Friday, July 06, 2018 - Updated: 1:57 pm
You could see St. George the dragon-killer, almost life-sized. Jesus was in his usual place to the right of the central door with his Mother to the left. The wall of icons in front of the altar — called an iconostasis — had two rows of smaller icons of the saints at the top over the big ones at the bottom. The gold backgrounds to the icons reflected the light from the big chandelier in front. They would have looked even cooler in candle-light, but you can’t have everything.
On Sunday morning, my friend Geoffrey Mackey was ordained to the diaconate at St. George the Great Martyr church in Aliquippa. It’s part of the Byzantine Catholic Church, one of the 23 “eastern Catholic Churches” that are part of the Catholic Church.
They use the eastern liturgies and have their own code of canon law, based on the traditional eastern one. The clergy wear the traditional eastern vestments. They look like the Orthodox, except they’re united with the pope.
We’re unusually blessed here in having a lot different eastern Catholic churches, thanks to the different immigrant groups that brought their churches with them when they came to this country. The Byzantine Church even has their one seminary here, on Perrysville Avenue on the North Side. It’s named after the missionary bishops Cyril and Methodius, who took the Gospel to the Slavic peoples in the ninth century. The Byzantine archeparchy (archdiocese) has its chancery on its campus. It’s metropolitan, or archbishop, is William C. Skurla. He ordained my friend.
One fun thing about Geoff’s ordination: Many of his colleagues from the Anglican seminary in Ambridge came. He entered the church a few years ago, after growing up an Evangelical. He’s now the dean of students at the seminary. I worked there years ago before entering the church. When I was there, there was a less than zero chance they’d have a Catholic in any position of authority, much less have him oversee the students. Things have changed in the Christian world.
What we call the Mass, eastern Christians call the Divine Liturgy. Priest and people sing almost all of it. It has many beautiful prayers. Here are some of the most notable, which will give you some idea of eastern Catholic piety.
The Blessed Virgin appears a lot, much more than she appears in the Mass. Worshippers invoke her as the Theotokos, which is Greek for “God-bearer.”
For example, the people repeat this prayer a few times throughout the Divine Liturgy: “Calling to remembrance our most holy, most pure, most blessed, glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ, our God.”
Eastern Catholics say a longish prayer before receiving communion. It’s too long to give the whole thing here, but I’ll quote the highlights. It begins: “O Lord, I believe and profess that you are truly Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.”
Everyone then asks Jesus to remember them when he comes into his kingdom. Then they ask: “May the partaking of your holy mysteries, O Lord, be not for my judgment or condemnation, but for the healing of soul and body.”
The prayer ends: “O Lord, I also believe and profess that this, which I am about to receive, is truly your most precious Body and your life-giving Blood, which, I pray, make me worthy to receive for the remission of all my sins and for life everlasting. Amen.”
And then they finish, crossing themselves each time, saying: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me. O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number.”
After communion, the deacon says to the people: “Arise! Now that we have received the divine, holy, most pure, immortal, heavenly, life-creating, and awesome mysteries of Christ, let us worthily thank the Lord.” But there’s a twist. The people don’t respond “Thanks be to God,” as we do in the Mass. They sing, “Lord, have mercy.”
Finally, here’s the blessing the archbishop gave at the end: “May Christ our true God, risen from the dead, have mercy on us and save us through the prayers of his pure Mother; and of the holy, glorious, and illustrious Apostles; of our holy father St. John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople; of the holy George the Great Martyr, the patron of this church; of the holy martyrs Cosmas and Damian; and through the prayers of all the saints; for Christ is good and loves us all.”
Mills attends St. Joseph’s Church in Coraopolis and writes a weekly column for Aleteia (www.aleteia.org/author/david-mills).