27 June 2019
Michael Shami, a seminarian at the Pontifical North American College, is pictured during his ordination as a deacon at the college in Rome on 2 June 2019. Shami was ordained as a deacon using the Antiochene Syriac rite of the Maronite Catholic Church. (photo: CNS/Denis Nakkeeran)
Ancient tones of Syriac chant, columns of incense, ornate oriental vestments and bearded clerics filled the chapel of the Pontifical North American College in early June, creating a rare Middle Eastern atmosphere in the heart of the U.S. church’s flagship seminary in Rome.
The ordination of Michael Shami to the diaconate was the first at the NAC in more than 20 years to use the Antiochene Syriac rite of the Maronite Catholic Church. The new deacon said the ritual underlined the church’s universality for his fellow seminarians and highlighted treasures proper to one of the smallest and most ancient Christian churches.
In the Maronite tradition, “there are no great treatises like in the West with Aquinas,” Deacon Shami explained. “Its strength is in its liturgical contributions.”
For example, he said, in the ordination rite, “when the bishop is imposing his hands upon the candidate, he’s fluttering his hands, and the specific verb used there for the action of the Holy Spirit” is the same verb “used for the Holy Spirit hovering over the primordial waters in Genesis and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.”
“Because typology is the primary mode of Syriac theology, it makes a very rich connection between biblical events and historical events and sacramental events and the general life of the believer,” Deacon Shami said.
While most of the altar servers were Latin-rite seminarians of the NAC, who wore their Latin cassocks and albs, many of them had spent three months learning to chant the Syriac prayers and preparing for the demanding liturgy.
“I didn’t see the hodgepodge” of East and West mixing “as an eyesore or lack of uniformity,” Deacon Shami said. “At the same altar, there was a Maronite deacon standing with a Byzantine priest leading him as his sponsor and Latin servers -- it kind of encapsulated the true universalism of the church and it was appropriate that it should happen in Rome.”
Preparing for Maronite ministry at a Latin seminary might be unusual, but Deacon Shami was confident it would help him to be a successful witness to his religious heritage in the United States.
“It provided me with an opportunity to try to communicate to a predominately Latin- or even Protestant-minded United States the value of the Eastern tradition in general, specifically our heavy reliance on patristics and sacramental mystagogy,” he said. “It taught me which idioms were helpful for communicating Eastern theology and which were not.”
Deacon Shami said that he had to put in extra effort to remain faithful to his Eastern spiritual heritage while at the Latin-rite NAC, but even those challenges bore fruit with his confreres.
“I would chant my own Office in my room,” Deacon Shami said, referring to the daily prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours. The other seminarians “hearing my voice, hearing me take such great love in my tradition in worshipping God, they themselves turned and looked more into the Western chant tradition.”
In other areas of life at the NAC, East and West did not mix so well. Fasting — not eating meat or dairy products — is at the heart of Eastern spiritual discipline and there are long periods of fasting throughout the liturgical year.
“It was very difficult to fast at the NAC. I tried my best, though,” he said, and there, too, it became an opportunity to share with the Latin-rite seminarians the idea of fasting as an ascetical practice.
The NAC also asked Deacon Shami not to wear his Eastern-style outer cassock, he said, because it would break up the uniformity of the seminarians’ attire. Other challenges were making time to visit Eastern-rite liturgies in Rome that would often conflict with the NAC’s schedule.
Deacon Shami is among the few young Maronite-rite seminarians in the United States. At 25, he is aware that his choice to remain faithful to the Christian heritage of his ancestors is counter-cultural. His own father, for instance, “Latinized” when he moved to the United States.
Like many U.S. immigrants from Lebanon, where the Maronite church is centered, “my father stopped attending (the Maronite liturgy) and simply started going to the local Latin parish” because it was more convenient.
As an adolescent, Deacon Shami said he took an interest in the Syriac language and developed his skills while an undergraduate at New York University.
“In my parish assignment last summer, I offered a free Syriac class and I had attendance of upward of 25-30 persons,” Deacon Shami said. “Even people of other backgrounds, with Italian last names, were coming” because Syriac is close to “the language Christ spoke.”
Deacon Shami completed his stint at the NAC in June and plans to visit Lebanon before returning to the United States for a parish assignment that will last until his priestly ordination in May 2020. As a new priest, he hopes to help revive Maronite traditions that have been lost.
A recent liturgical reform in the Maronite church “had a lot of simplification and elimination,” he said.
“One of them is when the priest elevates the host as he’s offering it, and he recounts all the great patriarchal sacrifices of old, from Abraham and Noah to David on the Threshing-Floor of Ornan,” Deacon Shami explained.
“The last sacrifice (the priest) mentions in this anamnesis is the sacrifice of the widow who puts the two pence in the treasury vault,” he said. “It really kind of encapsulates this idea that the greatest sacrifice, as St. Aphrahat says, is the sacrifice of the heart, and so the priest is asking that this sacrifice be akin to that sacrifice, the sacrifice of the widow.”
“Those kinds of prayers have been completely eliminated,” Deacon Shami said, because there was an assumption that many of them were “too complex” for people to understand.
“We need to have a reclamation of sorts,” Deacon Shami said.
20 September 2017
Tags: Maronite Catholic
A Russian-style icon of Our Lady of Fatima on display at the Catholic Parish of St. John the Baptist in the town of Pushkin near St. Petersburg, Russia. (CNS photos/Robert Duncan)
Catholics across Russia are celebrating the centenary of the 1917 apparitions of Mary to shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal.
According to one of the children, Sister Lucia Dos Santos, Mary asked for a special consecration of Russia to prevent the country from disseminating its “errors throughout the world,” a phrase now-retired Pope Benedict XVI interpreted as referring to communism.
Mary promised that Russia would “be converted” if her request was heeded, and Catholic Archbishop Paolo Pezzi of Moscow said he had witnessed this conversion in his lifetime.
“I thank our God that I became one of the witnesses of the return of Russia to Christ,” he said. But “we should not interpret Our Lady of Fatima as foretelling Russia’s conversion to Catholicism.”
Mary “still calls Russia to convert to Christ, but she did not say what form this conversion should take,” the archbishop said.
Though Russia has no official state religion, the majority of Russians identify with Eastern Orthodoxy, a branch of Christianity that has not been in communion with Rome for nearly a thousand years.
According to a recent study from the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, less than 1 percent of the Russian population identifies itself as Catholic.
Archbishop Pezzi said the Catholic Church’s minority status in Russia is actually one of its greatest assets for evangelization.
A Catholic in Russia “cannot base his faith on the tradition of the majority or on governmental support,” Archbishop Pezzi said. “This situation is a joyful opportunity for us: We can be defenseless witnesses of our faith.”
After an evening Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Moscow in early summer, the Italian archbishop spoke to Catholic News Service about the challenges of living the Catholic faith in modern Russia.
“Russian Catholics sometimes feel themselves not so welcome. Ordinary people have the idea that if you are Russian, you ought to be Orthodox,” Archbishop Pezzi said.
“But I think that Russian Catholics should not feel hurt” by such sentiments, he said. On the contrary, “it means that they should show in their own life that Christianity can penetrate into all cultures and all nations.”
Of the estimated 250,000 Catholics registered in the Archdiocese of Moscow, the archbishop said, probably only 10-20 percent are actively practicing the faith.
Part of the challenge of encouraging a Catholic renaissance in Russia is administrative: Because the government favors Orthodoxy, the work of opening a new parish can be met with bureaucratic roadblocks.
“There is freedom, but there are also hardships,” said the Rev. Aleksandr Burgos, a priest based in St. Petersburg but originally from Spain. “In some cases, there is some pressure. I serve in St. Petersburg, a city with a tradition of tolerance, so for us it is easier than it is in other parts of Russia.”
Father Burgos had recently filed an application to register his fledgling parish with the government, a process that he expected to take up to three months. If denied, his Catholic community will not be able to enjoy “full freedom.”
Father Burgos said he consoles himself with the knowledge that “in the 19th and 20th centuries, the situation was worse.”
But Father Burgos’ parish may be placed under particular scrutiny by the government for the sole reason that it is Eastern-rite Catholic and almost indistinguishable from an Orthodox parish, except for being in union with Rome and praying for the pope at the liturgy.
Father Burgos belongs to the small Russian Byzantine Catholic Church, whose members celebrate the Byzantine liturgy and live the faith according to Eastern Christian traditions.
“We serve according to this rite because we think that nearly everything in the Orthodox tradition is very good,” Father Burgos said. “And of course it is important for Russian Catholics who wish to celebrate liturgy according to their national tradition,” since the majority of Russian Christians have always followed the Byzantine liturgical tradition.
According to Father Burgos, the Vatican supported the development of the Latin rite in Russia but decided that the restoration of the Byzantine Catholic rite in modern-day Russia could be “misinterpreted by the Orthodox.”
For decades, but especially since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of the Eastern Catholic church in Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox have said the existence of the Eastern Catholic churches, which reunited with Rome over the past 500 years, are an obstacle to Christian unity. The Orthodox claim the Eastern Catholics encroach on Orthodox "canonical territory" and that their very existence is an attempt to achieve unity by breaking off pieces of the Orthodox community.
The Vatican has agreed that partial reunions are not a model for ecumenism, but insists the Eastern Catholic churches have a right to exist and to provide for the pastoral care of their faithful.
“This year we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of our exarchate,” Father Burgos said, “so I think that possibly the time has come” for the Vatican to re-establish it officially.
“I don’t think that our little church will disturb anyone,” Father Burgos said. “We do not need a huge cathedral, just a small chapel and an official registration to give our people the opportunity to pray and to feel themselves to be Russian citizens.”
Out of Byzantium
19 September 2017
A Russian Orthodox woman prays, gazing at an icon, in an Orthodox parish in St. Petersburg. Orthodox Christianity has been on the rise in Russia since the fall of communism in 1991. Churches, according to one artist, are becoming centers of cultural life. (photo: CNS/Robert Duncan)
One hundred years after Russia’s communist revolution inaugurated an era of church persecution and state-sponsored atheism, an Eastern Orthodox novel recently won the country’s top literary prize, and a statue of the country’s first Christian emperor was erected outside the Kremlin walls.
The book and the statue epitomize a trend in contemporary Russia where artists from a variety of disciplines are hard at work to respond to rising interest in the country’s religious heritage.
“In modern Russia, there is an excellent trend: Our churches are becoming not only the centers of spiritual life, but also of cultural life,” said Alexey Puzakov, a leading conductor in Moscow.
“It is joyful that in modern Russia, one can express himself inside the church, both in a spiritual and a creative manner,” he told Catholic News Service.
The movement Puzakov highlights contrasts sharply with active participation in a parish. According to a recent study from the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, only 6 percent of the Orthodox population in Russia attends church weekly.
But, the study reported, 57 percent of Russians believe Orthodox Christianity is an important feature of national identity.
Religious devotion is reflected in a variety of artistic and cultural forms that are not all tied to the institutional church, Puzakov said.
“Human talent can be realized in different ways: through word, through painting and through sound,” the conductor explained. “All these are gifts from God that we cannot find in any hierarchy.”
Puzakov, who directs the Moscow Synodal Choir in performances by composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, said performers and composers need the inspiration of faith in order to achieve excellence.
“The teaching of Jesus Christ is the root of all Christian art,” he said. “Good church singing is impossible without prayer.”
If, in the liturgy, for example, “a singer does not sing the words of the prayers from his heart, the result will be very formal, there will be no real synthesis of the liturgical rite and the prayers,” Puzakov said.
Another artist, Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin, won his country’s most prestigious literature award for his 2012 novel “Laurus,” which is set in religious, medieval Russia.
“I wished to describe a way of life that is far from modern people,” Vodolazkin said, but one that is nevertheless attractive to contemporary readers.
Vodolazkin’s book details the religious quest of a “holy fool” in the Russian Orthodox tradition, a kind of ascetic who humiliates himself in the eyes of others to draw closer to God.
“Humans cannot live only through TV, the internet and shopping,” he said. “This all concerns a horizontal level (of living), while humans are looking for a vertical dimension to life.”
Andrey Antonov, a Russian Orthodox artist and sculptor, combines traditional peasant tools, like nails and sickles, as well as household items into cruciform objects and Christian-themed sculptures. (photo: CNS/Robert Duncan)
Orthodox Christianity is also influencing modern art in Russia. Andrey Antonov, for example, combines traditional peasant tools, like nails and sickles, as well as household items into cruciform objects and Christian-themed sculptures.
“The Russian peasant’s way of life developed from the Christian way of life,” Antonov explained. “Everything in this life revolved around the Christian feasts.”
Salavat Scherbakov, another sculptor, was at the center of a political controversy in 2015 in the run-up to the unveiling of his most recent sculpture: a giant depiction of St. Vladimir, Russia's first Christian ruler.
After public debate about where the statue would be situated and whether St. Vladimir was an appropriate figure to represent modern Russia, Scherbakov’s work was placed just outside the walls of the Kremlin.
“We are coming back to our roots,” Scherbakov said. “We still do not understand these roots well enough; it is a kind of new search for identity.”
Because Christianity was persecuted for 70 years under state-sponsored atheism in communist Russia, the sculptor said, it is to be expected that contemporary Russians are rediscovering their heritage.
“A lot of my mother’s ancestors were members of the clergy, and some were rather famous,” he said. “So my interest in Christianity is not something unusual; it is rather natural.”
In the realm of architecture, Sergey Pavlov said he devotes his free time to designing and restoring churches in Russia.
“The majority of projects I’ve seen recently can be called a kind of search for tradition,” said Pavlov, who works as chief architect of the Peterhof State Museum-Reserve.
But true expertise is needed to properly restore churches, he said, and, unfortunately, many architects are simply trying to imitate previous structures without truly understanding their liturgical purpose.
The Soviet period led to the break of handing on traditional church architecture through master-apprentice relationships, Pavlov said. That rupture makes the building of new churches more challenging.
“We are not the direct heirs of pre-revolutionary Russia, but I hope that the process of rethinking is constructive and creative,” he said. “There is demand for such work.”