Emerging from the Catacombs

by Chorbishop John D. Faris, J.C.O.D.

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The opening line of A Tale of Two Cities quite accurately describes the state of affairs of Europe’s Eastern Catholic churches in the final decade of the 20th century: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

It was the best of times. While the Soviet Union unraveled, the atheistic, totalitarian regimes of Central and Eastern Europe collapsed. The Eastern churches, accorded freedom and public recognition, were at last able to proclaim the Gospel and to live their faith.

And it was the worst of times. A period of insecurity, confusion and discord settled in. Under Communist rule, the people had lived with a certain sense of predictability and security despite the bureaucracies and shortages that characterized it.

Freedom has been fascinating for these liberated peoples, but freedom has also brought with it new problems. Many people in Central and Eastern European society have indiscriminately embraced Western values and culture, which often conflict with their own. Consequently, even those Western-oriented ideas that would benefit post-Communist countries have come to be viewed with suspicion by many. Institutions with ties to the West the Eastern Catholic churches fall into this category – have been denounced by fanatic nationalists as Trojan horses.

These were not the only problems confronting Eastern Catholics. Not only had the world changed, but so had the Catholic Church. Because of the relative isolation of these churches, the renewal of Vatican II (1962-65) was unknown. Some of the conciliar documents had been translated for those churches, but not the council’s spirit of renewal. The Catholicism of Central and Eastern Europe remained entrenched in the past.

As the constraints of Communism fell, the Eastern Catholic churches in Central and Eastern Europe were suddenly faced with an identity crisis. How were they to be faithful to their authentic Eastern traditions, loyal to the Bishop of Rome, and, at the same time, accommodate themselves to this modern world?

European Assembly of Eastern Catholic Bishops. In order to assist the renewal of these churches, Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, convened a meeting of all those who were responsible for the leadership and support of the Eastern Catholic churches. The bishops and religious superiors of the Armenian, Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Italo-Albanian, Romanian, Ruthenian and Slovak Catholic churches were invited, as were the archbishops of Paris and Vienna, who had Eastern Catholics under their pastoral care. The geographic proximity of many of these churches offered them the opportunity for future cooperation in common endeavors.

In addition to personnel from the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, the secretaries of the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity were also present. Representatives of Roman universities and seminaries and various funding agencies, including CNEWA, also participated in the assembly.

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Tags: Eastern Churches Communism/Communist Soviet Union Central Europe