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Tradition Shopping

Many Roman Catholics are drawn to the mysticism of Eastern Catholic liturgical life

by Vincent Gragnani

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Though he was raised a Roman Catholic, Christopher Zugger has been drawn to Eastern Christianity since his childhood in Buffalo, New York.

He spent a lot of time in his grandparents’ library, where he was fascinated by a book of Byzantine prayers and Catholic Near East magazine (the predecessor of ONE).

Christopher worked an after-school job at a library and checked out records of Russian Orthodox chants.

One Easter, while in high school, he attended the midnight liturgy at a local Russian Orthodox church. When he came home early that morning, Christopher woke his mother and said, “That is what I want.”

Christopher’s mother, however, did not want him to leave the Catholic Church.

“Find something Catholic,” she said.

He visited a Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish, only to discover the liturgy was in Ukrainian. Christopher wanted a liturgy in a language he knew.

Following a friend’s suggestion, he hitched a ride to a newly reopened Byzantine Catholic church in Olean, a town 80 miles away. When Christopher opened the doors to the church, he was struck by the beauty. “I distinctly heard a voice say, ‘You are home,’ ” Christopher said.

And it has been his home ever since.

After seminary, he was ordained for the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, New Jersey. Today, Father Christopher Zugger, 50, serves as pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Byzantine Catholic Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Just as many Roman Catholics “shop” for parishes within their own tradition, others, like Father Zugger, find their homes in Eastern Catholic parishes. And many Eastern Catholics in the United States also join Roman Catholic parishes.

The Catholic Church is a communion of 22 churches – with the Roman tradition predominant in the West and many smaller churches thriving in the East.

Because they are in full communion with Rome and one another, Catholics are free to receive the Eucharist in any of these churches.

Many Roman Catholics who attend Eastern Catholic churches do so because they are drawn to the mysticism of the liturgies, which consist of centuries-old chants, icons and the use of incense. They say they enjoy more access to the clergy in Eastern parishes, which are typically smaller than their Roman counterparts, and that the church-going community is more tight-knit.

“I was searching for something with less liturgical adventure,” said Leslie Watters, who found herself unmoved by some of the post-Vatican II Masses of the Roman tradition. She now attends St. Ephrem Maronite Catholic Church in El Cajon, California.

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