Carpatho-Rusyn Heritage: Basics of the Greek Catholic Church

For centuries, Carpatho-Rusyns were devout church members. Depending upon where they lived, they followed either Eastern Orthodox or Greek Catholic religious practices.

I know almost nothing about Eastern Orthodoxy and I am far from well-versed on Greek Catholicism. However, since my grandmother and her ancestors attended the Greek Catholic, or Byzantine Catholic as it is also called, Church, this post will focus on Greek Catholicism.

As Carpatho-Rusyns began migrating to America to work in its industrial cities, they discovered that there were no Byzantine Catholic churches to be found anywhere. For a while, they attended Roman Catholic churches, but as the Rusyn population increased in local neighborhoods, efforts began to establish the first Greek Catholic parishes in America.

One of these early newly-built churches was St. Michael’s Church in Passaic, New Jersey. The church itself wasn’t built until the cornerstone was laid in 1902. Until that time, parishioners met in other nearby buildings. Among the early marriages at St. Michael’s was that of Nana’s parents, Michael Scerbak and Anna Murcko, on 22 October 1892.

Michael and Anna were among the early immigrants from Ujak (today Udol, Slovakia) who were eager to practice their Greek Catholic faith in a Greek Catholic Church in America. Nana said her father even helped with the construction of St. Michael’s as he had some carpentry skills.

In spite of the fact that Nana was deeply religious and was baptized at, married at and buried from St. Michael’s in Passaic, that religious streak did not pass down to my father, who was quite neutral when it came to religion. My mother, coming from Protestant New England colonial families, grew up with parents who weren’t strongly religious or regular church-goers either.

I am Roman Catholic, but given my parents’ relaxed attitude towards religion, I guess it isn’t surprising that while I had church experiences, they were in a variety of settings. Sunday School was at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Passaic and the Wayne Presbyterian Church when we moved there. I attended Summer Bible School across the street at the Dutch Reformed Church and happily went along with friends to Mass at Holy Trinity Church. Nana occasionally took me to Mass at St. Michael’s and to visit a variety of other Catholic churches all over Passaic.

So, if you are wondering why I don’t know a lot about day-to-day liturgy in the Greek Catholic church, that is why. One of my goals in 2019 is to learn more about the liturgy of the Byzantine Catholic Church. As there is one such church here in Tucson, when the weather warms up a bit, I may go visit it.

However, here is a short explanation of the Greek Catholic Church, its origins and liturgical practices.

First, the Byzantine Rite church developed in Constantinople (around 381-451) centuries ago. By the Middle Ages, there were many followers of the faith.

Greek Catholic churches don’t follow the Latin Rite of Mass, found in Roman Catholic churches. There is no organ used in church. Instead a cantor leads with a choir assisting him. When Roman Catholics make the sign of the cross, the left shoulder is touched first. Greek Catholics touch the right shoulder first.

In past centuries, Latin was used to celebrate a Roman Catholic Mass, while Church Slavonic was used in Byzantine or Greek Catholic Masses.

Both the Roman and Byzantine rites follow liturgical calendars, which vary slightly with feasts, days of fasting and saints’ days and other Holy Days.

Sacraments in Greek Catholicism are referred to as mysteriesbaptism, chrismation (confirmation, which is conferred at the time of infant baptism), crowning (marriage), unction, penance and ordination (of priests). In addition, Byzantine Rite priests may be married if marriage occurred before ordination to the priesthood. That is a huge departure from Roman Catholicism.

Catechisms are books created to teach followers, often children, but sometimes adults, the basic tenets of the faith. I’m long familiar with the Baltimore Catachism, used for generations in Catholic schools, to prepare children to be active participants in their religion.

To educate myself, I located the Liturgical Catechism on the Sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy, the Byzantine equivalent of the Baltimore Catechism. I have a big learning curve ahead of me, if only because of the new-to-me vocabulary!

However, to share a few day-to-day differences between the two churches:

1. Roman Catholic Order of Mass – Introductory Rites, Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of the Eucharist and Concluding Rites. The Latin Rite liturgy is used.

2. Byzantine Catholic Order of the Divine Liturgy – The Preparation, The Liturgy of the Word and The Liturgy of the Sacrifice. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is most often used, but there are other liturgies also used.

3. The Roman Catholic sacrament of Confirmation is received at the age of reason, in the past somewhere between the ages of 7 and 14, but today, around the ages of 14-16.

4. The Greek Catholic sacrament of Chrismation is received in infancy during the baptismal ceremony.

In my experience, I find the Greek Catholic churches to be much more ornately decorated. Scroll down St. Michael’s website and look at the pictures taken inside the cathedral. The fact that Nana’s St. Michael’s Church became the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel in 1963 didn’t change the interior very much. I always remember it being quite spectacular to view.

Compare this view to Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church or Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church, or St. Mary’s Assumption, all old parishes in Passaic. St. Mary’s is a Slovak church, but Roman Catholic, not Greek Catholic.

If you’d like to learn more about the Greek Catholic, aka Byzantine Catholic Church and its history, here are some online resources.

Byzantine Catholic Church in Slovakia

Eastern Catholic Churches

Greek Byzantine Catholic Church

About Byzantines

History of the Ukrainian Catholic Church

 

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