In his writings and speeches, Pope Francis has often referred to those on the peripheries of society and the economy. But what about those on the peripheries of the Church?
One such group has been on the peripheries of both Church and empire for a full century now: the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church (RBCC), the smallest and most neglected of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The other 22 Eastern Catholic Churches in the world (Ukrainian, Melkite, Coptic, Maronite, etc) have often been neglected, but none as much as the RBCC.
This Church is called “Russian” because her roots are in Russia and she retains Russian Orthodox usages in liturgy, spirituality and much else. She is called “Greek” or “Byzantine” because her life is lived according to what used to be called the “Greek rite”, that is, the Byzantine liturgical tradition. (This usage of “Greek” is a holdover from a time when it was common to speak of the Church as being either the Greek-speaking East or the Latin-speaking West. Since there are, even today, many Latin or Roman Catholics in Russia, this retention of “Greek” is useful.) She is called “Catholic” because she is in full communion with the Catholic Church and Bishop of Rome, and thus with the 1.5 billion Catholics around the world.
Today the RBCC has indeed become even more catholic (as in universal), with parishes not just in Russia but also in Australia, America, Argentina, Brazil, France and elsewhere. And yet even in such major and powerful countries as America or France, the RBCC remains on the margins, having no bishop anywhere or structure to ensure her future.
Why is she an orphan on the peripheries? In an era when many questions of identity are hotly contested by purists of all sorts, the hybrid nature of the RBCC makes her a politically unattractive and inconvenient presence best kept hidden away. She is an embarrassment to the Russian government and Orthodox Church because she is a constant reminder that no church should be subject to earthly rulers, as the Russian Orthodox Church has been under tsars, Stalin, and now Putin. She is an embarrassment to Rome for she is a constant reminder of a model of ecumenism Rome zealously pursued from the 16th century to Vatican II, but has since rejected. Thus nobody who counts wants the RBCC around, and all the powerful people would prefer that she just disappear.
Yet she has not disappeared – she has in fact just come off a splendid congress in June in San Felice del Benaco on Lake Garda. Thanks to the tireless work, heroic patience and perseverance of the long-suffering Australian Archpriest Lawrence Cross, Russian Catholics from South America, North America, Europe and Australia were able to gather together to overcome their sense of exile and isolation, and to plan for the future.
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