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» Carmelecta

Carmelites Serving the Byzantine Catholic Church

by Father Elias O’Brien, O.Carm.

Eight years ago, a request for temporary help traveled over the Atlantic Ocean. Father Michael Simodejka had died, and Saint George the Great Martyr Parish in western Pennsylvania was mourning its pastor of fifty-one years! Father Elias O’Brien, O.Carm., a member of the British Province of Carmelites, found himself helping out over the Christmas holidays in 1997. When this supply period was over, the Metropolitan (Archbishop) of Pittsburgh asked the British Carmelite Provincial if a Carmelite could remain and serve the parish. So Father Elias found himself appointed pastor in February, 1998. Later that same year he accepted the position of professor of dogmatic theology at Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Pittsburgh.

What makes this story unique is that this community of Saint George is a parish of the Eastern Church. Founded in 1915 by Slavic immigrants from Central Europe, this Church worships using the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy, and at that time, the Slavonic language. These Rusyns, Slovaks, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Russians wanted to worship using the rites of their parents, and built a Church according to their tradition.

Father Elias O’Brien, O.Carm., during Paschal Vespers, Easter 2005, at Saint George’s Church in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.

“These are people of deep faith, and they are rooted in a wonderful tradition in the Church,” said Father Elias. “They have a deep love of their Liturgy, and a strong devotion to the Mother of God—a great place for a Carmelite to minister.” Most visitors to an Eastern Orthodox Church will notice the reverence and prayerfulness of the congregation, who expect longer services that are entirely chanted without musical instruments. Visitors also notice other differences, including the painted icons and a wall of icons that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the Church. During the service they will see the faithful lighting candles, venerating the icons, and even infants receiving Holy Communion. At the Divine Liturgy (Mass) eastern Catholics use leavened bread (not western style hosts). They keep a different liturgical calendar, and observe many different rituals.

The Byzantine Catholic Church is an Orthodox Church that entered into reunion with the Church of Rome in the 17th century. They were Slavs from the Carpathian mountain region of central Europe that were ruled by the Hapsburgs in the Austro- Hungarian Empire. When they entered into communion with the Catholic Church, they were promised that they could continue to pray and worship according to their Eastern Orthodox tradition, and history has seen that their determination to preserve their identity is strong.

Father Elias is the first Carmelite to serve as pastor of an Eastern Catholic Church in the United States, but he is not the only ‘eastern’ Carmelite. Some friars from the Australian, French and Italian provinces are also Eastern Catholics. There are also convents of Carmelite nuns that are part of the Eastern Churches in the United States (for example, in Sugarloaf, Pennsylvania), as well as France, Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine, Lebanon and Palestine. The new Carmelite General Commissary in India is also made up of Carmelite Friars of another Eastern Catholic Church (Syro-Malabar). So not all Carmelites are Roman Catholics, some are Eastern Catholics.

Today, Saint George’s Parish in western Pennsylvania is facing other challenges, typical to this region of the state. The collapse of the steel industry and the failure of other local employers has meant that once prosperous communities are experiencing hard times. Somehow, such trials have made the parish life stronger, and families of many generations rely on the continuity of their Orthodox faith to sustain them in changing times. “It always was a small parish, many of the parishioners are descended from founding families who were here in 1915!” said Father Elias, “but new families and convert parishioners are taking up responsibilities and are being accepted by the old Slavic families.” Because of the new ethnic mix of parishioners, English is now the major language of worship, but at every Liturgy some prayers and hymns are sung in the old language (Old Church Slavonic).

Since 2000, two Carmelite Sisters (Corpus Christi Carmelites) have undertaken to live and work in the parish. Sister Mary Virginia, O.Carm. and Sister Rose Elizabeth, O.Carm. have made the Eastern Orthodox tradition their own, and have contributed greatly to the life and mission of the parish. For the past five months, Father Bruce Baker, O.Carm. (of the North American Province) has assisted at Saint George’s, and taken classes at Saint Cyril and Methodius in Byzantine Liturgy and Spirituality. Other Carmelites, priests and seminarians, have contributed to this ministry over the past seven years, and there has been some interest in vocations to the Carmelite life from Eastern Catholics.

Can Carmelite spirituality and community be reconciled with life in an Eastern Church, among ethnic Slavs? Does the witness of Carmel have anything to offer this community? These are good questions, and perhaps reflecting on the experience of Carmelites living in Pennsylvania will help to provide an answer. Other questions might be asked. Can Carmel be enriched by the life and spirit of an Eastern Church? Can the Liturgy and offices of the Eastern Church feed and nourish Carmelite religious?

The fact that the Eastern Catholic Churches have survived and taken root in the United States, even though they are vastly outnumbered by the faithful of their Latin Rite “sister Church” is a tribute to their vitality and strength. The challenges are to survive against the odds, cling to eternal values in a changing environment, and build community despite the pressures of western society, these are skills that could be useful.

Father Elias has been very happy to be welcomed in the Byzantine Catholic Church, and teach at the seminary and serve at Saint George’s parish. He described his experience saying, “Saint George is an interesting community, made up of immigrants from Europe (old and new), rooted families who have made this community their own, reproducing something of the life of the ‘village’ in an American setting. With new converts and ‘adopted’ parishioners, they cling to an ancient and traditional Liturgy that gives them life and feeds them spiritually. They witness to the universality of the Church, and speak for the Orthodox Churches in the Catholic Communion. This Church has something to say, about what it means to be ‘the Church’.”