concerning the life of the Eastern churches

Surviving in the West

by Vincent Gragnani

Irish-American priests are fond of an old joke about two pastors who cannot get rid of the bats in their bell towers. One pastor is at a loss, having tried traps, repellents, even ringing the bells constantly – no matter what he does, the bats come back. The other pastor shares his secret: He baptizes the bats, gives them first Communion, confirms them – and never sees them again.

The joke illustrates a problem not unique to Latin (Roman) Catholic parishes, where confirmation often marks the end of regular church involvement. Though Eastern Catholics do not generally confirm teenagers, many Eastern Catholic parishes have seen their members drift away. Some return to marry and raise a family, but many do not.

While the overall Catholic population in the United States has risen from 57.4 million in 1995 to 64.8 million in 2005, a constant 23 percent of the total population, U.S. Eastern Catholic jurisdictions have reported grim statistics in those same years, making the challenge of passing the faith on to the next generation an even greater one if the churches are going to thrive.

The churches that have seen increases in the last 10 years – Chaldeans, Maronites, Melkites and Syriacs – are absorbing immigrants from the churches’ native lands. Numbers show that churches rooted in Eastern Europe are not doing as well. In 1995, the Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic Church reported 192,537 members. In 2005, that number dropped to 99,381. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church also saw a decline, though not as dramatic, from 141,549 to 104,558 between the same years.

Community leaders – even the Chaldean, whose population in the United States has nearly doubled in the last 10 years – are concerned. For when the flow of Catholic immigrants from the Middle East dries up, so too will Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite and Syriac parishes if these churches fail in their evangelization and educational endeavors.

Numbers, however, should not be taken at face value: Byzantine Catholics authorities acknowledge their numbers were inflated in the 1970’s and 80’s; part of the drop in members is actually an adjustment from exaggerated reports.

Where there is real decline, economic and geographic shifts are often to blame. Many of the mines, factories and farms that employed so many families of Eastern European descent in Ohio and Pennsylvania have now disappeared, disbursing the population that once built and worshiped in the Eastern Catholic churches that dot the landscape.

“In the 1960’s and 70’s, many people moved west, and so parishes were developed there,” said Father John Kachuba, who heads the religious education office for the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma. “Now people are moving to Florida and other southern states, so we have developed parishes there. Where some people move to, there may not be a Ruthenian parish, but there may be a Ukrainian or Melkite parish. Hopefully, they’re being served.”

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Tags: Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Orthodox Church Carpatho-Rusyn Syriac Christians