Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Heart speaks to heart!
The Eastern Catholic Church: Lenten traditions
by John Fencik, for the Inland Register
(From the February 18, 2016 edition of the Inland Register)
Many Catholics of the Latin or Roman Rite have little or no knowledge of the Eastern Catholic Churches, which are often confused with the various “Orthodox” Churches.
There are 23 autonomous Churches under the pope at Rome, referred to as the Eastern Catholic Church. Historically, the Church in the East and West developed many different traditions that reflected the cultural settings and language of various nations. As the Roman Empire split into East and West, a tension grew between the Roman pope (West) and the patriarch of Constantinople (East) as to the position of honor and authority in the Church. A great schism between the two eventually happened – heightened by the mutual excommunications (1054 A.D.) – but the issue had been brewing for centuries. The real causes were credal, liturgical, and theological. Attempts were made at reconciliation, notably at the Council of Florence (1438-1445), but by that time the Islamic occupation of the east made reunion much more difficult.
With the Union of Brest (Lithuania) in 1595-96 some of the Ruthenian Churches severed their relationship with the Orthodox Church and returned to full communion with the pope. Others did the same with the Union of Uzhhorod (1646). The Eastern Churches were able to retain their language, liturgical celebrations, customs, and traditions.
Eastern Catholics celebrate the Lenten season in similar ways to the West, but with some interesting differences. The Byzantine Churches call this holy season “Great Lent.” It is a season of penance and fasting before the Pascha (in the West, Easter). It is called “Great” because it is the longest and most serious period of fasting and penitential practices during the year – preparing to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection. The fasting guidelines in the East derive from the tradition of the early Church, as found in the writings of the Fathers and in the Didache (a late-first-century catechetical instruction).
In the pre-Vatican II liturgy, the Latin Rite celebrated the Sundays before Ash Wednesday as Septuagesima (70), Sexagesima (60) and Quinquagesima (50) – that is, days before Easter. The Eastern Church has maintained a pre-Lenten season called the Triodion. There are three Sundays beginning 70 days before Easter with a particular theme:
• The Publican and the Pharisee – our need for true humility.
Great Lent starts on Clean Monday – not Ash Wednesday. This name refers to the cleaning of the soul – the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are invited to again exam our thoughts, words, and actions and see where we need to “clean” house and put our spiritual lives back on track. Clean Monday actually starts the evening before with a beautiful liturgy called Forgiveness Vespers. Included in that liturgy is the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness, when everyone bows before one another, seeking forgiveness. Then they offer each other the kiss of peace. In that first week of Great Lent, confession is highly recommended – thus beginning the Lenten season enveloped in the loving mercy of our God.
In the Byzantine tradition, may the prayer of the 4th century Doctor of the Church, St. Ephrem the Assyrian, guide us – East and West – during our Lenten journey:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
(In our diocese we have the Byzantine Catholic Church of SS. Cyril and Methodius in Spokane Valley. Father William O’Brien is the pastor.)
(John Fencik is director of Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services of Spokane.)
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