What We Can Learn From the East

Life is tough as a traditionalist in today’s Church.  Thanks to the Pontificate of Benedict XVI, we were given the tools to promote the Mass we love, and a lot of our views and dispositions gain increasing tolerance if not acceptance.  Ten years ago I had to drive 90 minutes into one of the worst neighborhoods to fulfill my “lawful aspiration” (to use St. John Paul II’s term for devotion to the 1962 Missal) in communion with the Roman Pontiff.  Today I have five choices within that radius, several of them far closer.

One way I’ve managed to deal with those difficult times is to reflect on the trials of our brethren in the various Eastern Catholic Churches.  For a variety of reasons (one which we will cover here shortly) relations with trads and Eastern Catholics look better on paper than they do in reality.  Yet from that theoretical goodness a lot of practical benefits can arise.  Back in the days of the Ecclesia Dei Indult, few Roman Rite priests around me had the knowledge or (especially) the desire to cater to the spiritual needs of traditionalists.  One of the few priests who answered the call to be a shepherd was a Maronite priest who was bi-ritual.  He didn’t see “traditionalists” with the scare quotes.  He simply saw Catholics who wanted to worship and be united with the Pope.  During these days, a lot of Eastern Churches around me also served as places of sanctuary for traditionalists who wanted to get away from the banal liturgies and modernist homilies that went on around us.  Many of us can recall their hospitality fondly.

In addition to that hospitality, there are certain ways of looking at things that perhaps we traditionalists could benefit from.  While we Romans are rightly proud of what the Bishop of Rome has meant to Christianity, it is also true we place too much importance into the person of the Bishop of Rome.  Most of our blogs are setup for instant analysis into every word the Pope has or hasn’t said, followed by the inevitable rounds of bloggers fighting over which interpretation is correct.  Pope Francis has rightly worried about this when he stated the following in Evangelii Gaudium:

Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”.

Most Eastern Catholics have a healthy respect and devotion for the Pope, but he clearly isn’t at the center of their everyday lives.  They don’t have blogs dedicated to “reading Francis through Benedict and vice versa” because of course you are supposed to read popes in continuity with each other.  Whoever would suggest you shouldn’t?  He’s not superhuman or divine.  He’s a Bishop for whom communion is a necessity to be in communion with every other Christian.  That’s obviously a gross simplification, but it strikes at an ethos they are better at accomplishing than we are.  In today’s age, traditionalists should appreciate this outlook.

We can also find in Eastern Catholics something with which we should sympathize.  We often complain of clerics and even popes hindering and even suppressing the growth of our cherished traditions.  This isn’t something which is unprecedented in the Church, and we need only look at the plight of Eastern Christians to understand it.  A lot of Eastern Churches went through what came to be called Latinisation.  While there’s conflicting definitions, a general rule is that some Eastern practices were partially suppressed (my Catholic Exchange colleague Benjamin Mann discusses these in relation to priestly celibacy) or Western practices were introduced into Eastern Churches where no such tradition had existed previously.  There has to be within their communions and traditions stories on how to not only survive in such circumstances, but grow spiritually in doing so.

In addition to reflection, we should also be more sympathetic to taking action.  We’ve seen bad prelates suppress what is lawful to our traditions.  We have waged a grueling battle to practice our own traditions safely.  Shouldn’t we also lobby for others to do the same, especially when their traditions are just as (if not more) ancient than ours?  This isn’t just an academic question.  Even now, there’s still a law on the books restricting who can be a priest in the Eastern Communions here in North America.  The reasoning for such a move is something traditionalists are familiar with:  expanded access to the Latin Mass, I mean a married clergy, would cause confusion amongst the faithful and threaten unity within our dioceses.    That argument isn’t compelling at all when dealing with us (dioceses with liberal access to the Extraordinary Form haven’t led to schisms or confusion, quite the opposite), it shouldn’t be compelling when dealing with them.

Such solidarity can also help us traditionalists be a part of a global church.  While we might express our traditions in a different manner, we are closer to our Eastern friends (even if neither wants to admit it) in our views of reverence in the liturgy than we might be with the average Latin parish.  We can even help reintroduce that sense of reverence into a lot of churches around us.  Now before people get upset when I say that the average Latin parish lacks a proper understanding of reverence, remember that Pope Francis has said the same thing in one of his papal interviews:

In the Orthodox Churches they have kept that pristine liturgy, so beautiful.

We have lost a bit the sense of adoration. They keep, they praise God, they adore God, they sing, time doesn’t count. God is the center… We are in need of this renewal, of this fresh air of the East, of this light of the East.

We traditionalists can be a powerful agent of that renewal in the liturgy, and we can remind others that this isn’t just a traditionalist concern; but can and must be the concern of all Catholics.

In outlining all of the benefits of increased solidarity, I’m not naïve.  I know a lot of people won’t take up the call.  Yet I truly think if traditionalists are looking for a way forward in the Church today (and a way out of this crisis), we can learn much from our brothers in faith, and we should at least be willing to try.

Kevin Tierney


Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

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  • The Eastern rites are also instructive for the reform of the reform, including on the proper means of communion under both kinds, the liturgical role of the deacon, the use of the vernacular, sung liturgy, the use of true liturgical hymns, etc.

  • AngelaT

    I’m not much of a traditionalist, but I totally agree with this as Latin rite Catholic with a love for the eastern traditions. Thanks for helping me make more sense of the traditionalist movement

  • Jack

    In the Byzantine tradition–both for Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics of various jurisdictions–there is no such thing as a low mass. It’s either sung with incense or you don’t do it at all.

    Therefore when Orthodox or Byzantine Catholics began using English or other vernaculars, care was taken to adapt the traditional chants to new languages. Thus people sang the Liturgy.

    Alas, in the Latin Church the low mass was taken as the norm, and people wound up singing songs and hymns during mass, rather than singing the Mass itself.

  • That’s honestly been one of my great “beefs” with the liturgical reform. I was never a big fan of Low Mass in the EF, but I can kind of understand it for daily masses, which were shorter affairs. Also given the clear Evangelical nature of the EF, a certain theological point could be made about the Low Mass: it was quick so people could be dismissed to evangelize in the workplace.

    But Low Masses more or less became a standard thing even on Sundays, and even with the liturgical reform during the 1870’s to 1960’s, Low Mass was still prevelant.

  • Glad you found it useful. We discuss the subject of traditionalism once or twice a month here at CE. Hopefully we will see you in the future!

  • Jason

    I love the Eastern Church, and fully agree that their traditions are beautiful, august, and to be protected. However, we can also simply look to our own traditions on these things. Heck, we can look to the Parishes which came into the Latin Rite under the Pastoral Provision or the Ordinariates and see a road map for these things.

  • Elisha Med

    Kudos for this brilliant essay on the matter which is important these
    days–the lose of reverence, especially in and during the Mass. In deed,
    there is a great deal to learn from our brethren Eastern Churches (both
    of those Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Churches). I really like what
    Pope Francis says about the need to forget oneself during the Mass. In
    these part of the world, the West, where ‘time is money’ the idea that
    the Mass is something as part of the schedule made it to lose its
    special place in our life. How many of us are uplifted when we sing the
    Mass itself (the words of the liturgy itself) rather than interrupted by
    modern music?? Mass is, in a word, the visitation of Heaven on earth
    where time is suspended, or rather Timeless act of God entered into our
    time because the Son of God is at the alter, suffering for our sin. This
    is something we can learn from our brethren Eastern Christian Churches
    where they spent more than couple of hours to adore and beg for mercy.

    Once again kudos for bringing this important issue. Mary, Mother of God and
    St. Joseph, protector of the Universal Church pray for us !

  • Ben

    Great article Kevin! I would very well start the process of a “Rite Change” from the Roman to Byzantine, but the priest dissuaded me by saying it would introduce liturgical division within my marriage. I disagree- they are both Catholic, and my soul is very much Orthodox.