It may surprise some people to know what a big family the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is, with many different rites as branches on our family tree.
As the early Church spread, cultural traditions formed around liturgical practices while keeping essential doctrines intact. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1203) lists seven rites: Latin (principally the Roman Rite) and the Byzantine, Alexandrian or Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite and Chaldean Rites.
These Catholic rites fall under the authority of the pope, although they have their own bishops, but all are equal. “… Holy Mother Church holds all lawfully recognized rites to be of equal right and dignity” (Catechism, 1203).
Within these traditions are some unique ways that Lent is observed. All hold this as a season for spiritual renewal through penitence, fasting and almsgiving, and many Eastern rites share common traditions. Here are just a few examples.
Father Bryan Kassa, associate pastor at St. Thomas Chaldean Church in West Bloomfield, Michigan, explained that Lent begins on Monday for them, not Ash Wednesday, and it lasts 50 days. But first, they fast in preparation.
“Three weeks prior to Lent, we do a three-day fast called Bautha, which translates into supplications or pleading,” he said. “This comes to us through the Book of Jonah. He was sent to the Ninevites to proclaim a fast. Historically, we are descended from the Ninevites. We fast in petition and thanksgiving to God for still having mercy on us, as he did on our ancestors.” During the first, middle and last weeks of Lent, there is also fasting from meat and dairy.
Otherwise, Father Kassa said the rites are very similar in how they practice Lent. This year, the Chaldean Churches, in union with the Latin Rite Church, have also suspended Masses and other gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
They did get creative, however on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19. The evening Mass was livestreamed and followed with Eucharist adoration, with the monstrance in a high church window for people to adore from cars in the parking lot. The pastor, Father Bashar Sitto, later processed Jesus up and down the parking lot among an estimated 300 cars while Father Kassa carried a poster that read: “Flash Your Lights if You Need Confession and I’ll Come Over.”
Lent amid the pandemic makes it especially meaningful, according to Father Kassa. Fifty years ago, Chaldean Catholics left Iraq for the U.S., fleeing wars and religious persecution in a predominantly Muslim area. “We’ve always had to fight for our faith — always been on the run — and not just in the Chaldean community,” he said. “This [pandemic] is an example of the limitations of man. We should be putting our trust in God.”
The Maronite Rite traces its origins to the work of St. Maron in the fourth century; he founded a monastery east of Antioch. The monks later moved to the mountains in what is today Lebanon, where they make up 17% of the population.
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, EWTN TV and radio host, and president and founder of Ignatius Productions, is bi-ritual — meaning he is able to celebrate the liturgy in both the Roman and Maronite Rites.
“We identify the Sundays during Lent,” Father Pacwa said. “The entrance into Lent is called Cana Sunday; we always have that reading on the Miracle of Cana. It is linked to the wedding banquet in heaven, which we are moving toward during Lent.” The Eastern rites have a one-year cycle of readings so there is some standardization of the Gospels during Lent, unlike the Latin Rite, which moved to a three-year cycle. The Sundays following are about the Leper, the Hemorrhaging Woman, the Prodigal Son, the Paralytic, the Blind Man and Palm Sunday.
The Maronites also begin Lent on Monday and adopted the idea of distributing ashes that day from the West. “It’s a sign that we’re going to die — the second-most-important moment of your existence,” Father Pacwa said.
Their 50 days — not 40 — are referred as the “Great Lent” and reflect a penitential tone, recalling the mercy of the Savior toward his people and inviting the faithful to meditate on the sinful human condition and the meaning of mercy of God and suffering and death of Christ.
Maronites abstain from meat and dairy on the Fridays of Lent and during the first, middle and last weeks, with the exception of the feasts of St. Joseph and the Annunciation.
“In the evening of Good Friday, the corpus is removed from the cross and put in a casket,” Father Pacwa explained, adding that under normal conditions “people place flowers in to symbolize the spices the women brought. The casket is picked up by men and carried in procession outside, singing beautiful hymns emphasizing the perspective of the Blessed Mother’s grief. At the end, they lift up the casket, and everyone passes under it and kisses their hand and touches the casket. The idea is we enter the Church through the death of Jesus. Then it is placed in a tomb and left.”
The Byzantine Liturgy has its roots in Antioch (modern-day Syria), one of the earliest centers of Christianity and developed in Byzantium, or Constantinople (Istanbul). Father Joseph Marquis, pastor of the Sacred Heart Byzantine Catholic Church in Livonia, Michigan, explained that they bless not only palms on Palm Sunday, but also pussy willows, because, historically, they could not get palms in the northern regions. Worshippers generally are anointed on their forehead with oil on that day.
The Sunday before Lent begins is called Cheesefare Sunday. This marks the last day of dairy products before Lent, known as the “Great Fast” or “Great Lent.” It is also known as the “Sunday of Forgiveness,” commemorating Adam’s expulsion from paradise and our need for forgiveness. The laity come up, usually, one by one and tell the priest, “Father, forgive me, for I am a sinner.” The priest responds, “May the Lord forgive you.” He then asks the same of them, and they respond likewise.
The Byzantines also identify themes based on the Sunday Gospels and have the “entombment of Christ” devotion on Good Friday. During weekdays, consecration is not part of the liturgies, but pre-consecrated Hosts are distributed. Their fast eliminates meat and all dairy products, and eating is not allowed from midnight until noon.
Liturgies and other services have also been suspended at Sacred Heart Church for the time being due to the pandemic. “There will be a Palm Sunday liturgy not open to the public, but we will have the blessings of the palms and pussy willows that people can come and pick up,” Father Marquis said.
Father Marquis is keeping his church open for Holy Hours and confessions Wednesdays 1-4pm and Saturdays 10am-noon, while maintaining social distancing. The church is also home to the All Saints Shrine, with more than 150 relics, many of them from the early Church, such as the apostles and St. Paul, relics of the True Cross, the right index finger of St. Joseph of Arimathea and a rock fragment from the Holy Sepulcher; and a splinter from the Crown of Thorns is coming soon.
“You feel a closeness to the saints surrounded by their relics as part of the pilgrimage we are all on,” he said. Father Marquis referred to the private prayer time as a “thundering silence” when God speaks to us in the silence of our hearts. “Maybe because of the pandemic we’ll turn to God more now,” he said. “Christ is the only thing that matters. God can bring good out of this.”
By: Patti Armstrong