The Second Vatican Council tells us “Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary … they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing with devotion and full collaboration” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 48). The information below is provided to answer some frequently asked questions and enable visitors to enter more deeply into the celebration of the Eucharist according to the Russian Greek Catholic (Byzantine) tradition.
What is the Greek Catholic or Byzantine Rite?
A Rite includes the forms and ceremonies of liturgical worship and the whole expression of the theological, spiritual, and disciplinary heritage of the different communities within the Church. Many different Rites have developed within the Catholic Church throughout its history, and the Church has never maintained a principle of uniformity of Rite. There are at least seven Rites currently in use in the United States and even more worldwide. By far the largest and most recognizable is the Latin Rite, and it is probably the one with which you are familiar. Here we practice the Greek Catholic (also known as the Byzantine) Rite, which developed in Constantinople beginning in the fourth century. It is used by hundreds of millions of Christians, primarily in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The various Rites of the Church are different expressions of the same faith that all Catholics share and give the Church a wonderful richness and variety.
What is the Russian Greek Catholic Church?
Sts. Cyril and Methodius is a Russian Greek Catholic/Byzantine Catholic community. The Russian Byzantine Catholic Church was founded in 1896 by Russian Orthodox priests seeking to restore communion with the Catholic Church while maintaining the spiritual richness of the Byzantine Slavonic tradition. We are in fact one of over 20 autonomous Catholic Churches in full communion with the Holy See. Our Community is under the jurisdiction of the local Latin Rite bishop, Archbishop Samuel Aquilla, and ultimately Pope Francis.
We are a Russian Catholic Community being housed at a Jesuit, Roman Catholic university. The Jesuits, in fact, have had a fairly long tradition of supporting and being involved with Russian Greek Catholics. They have served at times Russian Greek Catholic churches in this country and elsewhere. They have also been responsible for the famous Collegium Russicum, a Catholic College in Rome dedicated to studies of the culture and spirituality of Russia and providing education and accommodation for both Catholic and Orthodox students.
Is this a Catholic Eucharist?
Yes! This is a celebration of the Eucharist presided over by a Catholic priest, and it does fulfill the “Sunday obligation” for Catholics of any Rite (CCC 1280). However, we call it the Divine Liturgy rather than Mass. The word “Mass” comes from the dismissal at the end of the Latin liturgy, “Ite, misse est”. Since Latin was never adopted as the liturgical language of the Eastern Churches, you will not find Latin used in the liturgy, nor any terms that were derived from Latin. Our Orthodox visitors will find the liturgy almost identical to that with which they are accustomed, and rightly so. We use the same Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on most Sundays of the year (and the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on the Sundays of Great Lent) that was celebrated for centuries prior to the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
When the Russian Greek Catholic Church began in the 19th century, the Holy See of Rome directed that we should celebrate our services and live our Christian lives in a way “No more, no less, and no other” than what we had received from our mother Russian Orthodox Church. Because of this directive, Russian Greek Catholics have generally been more observant of Orthodox practices and have looked more like our Orthodox brothers and sisters than do some other Byzantine Catholics.
Where do I start?
First, take a deep breath and relax. We are well aware that many of our visitors have never participated in a Byzantine Divine Liturgy and that it can be intimidating the first time. Try to ignore the awkwardness of unfamiliarity and just experience the liturgy for what it is, a celebration of the Eucharist, the “Mystical Supper” of the Lord. No one thinks you’re weird, foolish, or unholy because you don’t know all the motions. Moreover, there is no emphasis on uniformity in the worship of the Christian East, and you may notice that different people do different things. This is perfectly appropriate, as there is no right or wrong way to participate in the liturgy, just so long as you participate.
The Liturgy typically begins in a particular area of the chapel or outside. It can change depending of type of Liturgy being celebrated, so just observe where people are congregating and gather with them. As soon as you think you’re in the right place, it is probably time to move, so don’t be too disconcerted. There is a lot of movement in our Liturgy. You will find the entire congregation moves around several times during the liturgy. It’s not important to list all the times and locations here, but when you see everyone else moving, join in the procession.
Finally, be aware that almost the entire liturgy, including the reading of scripture, is sung or chanted. The singing is not inserted purely for entertainment value, but is the fundamental content of the liturgy. Try to listen to the words or follow along in the liturgy books. If you get lost or have a question, don’t be afraid to ask a neighbor for help.
Posture for Worship
The normative posture during the liturgy is standing, which is used as the celebratory posture. We sit for the reading of the Epistle and during the homily. If you get tired or cannot stand for any other reason, please do not feel obligated to do so. It is very common for people to sit and rest, especially during long liturgies.
During the Anaphora, or Eucharistic Prayer, the members of the congregation will perform three prostrations. We do not lie flat on the floor, as the term usually implies in English, but get down on our hands and knees and touch our foreheads to the ground for a moment. This posture can be startling to visitors, but the prostrations are done as an act of adoration and supplication to God in preparation to receive Holy Communion. If you are uncomfortable or otherwise unable to prostrate yourself, just make some other appropriate gesture such as a deep bow. In the spirit of celebration associated with the Paschal season, kneeling and prostrations are forbidden between Easter and Pentecost.
What’s with all the kissing?
The Byzantine Rite includes a lot of kissing of icons, books, rings, crosses, chalices, vestments, etc. In the same spirit that people might kiss a crucifix or a photograph of a loved one, we kiss many of the items used in the liturgy. It’s not that the objects themselves are idolized. It is a sign of love and veneration for the things those objects represent. For example, we kiss the Gospel out of love for the Word of God. We kiss the foot of the chalice after receiving Holy Communion as if we were kissing the feet of Christ. If you are not comfortable kissing the sacred objects, there is no obligation to do so.
At the Kiss of Peace, don’t be alarmed if a total stranger looks like he’s coming over to kiss you. We “kiss” three times on alternating cheeks (we don’t really kiss, but just touch cheeks) and say, “Christ is in our midst!” The response is, “He is and ever shall be!” (During the Paschal/Easter season, the greeting changes to “Christ is Risen!”; the response is, “Indeed, He is Risen!”). Then you turn and do the same to your neighbors. That’s just the Byzantine version of the handshake or hug you might get at a Roman Mass and an expression of Christian communion.
Who is ‘Theotokos’?
Theotokos is a Greek word you will hear frequently throughout the Divine Liturgy. It is a special title for the Blessed Virgin Mary which translates literally as ‘birth-giver to God’ or ‘God-bearer’, but is often dynamically rendered as simply ‘Mother of God’. The title was officially recognized by the Church at the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431, but was in common use long before then. It does not suggest that Mary is coeternal with God or that she existed before God, but rather emphasizes that Jesus’ divine and human natures are eternally united in one personhood. Mary was not only the mother of Christ’s humanity, but bore his divinity as well. The Church acknowledges this mystery in the words of this ancient hymn: “He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos.”
Guidelines for the reception of Holy Communion
Generally speaking, because communion in the Eucharist implies communion in teaching and communion in a common shared life, only Catholics receive Holy Communion. This, however, is not an absolute discipline. The Catholic Church, for example, has no objection to the reception of Holy Communion by members of the Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Polish National Catholic Church (CIC 844 § 3), but they are urged to respect the discipline of their own Churches. There are also other exceptions to this general norm. A person who is conscious of grave sin should make sacramental confession prior to receiving Holy Communion, or as soon as he/she is able. If you have any questions about any of this, please do not hesitate to speak to the priest before Liturgy begins.
For those who choose to receive Holy Communion, take a place in line at the appropriate time and cross you arms over your heart to indicate your desire to receive the sacrament. As you approach the chalice, a deep bow and sign of the cross are made to acknowledge the presence of God in the Eucharist. Tell the minister your baptismal name, as he will communicate you personally, by name. There is no verbal profession, such as “Amen”, by the communicant. Then tilt your head back and open your mouth wide. Don’t stick out your tongue as you might do when receiving Holy Communion at the Roman Mass. The minister will place the Body and Blood of Christ, under the form of leavened Bread soaked in Wine, into your mouth with a spoon. The communicant then kisses the base of the chalice as an act of love and reverence for Our Lord. You may notice that small children and even infants receive the Eucharist. This is because all three rites of initiation (Baptism, Chrismation/Confirmation and Holy Communion) are received at the same time in the Russian Greek Catholic tradition, and this usually occurs soon after birth.
As you file past the minister, you will notice some bread and wine mixed with hot water being offered at a side table. It is just normal (not blessed or consecrated) bread and wine. Its purpose is to cleanse the mouth of any remaining particles of the Eucharist. Please take a piece of bread and drink some of warm wine.
The End: Veneration of the Cross and Antidoron
The Divine Liturgy concludes with everyone coming forward to venerate (kiss) the cross held by the priest and once again to receive some bread. This bread (the 3rd kind of bread in the Liturgy) is called “antidoron”, which means “in place of the Gift”, that is, “in place of the Eucharist”. It is blessed, but not consecrated to be the Eucharist. Originally, it was given to those people participating in the Liturgy but not receiving Holy Communion. In modern practice, however, everyone, regardless of religious beliefs or church membership, is invited to receive antidoron, even non-Christians and atheists! This is the Eastern Christian way of trying to make sure that every human being can participate at the Table of the Lord in some way, even if they are not able, for whatever reason, to receive the Eucharist.
Before you leave…
After the Liturgy, please stay and have something to eat and drink with us. We usually have Russian Tea, sandwiches and cakes after the Divine Liturgy. Just follow the crowd. If you have any questions about our community, our services, or our activities, please do not hesitate to ask the priest or any other member of the community. Please come back and worship with us again!