Light from the East for Millennials – and Everyone

Last March, I brought a group of my Seton Hall University students to visit the Monastery of Mother of God of Grottaferrata. The monastery was founded by St. Νεῖλος/Neilos/Nilus, or as the Italians call him, St. Nilo the Younger of Rossano (Calabria). St. Neilos died in 1004, the year the monastery was founded, and exactly fifty years before the schism between East and West.

Grottaferrata is a monastic community, originally of Greek monks from Magna Graecia (Great Greece) of the West – Calabria and Sicily. Plus Italo-Albanian monks – ethnic Albanians who left Albania and Greece in the fifteenth century under Ottoman persecution, Ukrainians, and Roman Catholic Italians. Grottaferrata, located on the outskirts of Rome, was the perfect location for fleeing Byzantine monks, conveniently near the Eternal City. When St. Neilos arrived in Rome, his native Calabria, similar to other parts of Calabria and Sicily, was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The liturgical tradition he and his monks brought to Rome was Greek-Byzantine.

This was probably the first time my students set foot in a church significantly different from what they knew: the reverence paid to icons; the mystical iconostasis, which hides the sanctuary from the faithful; the priest who celebrated facing the Lord – ad orientem; Italian and Greek for the liturgical languages; the abundant incense; the reverence in receiving Communion and singing.

It was an experience of a lifetime for the millennials, who marveled at and were fascinated by a sense of history and liturgical tradition, a celebration in a language that they did not understand but nonetheless were able to follow, and a sense of reverence for the Lord experienced in the Divine Liturgy. Leitourgia is a public service involving the whole community. For the Byzantines, liturgy is popular piety, the very life of the local church. Consequently, changes to the liturgy ought to evolve naturally, organically, slowly. If possible, unnoticed.

At Vatican II, Orientalium Ecclesiarum was promulgated by Pope Paul VI and required Eastern Churches in unity with Rome to preserve and restore their centuries-old liturgical traditions. These churches were encouraged to “always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life. . . .these may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement. . . .if in their regard they have fallen short owing to contingencies of times and persons, they should take steps to return to their ancestral traditions.”

Santa Maria di Grottaferrata

This plea was renewed in 1996, with an instruction for applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. In that document, St. John Paul II asked that the Eastern Catholic Churches recover their authentic traditions, lost through their own indifference and other influences then dominant in the Church.

It’s worth comparing what Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, recommended for liturgical reform. Vatican II ordered that: “the rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition, and that they be given new vigor to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times.” The Council understood the organic growth of the liturgy and the importance of re-visiting ancient tradition. A hermeneutics of continuity with ancient tradition was in place. The Council did not call for a break with tradition.

The same Council Fathers who advised the East to go back to its roots could not say something different to the West. Moreover, in line with the hermeneutics of continuity, Sacrosanctum Concilium specified that any new liturgical forms adopted in the West should grow organically from already existing forms. In other words, the new and the old should be brought naturally together, continuing the tradition.

The Council warned about an eagerness for the “new,” and disregard for the liturgical patrimony. Most importantly, the Council distinguished between the mutable elements in the liturgy and “immutable elements divinely instituted,” i.e. those elements that can neither be reformed nor changed and can only be transmitted to future generations intact. The Council also cautioned that “no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.”

The Council never said that the liturgy facing the Lord or ad orientem, as in the Eastern Churches, is erroneous and needs to be abolished in the West. How could it? Until Vatican II, praying towards the East was a point of unity between East and West, as both sought “the ancient homeland, the paradise that God planted in Eden, in the East,” as St. Basil said. Roughly speaking, until the sixteenth century all churches were built so that the apses faced East.

So is there a solution to current liturgical divisions? Recently, Pope Francis remarked that it will take 100 years for the Sacrosanctum Concilium to sink in and that we are only half way done. As in the Eastern Catholic Churches, the West needs to discern the ancient roots of liturgy. There’s no harm in offering both ad orientem and versus populum celebrations. This is not a matter of turning back the renewal brought about by the Council, but creatively applying the Council.

As a Byzantine Catholic and Church historian, I find that the estrangement between East and West has contributed to abandoning ad orientem in the West. Facing ad orientem, a mark of identity for the first Christian millennium, might help reverse that division.

The option of facing ad orientem, would give millennials, like my students, the benefit of a greater fullness of our Eucharistic tradition. The Holy Father has said that “to be credible and to be attuned to young people, it is necessary to favor the way of listening, of being able ‘to lose time’ in taking up their questions and desires.” After Grottaferrata, my students were living witnesses to how much young people can be led to appreciate and find inspiration in the ancient tradition of facing East – ad orientem.

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University. Her extensive research on the history of Christianity, Catholicism, Religious Orders, and Ecumenism has been published in multiple scholarly articles and five books. She edited and translated with Raymond L. Capra and Douglas J. Milewski, The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Dr. Murzaku has been featured frequently in national and international media, newspapers, radio and TV interviews, and blogs. Her latest book is Mother Teresa: Saint of the Peripheries.