An interview with Archbishop Stefan Soroka about Eastern Catholicism, Orthodoxy and traditionsby Alton J. Pelowski
A number of Eastern-rite bishops were among the nearly 200 members of the hierarchy who gathered to concelebrate the opening Mass of the Order’s 126th Supreme Convention Aug. 5, 2008, in Quebec City.
Since Roman Catholics comprise the vast majority of the world’s more than 1 billion Catholics, most people today think the Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church are synonymous terms. However, there are some 22 Eastern Catholic Churches, which have their own ancient traditions and customs. In the early centuries of Christianity, disagreements and controversies regarding authority, traditions and theological nuances began to grow between the Greek-speaking East, centered in Constantinople, and the Latin-speaking West, centered in Rome. This eventually resulted in the East-West Schism, also called the Great Schism, of 1054. Because the Eastern Catholic Churches were once associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church, they share common elements with Orthodoxy in things like language, liturgy and artistic traditions. Nonetheless, they remain in full communion with Rome.
In recent decades, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have encouraged a greater appreciation of Eastern traditions among Latin-rite Catholics and have also sought to improve dialogue with Eastern Orthodox leaders. With this in mind Columbia’s managing editor, Alton Pelowski, interviewed Archbishop Stefan Soroka of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Eparchy of Philadelphia. Archbishop Soroka is a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a member of Bishop Stephen Soter Ortynsky Council 14088 in Philadelphia.
Columbia: What is the distinction between Eastern and Western Catholicism?
Archbishop Soroka: Essentially, the faith that Eastern Catholics proclaim is the same as that of the larger Catholic Church, but we convey our faith, our spirituality, in a different way. For example, there are differences in the way our liturgy is celebrated and in our liturgical vestments. There are differences in the architectural style of the churches.
When our church, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, came back under the Holy Father in 1596, there was a provision in the agreement which stated that the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s rites and traditions would be respected.
Columbia: How does Eastern Orthodoxy differ from Eastern Catholicism?
Archbishop Soroka: The major issue pertains to the role of Peter, the Petrine tradition and how the bishop recognizes the primacy of the pope of Rome. There are also minor theological differences. For example, Orthodox don’t look at purgatory in the same way that Catholics do. Beyond that, the faith that we proclaim is essentially the same.
In fact, the Eastern Ukrainian Catholic Church meets annually with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for a few days. Theologians focus on what we have in common as opposed to where we’re different. It’s amazing how our perceptions are perhaps more of a blockade than any real differences.
Columbia: What are some of the more common Eastern Catholic Churches, particularly in North America?
Archbishop Soroka: Interestingly, America is quite unique in the world. We have 18 of the 22 Eastern Catholic Churches, which come from different traditions. Most have bishops, and some of them serve as bishop of all of America, even Canada. Others have a number of eparchies, or dioceses, within the United States. The largest tradition is the Byzantine tradition. There are also the Syro-Malankar and the Syro-Malabar Churches from India, and different smaller churches. We gather annually at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and now have a separate region. We also gather annually for a meeting in April at the Maronite Center in St. Louis.
Columbia: You are currently serving as Ukrainian Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia. Unlike a Roman Catholic diocese, your archeparchy spans a much larger area. How does that work?
Archbishop Soroka: As archbishop, I cover a territory from Eastern Pennsylvania down to Virginia. I’m also the metropolitan for the U.S.A. We have four eparchies. I have 70 parishes spread over six states, so it is more difficult to build a sense of community. Our communities are also dispersing. With the new immigration that has been coming from Eastern Europe, people have tended to settle in different areas where we often don’t have parishes. We’re developing some new mission parishes, which is exciting, but we are also seeing that our membership is slowly decreasing in some population centers.
Columbia: Iconography is prominent amid Eastern Christianity’s rich liturgical and artistic traditions. What exactly are icons?
Archbishop Soroka: In today’s sense of the computer world, everybody knows what an icon is, right? You click on it, and it’s a portal to something else. I like to use that imagery even for religious icons, in the sense that they are a portal to the heavenly kingdom, a peek into the divine, a window into heaven. Icons very much invite us, as we sit and meditate and pray before them, to see through them, to see what they’re portraying to us. They are teaching images, too. They may portray something from Scripture, a feast or a saint — teaching and evangelizing through the symbolism they depict, while at the same time taking us to the other world, in a sense.
Columbia: The Blessed Virgin Mary seems to play a prominent role in iconography. Are there differences between the portrayal of Mary in the East and West?
Archbishop Soroka: There are some differences, such as the colors that are used to represent Our Lady. In Eastern icons, Mary is usually wearing a blue garment and is covered with a red cape — the blue representing humanity and the red representing divinity. If you look at icons of Christ, he is wearing red, the divinity, and he puts on the blue cape, which represents the humanity that he takes on. In the East, in particular, the Mother of God is portrayed holding Christ Jesus in a way that her arms become the seat of wisdom. In Latin traditions, you will often see her portrayed by herself. In the Eastern churches, however, she almost always has Christ in her arms, and she is always looking to him as he looks to us, to the world. We always see Mary as the Theotokos, the bearer of God.
The tradition to venerate Mary in a special way during the month of May is very much a Latin tradition. Our churches have taken on that tradition, but Mary is always part of the entire journey throughout the liturgical year. If you walk into any (Eastern) church, you see that Mary is predominant in all of the imagery and icons. In the liturgy, after the words of consecration, for example, the first prayer is commemorating the Mother of God.
Columbia: Are there other notable differences of emphasis in Eastern iconography and traditions?
Archbishop Soroka: The art of the Latin Church, it might be said, stresses the humanity of Jesus, whereas we stress the divinity of Jesus; it comes across differently.
Even in the feasts, there is a slightly different emphasis. Eastern churches celebrate the Annunciation of the Mother of God, putting emphasis on who is receiving the message. The Latin Church refers to the Annunciation of Our Lord. Similarly, we have the feast of the Conception by St. Anne on Dec. 9, as opposed to the feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8.
There are some cultural differences even among the Eastern churches. In Eastern Europe, for example, we use gold more often as the background of the icons, stressing the heavenly light of Christ. In the Middle East, on the other hand, you have more use of the color green, which is a sacred color of that area.
Columbia: Pope John Paul II emphasized that the Church must breathe with “two lungs.” What did he mean by this statement?
Archbishop Soroka: I think what Blessed John Paul was trying to get across was the idea that the Eastern and Western traditions are dependent on each other. The Church is richer for it; we have something to offer one another in our spirituality, our prayer and our journey to come closer to our Lord. It’s important for Eastern Catholics to take on our duty to inform the Latin Church more, and for the Latin Church to become more aware of this other “lung” of the Church. This would also then help us ecumenically with the Orthodox world. Many Latin-rite Catholics do not know that, in certain situations, according to the Code of Canon Law, they can receive sacraments from the Orthodox Church. The fact that Catholics are allowed to do this says so much about what we have in common.
Columbia: How have recent popes emphasized dialogue and ecumenism with Eastern Orthodox Churches that are not in communion with Rome?
Archbishop Soroka: I think John Paul introduced much of that dialogue to create mutual understanding and respect between the churches, and Pope Benedict very much encouraged it. As a result, we have come to understand one another better, and have come to understand that our misperceptions are perhaps greater than the real differences.
Pope Francis, during his ministry as cardinal in Buenos Aires, certainly conveyed openness to the Eastern churches. They say that when he was a young student, he would make a point of getting up and serving as an acolyte for a Ukrainian Catholic priest. He learned our tradition, our rite, at a young age. Eventually, he was appointed the bishop for all the Eastern churches in Argentina until, in some cases, their respective bishops were assigned. He is very aware of the Eastern churches, and that’s tremendous.
The presence of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who is called “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox churches, at Pope Francis’ installation Mass was a very hopeful sign. This never happened since the split in 1054. Nearly 1,000 years! And actions sometimes speak a lot louder than words. I think it was a loud proclamation expressing openness to ecumenical dialogue with the Holy Father and with that whole journey that John Paul and Benedict initiated and supported.
Columbia: What has been your involvement with the Knights of Columbus, especially in relation to Eastern Catholics?
Archbishop Soroka: I’m from Canada, and there we had tremendous involvement with Knights. The service they render to the Church is amazing. It has been a little bit more of a challenge for me to persuade Ukrainian Catholics and clergy here about the value of the Order, but I’m making headway on it.
The Knights have been a tremendous support for me and for pro-life programs and vocations. Even when our synod was held here in Philadelphia in 2007, welcoming Ukrainian Catholic bishops from around the world, the Knights came forward and helped. It was the first synod outside of Ukraine, and the Knights assisted all of the bishops who were challenged to pay the airfare, bringing them here for that meeting. They stepped forward far beyond what one could expect.
I have been a state chaplain and very much value the work of the Knights. I don’t think they ask much of us, and frankly I don’t think we give them enough love and support for what they do.
And I’m very pleased about how receptive Knights have been to know more about Eastern traditions. Even at the state convention once, there was provision for our liturgy in English to be celebrated as a state liturgy. That kind of openness is so inspiring. It speaks of breathing with two lungs.
Columbia: Do you plan to be involved with the next World Meeting of Families, which will be in Philadelphia in 2015?
Archbishop Soroka: Very much so. I’ve written to the cardinal in charge of that gathering and have also met with Archbishop [Charles J.] Chaput. We are very much committed to being fully involved and anticipate walking away from that gathering with even more energy and resourcefulness.