VATICAN CITY (CNS) – While their numbers are small and their material resources are few, members of the Eastern Catholic churches in the United States have much to offer the country in terms of their fidelity to Christ despite persecution and their deeply religious cultures, said Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches.
Eastern Catholics “are a bridge” supporting Catholics in their homelands with prayers, advocacy and financial support while at the same time enriching the United States with their cultural and religious identity, Cardinal Sandri told U.S. bishops from the Chaldean, Ruthenian, Maronite, Ukrainian, Armenian, Melkite, Syriac and Romanian Catholic churches.
The cardinal met with the 14 bishops May 15 to discuss a wide variety of common concerns at the beginning of the bishops’ “ad limina” visits to the Vatican. Earlier in the morning, the cardinal was the main celebrant and homilist at a Mass with the bishops in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The heads of every diocese or eparchy — as the Eastern Catholic jurisdictions are known — send detailed reports on their dioceses to the Vatican before the “ad limina” visits.
Summarizing what was common in the reports of the Eastern Catholic dioceses, Cardinal Sandri said, “Your territories are enormous, and your communities often find themselves far from each other. Some of the eparchies are young and still in need of adequate structures.” Many of the dioceses — some of which cover the entire United States or even the United States and Canada — have few financial resources and the situation has been “exacerbated by the economic crisis,” the cardinal said.
The arrival of new immigrants, many fleeing persecution in places like Iraq, have increased the size of several of the Eastern churches, like the Chaldean Catholic Church. But the cardinal said other Eastern churches, whose membership is composed largely of people who have been in the United States for several generations, “are experiencing a dramatic fall” in their numbers.
“You are not immune to the same corrosive effect on morals and family life as are your fellow Latin Catholics,” Cardinal Sandri said.
All the churches are hurting for clergy, he said. Even those that have a relatively high proportion of clergy to faithful are stretched by the great distances those priests must travel to minister to the faithful. And in the case of Eastern Catholics in particular, many parishes rely on Latin priests with bi-ritual faculties to keep their churches open.
The cardinal urged care in helping young people discern their vocation, “maintaining formation programs, integrating immigrant priests (and) embracing celibacy in respect of the ecclesial context” of the United States where mandatory celibacy is the general rule for priests. A sticking point that caused the largest mass conversion to Orthodoxy in centuries and is still a major bone of contention between Eastern Catholics in the New World and Rome.
During his homily at the morning Mass with the bishops at the tomb of St. Peter, Cardinal Sandri said, “Many people today have come to doubt that there is still holiness or honesty in the church and in the clergy. We must prove them wrong. We can be a true community of saints who shine as models of chastity and charity before a culture in great need of this witness.”
The Eastern Catholic bishops formed the last group of bishops from the United States making their visits “ad limina apostolorum” (to the threshold of the apostles) to pray at the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul, to meet with Pope Benedict XVI and to visit Vatican officials to discuss issues of common concern.
As they did with the other groups, seminarians from the Pontifical North American College served as lectors, cantors and servers at the Eastern bishops’ Mass, but they were joined by Eastern-rite seminarians studying at the Pontifical Russicum College.
Cardinal Sandri told the bishops that sometimes they might feel like the first apostles who, after having spent time with Jesus, were sent out on mission “into a hostile world.”
“You, dear Eastern bishops, as representatives of the diverse Eastern churches in the Catholic Church, are living symbols of the apostles who set out in all directions from Jerusalem to establish Christian communities. Like them you have encountered opposition, indifference and ignorance along the way,” he said.
Jesus knew the challenges his disciples would face, which is why he promised them the Holy Spirit, the cardinal said.
He urged the Eastern Catholic bishops to join their Latin-right counterparts in the United States to “fight against the rising tide of religious intolerance. May your courage and confidence convince the multitudes that without God there is no peace, no prosperity, no salvation.”