Knowledge gap about non-Roman Catholics exists

Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Columns


Last year at this time I did a column on the richly diverse composition of the Catholic Church. For too long, the overwhelming majority of Catholics, who are Latin-rite, have assumed that there is only one way of being Catholic, the Roman and Latin way.
 
I pointed out that there are more than 20 millions of non-Roman Catholics who belong to various churches that are in full communion with Rome while retaining their own liturgical, canonical and spiritual traditions.
 
This knowledge gap on the part of large numbers of Roman Catholics still exists in spite of the late Pope John Paul II's urging that the Catholic Church "breathe with two lungs" -- East and West alike -- rather than with only one Western, or Latin, lung. He underscored this point in 1985 by naming Ss. Cyril and Methodius, whose feast day is Tuesday, Feb.14, as co-patrons of Europe, alongside St. Benedict of Nursia.
 
Which raises at least one interesting point. When the new pope announced last April that he had chosen the name Benedict, he explained to the cardinal-electors that he selected the name to honor two Benedicts: Benedict XV, pope from 1914 until early 1922, and St. Benedict of Nursia, whose life spanned the last 20 years of the fifth century and half of the sixth.
 
Following the new pope's election, however, the first Benedict, Benedict XV seemed to recede in importance, at least in the comments and writings of some of the new pope's most enthusiastic supporters, with a corresponding increase in the importance of the second Benedict, St. Benedict of Nursia.
 
Those who tacitly or openly promoted this one-sided approach wanted to emphasize what they took to be the new pope's commitment to work for the re-Christianization of Western Europe. They were hopeful that Benedict XVI would do all in his papal power to reverse a centuries-long drift away from traditional Catholicism into various forms of secularism, France being a primary, but by no means exclusive, example of the trend.
 
Needless to say, if Benedict XVI, now nearly 79 years old, can manage such a pastorally and evangelically ambitious project as that, he would truly go down as one of the greatest popes in history.
 
One problem with this scenario is that his predecessor, John Paul II, had a broader vision of Europe than Western Europe. He did not leave Benedict of Nursia, however great a figure he was as the founder of the Benedictine movement and the author of the famous monastic Rule, as the sole patron of all Europe.
 
John Paul II surely knew what he was doing. Ss. Cyril and Methodius were two ecclesiastical mavericks. At a time when the vernacular was not a common feature of the Catholic liturgy, the two missionaries, who had spoken Slavonic since childhood, not only taught in Slavonic, but in Cyril's case invented a Slavonic alphabet from which Cyrillic is derived.
 
Then both men together translated major portions of the Bible and the liturgy into Slavonic. Methodius translated the rest of the Bible later in his life.
 
For mainly political reasons, the German bishops opposed Cyril and Methodius's missionary efforts, especially their promotion of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy, and they refused to ordain them or their disciples.
 
Thereupon the two men left Moravia and headed back toward Constantinople. During a stopover in Venice, Pope Nicholas I invited them to Rome, where they were received with great honors by Nicholas's successor, Hadrian II. The pope approved the use of Slavonic in the liturgy and ordained Cyril and three of their disciples. The newly ordained celebrated the Slavoinic liturgy at St. Peter's Basilica and at various other Roman churches.
 
Methodius outlived his brother and was later consecrated a bishop by the pope himself. And once again the German bishops opposed and exiled him. Political and ecclesiastical machinations continued against him even after he was named an archbishop.
 
History recalls the achievements of Ss. Cyril and Methodius, as did John Paul II. Their enemies within the hierarchy, on the other hand, have been consigned to its dustbin.
 
But another in our story also is in danger of being forgotten here: Pope Benedict XV. If the new pope was also serious about following in his footsteps, this pontificate will work hard to promote reconciliation within the Catholic Church itself. He will be a peacemaker, like Benedict XV, not a divider.
 
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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