A white wooden church sits beside a lonely two-lane highway in Sharon, Georgia, a town…
Get to know the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church
Many of the Eastern-rite Catholic Churches are unfamiliar to most Roman Catholics. Names like Eritrean, Syro-Malankara, Chaldean or Italo-Albanian are never even encountered by many in the Latin rite. The Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church, also known in the U.S. as the Byzantine Catholic Church, is another example of this, although, like most of the other Eastern churches, it is a strong and vibrant community in the United States.
St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church in Whiting, Indiana, is part of the Eparchy of Parma, Ohio. Most Catholics are part of dioceses, as the geographical regions for Roman Catholics are called. The term “diocese” comes from the Latin word for a regional jurisdiction ruled by a governor, and “eparchy” comes from the Greek term for the same. Eastern Catholics are governed by their own bishops, so the regional territories must overlap, necessarily. The Eparchy of Parma encompasses almost all of Ohio, as well as Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
At the time the eparchy was established in 1969 by Pope St. Paul VI, it covered Ohio and all states west, including Alaska and Hawaii. The territory shrank in 1982 when a western eparchy was established. As of 2014, the Eparchy of Parma served a little more than 9,000 Eastern Catholics in 28 parishes and five missions, served by 36 priests, 16 deacons, and six religious sisters.
Ruthenians come from the region of central Europe that, today, includes eastern Slovakia, southwestern Ukraine, northeastern Hungary and northwestern Romania. Christianity was brought to these people by the Byzantine Empire, so their religious traditions are Eastern. Sts. Cyril and Methodius are credited with bringing Christianity and the Slavonic alphabet to the region in 863.
There are around 420,000 Ruthenian Catholics in the world, primarily concentrated in Europe and the United States. In Europe, there are only two eparchies: one in Ukraine and one in the Czech Republic, and these are directly subject to the Holy See. In the U.S., there are three eparchies, which are suffragan sees under the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, led by Archeparch William Skurla.
A priest’s conversion story
Father Andrew Summerson is pastor of St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church. He grew up next to a Byzantine Catholic Church and school in Cleveland, Ohio, but was not Byzantine himself at the time. He was raised by his mother and grandmother, who decided to enroll him in the school. His grandmother taught him to pray the Our Father and read a picture Bible to him, although they did not have him baptized.
It was at St. Mary’s School that Father Summerson began to think about baptism and life as a Christian. In particular, the witness of the Basilian nuns at the school, religion class and regular participation in liturgy drew the attention of the young boy.
“A turning point for me was when praying the Rosary and ‘Jesus prayer’ at the beginning of religion class with our teacher, Sister Agnes,” Father Summerson said. Each student was allowed to take turns presenting their own prayer intentions before the prayer. One day, Father Summerson prayed for an intention for his mother, on a contentious matter he would often hear her complain about: He prayed that she would receive her child support check. “I think that clued Sister Agnes into our family life,” he said.
Before Christmas break that year, Sister Agnes asked young Andrew to come to her class, where he found a basket of food, clothes and gifts from the parish. “I walked it home, sobbing,” he said. “At that moment I knew I wanted to be a part of the source of that charity, which was their daily prayer in the church.”
The Byzantine Catholic school drew Father Summerson into the life of the Church. He was 11 years old at the time, and was finally baptized at the age of 14. The timing seems providential. “Being baptized at the onset of puberty was fortuitous,” he said. “It crossbred all my existential crises with vocational crises. Wondering ‘Who am I?’ always seemed to supervene on the question ‘What kind of Christian am I supposed to be?'”
During high school, he visited seminaries, but ended up receiving a full-ride scholarship to a local liberal arts college studying music and theater. But he understood that, fundamentally, he wanted to be a Christian and live as a Christian with every fiber of his being.
“Every time I tried to be something else, I would hyphenate it: How do I be a Christian-singer, Christian-actor, Christian-writer?” Father Summerson said. “Christianity was the constant. I figured it’s best to dedicate my life to full-time Christianity.” Father Summerson was ordained a Byzantine priest in the Eparchy of Parma in 2015 and has been pastor of St. Mary’s for a year.
A diverse, global rite
St. Mary’s was founded in 1899, which makes it the oldest Eastern Catholic church in the region of Chicago and northwestern Indiana. Ultimately at least 10 additional parishes were founded out of this parish.
“It’s got a long history,” said Father Summerson, “but experienced an unfortunate and unnecessary period of decline.”
In 2012, a decision was made to keep St. Mary’s going and invest in it. The interior was renovated that year, and “now boasts as one of the most beautiful temples in the Byzantine tradition in Chicagoland,” he said.
The stunning beauty of the Byzantine liturgy serves as the foundation and touchstone for all of life at St. Mary’s and for Ruthenians around the world. “We have a vibrant liturgical life that flows into everything we do socially and pastorally,” he said. “I have been here a year, and we are seeing a great period of growth.”
“Quite frankly, it is one of the best liturgical experiences you are going to get in Byzantine Catholic North America,” said Father Summerson. The parish has a talented choir, young and enthusiastic, that adds to the solemnity and beauty of liturgical celebration.
Ruthenian Catholics are one example of the global diversity of the Catholic Church. While the Church is in all corners of the world, with just about every race, tongue and culture, the diversity of liturgical and cultural traditions among the different rites is a potent symbol of the unity of the body of Christ.
Paul Senz writes from Oregon.