Friday, January 20, 2012

The Eastern Catholic (Uniate) Church Conference

The Centre for Eastern Christianity, Heythrop College, University of London hosted on the 18th-19th of January a conference entitled “The Eastern Catholic Church in Contemporary Europe”.  Its focus was numerous paradigms from Eastern Catholic Churches, their history, current situation and future prospects. The name given here is, for some, misleading, however they also have other names, according to previous historical events. They are also known as Greek Catholics (especially in the West) and Uniates (mostly within the Orthodox World).

It is significant to identify the different approach and respect that exists in regards to the Eastern Catholic Church. Of course the Orthodox World has various issues concerning the existence of this church, which can also be given the title ‘Churches In-between”, meaning between the two historic and ancient churches, i.e. the Orthodox and the Catholic. Nevertheless no one can deny that they are a significant expression of the diversity of Catholicism in the modern world. The Uniates acquire a distinct ecclesial, religious and social identity, not only in Europe, where they were ‘born’, but globally, especially through the countless Diaspora churches.
The conference’s objectives were to explore various ecclesial and religious contexts of Eastern Catholicism in modern history and contemporary contexts through numerous case studies. The findings of this conference will be published on the 1st of November 2012 by Routledge, entitled ‘Eastern Catholic Christianity in Contemporary Europe’.
Many of the authors of this book attended the conference in order to analyse and present their findings. The introductory analysis emphasised how this symposium was an important one in understanding not only the Eastern Catholic Church but generally the Roman Catholic Church. It is evident that the Uniate church has been persecuted during its short history, either by the communist regimes in the countries where they are based, or by the Orthodox established Church, which does not accept and respect (in a way) the existence of these churches in the East. However it is vital to state that some Orthodox views were expressed in this conference, but no polemical language was evident, since it was understood of being a Western - Catholic perspective on this issue.
The name given to this church differed in the talks. Simon Marincak, talking about the Slovak Greek Church, explained that the official name is Greek Catholic, while Daniela Kalkandijeva, talking about the Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church, expressed the view that in Bulgaria the name Uniate is easier and widely spread.
In the Romanian case it was articulated that the Austrian Empire called the Greek Catholics Uniates, while naming the Orthodox, Non-Uniates, creating thus a polemical relationship, which of course had to cease to exist in order to create a positive and harmonious relationship between the two. However, it was pointed by Ciprian Ghisa that the union between the Catholic and the Greek Catholic Church was achieved in fide and not in ritu. Here it is crucial to make an important point; there is a distinction between the Catholics and the Uniates in respect to their liturgical rite, meaning that the Roman Catholic Church uses the Latin Rite, while the latter uses the Byzantine Rite (which is also used by the Orthodox Church). Lucian Leustean expressed the view that the Orthodox Church perceived the Uniate Church, and the other churches, as a Trojan Horse, which had to be destroyed. He is of course not wrong in stating this. This view is not only believed but also vividly expressed by many Orthodox hierarchs, due to the problems and issues created by their existence in Eastern Europe.
What struck, mainly the Orthodox participants of this conference, was the fact that the Greek Catholic churches are very nationalistic, in comparison to the universal character of the Roman Catholic Church. The most nationalistic church, in my view, by far is the Armenian one (paper given by John Wooley), which only accepts as its members Armenian nationals. This certainly will produce future problems, threatening its existence, especially in the Diaspora.
Anthony O’Mahony investigated the Italian Albanians, the Greek Catholic (Byzantine) Church in modern Italy, and also the Eastern Byzantine Catholic Church in Greece and Turkey. It was stressed that after Vatican II the Greek Catholics were not seen as a distinct group but part of the Catholic Church. However the speaker came to the conclusion that, when looking at historical events, we should read them forwards, where relations between the Orthodox and the Catholics is evident, and not backwards, where disunity is emphasised. The Greek Catholic Church is an autonomous Catholic Church of the Byzantine (also known as the Constantinopolitan) liturgical, historical and cultural tradition. Being an Eastern Catholic became a possibility during the end of the Ottoman rule, hence the birth of the Greek Catholic Church in Greece and Turkey, commencing in Constantinople. Currently the Uniate Church in Athens serves Ukrainian, Romanian and other Greek Catholics, giving it an international character and not a nationalistic one.
The Russian paradigm (given by Stafanie Hugh-Donovan) is interesting, since a key reason of its birth was the fact that many believed that through this, unity between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church would be realised. However it was the Georgian case (given by John Flannery) which had an intriguing and unique fact, i.e. it is the only Orthodox Church, via Patriarch Kiril the II, which has recognised the Uniate Church.  The Eastern Catholic Diaspora (paper given by Fr. Robin Gibbons) is a current and important issue, seeing that Christianity, globally, has altered. The centre of the Christian faith has shifted from the European continent towards the Americas, Sub-Saharan African, but most importantly towards Asia (especially China and India). This is mostly the case with the Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Churches; however the Orthodox Church seems to be remaining in Europe. (These statistics are based on recent research, expressed also through a recent article on the number of Christians worldwide, where the Orthodox are only 12% of the world Christian population). Nevertheless new issues will arise, which in many cases will be problematic, since Christianity seems to be changing as a whole and on a global level, where the Diaspora is an important part of all churches and jurisdictions, making the idea of new solutions on numerous matters imperative.    
What is essential to identify is the fact that all the different and nationalistic Eastern Catholic Churches came into communion and under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church, during different periods, for different reasons, having dissimilar ecclesiology. Nevertheless, Rome accepted them all. It was significant, for an Orthodox, to identify that the Roman Church is diverse and has within it numerous and distinct traditions and practices.
The conference ended with a Melkite Greek Catholic Liturgy in the College's Chapel, situated within the ground of the University. This of course was realised with kind permission of the Sisters of the Assumption, who were also there. It was an interesting and wonderful Liturgy, being of the Byzantine rite, however containing various Catholic (Latin) rite elements, making it distinct both from the Latin and the Orthodox Byzantine Liturgical rites. 

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