Our Byzantine Catholic heritage traces its development to the apostolic foundations of the early Church established by Jesus Christ. Through the centuries, we have been enriched also by the traditions of our ancestors.
Grounded upon Faith and Sacrifice
When St. Michael the Archangel Church in Pittston, Pennsylvania was founded by immigrants from the Carpatho-Rusyn region of Eastern Europe, it was natural they wanted to retain something of the familiar in an unfamiliar new land. It was not easy without a church of their own where they could worship in the tradition they were accustomed to, or in the language they spoke. (See our church history on this site). It had already taken an act of faith to leave everything behind and set out on a one-way journey to begin a new life.
Our church founder-immigrants and their ancestors led difficult lives in their native land. Most came from tiny villages marked by an impoverished peasant lifestyle where the only hope in the future meant leaving all behind, including family. God’s creation and their dependence on God were visible in the simple agrarian lifestyle they had before coming to America. It was their faith that grounded them during times of instability, and gave meaning to their day-to-day life.
As they left behind hardship with the hope of better opportunity, they encountered different challenges, and faced new prejudices and misunderstanding. The immigrants had a desire to quickly “fit in” faced with a culture that often viewed them in an unknowing and demeaning way, a culture that wanted them to conform rather than to celebrate their uniqueness. So it was that faith and a need for fraternity became the incentive for our church founders to begin the task to establish their own church, a church of their own they could call home. Understandably, this was a big sacrifice and act of determination. In reality, sacrifice was a way of life.
- Our church founders’ faith in God was their real treasure.
The local “Greek Catholic”¹ church they founded was a central way to connect with others of the same beliefs and customs. Everything was intertwined: faith, ethnic customs, religious practices, family traditions. Considering the times (early 1900s) and the historical events² of the period when our immigrant-founders arrived, it leaves little to question a need to form a bond in this way.
This is why it can be a challenge even today in Eastern Churches, to distinguish ethnic origins of faith practices from the longer standing origins of early Church history. Both have evolved side by side over centuries, each complementing the other. But this hardly means a person needs to be part of a certain ethnic group to appreciate the distinct form of spirituality present in all Eastern Rite Churches. Instead, it points significantly to the ways diversity of tradition enriches the entire Church. (See our Links page for exploring the vast amount of information on this topic).
As Byzantine Catholics, our spiritual focus is foremost on everything we believe as Catholics, how we live our faith in the fullness of Truth, in the sacraments of the Church, and in relationship with our living God through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ . Our heritage and our traditions are a part of our long history. Our heritage provides a sense of the antiquity and depth of our spiritual experiences, and in the ways we worship God in our personal lives and in our church services.
Unity in Diversity
Today, parishioners in our churches are from remarkably different ethnic backgrounds, experiences, and family histories. While many of our church members had ancestors who came from the Carpatho-Rusyn region (Ruthenian), our church family today is much more diverse. Our parishioners are unified more by our Byzantine spirituality than by ethnic origin. Together, they are inspired to journey in their faith in the beauty and theological richness of the Byzantine Church. This is what makes our parish and other Eastern Rite Churches a shared faith community — a family of believers — no matter who we are or where our grandparents came from.
- We all share in common, especially as Byzantine Catholics — as Catholics — our apostolic roots, our adherence to the Gospel teachings of Jesus Christ and understanding of salvation history, the sacraments of the Catholic Church, and especially in our relationship with God in our belief in the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The expressed form of our Eastern Rite liturgical services, what makes us unique, does retain many influences derived from our Eastern European history. These qualities form us as Byzantine Catholics and enhance our worship, as these are undeniably part of our continuing history.
An example is our liturgical chant, its form and acapella style, how we sing our Liturgy as active participants in praise and thanksgiving to God. Going even further back historically, our liturgical services trace their origins to the very foundation of the Church, to earliest Christian religious practice and theology. And these influences are found in the eloquent words of our hymns and verses, our prayers developed and written by the early Church Fathers ³, our rituals based on Scripture and Tradition, and symbolism inherent in every small detail, including as an example, even the vestments worn by our clergy, deacons, and altar servers.
- One of the many things found in Eastern Churches is a love of God and understanding of theology often expressed through symbols. Symbols are a concrete way we imbue meaning (of what we believe) to everything we experience through our senses.
Eastern Churches express their beliefs through many symbolic forms — music, art (icons), architecture, liturgical disciplines, bodily gestures, prayers, sacraments, and much more. Symbols connect the realm of the earthly to the heavenly, and the heavenly to the earthly. Like the parables Jesus used to instruct, symbols reveal more than what is seemingly apparent.
Symbols are seen throughout biblical scripture, and point to revelations of Truth. The symbolic reference of Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the historical facts of the New Testament, is one clear illustration. But symbols aren’t limited to what is experienced only in a religious or church setting. When we bless food at Easter in the traditional manner inherited from our ancestors, we carry faith symbols into our homes, sharing our lived beliefs with our family and friends.
Built Upon The Church Established by Christ
Sometimes it is difficult to appreciate the idea of respecting long-standing tradition in a fast-paced world. We live in a culture that expects everyone to constantly keep up with trendiness and is quick to toss away as obsolete anything that isn’t. One of the features of the Byzantine Catholic church, and one that is admired by others, is the ability to preserve both faith and custom; tradition and heritage.
- The Byzantine Catholic Church, in its own unique way, serves as a present-day witness to the living, breathing life of diversity within the Universal Catholic Church.
This diversity was present from the very beginning of Church history, with the apostles spreading the gospel to different geographical areas. Each developed into the various churches of both East and West. Even with all the changes and conflicts through millennia, both Orthodox and Catholic churches share the common origins of this amazing history that begins with Christ establishing the church – of commanding his apostles to preach to all nations.
The Universal Church – the Catholic Church – is built upon all of this. Tradition (with a capital “T”) and the Word of God (Holy Scripture) form the structure of faith and worship. Tradition is by definition all of the teachings, the practices of the faith, that have been passed down through the ages from Jesus Christ and the Apostles and followers through the presbyters and disciples of the early church to our present time.
Likewise, all that has been passed down through generations from our humble Carpatho-Rusyn (Ruthenian) ancestors has also become an inheritance – traditions (with a lower case “t”) – woven together with our apostolic origins and Byzantine spirituality. And in combination, they preserve much of the ancient character and practices of the early Church.
These are our roots, our real family tree so to speak, established over time with care and discernment by those who valued all they held cherished and believed in.
For this, the Byzantine Catholic Church has much to offer all Catholics and all Christians, reflecting and adhering to all that has been established through Jesus Christ.
¹ The term Greek Catholic was used to distinguish our churches from Roman Catholic. In other words, Greek formation in contrast to Latin formation. The problem arose that others mistakenly thought members of our churches were ethnic Greek. The title of Byzantine Catholic was adopted to denote an association with early Christian development, that is, Byzantine culture.
² For more information about the history of Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants in Europe and the history of what they faced in America, see our Links page. During the early 1900s to the period of WWII, many of our church founders worked in the anthracite mines in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Strikes, ethnic prejudices against them, and the dangers of being a miner, were just a few of the hardships they endured. Having come from Europe, there was no exception for immigrants who were older in being required to register for the draft for WWI. Yet amidst uncertainty, many were able to earn enough money to build a home to support large families and contribute to the construction of our home parish of St. Michael’s (an immigrant story repeated by all ethnic groups throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania). Often, working in the mines and then in their free time helping physically build the parish is the legacy of what these founders of new church structures in America achieved. Not long after many immigrants settled in their adopted homeland, the Great Depression and WWII became eminent threats. WWII was a war in which the first-generation sons of the immigrants were called to serve as soldiers, stepping onto the soil of their parents’ origin in Europe along with defending many other places around the world. Some, as in our own parishes, made the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives to free others and to protect future freedom everywhere. It is a testament to their faith and perseverance in all they faced, for which we have much to be thankful for. It is a history of former generations we should never forget or diminish by our lack of appreciation of what they did for us and the generations to come.
³ In Eastern Churches (Byzantine and Orthodox), Church Fathers include those whose influence helped shape theology and liturgy. Among those holding a special place of honor are St. Basil the Great (c. 329-379), St. John Chrysostom (347-407), St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), and St. Athanasius (c. 296-373). St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. John Chrysostom are known as the Three Holy Hierarchs. The Apostolic Church Fathers are those who lived and were taught during the time of the twelve apostles. Prominent Apostolic Fathers include Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, and Polycarp of Smyrna.