Meet the rellies

Rich and colourful vestments.  Different liturgies.  Distinctions in theology, canon law and governance.  Meet the Eastern Catholic Churches – members of our Catholic family, whom we don’t know very well!

A new association of the Eastern Catholic Bishops of Australasia will engender a better understanding among themselves and bring a greater richness to the Latin Church within Australia and New Zealand.

Bishop Peter Stasiuk (Ukrainian Catholic, Melbourne) likens it to getting to know the rellies. The Catholic Church, he says, is a very big family and some of its members don’t know other family members all that well.

The Bishops - Bishop Ad Abikaram (Maronite), Bishop Issam Darwish (Melkite) and Bishop Stasiuk - formed the association during the recent meeting of the Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania, in Suva, Fiji. 

Bishop Stasiuk says that the 100-year history of the Eastern Churches in Australia is related to immigration.  Each of the Churches is quite separate – but there are issues emerging on which the Eastern Churches could speak with one voice. An example he gave was of the enrolment of children in Roman Catholic schools, a situation in which Eastern Catholics are often not understood to be Latin.

“Many people, including Principals, teachers and Parish Priests, do not know who we are,” he said.  “Often, we are mistaken as belonging to Orthodox Churches.”

And the situation is becoming more complex as more Eastern Catholics come to Australia in numbers not big enough to warrant a Bishop; for example, the Chaldeans  – Catholics from Iraq who were protected under Saddam Hussein but now are being persecuted. They are arriving in large numbers.  It is understood that a Bishop could be appointed for Australia in the near future.  Among those not large enough to have their own bishop yet are the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Marankara, Coptic, Rumanian and Armenian Churches.

Because the Eastern Churches come from different geographical, language and historical backgrounds, they need to get to know each other, too.  Although the three Eastern Bishops meet at the biannual Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, they sometimes do not talk as a group.

Bishop Stasiuk hopes that one of the benefits of the association will be to make the Eastern Churches more visible and better understood, thus bringing added richness to the Australian Catholic family.

“It’s like meeting the relatives,” Bishop Stasiuk said.  “Unless you know the family you do not really know yourself.  Identity comes from understanding.”

Although it is unlikely that they are all represented in Australia, there are more than 20 members of the “Catholic” family, of which the most familiar Latin Catholic Church is but one.

While today’s Latin Church enjoys some Eastern fruits – prayers of the faithful and concelebration at mass are among quite a few Vatican II changes adopted from the Eastern Churches – and many of us are familiar with icons, forms of Eastern prayer, and chants, Bishop Stasiuk was reserved about the influence the Eastern Churches might have on matters such as married priests.

“That is not our job,” he said, diplomatically.  “Our job is to be ourselves.”

What he is happy to speak about is the “richness” that he sees the Eastern Churches as offering:  “We can help the Latin Church realise its identity, its catholicity, its universality.  We can help present the big picture, the family of Churches to which it belongs.”

 Although in communion with Rome, the differences, which are many, range from the rich and colourful vestments and different liturgies to distinctions in theology, cannon law and forms of governance.

As to governance, the Latin Catholic Church has the Bishops’ Conference, in Australia, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference (ACBC); the Ukrainian Catholic Church has a Synod.  The ACBC provides consensus and advice while each Bishop has control of his diocese.  The Synod which meets in Ukraine is more legislative and takes authority over the local churches.  For example, it is the Synod that appoints the Bishops world-wide.  It legislates on all liturgical questions. And it is to the Synod meeting later this month that Bishop Stasiuk will present the draft Eastern version of The Catechism of the Catholic Church – a book awaited by both Byzantine and Latin Churches.

The first meeting of the Eastern Catholic Church Association, is planned for Sydney, in February, 2007.  Two or three clergy from each Eastern Catholic Church in the region, will participate and Eastern Churches that do not have bishops in Australia or New Zealand also will be invited to attend.  A proposed agenda includes World Youth Day 2008, married clergy – their ordination and ministry – the deaconate, vocations to religious life, and the formation of an Eastern Catholic radio station.  It is hoped that the association will meet at least once a year.


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