April 19, 2005

A Non-Latin Rite Pope?

NOTE: I finished this as white smoke rose over the Vatican. The election of the new Pope Benedict XVI is a great blessing to the Church, and to the world. I hope that the new pontiff will follow the path of ecumenical contact with the churches of the East, and will strive to honor the Eastern Rite Catholics and their heritage of faith.

* * *

As a kid, I first heard the term “uniate” used to describe the Maronite Christians of Lebanon. Later, I heard the term describe Ukrainian Catholics. I didn’t understand what the term meant at the time, but later study – especially during my seminary years at Mundelein – brought me to a deep appreciation of those in the Catholic Church who follow the rituals of Eastern Christianity while being in union with Rome. By extension, I also learned to appreciate the rich spiritual history of the Orthodox churches of the East. To this day, I wonder if they might serve as a bridge between the two halves of Christianity split asunder in 1054.

Joseph P. Duggan raises the same issue in a column on the possibility (however unlikely) of the election of an Eastern Rite pope. Two cardinals in the current conclave are of the Eastern Rite leaders, not Latin Rite. It is not inconceivable – though highly improbable – that one of them could appear on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, clad in white. It would be a magnificent step towards full equality and respect for the Eastern Rites within the Catholic Church, and towards reunion between the oldest extant strains of Christianity. It would also be in keeping with one of Pope John Paul the Great’s fondest desires and most precious dreams.

John Paul visited numerous countries where the Orthodox Church is dominant and spoke of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches as equals, expressing hope that Christianity once again may "breathe with both lungs." He implored Orthodox Christians to forgive and set aside the schisms of the second Christian millennium and take inspiration from the first millennium, when the Churches of East and West were united. John Paul's encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint ("That All May Be One,") offered a bold invitation to all Christians for their ideas on how the papacy might be transformed to be more effective in promoting Christian unity. Even before Pope John Paul, some four decades ago, Orthodox and Catholic prelates rescinded their mutual excommunications, and the churches recognize the full validity of one another's ordinations and sacraments.

Duggan, of course, notes that one of the great changes that would necessarily be wrought by such an election would be the rethinking of mandatory clerical celibacy. While forbidden in the Latin Rite (and in the United States by a wrong-headed papal decree sought by American bishops n the nineteenth century), the Eastern Rites ordain married men as priests. It is hard to imagine that a pope from among the non-Latin Catholics would long retain the mandatory celibacy that dates back a millennium. Priests would not be able to marry, but married men could become priests. Precedent exists for this in the early history of the Church, and in the special dispensation granted to some Anglican and Lutheran converts over the last couple of decades. When one considers that the church historically has had a father and son serve as popes (in the sixth century – St. Hormisdas, the 52nd Bishop of Rome, and St. Silverius, the 58th), not to mention the married Simon Peter who is reckoned the first, this would be a return to tradition rather than a departure from it.

The election of an Eastern Rite pontiff would be a significant step for the Catholic Church, one that reaffirms its catholicity every bit as much as the election of a Polish cardinal to that office did in 1978. Duggan envisions a pope celebrating a liturgy using the vestments and rituals of the Byzantine or Syriac Church. And yet, there is nothing to stop that from happening now – and a strong argument for encouraging the practice no matter who the next pope is. After all, a pope leads a church which claims the hallmark of catholicity – universality – and as such he is called to be a shepherd to those who worship in the styles of the East every bit as much as those whose rituals are those of the West. Such actions would serve as a healing gesture of fraternal love for Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. May we live to see the day when the seeds planted four decades ago by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem, seeds tenderly watered and nurtured by Pope John Paul the Great during his papacy, bring forth a harvest of unity for the glory of the Risen Savior.

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