Right now I have a tremendous need to escape from the oppressive and omnipresent sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. However, we Catholics are called to get our butts into a pew each Sunday. This could quite possibly be the most appropriate use for the old expression “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Recently, some fortuitous circumstances gave me a chance to do both at once.
A couple of weeks ago I spent the weekend with friends in St. Louis. These are some of my “car friends” who came together in association with CurbsideClassic.com, an old car website to which we all contribute.
We connected with my eldest son for dinner on Saturday. This is the son who is a student Dominican brother and who is back for another year of school in St. Louis. The dinner turned out to be a great way to bring two parts of my life into convergence – cars and Catholicism. Truthfully, the cars grabbed 90% of our conversational time, but . . . yeah.
As dinner concluded, I asked the lad about his massgoing plans for the next morning and was greeted with a very out-of-the-ordinary opportunity. He had an assignment to attend a mass of another rite. He had decided to attend at a Maronite rite church, St. Raymond Cathedral.
Catholic rites are unfamiliar to most Catholics, let alone most non-Catholics. Most of us in the western world are Latin Rite Catholics. In other words, the plain vanilla Catholic church building near you is almost certainly a Latin rite church if you are almost anywhere in the western half of the globe.
There are, however, many eastern rites (or Eastern Catholic churches). Most people think of the Eastern Orthodox churches which broke with Rome in 1054 A.D. over the extent of papal authority, as well as some other things. But in addition there are multiple eastern churches which are in communion with Rome and which are a part of the varied mosaic of Catholicism.
There is way more historical depth than can be dealt with here, but here is the executive summary: There was the main branch of the Catholic Church that spread from Rome itself and throughout the Roman Empire in the early years after the Emperor Constantine. There were also many smaller communions in the parts of the world which were less influenced by the Roman Empire. These communities tended to be smaller and more focused on ethnicity. They also tended to have more autonomy.
Some of these eastern churches have always been in communion with Rome and others have come into communion with Rome at some later point after breaking away with the main body of Eastern Orthodoxy in 1054.
To name a few, there are the Coptic Catholics (Egyptian), Melkite Catholics (Syrian), Chaldean Catholics (Iraqi), Byzantine Catholics (several areas of Greece and Eastern Europe) and probably close to twenty others. And from Lebanon come the Maronite Catholics.
Maronites take their name from St. Maron, a contemporary of St. John Chrysostom of the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Maron was a priest who founded a monastic community in Syria, a community and movement which soon took root in Lebanon. Keep in mind that this was a few hundred years before Islam’s sword cut its way through the region.
More locally, a Syriac/Lebanese presence began to form in St. Louis in the 1850s and these people grew into a christian worship community over the next several decades.
Like most of the Eastern Catholic Churches, the Maronites recognize the ultimate authority of the Pope but have a Patriarch as the next level of authority (over any bishops the rite may have). However, instead of being in charge of a fairly small local area as a Latin rite Bishop, the Patriarch of most of the Eastern rites hold sway over the entire rite, wherever a local community of that rite may be found.
So on Sunday we headed off to St. Raymond – which we found, appropriately, on Lebanon Drive. It is impossible to blend in when going to mass with my son, what with his white Dominican habit. We received polite nods and smiles as we entered and chose a pew.
The basics were all there. There was a priest, there were altar servers, there were people in pews. But the liturgy was completely different from anything I have ever experienced.
I was quite happy to see the two large screen monitors at the front of the church – a feature I usually grouse about. Much of what the priest said was in English, but much of it was not. Parts of the liturgy were in Aramaic (the language spoken by Christ himself) with both Aramaic characters and phonetically-spelled English translations so that we anglos could follow along and participate.
The hymns were all unfamiliar to me (though not in a bad way) and while the basic parts of the mass (or Divine Liturgy, as they would say) were recognizable, much of the way each part developed before me was quite different from my normal Sunday.
Catholic theology has long had a tug-of-war between “the vertical” (between me and God) and “the horizontal” (we the community) dimensions of worship. This sort of explains some of the differences in church architecture over the centuries. From the middle ages forward, churches featured soaring ceilings and beautiful art which brought you into contact with the divine (to the exclusion of those around you). Modern churches are brightly lit with simple decoration and pews arranged in a way so that it is easy to look out at other worshipers and feel a part of a community. At a cost, I sometimes think, of the loss of some of the divine.
The Maronite liturgy was much more vertically-oriented than is my normal modern experience. And in my current frame of mind this was a good thing because I needed more God and less hierarchy. As one who appreciates liturgy, I am always happy when the incense comes out and the Maronites use it liberally.
Time after time I was reminded of the ancient roots of the Catholic faith and of the intimate connection between Christ and his mother Mary (on the one hand) and the modern world (on the other). Time compressed in that Maronite liturgy bringing me much closer to the early days of Christianity than I am accustomed to.
We happened to be there on the day of a parish festival and were probably the only people in the church building who did not head for the big tents in the parking lot afterwards as I had to hit the road for home. The Lebanese food looked and smelled delicious and it was clear that these folks were good friends who enjoyed coming together with others of their shared heritage.
Many of these Eastern rite churches are under tremendous stress in their birthplaces. Islam began to roar through those areas beginning in the seventh century and has not let up. Christian communities of the middle east have been shrinking for a long time but that trend has accelerated in our modern era of terrorism and unrest. Christians do not have an easy time in many areas dominated by Islam. Those communities in places that have come under the control of ISIS/Daesh or other extremest factions have fared particularly badly.
This has all been a long way of saying that visiting St. Raymond was the fastest way to go from St. Louis, Missouri in the United States to a place halfway around the world and then back again in about an hour and fifteen minutes. I enjoyed the chance to be welcomed as a stranger for worship in a tradition that is both so foreign yet so familiar to me. It is a trip I would happily take again if the opportunity were to present itself.
Photo Source: Photograph of St. Raymond Maronite Cathedral was found on Wikimedia Commons, taken June 4, 2018 and is attributed to Farragutful. Reprinted here under Creative Commons Share and Share Alike 4.0 license.