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When East Meets West

WHEN METROPOLITAN John of Pergamon met with Blessed John Paul II on June 28, 1998, he said, “As Your Holiness has aptly put it some years ago, East and West are the two lungs by which the Church breathes; their unity is essential to the healthy life of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”

On June 24, 2001, Pope John Paul II, in a meeting with members of the Ukrainian Catholic episcopate, reiterated this: “Here there is a fraternal meeting between those who draw from the sources of Byzantine spirituality and those who are nourished by Latin spirituality. Here the deep sense of mystery which suffused the holy liturgy of the Eastern Churches and the mystical succinctness of the Latin Rite come face to face and mutually enrich each other.”

Having been adopted into a Western (Roman) Catholic family, having received the Sacraments of Initiation in that Church, and later having participated in its various ministries (religious education, lectoring, music ministry, youth ministry, extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, etc.), I have a fondness in my heart for the Church of my youth.

However, in 1992 at the age of 33, after six months of preparation with my pastor, I officially changed from Roman Catholic to Eastern Catholic and became a member of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, one of the Byzantine Particular Churches, as a way to increase my own spirituality. Today I enjoy worshiping in my Eastern and Western traditions.

This article illustrates the beauty and richness and diversity of both Churches, without detracting anything from either. The focus here is on the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Diversity in Unity

When we think of our brothers and sisters from other traditions, we realize that within their traditions there is diversity. Protestant Christians, for example, may be high-liturgical Protestants (Episcopalians or Lutherans), mid-liturgical Protestants (Presbyterians or United Methodists) or low-liturgical Protestants (Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.). Yet, all are Protestant Christians.

Likewise, Orthodox Christians might be, for example, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox or Antiochian Orthodox each under a different patriarch—yet still Orthodox. But do we generally think of Catholic Christians as coming from different traditions?

As a hospital chaplain, when I visit Catholic patients some will ask, “What is your religion?” to which I answer, “I’m Ukrainian Byzantine Catholic.” The most common response is, “Oh, then you’re not under the pope.” I try giving a very basic explanation of how the Ukrainian Catholic Church is one of the “Particular Churches” (a canonical term) within the Byzantine tradition. Although we are governed by Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Archeparchy of Lviv, Ukraine, we are still in communion with Rome and pray for the Roman pontiff several times during each Divine Liturgy (Mass).

I was generally ignorant of the Eastern Churches until a Ukrainian Catholic physician gave me a bulletin from St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—now my parish home—and said, “I know you are Roman Catholic. I am Ukrainian Catholic. Here’s a bulletin from my parish. If ever you’re in the area, drop by for a Divine Liturgy.”

My initial thought was, That’s nice. Now get on with my medical care! But a mere two years later, I acknowledged that this was God’s way of leading me to the Christian East!

If we are all “one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church,” as we profess in the Nicene Creed, then why are there so many Particular Churches within the universal Church? That is to say, “Why aren’t we all Western Catholics?”

Answering this requires going back to Jesus and the apostles. In Mark 16:15, Jesus commissions them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” So the apostles did just that.

Tradition holds that five main centers of Christianity developed. The first was Jerusalem, where St. James was bishop. Next came the Antiochian Church. St. Peter went to Rome and became bishop there. St. Mark founded the Alexandrian Church. The Byzantine Church had its beginning when the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 A.D. from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople, “the New Rome.”

In 313, after centuries of persecution, Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion, and the Church in the East began to spread. The Eastern Churches primarily spoke Greek, whereas the Western Church spoke Latin. Thus, Roman Catholics are sometimes referred to as “Latin Catholics,” whereas Byzantine Catholics were formerly referred to as “Greek Catholics.” Together, these constitute the “two lungs of the Church” about which Pope John Paul II spoke.

Liturgies and Traditions

When a Western Catholic enters a Byzantine church for the first time, or vice versa, he/she will notice some major differences. In the Roman church, there will be no separation between the priest and the people. Prior to Vatican II, however, this separation was represented by the Communion rail.

In the Byzantine church, an iconostasis or icon screen separates the priest from the people. Depicted on it are icons of Christ, the Mother of God, the patron saint of the parish and normally St. Nicholas, among others.

The sanctuary, where God dwells in the tabernacle, is separated from the nave, where the people gather. This separation remains with one exception during the Divine Liturgy, when the royal doors are opened, allowing no separation between God and his people.

In the Western church, there may be statues of Christ, Mary, the saints or angels. These remind the worshipers of those whom they represent and call humankind to be holy, just as those whom the statues represent are holy.

In the Byzantine church, the eye is drawn to icons, images that manifest the spiritual nature of those represented. Unlike statuary or Western religious art where the persons depicted look like human beings, those depicted in icons are “otherworldly”—with elongated features that draw the worshiper from the profane (secular) into the sacred.

The form of worship is different, though both include a service of the Word and a service of the Eucharist. In the Western Church, much of the Mass (from the Latin missa, or “leavetaking”) is spoken with certain parts being sung, and in most cases, accompanied by an organ or other musical instruments.

In the Byzantine Church, the Divine Liturgy (from the Greek leitourgia, or a “public work for the people”) is mostly chanted in an unaccompanied dialogue because the human voice was the first musical instrument.

The priestly vestments are also different, with the Roman priest wearing vestments similar to those of the Roman patrician, and the Byzantine priest wearing vestments similar to those worn by Greek nobles. The East uses only two liturgical colors (dark and light) whereas in the West, different liturgical colors represent the liturgical year’s different seasons or feasts, for example, red for martyrs, violet for Advent, etc. A striking change of liturgical vestments occurs on Great and Holy Saturday in the Byzantine Church, where the priest changes from dark to light vestments, representing Christ’s triumph over sin and death.

In the West, the priest faces the people as he celebrates the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the East, both priest and people face eastward, reminding them that as the sun rises in the east, so too will the Son of God rise from the east when he returns in glory.

Another difference is Holy Communion. In the Western Church, the host is made of unleavened bread. Reception of the Precious Blood is optional. In the Eastern Churches, the prosfora loaf is made of leavened bread. Communion is served on a golden spoon and dropped into the open mouth of the communicant by the priest or deacon.

While both traditions use incense, the West normally reserves it for special services (Holy Week, ordinations, funerals, etc.). In the East, the church, icons and people are incensed during every service because we are living icons wherein God dwells. The use of incense is based on Psalm 141:2: “Let
my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted hands an evening sacrifice.” Thus, all five senses are employed in prayer: sight (icons), sound (chanting), taste (Holy Communion), touch (frequent crossings and bowing) and smell (incense).

Seven Sacraments/Mysteries

Both Churches number the sacred signs at seven. These are called “sacraments” in the West and “mysteries” in the East.

Perhaps the greatest difference lies in the Sacraments or Mysteries of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation and Holy Communion). In the Western Church, the bishop is the ordinary minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation. Thus, these three sacraments are administered at different times in the believer’s life, beginning with Baptism (normally in infancy), Holy Communion (around the age of seven) and Confirmation (around adolescence).

In the Eastern Churches, the priest is the ordinary minister of all three mysteries. They were never separated and are usually received together in infancy. Thus, to the Roman Catholic attending his or her first Divine Liturgy, it may seem strange that the priest is offering Holy Communion to babies, normally with his finger dipped into the chalice, then moistening the infant’s lips with the Precious Blood.

At a Western Baptism, water is poured over the head of the one to be baptized, and the Trinity is invoked. At a Byzantine Baptism, the person is immersed in the font three times, signifying the Trinity, in whose name the person is being baptized. This immersion also recalls Jesus as “coming up out of the water” (Mark 1:10) at his Baptism in the Jordan River and as rising to new life on Easter, triumphing over death.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession in the West occurs in a confessional, either behind a screen or with the priest and penitent facing each another. In the East, this mystery is ideally celebrated before an icon of Christ, which the priest and penitent face, with the Book of the Gospels and a crucifix nearby. Some people prefer Western-style confession.

At the end of the celebration, the priest places his epitrachelion (stole) on the head of the penitent while giving absolution. Enumeration of sins is not as important in the East as is change of heart (metanoia) and a firm purpose of amendment not to sin again. In both Churches, the penitent is given a penance to pray or perform at the end of the rite.

Anointing of the Sick is normally reserved for those who are very ill or are approaching death in the Western Church. While this still constitutes the primary reason people receive this mystery in the Byzantine Church, on Great and Holy Wednesday (Holy Week), everyone in the church is anointed because all suffer from illness—be it of mind, body and/or soul.

Matrimony reflects the relationship between Christ and his bride, the Church, and is a sacred union that God himself has made. The Eastern Mystery of Matrimony includes the crowning of the bride and groom with wreaths or crowns. The priest confers the sacrament by his blessing and, in honor of the Trinity, walks the couple around the tetrapod (a small ornate table) three times.

Embrace Our Diversity

The fullness of the Church is seen in its diversity in union. We have examined only two of the Particular Churches that constitute the Universal Church. A great experience might be to attend services in different Particular Churches! Introduce yourself to the priest afterward and ask questions about the service which you just experienced. It will help you to begin to “breathe with two lungs.”

Other Similarities and Differences

The Trinity

Both East and West worship the Three Persons of the Godhead. In the East, worship is always given to all three together. Prayer always concludes with a reference to the Trinity, and the faithful cross themselves many times during the Divine Liturgy, invoking the Trinity. The way the Byzantine believer holds his or her hand during blessings symbolizes this. The thumb is joined to the first and second fingers to represent the Trinity, while the fourth and fifth fingers are placed in the palm of the hand to represent Christ’s two natures, human and divine.


Both traditions acknowledge the role of Mary in salvation history. In the West, devotion to Mary often includes praying the Rosary and wearing a scapular; both are outward signs of affection toward Mary. Statues often depict her alone with her hands folded in prayer.

In the East, Mary is known as the Theotokos or “the God-bearer” and is always portrayed with Jesus. Most icons, in fact, depict her as both holding and pointing to her Son. In a similar manner, Mary also points the believer to the Son, just as she tells the servers at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).

One interesting depiction of Son and Mother occurs in the icon of the Dormition (the falling asleep of the Mother of God, or the Assumption). In this icon Mary’s body is on the bier surrounded by the holy apostles. Above that scene Christ holds a miniature Mary. She who gave birth to the Son on earth is given new birth in his Kingdom.


While many points can be made about the differences in Eastern/Western spirituality, two may be the most striking and deserve mention. The Baltimore Catechism famously taught, “God made me to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him in the next.”

In the East, this reason for being is explained in the word theosis or “divinization.” St. Athanasius explains, “God became man so man could become God.” God made us to reclaim the unblemished image that Adam and Eve had, but lost through sin.

Perhaps the biggest reason why I added the Eastern Church to my own spirituality has to do with its focus on mysticism.