Wednesday, August 3, 2016

THE RISE AND FALL OF THE BYZANTINE CATHOLIC CHURCH

I'm a first generation American.
When my parents came to this country back in the 1920's they got two addresses: one of where they were going to live, and two, the address of their church.
Both surprisingly were only blocks apart. You see, in many cases, when immigrants (the legal kind like we used to have) came to America they had to have sponsorship. In other words, someone already here had to vouch for the newly arrived guaranteeing that they would have housing and someone to help them get assimilated. There were no government housing or freebies like there are today. When you came to America back then you either made it on your own or you went back home!
But the biggest thing that separates immigrants then and now, is that they came here to become AMERICAN!  My mom and dad wanted so much to shed their "old world" ideas and nationalities. They loved their homeland its traditions and culture, but they wanted and made every effort to love America their new home more.
So they did everything they could to Americanize. They studied and perfected their English to the point that in a few years you would almost thing they grew up here. Sure they loved their old world traditions which mainly centered around their church but that was it. They were not hyphenated Americans, but simply American period end of conversation. As a matter of fact where my parents came from wasn't even a country but a region in the what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Empress Maria Teresa.  Sure they knew the one horse town them lived in and or the county, but there was no country until Czechoslovakia was formed, my parents nearer the Slovakia portion. It was called many other names like Ruthenia, Sub-Carpatho Ruthenia, stuff like that.
LIFE CENTERED AROUND THEIR CHURCH
Mother's Club, Men's Club, Ladies Guild, Holy Name Societies, Sodality, Professors, CCD, Minstrels, Polka Dances, Hunky Weddings, Holy Name Parades.
All of the above were organizations and events which created a nucleus around which family live revolved.
The Mother's Club was for the older "Babushka" wearing grandmothers. Their activities centered around praying the Group Rosary usually at the 10 O;clock mass every Sunday. They would do it in such a wild and eerily way.  They would chant it. That's right. It sounded almost like the Muslim call to prayer or some Greek Orthodox chant. Basically monotone droning with one leader who would receipt the first part of a prayer (like the first half of the Hail Mary), then the rest chiming in for the second, and back and forth in unison with slight inflections upon important words, and of course always in "Old Slavonic" the ancient language of the Slavic Churches, and later on most Slavic speaking peoples.  I can still remember as a kid walking into St. Michael's in Passaic NJ when my dad wanted to go to the 10 O'clock mass because it was in Old Slavonic and hearing the chanting. It was like entering another world. It was hauntingly beautiful.
The Men's Club was for men of all ages. Mostly they would meet down in the basement of the church where most activities in most churches took place as a rule. Of course libation would be available and they would plan beefsteak dinners for men only of course, they would organize church picnics schedule ushers for the 5, count em, five masses on a Sunday morning: 6:30, 7:15, 8:00, 10:00 and 12 Noon with almost every one full in a church that sat 300 people comfortably! In a way it was like a mass factory since sometimes the priest would take longer than the time allotted and so you had people leaving one mass while others crossing paths to catch the next. You even sometimes had one priest leaving the altar with another approaching it as if they were a tag team!
The Ladies Guild could be likened to a woman's club today. It was mainly for the younger women and mothers of small children. They would plan fun events like Calendar Parties, Themed dances and dinners, outings, bake sales, and other social events.

The Holy Name Society was an extension of the man's club and those who were a bit more religious minded. Let's face it, even back then more women attended church than the men. How did I know that? Well in St. Michael's you had a wide church so much so that it not only had the main isle, but two side isles as well. The very right side of the church was the "men's side" complete with little metal clips on each pew back for the men to clip their hat to. Non of the other three rows of pews to the right (the women's side) had them. That's right.  Unlike today, men sat on one side of the church and the women even though married sat on the right usually with the children. Today couples sit together and sometimes I think they forgot they're in church and not at the movies with their arms around each other like the're ready to neck!

The Sodality was an organization which was for girls.  There would be mixers and other events like the May crowning, where virginal young ladies would process all dressed in white dresses with veils to a statue of Mary in a grotto or inside the church and the "Queen" of the May Crowning had the honor of placing a wreath of flowers upon the head of a statue of Mary followed by recitation of the Rosary, then Mass  then a breakfast. The Sodality centered around devotion to Mary with the quaint notion that all girls would remain virgins until marriage. It doesn't exist anymore! Maybe it's because of the 'virgin' thing...

Professors could be likened to the Jewish Cantors. In fact that's what we called the leader of the congregational singing to this day. The cantor of a church was probably more important than the assistant pastors because they, at the time, studied church music as a profession. That's why they became "Professors." They were taught by other professors from their families or from their churches. There were schools also which taught the Slavonic Plain Chant which was in and of itself a miracle of tonal variety depth and spiritual emotion. They were paid salaries and as a result many devoted their entire lives to being the Church Cantor.
The chant system was taken from the Greeks and then "Slavisized" with many Slavic melodies many derived from Gypsy music which were more melodic had greater emotion and melancholy when compared to atonal Greek chant. The Slavs, as C-3PO lamented to R2D2 when they landed in the Tatoine desert, believed that they were "meant to suffer," and they did through war, famine, oppression and totalitarianism and as a result the church music as well as secular music reflected that.  Actually the Cantors had to be more knowledgeable than even the priests since they carried the majority of the responsibility of leading the congregation in singing the numerous and musically complicated services celebrated throughout the year. Today there are no more Professors. There are no more schools and I dare say men willing to dedicate their lives solely to being the church cantor on a full time basis, especially since most parishes today could not afford to pay them as they did in the past. Today even, most cantors and not trained in voice nor the techniques of leadership as in the days of old. What's worse is that most parishioners do not take the time, nor are they interested to learn the music either. They are expecting to be entertained even though celebrating liturgy means work of the people.

As for the other church centered activities like  CCD, Minstrels, Polka Dances, Hunky Wedding reenactments, Holy Name parades, all for the most part gone the way of the dodo. The church is no longer the center of family life. There used to be a saying that you should meet your sweetheart "at the communion rail." Today they're met at the bar rail or in online chat rooms. CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) was seen as the Catholic Boy's and Girl's club where youngsters of the same faith could enjoy themselves doing church things. Minstrels were the politically incorrect reenactment of old vaudeville acts complete with white people in blackface performed with no evil intention but would be seen today as bigoted and racist. The polka dances were the best. I remember as a kid running all over St. Michael's auditorium, up in the balcony, down in the basement with the other kids while mom and dad dances polkas, Obereks, and other hunky favorites. (Hunkies was the slang term for Eastern European immigrants, like calling the Irish 'Micks', the Italians 'Guineas,' and Germans 'Krauts.)
The Hunky weddings were also reenactments of weddings held in the Old Country. Even Slavs were able to make fun of themselves, with various cast members representing the bride and groom, the parents, the priest, cantor, odd people in their neighborhood including the town drunk something akin to a Slavic Fiddler on the Roof spoof.
And the Holy Name parades were just that. Parades sponsored by all the area Catholic churches where bands from local high schools, dignitaries, floats and Holy Name men would parade from a church parking lot to a high school football field where a religious service of all things would be celebrated. People would line the streets to watch the various church sponsored groups of men all dressed up in tuxedos marching with little Holy Name Society pennants in their hands. Who could imagine such a parade like that held today?

So what's left you may ask?
After the influx of the immigrant population that came to America and that filled our churches in the golden days of the early 20th century, the immigration from the old country subsided. As the Slavs became more successful they moved away from the neighborhoods in the shadow of their churches. A great exodus ensued leaving Byzantine Churches today in the middle class neighborhoods pursuing other interests and entertainments,  not a bit interested in what the Byzantine Slavic Church is all about.
The children of the baby boomer generation as well as their children didn't meet  their wives or husbands at the communion rails of our churches (not that we had them) but in other denominations especially Roman Churches, then moved far away never return to the Byzantine Church. I believe the reason is because the "Greek Catholic Church" (later becoming called the Byzantine Catholic Church)  chose to hide it's ethnicity which to this day has preserved other ethnic churches like the Greeks, Ukrainians, Serbs, etc. The "Ruthenian" or Greek Catholic Church is today but a footnote in the struggle of the Austro Hungarian Empire and the wars that followed which divided Europe time and time again leaving our ancestors with no official homeland from which not only immigrants could still come to America but no Slavic identity which as has already been said sustains other ethnic churches here in America.  Sadly in the not too distant future, the Byzantine Catholic Church unable to draw new members here or from abroad nor invigorate their existing ones  will hasten the fall of the Byzantine Catholic Church.





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