Patrimonial surprise

Would it be fair to say that when most Catholics in the United States reflect on the third “mark” of the Church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic) they understand the term to mean universal? Is their idea of universality that with the exception of linguistic distinctions the Catholic Church  is essentially the same around the world as it is, say, in Philadelphia? If so, they have an incomplete and impoverished knowledge of the Church.

When those Catholics in the United States bring to mind images of Eastern hierarchs they (as does this writer) more than likely imagine ancient men with venerable white beards and a kind of saintly senectitude.

The Roman Catholic Church is one, albeit the largest, of 23 Churches that constitute the worldwide (visible) Catholic Church. The other 22 are autonomous, particular Churches in full communion with the Holy See and with their own distinct rituals and disciplines. As a group they are referred to as the Eastern Catholic Churches and they follow different Eastern Christian liturgical traditions such as: Alexandrian, Antiochian, Armenian, Byzantine and Chaldean. These “sister” Churches – some of which, like the Roman Church, trace their origins to the Apostles – share equal dignity with each other and with the Latin Church, a status confirmed repeatedly by the Holy See in recent centuries.

The largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Primate of which holds the office of Archbishop-Major of Kiev-Halych and All Rus. Situated in Ukraine, the Church in the last century has followed the Ukrainian diaspora and now has 40 hierarchs (eparchs or bishops) in over a dozen countries on four continents. It adheres to the Byzantine Rite and has around five million members worldwide. The hierarchs of the Church identify themselves as a patriarchy and their Primate as a Patriarch, titles enjoyed by six of the other Eastern Churches. However, the Holy See as of yet anyway recognizes the juridical status of the Ukrainian Church as that of a ‘major archeparchy’ whose Primate is therefore a Major Archeparch.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church suffered mightily under Soviet rule. For many decades the communist government, sometimes collaborating with the Orthodox Church, suppressed it and forced it underground. Causes for arrest, exile and even death were holding religious services, baptizing children, conducting weddings, even possessing icons. In the late 1980s there was a shift in government attitude under Gorbachev and the Church emerged from its catacombs only to find most of its property and parishes had been lost to the Orthodox Church.(The efforts to redress this wrong were unsuccessful and led to the rupture in relations between the Patriarch of Moscow (Orthodox) and the Vatican). Nevertheless, in spite of the protracted ordeal of persecution, the revered patrimony of the Ukrainian Catholic Church had been preserved.

Here’s the surprise. When those Catholics in the United States bring to mind images of Eastern hierarchs they (as does this writer) more than likely imagine ancient men with venerable white beards and a kind of saintly senectitude. Well, in what has been referred to as a ‘surprise of the Spirit’ when the worldwide Ukrainian hierarchy elected their new Primate in March of this year they chose Sviatoslav Shevchuk. Major Archbishop Shevchuck is an extraordinarily gifted theologian and scholar, is polylingual and was born in 1970!! That’s five years after Vatican II! In the entire Catholic Church he is the fourth or fifth youngest bishop. Ancient patrimony is being shepherded with youthful vigor!

His Beatitude will be visiting his flock in Philadelphia later this year. His presence will, no doubt, stir the same level of excitement among the Ukrainian faithful as would a visit by the Holy Father among us Latin Catholics. Let us hope that his visit receives much press coverage as it will be an edifying introduction for many of us to the universal Catholic Church.

Incidentally, the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in the Archeparchy of Philadelphia (shepherded by Metropolitan Archbishop Stefan Soroko) is a magnificent edifice and is the largest Eastern Catholic or Orthodox church in the Western Hemisphere. And it’s in Philadelphia!

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