VIEW FROM THE TREMBITA LOUNGE
by Taras Szmagala Jr.
Do we put our faith first?
"Boy, that wedding was odd," my friend Marko said from the barstool next to mine. He swirled his drink and continued with his unsolicited review of a recent Roman Catholic wedding mass that we both attended. "It was so informal, don't you think? Yeah, the 'Ave Maria' was nice, but the rest of it? Too plain for my taste." Having grown up a Ukrainian Catholic, Marko didn't have much experience in worshipping Latin rite-style.
"Depends on how you view it," I responded. "Did you see their church bulletin?" "No," Marko replied, "what does their bulletin have to do with it?" "Well," I recalled, "the mass may not have been ornate enough for you, but the members of that parish were sure keeping busy. Just last week, they organized a food drive, a volunteer night at the local homeless shelter, and a fund-raising effort for their sister parish in Guatemala. All that, in addition to the women's league, bingo night for their school, and their weekly youth encounter group. That church didn't seem very plain to me."
"So what?" Marko was unimpressed. "Our church does that, too. We sell pyrohy to support our elementary schools and build churches, we send money when natural disasters strike, and we always send lots of money to Ukraine." I conceded the point, "True enough - our church is good at raising money, sometimes when natural disasters strike, but especially when we need to build more churches."
"What's wrong with nice churches?" Marko asked, incredulously. "What, do you want to worship God in one of those stucco 1970s-style McChurches with a bare altar and all the spirituality of your local Howard Johnson's? That's your problem, Taras - you see the Church as some sort of social service organization on steroids. But the Church isn't United Way with incense - it's a place where one worships God, receives the sacraments and preserves our spiritual heritage."
I had to admit Marko had a point, but something was still bothering me. As I pondered my response, my mind wandered back 25 years to the first time I became intellectually curious about my faith. I was a freshman at St. Ignatius High School, a Jesuit institution located in a poor inner-city Cleveland neighborhood, and our class was being confronted by a priest who had a question for us. "What did you see when you walked by our front door into school today?" he asked. Silence. The question was repeated. Still, silence. Finally, a classmate slowly raised his hand. "A homeless guy sleeping under the bench? was his tentative reply. "Yes," the Jesuit replied, "exactly. Now, did you know that a Catholic parish in Shaker Heights is planning a multi-million dollar renovation to its church building? My question to this class today is: is it consistent with our Catholic faith to spend that money when there are men sleeping under benches outside of this classroom?"
Of course, father did not - indeed, he could not - propose to have the one correct answer to his question. But his challenge energized the class, and allowed us to begin exploring what it means to be Christian. What followed was a discussion that exposed a certain tension between the "spiritualists" (those who stress the importance of ritual and ceremony in Church life), and the "social activists" (those who view feeding the hungry, giving alms to the poor, and helping the disadvantaged as being central to the Church's mission). Students on both sides of this classroom debate raised good points: dignified places of worship are entirely necessary and appropriate, and facilitate contemplation, prayer and the celebration of the sacraments. In turn, even the most cursory reading of the New Testament reveals Jesus to be a man of social action, concerned with human suffering and commanding his followers to take an active role in the world around them.
The primary lesson that we learned that day was that these two sides of the same Church are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are both necessary, and can even complement each other. So what was my lingering problem with Marko? And what continues to trouble me about the current state of our Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox Churches?
It's not that our Ukrainian Churches are too "spiritual" at the expense of social activism. One need only look at Patriarch Husar's level of involvement in Ukrainian civic life, including his apostolic mandate to his priests to become more socially active, to know that the Ukrainian Catholic Church is taking its social obligations seriously. And certainly the Ukrainian Churches have played, and continue to play, important roles within our community.
But when we say we are "Ukrainian Catholic" or "Ukrainian Orthodox," do we mean it in that order? In other words, are we "Ukrainian" first, and "Catholic" or "Orthodox" second? Do we preserve our spiritual heritage to enhance our sacramental life, or our national pride? And is our attendance at Sunday liturgy an act of faith, or an act of ethnicity? Like my Jesuit theology teacher, I will admit not having the answers to these questions - but I suggest they are questions worth asking.
In this Lenten/Easter season (depending on whether you observe the Julian or the Gregorian calendar) as I critically examine my own approach to these issues, it occurs to me that ethnicity, while important, cannot be the central focus of one's faith. After all, Jesus never said, "Blessed are the Ukrainians, for they are the best ethnic group." Rather, ethnicity must only complement, not supplant, the call of our Churches to spirituality and social action. By putting our faith first, we can derive more meaning from the rich mysticism and spirituality of our Church, and ensure that it remains relevant in American society for years to come.
Taras Szmagala Jr. is a Cleveland based attorney and third-generation Ukrainian American. Mr. Szmagala may be reached at Szmagala@yahoo.com.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 3, 2005, No. 14, Vol. LXXIII
| Home Page |