So You Want to Be a Byzantine? A Guide for Romans (Part One)

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Maybe it started because a friend invited you to Divine Liturgy. Or some married priest on Catholic radio caught your attention because, hey, you thought priests had to be celibate. Maybe you’re a fan of that amazing, talented, brilliant and humble Byzantine columnist on Catholicmom.com and figure you need to do whatever she’s doing. However it happened, you suddenly find yourself a Roman Catholic considering whether or not you should “become Byzantine.”

I completely understand, because I was once in your shoes. I know that making this discernment can be tough and feel like truly uncharted territory by comparison to the other big decisions you might make in your life. While I’m not a card-carrying spiritual director or expert on this topic, I have at least made the journey from West to East and learned a few things about the route.

I’ve compiled these things in two parts with the hope that it will help you better navigate your own discernment. This first part will deal with some recommendations for discerning, and part two will look at some common misconceptions of the Byzantine churches that aren’t often discussed.

Much of this information could probably apply to discerning a switch to any of the Eastern churches, but, being Byzantine, I don’t feel as qualified to speak on the other Eastern churches.

So without further ado, here is my non-exhaustive, non-expert, strictly experience-based list of recommendations for discerning a commitment to practicing Byzantine spirituality:

1) The first thing to realize is that:

Made at memegenerator.net
Once you have prayerfully decided that God is calling you to explore this option in your life, find your local Byzantine church. There may be a few of different ethnicities from which to choose (Ruthenian, Melkite etc.), so maybe take the time to visit each of them a few times and see what gives a good impression.

Then stay there and practice in that church for a year, and don’t make any decisions until that year is over.

And yes, I did say at least a year.

Here’s the thing: Byzantine spirituality is not simply cosmetically different from Roman spirituality, as many people tend to assume. It involves a vastly different approach to the theology you have always known as a Roman, meaning you will actually have to learn a new understanding of some seemingly basic concepts like original sin, the makeup of the human person, and the afterlife. It also involves a vastly different approach to developing a relationship with the Lord, and it takes consistent, long-term practice as well as experience of the entire liturgical year to know this spirituality well enough–especially coming out of Roman Catholicism–to make a sound decision about how God is calling your heart.

What do I mean by practice? I think that looks different for every person, but I would say it involves at the very least attending Divine Liturgy (our version of the Mass) every Sunday, which will fulfill your Sunday obligation.  I would also say it means committing to attending one pre-sanctified Divine Liturgy (see #2) a week during Lent. Any other liturgies or religious ed classes that your church offers could only help.

2) Buy and read this book:

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It’s 101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches by Deacon Edward Faulk, and it is PHENOMENAL for explaining some basic information on the Eastern churches to a Roman audience.

The questions in the book are divided into various topics (an introduction, the churches, history, workings, theology, and an epilogue), and they are answered with intelligent and comprehensible language. You don’t need a PhD to understand this, nor will you feel like the author is talking to a five year old.

This book can help you learn about what the heck that pre-sanctified Divine Liturgy thing is that I mentioned in the first point, some of the differences in theological approaches, and much more.

I should confess that I just found this book, like, two months ago, aka over four years after beginning my switch to Byzantium. It would have saved me loads of trouble to have had this back then instead of learning much of it’s contents through other, somewhat-more-exhausting means (like asking my husband. As if he needed the ego boost…)

3) Speaking of ego-boosting, you can also learn more by reading some of my articles here at Catholicmom.com.

Because they’re amazing. I’m just kidding, but at the very least, they might help you glean little bit more information about the East. I also try to include at least one resource in each article from someone wiser than myself, and these resources might be helpful as well.

4) Do everything else that you’ve ever learned about discernment:

pray, fast, attend the sacraments regularly, practice self-knowledge, see what’s bearing fruit in your life, etc.

Then make a decision. The problem with sitting on the fence waiting for a clear answer is that nothing was ever obvious to anyone sitting on the fence other than a few awkward splinters. If you make a decision, it will either be clear that it was the right or the wrong one, and this is one case where you can very easily back out of a wrong decision.

In the course of all of this, you might be tempted toward some common misconceptions about the Byzantine churches that, in my experience, can really cloud a person’s judgment. I’ll be writing about those in part two, coming in two weeks, so get excited.

Do you have any questions about all of this so far? Please feel free to ask and discuss any questions in the comment section!

Copyright 2014, Brittany Balke

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11 Comments

  1. You are the only other person I know who has been through this. My husband went through this beginning back in 2000 when he visited a Melkite church while chaperon ing teens from our parish on a field trip through different Catholic Churches in Worcester, MA. It struck him like a thunderbolt. He studed for 2 years (including doing his reading every Tuesday during adoration). Then he spent Lent at the Melkite church and decided to stay. Long story short, he was ordained a deacon in Sept. of 2009.

    How did your family feel about your change? Did you have to convince them that the Melkite church was Catholic? My husband had a tough time with his family.

    Pardon the ignorance of this next question but is your husband Eastern Catholic or Orthodox? Do you both attend the same church?

    • Oh wow, that’s a beautiful story and awesome that your husband is a deacon now, Susan! I’m glad you commented, it’s always nice to connect with others who have experienced “the switch” in some capacity! Many of the parishioners at my church were confirmed and grew up as Roman Catholics, but there’s not a lot of discussion about that transition.

      To answer your questions, let me start with the second one (which is not ignorant at all): my husband and I are both Ruthenian Byzantine. However, my husband is earning is Master’s Degree from the Antiochian Orthodox church (St. Stephen’s Institute). The program is actually used by many Melkite churches as education for becoming deacons (are you familiar with it, given your husband’s role as a deacon?),and so we felt confident that it would be an okay place to study as a Catholic. We have been very happy with the education there so far!

      To answer your second question, my family actually had very little trouble with my changing churches…in the beginning. What’s funny is that it’s only been just recently that my family has expressed some big concerns because certain theological differences that they didn’t realize before have come out in conversation. They also just realized that my husband was attending an Orthodox program instead of a “Catholic” program. Their questions and concerns are what prompted me to get the book I talked about in this article–so that I could show them, “Look! It’s a Catholic book saying that we are Catholic, and it’s okay for us to have some different ideas!”

      I’ve actually wanted to address this very issue of convincing friends and family (and Roman priests when you have to ask for your toddler to receive Communion) that Eastern Catholics are truly Catholic in a later article.

      I’m sorry that your husband’s family had some trouble with it! Did things resolve at all? Do you have any words of wisdom for me or anyone out there on how to help family and friends understand?

  2. Pingback: So You Want to Be a Byzantine? A Guide for Romans (Part Two) | CatholicMom.com

  3. I am so excited to have found your articles! This type of information is hard to come by. 🙂
    I’m a convert, was raised southern baptist and converted to Catholicism at 16 in the Roman Catholic church.
    I now have 3 kids that attend Catholic school and I work there. We have visited Vespers at our local Melkite Catholic church and the kids and I are very interested in it.

    Looking forward to your articles! I just ordered the book you recommended. Thank you so much!

      • Hey Brittany! So, the kids and I attended our very first Divine Liturgy this past Sunday.
        Funny enough, I literally BROKE MY FOOT (with 3 kids in tow) in the parking lot and still stood through the Divine Liturgy (went to Urgent Care after).
        I choose to believe that wasn’t a sign to not to explore Eastern Catholicism lol…

        I really loved the service. I have so many questions though. I started reading that book, 101 questions and answers that you recommended. I think I’m dealing with too much information so I’m going to attend a few more, finish the book, and then maybe get a list of remaining questions.

        Even though I know Catholic is Catholic, it’s amazing how much there is to learn, it’s quite overwhelming.

        I do have one relatively petty question for you. I have two boys who receive (4th and 5th graders). They almost gagged when receiving at the Melkite church because the taste was so different and honestly, pretty unpleasant compared to what we are used to. So we went through me elbowing them in the pew and whispering in their ear that they better smile because it’s the body of Christ, regardless of how it tastes.
        Any better suggestions on how to address that? I know it’s silly, but it was the one thing they complained about – otherwise, they LOVED it.

        • Cara, #1, I am SO SORRY you broke your foot! I’m laughing a little at the ridiculousness of it all, but really that stinks! I wouldn’t take it as a sign, haha!

          #2, You remind me with this comment that I forgot to address explicitly the fact that there is SO MUCH to learn about the East. Another friend recently expressed to me that she was feeling overwhelmed by it all. Take the information in bits and take it slowly, which it seems like you are doing.

          At least for me, when I first got into a Byzantine church, it was difficult realizing how much I had to learn and relearn because I had been an “advanced” Roman Catholic for so long. I felt a certain obligation to learn all the information quickly because I didn’t like feeling like such a beginner, and it was very overwhelming. I know you might not be dealing with those exact feelings, but I throw it out in case you are, and to say, there’s no rush. It will take time. Lots of time, haha!

          #3, Ah, yes, the Eucharist…whether they are having a problem with the actual taste of the bread itself or the texture of bread soaked in wine (yes, I know it’s no longer bread and wine, but I thought it was better here to deal with the accidents, since that’s what we’re tasting), it totally makes sense. Maybe they can have a water bottle handy to wash things down (discreetly, haha) right afterward? Even though I’ve not dealt with this problem personally, I wonder if it also would be a good teaching moment about the fact that Jesus doesn’t always “taste good.” For example, you might say, “Isn’t it funny how God does that sometimes? Loving Jesus isn’t always fun or easy. Sometimes I find Jesus downright annoying! But God challenges us this way to help us grow in love. Taking the Eucharist and doing your best to not wince when it tastes bad can be a great way to love Jesus.” You might be able to have a conversation about other instances where it’s difficult to love Jesus but you try to do it anyway.

          I don’t know, especially not knowing your boys, if that would work, but if I hear of any other ideas (or if someone is reading this and wants to address that) I’ll pass them on.

          #4, Regarding your lower comment, about conversion starting with a boy, I totally get that! God knows the way to our hearts!

          Feel free to pass on future questions as they pop up! You’re in my prayers!

  4. Thanks! Like many things do at 16, it started with a boy lol….but here I am almost 30 and it was the best thing that I ever did.

    I’m looking forward to the book getting here because I am a little at a loss as to where to start! You can’t just google differences between Eastern and Western beliefs/traditions and get a neat little list…

    Anyway, thanks again – your humor and fresh perspective are refreshing! 🙂

  5. Thank you for writing these two articles on the differences between the Roman and Byzantine rites. I am a cradle Ukrainian Greek Catholic and then spent 30 years in the Roman rite before returning to the UGCC. I know that I loved the 30 years in the Roman rite. I know that in the UGCC I am “home.” I appreciate so very much your explanation and interpretation of your own understanding and experience. God continue to bless you in your pilgrimage.

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