter Solstice in a season of long nights and darkness reminds us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. (John 1:5) These feasts are here to remind us to focus our gaze on Bethlehem.

I’ve been feeling a bit like Ebeneezer Scrooge this week because I’m not ready for Christmas trees or music despite the fact that the secular world is. But perhaps that’s the point. It isn’t just the calendar or the weather. I’m not ready for Christmas. I have work to do before my heart will be ready for Christmas. As I said earlier this month, during the Fast of Philip, I’m focusing on how the Lord can satisfy all of my needs and is in fact all that I need. I can still grow in that area. (Okay, I’ll always have room for growth in that area.) But I’m not ready for Christmas. I still have spiritual prep for Christmas. My personal Bethlehem is not ready for Christ. I need to make myself ready to welcome Christ.

When Christmas is actually upon us, I will put up the tree and set up the Christmas decorations. First, I’ll prepare myself spiritually, and then I’ll decorate my home. Bethlehem has to be ready before the king can come. Similarly, I must be ready. I must make my heart ready in order to welcome the King of Kings into my heart this Christmas and every day of my life.

Make ready, O Bethlehem, for Eden is opened.
Prepare, O Ephratha, for Adam and Eve are renewed.
Salvation enters the world and the curse is destroyed.
Make ready, O hearts of righteous men,
Instead of myrrh, bring songs as an offering of wisdom.
Receive salvation and immortality for your bodies and souls.
Behold, the Master Who lays in a manger
urges us to complete our spiritual songs.
Let us cry to Him without ceasing: O Lord, glory to Thee.

-Vespers for December 23

Finding Focus

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to choose a focus for liturgical seasons such as the Fast of Philip (also known as Advent) and Great and Holy Lent. I usually start thinking and praying about a theme a week or two in advance, and if I’m lucky, I’ll stumble upon The Right One the day before the season begins.

This year, I knew that I wanted to work on incorporating Eastern Christian spirituality into my life more and more. To that end, this will be my first Fast of Philip incorporating Fr. Thomas Hopko’s The Winter Pascha into my morning prayer time. The book has forty short meditations-one for each day of the Fast. I purchased an icon of The Root of Jesse to give me a visible reminder of those who have come before me (and before the earthly life of Christ) in faith. (To be fair, I’m working on acquiring icons for all of the major feasts/seasons of the Church. It’s slow going.) All of this prep was done at least two weeks in advance of the impending fast.

But I also knew that I wanted a quotation or a verse from Scripture to pray through during the Fast. I ended up finding two things that really resonated with me.

The first is the chorus from a song that my parish sings on the Sundays of the Fast of Philip:

He shall be born unto us,

And God will be with us.

And we will find him in the cave at Bethlehem.

He shall be born unto us. This (Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth) isn’t just something that happened a long time ago. This is something that can happen here and now. If we open our hearts and allow ourselves to be taken to the cave at Bethlehem, God will be born into our hearts, into our lives. That’s an area where I want to grow during this season. I want to grow closer to God, and looking at his humility is a way for me to work on that.

The second quote is from Lady Julian of Norwich, and I think that it nicely continues the theme of the previous quote.

God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me.

This is something that I’ve been praying through lately. I’m struggling through the idea that I fixate on “needing” things that I don’t need. I just need Jesus. I don’t need money or success or more yarn or a husband or all of the coffee in the world. I just need Jesus.

Scratch that. I need Jesus and more yarn. Shut up.

Okay, I don’t need more yarn. I want more yarn. All that I need is Jesus. He can meet all of my needs and wants. If it is his will, he will provide the rest. He is enough for me. That’s a fact that I know in my head, and I want to spend this season leading up to Christmas focusing on my only true need being a need for Jesus. My hope is that doing this will help me to grow closer to him and bring him into my heart more fully come Christmas and throughout the rest of my life.

(Dear Jesus, all that I want for Christmas is more yarn, all of the coffee in the world, and for you to be born in my heart. A pony would be nice, but all that I really need is you. Please complete me. And send coffee.)

But really, what do I really need to work on during this season of preparation for the Winter Pascha? I need more Jesus. I need to allow him into my heart and my life in a further and deeper way. I need to allow him to be born not only in the cave of Bethlehem but also in my heart. I need to depend only on him for my sustenance. He will provide all that I need.

He asked me my name

In the Eastern Catholic Church, the Eucharist is distributed with both species together. The priest or deacon places the Lord’s Body and Blood in the recipient’s mouth saying “The servant/handmaid of God, [Name], receives the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting, Amen.”

I’ve grown up with this. At my home parish, I’ve always heard my own name. When I’m a guest, I usually just get “The handmaid of God receives…” because most priests that I’ve encountered don’t ask guests their names. My deacon dad always asks guests at our parish their names, and I always thought this a bit odd because no one else seems to do it. As someone who was used to being an anonymous guest, I didn’t see the point in asking the name. I had gotten used to anonymity.

Then I recently was a guest at a parish where there were many guests and several guest priests, and the priests were asking the name of each recipient. You went up to the priest, whispered your name, and he included that in the prayer of distribution. It didn’t take but an extra few seconds, and it touched me. I attended two liturgies at this parish, and two different priests each did this. I walked up, I whispered “Cecilia” softly, and they said “The handmaid of God, Cecilia, receives…” I was deeply touched by this.

Initially, I couldn’t figure out why I was so struck by this. Why did it mean so much to me that two priests I’d never known and I’ll probably never meet again in this life asked me my name? The answer is simple: It gave me a sense of belonging. I felt welcome and wanted. I wasn’t an anonymous guest. I was a wanted and welcomed guest. Those priests will probably never remember that they gave the Eucharist to a dark-haired young woman named Cecilia, but I will remember that they asked me my name. I will remember that they made me a named guest rather than an anonymous guest at the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord calls us to welcome the stranger. He asks us to receive all guests in His name. That’s what this gesture was. That was a simple gesture, but it was a welcoming one. It was a gentle voice saying, “You are wanted here.”

It is easy to find and stay in our comfort zones. It’s easy to overlook the guests or strangers in our churches. It’s easy to assume that someone else will welcome the guests. But that’s not what Christ asks of us. Christ asks us to step out of our safe boat and engage the world around us.

I’ve slid in and out of countless churches unnoticed over the years. I may not be planning to join a parish that I visit while on vacation, but it’s always nice to have someone come up to me and welcome me, to help me find pew books and such. When I studied in Spain, I attended the same church almost every Sunday for three months. No one from the parish ever spoke to me. I nodded and smiled at an older gentlemen who sat near where I always sat. But no one ever engaged me in conversation. No one ever even learned my name.

I’ve been struck by a desire to change that for people who visit my church. I’m only one person, but the world is made up of many people who are “only one person.” I think that we all need to work in our own way to stop letting people slide out of our churches unnoticed. Let’s learn names. Let’s offer hospitality. Let’s offer friendship. Let’s strive to offer a home and a welcome to all those who enter our churches. Let’s offer the loving hand of Christ to all those we meet.

Let’s welcome every person who walks into our churches in the same way that we’d welcome Jesus if he was a guest in our churches.

Heaven on Earth

There’s a famous story among Eastern Christians that says that Prince Vladimir/Volodimir of Kievan Rus sent emissaries to Constantinople who visited the Hagia Sophia. When they returned they told the Prince that during the Liturgy they knew not whether they were in Heaven or on earth. The story says that this helped to bring Christianity to Kievan Rus; it also in part explains why the Eastern Churches at times call our Liturgy “Heaven on Earth.”

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I had a heaven on earth moment about a week ago. I had the opportunity to attend the consecration of the new temple of St. Elias the Prophet Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Brampton, Ontario. Twenty-one years ago, I attended the consecration of the first temple at the age of seven, and I don’t remember much of it. Sadly, that building burned down two and a half years ago. So when the opportunity arose to attend the consecration of the new temple, I leaped at it.

It wasn’t really convenient for me. I was tired, and I wouldn’t get much time to rest/sleep in during the weekend. I was stressed, and I wouldn’t get much introvert time during the trip. It was a several hour drive each way. I’d been out of town the weekend before, and I didn’t particularly fancy packing up my suitcase for another weekend trip. There were many reasons to not want to go. But I knew that in spite of all that I would regret it if I didn’t go. I knew that I needed to be there. As someone recently told me, we need to be where God is, and I knew that God was going to be there.

The weekend didn’t disappoint. The church is beautiful, and the Church is beautiful. I’ve heard it said before that the Church is not the buildings but the people. This weekend was a hope-filled reminder of that truth. The building is beautiful, and it will be made more beautiful as more icons are added to the space. (Icons are awesome; I love icons.) But the people of God are more beautiful because in us dwells the Holy Spirit. In his homily, Patriarch Sviatoslav said, “When the church was not yet consecrated, only YOU were living temples of the Holy Spirit. It was like I was facing God, one in the Holy Trinity, who lives in your hearts, in your souls. And because of you, because you are a living temple of the Holy Spirit, of our invisible and powerful God, this visible temple was today reconsecrated.”

It was so true. God was there. He was present in His people. His Holy Spirit was present. He was present through the Eucharist. He was there, and he acted. The church was packed to the gills. I couldn’t see much of what was happening. But it didn’t matter because I was able to hear and to experience it. I heard the beautiful singing. I heard the Rite of Consecration. I heard the Lord being praised by his people. (And I participated as best as I could.) And I did not know if I was in heaven or on earth.

Throughout the weekend, I heard reminders of God’s love for his people. I was reminded of the beautiful gift that the Lord gives us in the Ever Virgin Mary. He has given us His mother as our protector. I was reminded of the hope that our Lord offers us. The church building itself is a reminder of that. It is a reminder of how God provides for His people, how He hears their prayers and answers them. He does not abandon us. He mourns when we mourn, and he rejoices with us in our joy. He wants to draw us to Himself; he wants to bring us to a deeper experience of His love for us.

I was particularly struck by a comment that the parish priest made during Vespers on Saturday evening. He said that “God wants to celebrate with us. In moments like this, he dances with us.”  God wants to share in our joy. It was a reminder of the personal nature of God’s love. For me, that was the theme of the weekend. It was an experience of God’s embrace, of God’s love for us. God offers us hope and joy. He wants to know us and love us in deeper ways. We need to be open to His love. We need to allow Him to know us and to strive to know Him.

The weekend was an experience of heaven on earth. It was a reminder of how God loves His people, how He provides for us. I’m not a member of the parish, but I was still welcomed into their joy. I was able to partake of their joy, to share in it. I felt like I was able to take some of that joy and that hope with me when I came home. Now I want to bring that joy and that hope to my own life and to my own parish.

Ecumenism is Uncomfortable.

A few months ago, I wrote about ecumenism as a hard call. I talked about a few of the difficulties of living with the reality of Christ’s broken Body.

Recently, I’ve found myself confronting a very specific aspect of the lack of Christian unity. It might sound petty. It might sound odd. But for me it is something that I run up against on a near daily basis.

Ecumenism is uncomfortable. 

I really started confronting this in myself a few months ago. One of my dearest friends was getting married, and I was to stand up in her wedding. She and her now-husband are Roman Catholic; I’m Byzantine Catholic. They are devout Catholics who I know to have strong prayer lives, strong relationships with Jesus. I was happy that they were marrying.

But as the wedding drew closer, I had to confront something about the wedding liturgy and (more so) about myself. A few people had tried to condole with me about the difficulties of being a happy bridesmaid while feeling hopelessly single. But the reality was that I wasn’t jealous of my friend’s big day. Now, much of that is due to my love of her, but a bit of it also has to do with the fact that I do not want the wedding that she had. I want a traditional Byzantine wedding, and that isn’t what my friend had. Her wedding came and went; it was a beautiful celebration of the couple’s love for the Lord and for one another. But it was also a wedding that made me uncomfortable.

The wedding was very Western as is meet and just. They are Roman Catholics. It made sense that their wedding would reflect their faith tradition. And that meant that it didn’t look like my tradition. They took vows. They knelt. Guys, I had to kneel during the wedding liturgy. I was uncomfortable. As an Eastern Christian, I don’t kneel during liturgies. I love that my faith tradition allows me to make a profound bow during the consecration. Kneeling is a sign of humility, and I don’t object to it. But it is not my tradition.

I wasn’t in my tradition. I wasn’t in my “home space,” but rather I was a guest in my friends’ tradition. And we all know that the old saying says, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So I chose love. I did something that made me uncomfortable. I don’t love kneeling during a liturgy, but that is Roman tradition. Our liturgies are different, and some of those differences can make me a little uncomfortable. I’m sure that my friends feel the same way in my church. It’s okay to be uncomfortable or to not understand a friend’s tradition.

Ecumenism calls us to love and respect our Christian brothers regardless of their traditions. This doesn’t meant that we live our shared lives boiled down to the common denominator(s). It means that we love one another actively. It means that we embrace what we share. We have a common Eucharist? Great, let’s celebrate that. We have a common Easter? Let’s find a way to celebrate together. We both really love St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians? Let’s talk about that.

Ecumenism also means that we need to learn about our differences and accept them. We can’t just shove them under the rug and pretend that they aren’t there. We need to work through them. Every now and again, I have very selfish moments in which I think that it would be better if I never married because none of my (maybe-possibly-someday) bridesmaids will be Eastern Christians and thereby will have no clue how to participate in my wedding liturgy. If I don’t marry, none of us will have to deal with awkward details like proper reception of the Eucharist or why there are no vows or whether to bow or genuflect. If I don’t get married, everyone will be spared a whole host of uncomfortable moments arising from ecumenical differences.

But at the same time, isn’t it important for us to see our differences? If we see them, then we can discuss them. We can talk about why there aren’t vows in the Byzantine wedding service and why they exist in the Roman service. We can talk about the differences between kneeling and standing during the consecration, the differences between bowing and genuflecting. These discussions can provide deeper understanding both of one’s own faith tradition and of those of friends. We can learn from one another and grow closer to unity through those moments.

The Lord calls us to unity. He does not call us to be a batch of perfect cookie-cutter Christians. On the eve of his Sacrifice, he did not pray that we would all be exactly the same. He prayed, rather, that we would be one as the Trinity is one. Each member of the Trinity is unique, and so we are called not to a unity of sameness but to a unity of diversity. This is hard. This requires being uncomfortable. But if we do this, then we can be a Church in whom the Father can rest well pleased.

So let’s embrace the uncomfortable, and let’s do it for love.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity!

It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Running down on the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
Running down on the edge of his garments.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the Lord commanded the blessing—
Life forevermore.

-Psalm 133

Book Review: Helena

Knowing my great loves of Evelyn Waugh and of St. Helen, my roommate recently bought me Evelyn Waugh’s book Helena. Helena is a novelization of the life of St. Helen based in the theory that St. Helen was born in Britain.

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The book entranced me. Waugh’s prose, per usual, was delightful. His descriptions drew me into the story and made me care deeply about what happened. The story begins with Helena as the daughter of a Roman governor (about age 16) living in Britain when she meets Constantius. She marries Constantius and gives birth to Constantine; then, history ensues.

Waugh presents Helena as a strong woman who lives her life seeking truth. She is not concerned with material possessions or earthly success. She wants Truth. This begins with her education as a teenager; her father is portrayed as a man who wanted his daughters to be well educated. Her early divorce from Constantius and her son’s absence from much of her life allow her to learn and explore the small world she inhabits. (And she does, as a woman, inhabit a small sphere.) She is deeply curious, and this desire to learn stays with her into old age. The picture of her exploring Rome and Jerusalem in her seventies is inspiring. She craves knowledge and truth in a way that should motivate others to do the same.

The novel is very Christian, which makes sense considering who Helena and her son are. Much of the last third of the novel focuses on Helena’s growing faith in Christ and her frustration with those who converted to Christianity because it was fashionable or politically beneficial. As I said earlier, Helena is a woman who seeks Truth. Her desire to find the True Cross, the Sign through which her son conquered at the Milvian Bridge, is the crowning jewel of her life. She has spent much of her life pursuing truth. Her crowning achievement is to attempt to share the Truth she finds with as many as possible. She wants the True Cross and the hope that it represents to be evident not only to her own place and time but to all of humanity.

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All I want to say is this: read it. Helena is beautiful. Waugh’s understanding of Truth is both encouraging and inspiring. You won’t regret it.

Lastly, I should admit that this book only strengthened my resolve to name my maybe-possibly-someday daughter Evelyn after my beloved Evelyn Waugh.

Why You Should Visit an Eastern Church

I’ve been trying to invite some of my Roman Catholic friends to attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy during the Easter season. I think that it’s really important for Roman Catholics to experience the traditions of their Eastern brothers and sisters. I grew up hearing my dad say (quoting one of his seminary professors) that Roman Catholics should attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy so that they would understand what was going on when they got to heaven. I wouldn’t go around saying that to my friends, but I do have a few reasons why it is important for Roman Catholics to experience a Byzantine Liturgy.

Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Illinois

The word “catholic” means universal. The Catholic Church is not meant to be a set of cookie-cutter people who always look and act the same. Rather, it is intended to be a sign of what St. John Paul II called “diversity in unity” to the world. We as Eastern Catholics are called to a very present part of that. All Catholics (really, all Christians) are called to be lights of a unity through faith and love. To do this, we must come to understand the different branches of the Catholic Church. It is not enough for a Roman Catholic to only attend the Roman Catholic Mass or for a Byzantine Catholic to only attend the Byzantine Liturgy. We must partake in each other’s services. We must interact lovingly and respectfully with Catholics who are not from our Church.

Our Churches are not only for our own people but are also for any of our fellow Americans who are attracted to our traditions which show forth the beauty of the universal Church and the variety of its riches.

-Archbishop Joseph Tawil in “The Courage to be Ourselves”

It has been over 950 years since the Great Schism. We need to work towards a loving unity between East and West. Now, the average layperson can’t influence great change, but we can work towards better understanding among ourselves. It is important to know and understand one another’s traditions. The best way to understand the Eastern traditions is to encounter them. To that end, I would recommend that any Roman Catholic who is able visit an Eastern Catholic parish for a Divine Liturgy. (See the bottom of this article for a list of links to some of the American Eastern Catholic Eparchies’ websites.) You can’t really start to understand or appreciate something until you encounter it.

No witness perhaps better brings to light the Catholicity of the Church of God in a more admirable manner than the unique homage which is rendered to it by the differing ceremonies and the noble ancient languages all made more venerable by their use by the Apostles and Fathers.

-Pope Leo XIII “Orientalium Dignitas”

If you encounter the traditions of the other Catholic Churches, you’re doing what Jesus wanted you to do and what people like St. John Paul II thought you should do. On the eve of his Passion, Jesus prayed the unity of his followers. He prayed not only for the twelve good Jewish boys who were about to turn the world on its ear, but he also prayed for all who would come after them. If we only focus on our own traditions, we are not fully embracing that unity. Jesus prayed that we would be one as the Trinity is one. (John 17:20-23) Jesus didn’t pray that we would ignore one another or exclude one another. He did not pray that we would criticize one another or force others to assimilate to our traditions. Rather, he prayed that we would be one as the Trinity is one so that the world will know that the Father had sent the Son into the world. We need to embrace one another.

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His Beatitude Sviatoslav, the Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Pope Francis

If those two can hang out, so can we. Those two became friends when they were both in Buenos Aires. Now, they’re the heads of their respective Churches. They still get on with one another. Friendships between Christians of different traditions can be a sign of unity. We need to view each other as brothers and not as competition. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we do need to love one another. Just because you pray the Rosary and I don’t, that doesn’t make us enemies. You may say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son; I do not say that. There are divisions between us, but we also have a great deal of common ground. What unites us is far greater than what divides us. We both believe that Jesus Christ is physically present in the Eucharist. We are able to receive the Eucharist in one another’s churches even if it doesn’t look or taste the same. We all believe that Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Messiah who came into the world for the salvation of the world. We need to embrace that while celebrating our differences.

The Sacred Congregation has for its office and duty to uphold and foster as much as possible the venerable Oriental liturgies and to preserve them in their integrity and purity.

-Pope Benedict XV

So go to an Eastern Catholic Church. Heck, go to an Orthodox Church. Experience the liturgy. Ask questions. It will be different from what you’re used to, but that is okay. Going to a Roman Mass is different from what I’m used to, but I still go to Roman Masses when that is my best option or when it is an opportunity to support a friend in doing something beautiful.

St. Elias the Prophet in Brampton, Ontario

Here’s the bottom line. Jesus wants his Church to be one. He wants his Church to reflect the diverse unity of the Trinity. There is great beauty in our unity, and it pains the Father when we are divided from one another. I can honestly say that the disunity in our Churches causes me pain. John Paul II spoke of the need for the Church to breathe with her two lungs-East and West. Embrace these two lungs. Learn about your brothers and sisters. Come to an Eastern Liturgy. I can promise you that you will not regret it. You might even love it. St. Vladimir’s emissaries who visited the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople said that during the Divine Liturgy they knew not whether they were on heaven or on earth. Please come taste heaven on earth.


Notes:

I found the text of Archbishop Tawil’s “The Courage to Be Ourselves” on the Eparchy of Newton’s website.

This is the website for Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen. It is a beautiful church and a wonderful parish.

I included an image of St. Elias the Prophet’s building and a video filmed in that building. However, this building burned down about two years ago, and the parish is in the process of building a new Temple. However, that parish has one of my favorite YouTube channels, which happens excellent for learning more about Eastern Catholicism.

Links:

Eparchy of Parma (Ruthenian)

Eparchy of Parma (Ukrainian)

Archeparchy of Pittsbugh (Ruthenian)

Eparchy of Passaic (Ruthenian)

Eparchy of Phoenix (Ruthenian)

Eparchy of Newton (Melkite)

Eparchy of Philadelphia (Ukrainian)