Will the zeal of converts be the hope of the Church?

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“Strangers in a strange church?” New faces of Ukrainian Catholicism in Canada ”, by Christophe Guly. Toronto: Novalis, 2019. 96 p. ISBN 978-2-89688-747-7.

How do others see us? We rarely have the opportunity to find out. This can happen through the indiscretion of a third party. We can be disappointed or just shocked at what even our closest friends think of us. And yet sometimes we are pleasantly surprised. We may find that we have attractive traits that we were unaware of.

It is the same with our Churches. Latin Rite Roman Catholics praise the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for its history of martyrdom and its fidelity to tradition. Others are not so complementary. What is perhaps most revealing are the impressions of strangers who decide to join us. They see us in a way that we cannot.

This becomes clearly evident in “Strangers in a Strange Church” by Canadian journalist Christopher Guly, an account of eight cases of conversion to Ukrainian Catholicism, including one couple. None of these nine people are of Ukrainian origin. All joined the Ukrainian Church in Eastern Ontario. But as Reverend Peter Galadza points out in his introduction, there are many more.

The title, a reference to Exodus 23: 9 and Leviticus 19:34, suggests the importance of hospitality to strangers. Indeed, one of the motivating factors for these conversions was the open kindness of the parishioners of the Ukrainian Catholic Shrine of St. John the Baptist in Ottawa. But the word “strange” applied to the Church can mean both “foreign” and “bizarre” – hence, perhaps, the question mark in the title of the book. To a foreigner, the Ukrainian Church, with its long liturgies and seemingly impenetrable rite, may seem strange.

Conversion, of course, is a tricky one. In his introduction, Father Galadza firmly disavows proselytism. As her Church welcomes converts, she respects people’s choices. After all, conversion doesn’t always last, and serial conversions are not uncommon. But as Father Galadza points out, many Catholics in the cradle are also leaving their Church. One of the people in this book, drawn to orthodoxy, was impressed that the Ukrainian priest did not claim a “monopoly of truth or of God’s providence” (p. 29) .

For a foreigner, joining the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is not straightforward or straightforward. Dr. Brian Butcher, a prodigious scholar who speaks seven languages ​​and reads 11, says it takes three doors to enter an Eastern Catholic church. The first is the liturgy and spirituality of the Byzantine rite or some other oriental rite. The second is Catholic education. Crossing the third gate involves choosing a particular Eastern Catholic Church – there are almost twenty – with its sometimes difficult ethnic and linguistic specificities.

The beauty of Byzantine liturgy and spirituality is often what first attracts people of other origins to the Ukrainian Church. Convert Andrew Bennett is not the only one to stress the importance of aesthetics, especially in the liturgy. “The Byzantine Christian worldview is so shaped by beauty, so shaped by the importance of matter,” he says. “Matter counts, where the invisible God becomes human” (p. 65).

Musician Landon Coleman, who comes from a Baptist family, first perceived the Ukrainian liturgy at Father Galadza’s Eastern Catholic chaplaincy as strange: “It was an organized strangeness that I had never encountered before. It seemed that he did not belong to the modern world ”(p. 91). While criticizing the emotionality so common among evangelicals, he says that at the Sanctuary of Saint John the Baptist, “It didn’t matter what you felt: there was this beautiful and real thing…” (p. 92). Certainly this truth and beauty can only be communicated by a priest who, as Mr. Coleman says of Rev. Galadza, “means every word of the liturgy he says and takes all traditions seriously” (p. .95).

Kyivan’s Byzantine tradition, however, goes beyond the liturgy. Lisa Gilbert recalls the Church calendar, its fasts and feasts, which serve as “a constant reminder of the need to cultivate an ascetic life in the midst of a chaotic secular environment” (p. 75). As a physician, she experiences faith as an indispensable spiritual healing: “We are all sick in many ways” (p. 77).

The second “gate” of Mr. Butcher’s plan for entry into the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is Catholic education. He says the reason he became an Eastern Catholic was because he fell in love with the Orthodox liturgy and spirituality, but at the same time was convinced of the truth of moral teaching and ecclesiology. of Catholicism. Like most converts, he wholeheartedly accepts the Church’s positions on difficult issues such as sexual morality, including contraception, marriage and divorce, as well as end-of-life issues. But Catholicism is much more than a set of rules or an abstract system, as popular opinion demands. This is especially true of the Byzantine tradition.

One of the most philosophical of the group, Joshua Alli-Smith, a member of Generation Z, sees faith as “something a-rational, and one which delights in the antinomy in its catholicity”. “Faith is concerned with things which are by no means ‘certain’ and which our intellect cannot adequately disclose, but this reason may provide the basis for necessitating …” According to him, faith allows ” the possibility of truth beyond my idea of ​​truth and… God beyond my idea of ​​god ”(p. 85).

Mr. Alli-Smith finds this far superior to the “nihilism or moral relativism so often packed with fashionable atheism” (p. 86).

Likewise, Pascal Bastien, doctor, finds that the objections “science against religion” to the Catholic faith are weak and superficial. He finds that the rejection of the faith by most people is in fact based on personal obstacles. Like Mr. Alli-Smith, Dr. Bastien appreciates the apophatic understanding of God, characteristic of the Eastern tradition, as a mystery beyond human comprehension.

The third “gate” of Mr. Butcher’s plan is to choose a particular Eastern Catholic Church, which means living with its ethnic identity. Certainly, the cultural specifics of the Ukrainian Church can be intimidating. But Mr. Butcher points out that “sacramental membership” in a Ukrainian church does not mean accepting Ukrainian cultural identity. It is not necessary to learn the Ukrainian language. You can still be yourself – Mr. Butcher is of Indian and American descent and was raised by Baptist missionaries from Canada, while his wife is of Korean descent. English-language liturgies help make this possible.

In fact, as Mr. Butcher argues, Eastern Catholicism includes many traditions, and even the liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom is shared by different languages ​​and cultures. This illustrates the “unity in diversity” of the Catholic Church. In the words of Mr. Bennett, who served as Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, “We are the Church of the Irish and the Scots, the French Canadians, the Koreans and the Dutch” (p. 64). “I want Ukrainians to know that what they have is beautiful and must be shared,” emphasizes musician Mr. Coleman, “and that there must be a balance between preserving traditions and openness to outside to try to make life easier for people to enter if they wish ”(p. 96).

Contemporary society, however, does not make this entry easy. Mr. Coleman remarks that “Ottawa is a tough city, and not many people my age go to church, so I sometimes feel like a nutcase” (p. 95). In his introduction, Father Galadza recognizes that the ascetic, demanding and stimulating oriental tradition is counter-cultural, apparently “impractical” even for cradling Ukrainian Catholics. It is therefore particularly difficult for adolescents and young people to accept. The key to overcoming this problem, according to him, is the love of God.

Father Galadza appears here as the catalyst for many of these conversions. Another factor appears to have been the proximity to Ottawa of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, the Holy Spirit Seminary, and several colleges and universities. Today, with the move of the Sheptytsky Institute (with Father Galadza) to Toronto and the seminary to Edmonton, Alberta, that happy moment has passed. But the principle of a synergistic constellation of people and institutions – clergy, laity, parishes, schools and perhaps monasteries – must be kept in mind. And the future of the Church may depend on a clergy who is not only “open to the world” in the spirit of Vatican II, but who will seek disciples, miserando atque eligendo (have mercy and choose), as the habit of Pope Francis proclaims the arms. Because if the Ukrainian “catholics of the cradle” find a multitude of excuses to flee the Church, their pastors must go out “in the streets and the alleys” and “the highways and the hedges” and find others to take their place. at the Lord’s table (Luke 14: 15-24).

Certainly, these converts are a major advantage for the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, and not only, as Fr. Galadza points out, in terms of additional numbers. Like many foreigners, such as immigrants, they are catalysts for the spiritual renewal of their communities. Dr. Bastien’s Canadian-Ukrainian colleagues, who had left their church because of a linguistic and cultural divide and had become Roman Catholics, were surprised that he took the opposite direction.

While the nine converts discussed in this book vary widely in their ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds (Mr. Alli-Smith, born in Japan, for example, has an English Catholic father and a Guyanese Lutheran mother of Muslim descent), he It is significant that all had a solid prior Christian education, in most cases Protestant. While Dr. Bastien was raised as a Roman Catholic, he notes that his Presbyterian wife taught him a lot about the faith and the Christian life: knowledge of the Scriptures, evangelical zeal and how to raise children. The familiarity of these converts with the Bible undoubtedly helps them understand the Byzantine liturgy, especially its Old Testament sources, more deeply than most Ukrainians. They also exhibit a more conscious and actively assertive type of religiosity. In addition, they live the Ukrainian Byzantine tradition with a freshness and depth, born of fasting, prayer, study and service, which escape many Ukrainians, attached as they are to what Father Galadza described as a purely folkloric religiosity.

Ukrainian religiosity, however, has evolved. The somewhat ritualistic and emotional premodern “village faith” gradually gave way to the more complacent and private religious affiliation of the Western bourgeoisie, apparently typical of the third wave of Ukrainian immigration to North America. This, as well as the post-Soviet religiosity of the Fourth Wave, is worth investigating. Can they survive in American society? Will they succumb to secularization? Or will they give way to a more vigorous form of religiosity – evangelistic, intellectually sophisticated and ready to resist the pressures of a post-Christian society? In the latter case, it may well be due to converts like those presented in this book.

A Ukrainian version of this review appears in Patriyarkhat No. 2, 2020.


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