One of the very best things about joining a large organization, is discovery. Who else is there, what their roles are, what the basic structures of the organization are, where things are done, how they are done – the local customs, so to speak. When I was in college, I went through sorority rush. This was quite a number of years ago, and so the things in the news about hazing were not really practiced, in the sense that when I was there, it was all about fun, afternoon teas, and belonging. The sorority rush pattern was such that you were given a schedule of houses to visit, in what order, and at what time; also what attire was appropriate, etc. After the first day, the sororities choose who to invite back a second time. Each time you are invited back, you get a little bit more of a glimpse into other members, who they are and why they chose that particular house or chapter, what the sorority’s “theme” is (some have members who are all science majors, or PE majors, or teaching-oriented, which is the one I eventually chose) and the requirements and expectations of membership. Eventually, you stop being asked back by some of the chapters, or it is narrowed down by natural selection to one or two houses. Then there is the final night where you are invited to join a particular sorority and from those invites, you choose which house you want to belong to. As long as it is mutual, you begin life as a pledge. Once your pledging semester is over, you are initiated. And once you are an initiated, full member, you are a member for life, and your daughters and granddaughters are called “legacies” and are given preference when they opt to go through sorority rush (or not!). That was close to 40 years ago and I have friends I am still close to, who were in my sorority all those years ago. We were in each other’s weddings, became godmothers to each other’s children, and now share (some of us anyway) grand-parenting tales and photos. That was a secular experience…however, we can use it to debate/discuss our religious experiences, too.
I was raised, basically, a Protestant. My parents just attended churches where their friends or business associates attended. It wasn’t really a matter of faith or conviction, but more of a community experience. We went from Church to Church, never really putting down roots. As a young woman on my own, I somehow found the Geneva Presbyterian Church. I would drive quite a long way to attend services there. My grandparents lived nearby and it became a habit – church and then a visit with them. It was my minor in college that really grabbed me – Biblical Archeology. I began to share what I had been taught and started to give lectures at women’s bible studies in the evenings, all over So Cal (it was word-of-mouth and I was usually invited to speak in the evenings). I was sharing an archeology series at a local Presbyterian Church when I noted that across the parking lot were people my age (young adults) having a very good time. I took in my surroundings: the group was made up of wives and mothers, and grandmothers, all quite a bit older than I was and I felt very alone. After my presentation, I wandered over to see what the young adults next door were up to. I knew it was a church, but I discovered it was a Catholic church and they were a young adult group! I attended my first mass, all by myself, sitting way in the back and boy, was I hooked. It was almost like a “love at first site” sort of thing. My historical and archeological knowledge was alive, right in front of me. I soon thought to myself, “Why isn’t everyone Catholic?” But it took me the better part of two years to formally join the Church. During that time, I met and became engaged to my husband, and we married 8 months after I was welcomed into the Catholic Church on Easter Sunday, all those many years ago. That particular Easter changed my life, and it is continuing to change it, even now.
If you compare the concept of sorority rush with RCIA, they are almost the same. It was a time of mutual discovery; a time of questions and answers, much like the ones I asked going through Rush, except during RCIA I learned to pray, and I mean really pray. You can look at organized religion just like you look at any large organization, using the same parameters I outlined above. The key difference is God. He is acting in our lives to bring us home. Now, some would argue that joining a club is nothing like joining a church. Somewhat true, on a theological level. But on a social level, it is exactly the same. Who does what around here? What is the expected attire? What time do I show up (when are the “good” masses?)? Where do I fit in? All of these questions are the same when applied to organizations…religious, social, business, professional. Joining something is allowing yourself to be sucked into a larger entity than just “self.” The key difference is that religion focuses on God at its core, its center, its reason for existence, and the chief work of the Church is prayer. Whether you join or not, worship will still take place, but the call was strong and I became a Roman Catholic, and remained so for more than 20 years.
God called both my husband and myself many years ago when we discovered the Eastern Churches, specifically the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. The Melkites originated in the Middle East (basically Antioch) and are pretty Orthodox in their theology and outlook, although maintain a communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Per Wikipedia:
“The Melkite Greek Catholic Church (Arabic: كنيسة الروم الملكيين الكاثوليك, Kanīsat ar-Rūm al-Malakiyyīn al-Kāṯūlīk) is an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Holy See as part of the worldwide Catholic Church. The Melkites, Byzantine Rite Catholics of mixed Eastern Mediterranean and Greek origin, trace their history to the early Christians of Antioch, Turkey, of the 1st century AD, where Christianity was introduced by St. Peter. The Melkite Church has a high degree of ethnic homogeneity and the church’s origins lie in the Near East, but Melkite Greek Catholics are present throughout the world due to migration. Outside of the Near East, the Melkite Church has also grown through inter-marriage with, and the conversion of, people of various ethnic heritages. At present there is a worldwide membership of approximately 1.6 million. The Melkite Catholic Church’s Byzantine roots and liturgical practices are rooted in those of Eastern Orthodoxy, while the Church has maintained communion with the Catholic Church in Rome since a split from the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in 1729.“
When we first became officially a part of the Melkite Church, many of our western friends thought we had “left the faith.” It caused a lot of heartache and misunderstanding with many of our friends, and even family members. We had been active for many years in our Catholic homeschooling community and also the greater Catholic intellectual community, and so many of our friends disregard us because of this change. It made us sad because we learned so very much by becoming part of an Eastern Church. We learned how truly worldwide and universal the Church is – it is not just Roman Catholic, but oh, so much more. The richness of our faith brings a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes. God has provided.
“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.'” (Matthew 28: 19-20)
This is often called the “Great Commission” of Christ, when He asked that the faith be shared around the world, and He promised to be with us “always.” And He is with His church, in all its many guises. What is truly sad is many people just do not accept that. Many people still believe we are outside the “true” or “real” Church Christ founded. A little known fact is St. Peter founded the Church at Antioch before he got to Rome. We like to tease the Roman Catholics that we Melkites had St. Peter first! Ha-Ha!
My husband has felt called to ministry most of his life. He applied to the priestly seminary as a teen, but put it off. He then applied to become a Deacon in the Roman church when our children were quite young. They told him to come back when our kids were grown. As we migrated to the Melkite Church, we both discussed the deaconate with our parish priest and we started, both of us, to meet with him and to learn more about the Melkite way, and expectations, and the requirements. Much like I had in my sorority rush days! We asked the parish to discern his worthiness, and when they all consented, he started on his 4-year seminary experience. We kept in touch with our Roman Catholic friends, and in fact, my middle son became re-acquainted with his now-wife about this time, and her family came to my husband’s ordination (We had met many years ago through a mutual, Catholic, homeschooling family). Many of our Catholic homeschooling friends joined us for my husband’s ordination.
There have been so many interesting things that came from his ordination. A closer walk with God and His Church, a deeper religious life than we ever experienced (ask my kids about adopting the Melkite rules for Lent and Fasting and those first, few, rough Lents!) but at the same time, a loss of many close friends, due to a misconstrued knowledge of their own Church. Several friends who attended my husband’s ordination (by Bishop Cyril Bustros) asked us where the nearest Catholic Church was so they could have “real” communion and meet their “Sunday” obligation. Now mind you, he was ordained by a Bishop, there were numerous priests (an Archmandrite or two, which is the eastern equivalent to a Roman Catholic Monseigneur), monks from our local Monastery (http://hrmonline.org/ We miss you!!) and assorted deacons in attendance, so much so that the Holy Place could not hold them all. There were so many varied and beautiful vestments there, I felt very under-dressed and far out-shined! In spite of all of that, friends did not feel they had been to a “real mass” nor had they received “real communion” even after witnessing a Bishop laying his hands on my husband, with all the other priests, deacons, and monks surrounding him. An Eastern Church, Melkite Greek Catholic Church, was not “real” enough. I was stymied.
Looking back on that day makes me sort of sad. I have learned so much and a big thing I learned is that God created His Church to be one, big tent! We have lots of churches (rites) all united around the one faith, in communion with one another, with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, as the First Among Equals. The sacraments are the same (we refer to them as mysteries, but they are THE SAME, although in the east the order in which they are received is a little different). We teach from the same Bible, celebrate the same sacrifice (although a tiny difference is that most of the east uses leavened bread)…still, we are all brethren. Even today, many in the west do not accept the differences. It is sort of like America insisting everyone around the world adopting their form of democratic/republic-styled government, with no regard for the history or culture of the people they are insisting “convert.”
God is calling us to where we each need to be, but don’t sell God short. He has expressions that may seem odd or “foreign” to us; those of us raised with a western mindset and education. But God cannot be contained in our box or our comfort zone. He is out there, working in the lives of people in so many ways; God is working for the good of all people. The outlook we have for those slightly different than we are can be helpful or hurtful. We’ve all been praying for the people in Ukraine. We’ve all seen the priests praying between the crowds of protestors and the police (as pictured above). Those priests are Ukrainian Greek Catholic (or Orthodox) and most are married men. They are Christian, but celebrate a little differently than we do. They are not Roman Catholic priests and there was a lot of controversy online about the fact that they are priests and yes, they are married. It is not common in the Roman tradition to have married priests, but in the 22 other traditions in communion with Rome, and in the Orthodox churches, it is the norm. They are different than what we find here in the USA, but they are all a part of the family of God, and of His Church.
If I celebrate Lent a little differently, or wear a cross that looks a little different, it is not because I am not a Christian. I just choose to express my faith and worship in a slightly different way. But it is valid. It is licit. It is the same Christ crucified. My prayer is that we can all be one, holy, catholic and apostolic – and mean it.
“Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 18: 8-9)
I was encouraged to pen this by someone who was interested in how I got here, why I got here, and some reflections on issues of my journey. Thanks; it was good to look back and think on it. I know I have grown immeasurably since first walking into a Catholic Church of my own volition about 30 years ago. And I know God is still working on me. God has worked some miracles in relationships with people who don’t get where I am worshiping now, nor understand fully that the Eastern Catholic churches all belong and are all part of one, big, family of God. I pray that with all the talk of ecumenism, that they will realize we are all brethren. I am just so blessed to have discovered that other lung Pope John Paul II spoke of. I feel I am breathing more fully than I ever was.