Attack on the Western and Eastern Syrian Rites: The Dangers of Spiritual Uniatism

Early on in the life of this blog, I had an abortive attempt to write about the West Syrian Rite.  I may return to it later, but I found it far too vast of a subject to cover with my limited knowledge at the time.

For those who do not know, the rite itself is among the most fascinating in Christendom.  The core of it, along with many parts unique to it, are almost as ancient as the apostles.  It has a wealth of anaphoras, at least over 40, whose compositions span from the genesis of Apostolic Christianity to the sixth century.  The church which birthed the rite has been divided more times than most care to count and some of the resulting groups (such as the Aniochian Orthodox and the Melkite Catholic Church) adopted new forms of worship.  Erstwhile, certain Indian Christians (the Malankara, both Catholic and Orthodox) adopted the rite, made it their own, and have preserved it better than many in the rite’s mother church.

The East Syrian Rite, on the other hand, has been kept mostly intact by the Assyrian Church of the East (and its child-church, the Ancient Church of the East) and the Chaldean Catholic Church (with some latinizations).  The Syro-Malabar Church has attempted in recent decades to return to their old liturgy as best as they could, and have been partially successful (the modernizing attempts to “hindu-ize” and “novusordo-ize” notwithstanding).

Now, it is with much consternation that I must draw attention to this Rorate Article and thank those on the site for their attempt to raise the alarm (I may have my disagreements with them, but we are generally on the same side).  I would like to add my voice of alarm to theirs.  I would also like to elaborate on the phenomenon to which they point and provide some background.

There are two extremes that sometimes creep into the minds and hearts of Greek and Oriental Catholics trying to cope with their place in the shadow of the much larger Roman Church.  The first is to reject everything Western-sounding in a fit of theological xenophobia (probably because they either picked up John Romanides or are reacting to the past theological xenophobia still found in some corners of the Roman Church).  They glorify in everything “Eastern” and live in a triumphalistic fantasy world where they become highly susceptible to errors and heresy disguised as “mystical” non-Western theology (when, in reality, the Greek Fathers would have been at least as opposed to the errors as the Western ones).  I have only seen one case of this, and it was in a Byzantine parish made up almost entirely of poorly catechized converts, but it is a very real danger nonetheless.

The other threat is that of uniatism.  Not “uniatism” in the sense of the slur hurled by the Chalcedonian Orthodox at Eastern Catholics, but in the sense of an inferiority complex and an urge to copy the Roman Church in everything.  This mentality is the result of a few centuries of the Eastern Catholics being treated as second class citizens and being guilt-tripped or forced to change their ancient traditions to conform with the legalistic and ignorant post-Tridentine Roman Church (infant Communion, leavened bread, the Anaphora of Addai and Mari…).  This has been the source of problems in the modern era for these Oriental Churches, for even as their own historians and the Roman Church at times tried to coax them into returning to whatever of their traditions they could recover, the old habits of doing as the Romans do continued to return.  Given the Western Church’s own messy liturgical experiments in the last century, one can only guess how well this has gone.

This latter extreme is the source of the problem facing the Syriac Catholic Churches today.  This mentality must be combated if the faithful of those churches wish to keep their traditions.  If any Syriac Catholics read this blog, I implore you to not let the Novus Ordo Missae be the template of any further reforms you wish to take.  We Western Christians and former Western Christians can tell you from experience that the results have been far from pretty.

Without further adieu, I will break down the current situation on a church-by-church basis.  Some will be covered better than others, but that is due to the limitations of finding a Syrian or Chaldean Catholic Church where I live.

West Syrian

Maronite:

The Maronites could be the poster child for uniatism.  Having lost the fight to keep some of their traditions in the 16th century (detailed in Geoffrey Hull’s ‘The Banished Heart’), they were practically Tridentine Roman Catholics in the 20th century.

There was push in the 1950’s and 1960’s to return the Eastern Churches who had gone wayward to at least resemble their ancient rites.  Any attempt by the Maronites to do so was derailed with the Liturgical Reform of 1973.  Now, their liturgy resembles the Pauline Liturgy in format and in method of celebration (a friend of mine once quipped of Fr. Pacwa, “He’s not Biritual!  He only knows one rite!”).  My one Maronite Mass I attended was celebrated in a building that seemed to have been built in the 50’s, and a female at the lectern orchestrated the entire Mass via announcement.

I have no idea what the future has in store for the Maronites.  They are so joined by the hip to Rome that their liturgical fate seems tied to that Church.  God help them.

Syrian:

I am not all that familiar with the Syrian Catholic Church.  I am aware that they suffered great persecution in the 18th century under the Ottomans when their patriarch unsuccessfully attempted to bring the entire Jacobite Church into the Roman communion and that they did undergo some latinizations over the years, but not to the extent of the Maronites (those Eastern Churches that entered communion in the 18th century, due to what happened to the Maronites and Ethiopians, were wary of joining unless it was via a religious order that respected their traditions).

I am not sure when it started, but it has been brought to my attention that they have undergone a creeping “novusordo-izing”. I don’t think they changed any of their texts, but you don’t need to do that in order to modernize (ask the priests in the late 1940’s who turned their altars around).

I think, though, that their first priority at the present is keeping their church together and not dying at the hands of the infidel.  Perhaps one day, God willing, they won’t have to worry about the swords of the followers of the heinous child-raping prophet.  Then, they look into recovering their old traditions.

Malankara:

Now we come to the Catholic Church that has best preserved the West Syrian tradition, though it is not originally theirs.  The Malankara Church retains a relatively unmodified West Syrian Rite with a few Indian localisations and remnants of their East Syriac history. This is probably the result of their relatively recent entry (the reign of Pius XI) into the Catholic family of Churches.

Dear Malankara Catholics, please don’t change this substantially.

East Syrian

Chaldean:

The Chaldeans… One of two factions that emerged from a schism in the then-collapsing Church of the East. Following some forced latinizations (including the infamous modification of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari), the Chaldeans initially began to slowly “novisordo-ize” in some places but a 2006 liturgical reform took place with the intention to truly return the church to its traditions (including making ad orientum worship mandatory).  Unfortunately, this was only implemented in the American diocese and is currently being replaced with a 2014 reform pushed by Raphael Sako, the current patriarch.  Given the persecution in the Middle East, this seems to be in very poor taste (and that’s before we even mention the ignorant attack on tradition).  The situation is still very “hot” and in flux, but one can only hope that good sense wins out.

I would like to take this opportunity to make a point to the Chaldeans.  It could be worse than “liturgy facing the people” to disregard or rip out your altar curtains.  Remove the barrier (rood, iconostasis, or curtain) and you are left with a stage-like altar that lends itself more easily to a narcissistic human worship devoid of all sense of mystery (and before anyone asks… no, an “altar rail” used for Communion is not the same).

This also gives another perspective on the Assyrian Church’s refusal to consider a union with the Chaldeans under the present circumstances.  Surely, I can’t be the only one who considers it a bit duplicitous to offer to restore the old Church of the East while simultaneously distancing yourself from everything that historically links you to that ancient church?

Syro-Malabar:

The Malabar Christians of India were freed from the Roman Church’s hierarchy by that most tragically unsuccessful and well-meaning pontiff, Pius XI.  With this newfound situation, their scholars tried to study the liturgy and see what could be restored.  In 1962, published an Ordo that attempted to move the liturgy back to its East Syriac roots.  Unfortunately, in the spirit of the times, it was resisted for being a “overly long and archaic” rite (though it did succeed in restoring the Syriac vestments and stop the use of Roman fiddlebacks, thus preventing them from adopting polyester “gothic” raincoats).  The opposing faction dominated the rite published in 1968, but met criticism and opposition.  The two factions synthesized with at least two or three more versions published in the 1980’s that landed somewhere between the 1962 and 1968 rites.

Currently, the practical situation is utter decentralization, for each parish can implement the missal of their choosing and implement it how they wish.  Sometimes this leads to very clear modernizations; sometimes it results in an edifying rite in a jaw-dropping church.  My own city has three Malabar churches with varying degrees of this, and all three are more traditional than over 95% of the Roman churches in the area.

Perhaps that is what their status should be for now.  Perhaps this is what the future has in store for some of the other Catholic Churches (the Roman included) undergoing liturgical confusion.

Conclusion

We can see that in terms of liturgical reform the Syriac churches lie anywhere from unreformed (Malankara) to having gone through a series of reforms (Malabar).  Their current liturgical situation should give us much to think about, whether we belong to those churches or not.  Liturgy is not all there is to the Faith, but to neglect it or change it arbitrarily is to invite disaster.  Let us pray that God helps the internal life of these churches and that he may protect them from anything that may harm them, be it a badly thought-out reform or a massacre at the hands of Islam.

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5 thoughts on “Attack on the Western and Eastern Syrian Rites: The Dangers of Spiritual Uniatism

  1. I live 45 minutes from the Syro-Malankara Catholic Exarchate in the US. I have attended Holy Qurbono there 3 times. Most beautiful liturgies I have been to. I hope they never fall into the mindset where they have to modernize their rites.

    I have been to a Syro-Malabar Holy Qurbana as well. Complete opposite of my experience with the Syro-Malankaras. It was like really bad Novus Ordo. There were the altar girls, Eucharistic Ministers, bad hymns, and guitars. The only difference was the text of the liturgy, but the outward trappings were all the same.

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    • I too live about the same distance from a Malankara parish. Far enough that I can’t go there regularly, but close enough that I can visit a few times a year. The Church and its rite are little-known treasures of the broader Church.

      The Syro-Malabar in my city are much more orthodox than yours apparently. There are three churches: one that is definitely “novusordo-ized” in the building but the Qurbana is done with reverence, one that is more authentically Roman than the local Roman churches (you could invite the SSPX to do a High Mass in and they wouldn’t be out of place), and one that was built to emulate the East Syrian aesthetic as much as possible (the couple of statues off to the side notwithstanding) . In all three cases the hymns were alright, the use of instruments was intended to emulate traditional Indian music, there were certainly no altar girls (though the adult male acolytes did distribute Communion), and the versus populum worship was only for the “Liturgy of the Word” and the closing prayers (everything related to the Consecration was ad orientum). All things considered, it didn’t approach the Malankara; but it was leagues above the standard parish Mass (especially where I live).

      Your Malabar experience sounds like my Maronite one.

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  2. What you describe here reminds me to some extant to what has happened in the last decades with some non-Roman Latin rite communities who, while sharing most features common to the broader Roman patriarchate still used to preserve some venerable traditions.

    In Spain, for instance, the Hispanic rite was intended to be purged of the Roman additions it had received along the centuries, but also to be revised in the light of Pacellian/Montinian reforms: the result was a Novus Ordo rite with just a few distinct gestures and prayers, and a different cycle of lectures. Even some distinct Hispanic elements were dropped out. When I attended a pontifical Mozarabic Mass some years ago, it was almost exactly the same ritual of the novus ordo “pontifical” Mass.

    More related to the topic you discuss, I remember, 3 or 4 years ago, an intervew to a Neocatecumenal missionary who worked in Egypt. He said they wanted to help the Copts to survive and mantain their Faith, but that an extraordinary huge obstacle to it was that they still wanted to mantain that odd almost-non-christian liturgy…

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    • “odd almost-non-christian liturgy”… I might go into this if I ever write about my brief flirtation with Chalcedonian Orthodoxy, but sometimes I look at some people in the Catholic Communion and wonder if they and I even share the same religion.

      Apparently, Papa Frankie isn’t too big on the neocatechumenites, so I can add that to the surprisingly not-so-small list of things on which he and I agree.

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      • 1. I love your blog!

        2. Would you please go into your “brief flirtation with Chalcedonian Orthodoxy” sometime? I’m a convert to Rome (6 years ago, from nominal protestantism/atheism), but came really close to entering the catechumenate at an EO church last year, with my wife and kids in tow. We’ve “stepped back from the brink” on that one, but I’m still friends with the priest there, and visit occasionally for services, since (sad to say) they take regular divine services and the office much more seriously (even if it’s often just me and Father for Vespers) than any parish within reach (Eastern or Western) in communion with Rome.

        While some of the ignorant and simplistic anti-Catholicism I’ve encountered there (of the half Romanides, half former-Southern-Baptist style) annoys me, the liturgy and community are nonetheless wonderful, and I feel the temptation is still there sometimes, however latent…

        (If you can see my email provided below, feel free to contact me that way if you’d like.)

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