Monday, 24 January 2022

The Saints as a Shared Heritage Between East and West

Every night, I share the Byzantine Rite Saint(s) of the Day along with their story. When East and West coincide, I do a post combining both.

From Building Catholic Culture

By Jared Staudt, PhD

I just finished reading John Anthony McGuckin’s The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History. Rather than a traditional chronological history, McGuckin offers reflections on the nature of the Orthodox Church through particular figures and events of history. As a professor at Oxford and publishing the volume with Yale University Press, the book was clearly meant to help a Western audience understood the Orthodox Church more deeply. It is very conscious of differences between East and West, sometimes making helpful distinctions but, at others, repeating oversimplified prejudices.

Something that changes the dynamics of East-West ecclesial relations, for better and worse, is the existence of Eastern rites in the Catholic Church. The Orthodox, as McGuckin’s book indicates, are incensed at Catholic attempts to reunite the Eastern churches. These Eastern rites, however, have opened the door to many distinct practices that diversify the Catholic Church both liturgically and theologically.

The saints, in particular, present the greatest shared spiritual treasury between the Churches. Although the saints of the early Church are shared by all apostolic churches, when particular groups of Eastern Christians sought union with the Catholic Church, they brought not only their unique liturgy, writings, and governance with them; they also brought their own saints who had lived apart from visible unity with the Catholic Church.

The major branches of the Christian tradition are the Latin, Greek (the various Byzantine rites of Eastern Europe and the Melkites), Syriac (both Western [Maronite, Jacobite] and Eastern [Assyrian, Chaldean, Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara] branches), Armenian, and Alexandrian (Coptic, Ethiopian, Ge’ez). All of these groups have Catholic rites and their own distinct line of saints. It is harder to find a martyrology for the Far Eastern rites, but even focusing on Byzantine saints points to an astonishing reality that the Catholic Church can accept divergent traditions, even those critical of the Latin West. For instance, two of the most stringent anti-Latin figures in McGuckin’s history – the Patriarch Photius (810-93) and Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) – are celebrated in the Byzantine rites of the Catholic Church.

Photius, who was the occasion for a schism between East and West, although he did die in union with the Pope, was not canonized/glorified by the Greek Orthodox Church until 1847. Gregory of Palamas, who wrote polemically about the filioque (like Photius), as well as advancing distinct theological positions on divine energies and hesychastic prayer, was canonized in 1368, and so would have been established in the liturgical calendar before the reunion of the Byzantine rites. There are other examples who lived after the reunion, who are celebrated in the Eastern rites, one of whom is even in the updated Roman martyrology: St. Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833), canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1903. Other examples are Basil the Holy Fool (1469-1557), St. Vladimir of Kiev (958-1015) and his grandmother Olga (d. 969), and the Emperor Constantine.

Pope Francis recently raised up the first Doctor of the Church who did not live in union with the Catholic Church, the Armenian saint, St. Gregory of Narek. He is also in the updated martyrology, entering into Catholic worship through the Armenian Catholic Rite, who also brought their own saints into the Church with them. As I mentioned before, the Armenian Church did not accept the Council of Chalcedon, raising questions about Narek’s own theology (although Michael Papazian’s work should shed light on this topic). With more research into the non-Chalcedonian and non-Ephesian churches, I am sure more examples like this could be cited.

Overall, I think more attention should be given to fullness of the Catholic tradition represented by all of its rites. It is too tempting to focus only on the Latin Rite, since it is by far the largest, but it is not correct to equate the Catholic tradition solely with this rite. Although the Orthodox Church views the Eastern uniate rites as an obstacle to union, these rites give witness to the rich diversity of the tradition, proving that to be Catholic is not simply to accept Western practices and theology. Within this diversity, the shared veneration of saints leads us toward stronger unity, together recognizing and imitating their holiness.

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