July 5: Vigil for Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
Parish: St Athanasius the Great Byzantine Catholic Church
Celebrated at: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church
First, a brief comment: The Byzantine Rite does not follow the same liturgical pattern as the Roman Rite. As such, I am in no position to comment on the rightness of the liturgy or it’s conformity with established rubrics. My observations are strictly based on my personal experience. As they say, your mileage may vary.
I’ve reviewed this church’s layout in a previous entry, so I won’t rehash it all here. This is a small chapel, not really designed for the Byzantine Rite, so I suppose the priest and server had to make do with the space they had.
The altar layout was slightly different, with a side table used for priestly prayers and other rituals. There were a few different altar tools as well, including an incense censer with bells on it, and a gold-covered Bible.
My ranking: 2.5 out of 5.
No musical instruments. The singing was led by a cantor, and there was an awful lot of it; much of the liturgy was chanted in English. There were only a handful of people there, and most of them (myself included) were uncertain about the actual notes we were singing. The cantor did a good job of keeping us on the right page (literally). No formal hymns that I recognized.
My ranking: 3 of 5.
Father Sid is a wizened cleric, probably in his late 60s or early 70s. He has a raspy voice, and an unusual sense of tempo and accentuation during his speaking and chanting. He spoke very rapidly at times, and very haltingly at others, as though he would occasionally lose his place.
What he may have lacked in polish during the liturgy, he more than made up for with intensity during his homily. The man spoke his mind, and at times, said some things that, were they to come from your local parish priest, would have surely caused quite a stir and some murmurings from the congregation. The gospel reading was about Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Father Sid’s homily took that miracle and ran with it to the Nth degree.
He stated, in exactly so many words, that he firmly believed that to be poor and Catholic is a sin. We should all be millionaires, and should want for nothing if we would only trust in God’s abundance. He also said, again in so many words, that we shouldn’t go to a stockbroker or a banker to make our fortune, we should go to God. Likewise, if we are sick or suffering, we should see our priest for healing. If the priest can’t heal us, we should go to the bishop, and if the bishop can’t do it, we should go to the Pope.
It was quite clear that he knew what he was saying was controversial, to say the least. He came right out and said that if we didn’t have sufficient faith to believe that God could and would make us all millionaires, then we should get up and leave right then and there.
I swear to God, folks, I am not making this up.
My ranking: 2.5 of 5, plus an additional 1 point for sheer chutzpah. I was trying to justify a lower ranking, but to be honest, I can’t think of anything he said that was out-and-out heretical.
As I stated earlier, this is not your usual Catholic Mass. For one thing, it’s not referred to as a Mass; it is a Eucharist. You do not genuflect as such when entering the church; you perform a profound bow before several icons, cross yourself from right to left (as opposed to the up-down-left-right in the Roman Rite), and reverently kiss the icons and a cross.
A lot of chanting, bowing, crossing ourselves, and a number of repeated litanies. As the priest put it, God is surrounded by three choirs of angels at all times, and while he is in the tabernacle before us, we are to serve as his choir with three litanies.
After the Gospel was read, we all kissed the golden book. I needed a little encouragement and some stage direction from a friend.
Receiving Communion was also quite different. Instead of thin wafers, it was actual chunks of some sort of bread, which was added to the chalice of wine. The communicant stood before the priest with their arms folded across their chest (in the same way those who cannot receive Communion stand before a priest in the Roman Rite), opens his mouth, and the bread and wine is placed in his mouth with a golden spoon. You are expected to chew this communion (which is discouraged in the Roman Rite). It’s a good thing too, you would probably gag if you tried to swallow the wine-soaked bread whole.
There were a few familiar elements: the Nicene Creed (understandable, since it originated in Constantinople), the Lord’s Prayer, and a consecration which, while different in phrasing, was quite recognizable in form and function.
My ranking: 2.5 of 5.
One rather large and imposing altar server (300 pounds if he was an ounce, with a beard and a ponytail)
At the end of the service, we all received a special anointing with oil on our forehead, cheeks, chin, chest, and the palms of our hands.
My overall ranking: 2.5 of 5.
Would I return: maybe, but not here.
This was a unique experience for me. It wasn’t good or bad, just different. In that regard, I guess my opinions and rankings aren’t that important, since it is like a football broadcaster trying to provide commentary on a soccer match: they have some similar elements, but it is an entirely different thing altogether.
I certainly would not want to give up the Roman Rite for this, but I would be interested to see this rite celebrated in their home church. Unfortunately, they are undergoing construction, so it’s very unclear when that may happen.