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Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

On 6 January 1996, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches issued an Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.

The 96-page document seems, at first blush, to be a technical publication of interest only to liturgical and canonical specialists. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The prescriptions of this beautifully crafted document are revolutionary in their implications. They are another bold step taken by the Holy See in its quest to restore the unity of the church.

The history of the church in the first millennium records its growth throughout the ancient world and eventually beyond, to Europe and Asia, but it was also a millennium of division, rooted in politics, rivalries, cultural differences and misunderstandings.

During the second millennium, the church spread throughout most of the world. The dark side of this period was the splintering of the Western church and the intellectual and political attacks on Christianity. The bright side was the call for church unity and renewed vitality in church life everywhere.

In the last half of this millennium, many groups of Eastern Christians, separated from the Church of Rome, sought to establish full communion with the Holy See, even at the price of breaking away from their mother churches. Most of today’s Eastern Catholic churches were born this way.

Over the years, these Eastern Catholic churches began to adopt many of the rites, customs, traditions and dress of the Latin or Roman Church. In other words they became “Latinized.”

From the Roman Catholic point of view these churches seem thoroughly Eastern. But from the Orthodox perspective, they are too absorbed and influenced by the West. In a way, they have become a hybrid of East and West, a third kind of church.

The major focus of the Instruction is to encourage the Eastern Catholic churches to divest themselves of all Western adaptations and to restore the ancient traditions of the Eastern churches:

the Eastern uniqueness…risks being compromised or even eliminated in the contact with the Latin Church, her institutions, her doctrinal elaboration, her liturgical practices, and her internal organization.… In every, effort of liturgical renewal…the practice of the Orthodox brethren should be taken into account, knowing it, respecting it and distancing from it as little as possible…

The Instruction lays the groundwork for a striking plan for the unity of the church. The churches that broke with Orthodoxy for the sake of union with Rome must now become instruments of union.

Firm in their communion with Rome, the Eastern Catholic churches must return to the fullness of their ancient traditions so that those Eastern churches not yet in full communion with Rome will see in them a genuine, uncompromised model of unity in diversity.

May the third be the millennium of unity!

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA



Tags: Eastern Christianity