When an Orthodox Joins the Catholic Church

And More on Deacons

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ROME, OCT. 16, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.



Q: What is the procedure for a person who was baptized Macedonian Orthodox and who now wants to be received into the Roman Catholic Church? -- F.F., Toronto

A: In the vast majority of cases Orthodox Christians have been validly baptized, confirmed and received the Eucharist from infancy, and thus do not have to receive any of these sacraments.

Likewise, Catholic canon law allows a Catholic priest to administer the sacraments of Eucharist, reconciliation and anointing to Orthodox Christians if their own minister is unavailable or for other just causes. (Most Orthodox Churches, however, do not approve of their faithful availing of this possibility.)

For this reason Orthodox Christians intending to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church would usually be able to participate in the Church's sacramental life even before their formal incorporation, either in the Latin rite or in an Eastern Catholic rite.

Prior to formal incorporation, they would still require a dispensation from the bishop before entering into marriage and a man could not enter into seminary formation. Nor could they receive any formal ministry.

The specific process for incorporating a baptized Eastern Christian is covered above all in the Code of Canon Law of the Eastern Churches, canons 35 and 896-901.

Canon 896 specifies that for those adult Christians (beyond 14 years) "who ask of their own accord to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, whether as individuals or as groups, no burden is to be imposed beyond what is necessary."

Canon 897 indicates that the Christian may be received "With only the profession of faith after a doctrinal and spiritual preparation that is suited to the person's condition."

With respect to individual laypersons the right to receive usually pertains to the pastor although in some cases particular law might reserve this admission to a higher authority (cf. Canon 898.3).

Canon 35, however, is important because it specifies that baptized non-Catholics entering into full communion "should retain their own rite and should observe it everywhere in the world as far as humanly possible. Thus they are to be ascribed to the Church 'sui iuris' of the same rite."

When the person wishes not only to become Catholic but to change to the Latin rite, the same canon recognizes the right to approach the Holy See (the Congregation for Eastern Churches) in special cases.

Therefore, in the case at hand, the simplest thing to do is to approach the Eastern eparchy most closely resembling his original rite in order to be admitted into the Catholic Church in accordance with the dispositions of the pastor.

Once admitted, he should continue to practice the faith in the corresponding Eastern rite. But he may also freely practice in the Latin rite for a just cause, for example, if there were no churches of his own rite within a reasonable distance.

In order to formally switch rites, he would need to recur to the Holy See as mentioned above.

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Follow-up: What a Deacon Can Do

Two readers offered friendly criticism of an expression used in my Oct. 2 column on what a deacon can and cannot do.

One wrote: "Father McNamara says that the deacon is of a 'lower grade' of order than a priest. While such a designation might be accurate in terms of reflecting the liturgical faculties associated with the diaconate, it seems to suggest that a deacon is in some way subservient to a priest, which I believe is a trivialization of the ordained ministry of service. Rather than a strict hierarchical construct in which the line might be a straight one from bishop to priest to deacon, my understanding of the diaconate, traditionally and in our contemporary context, is that the ordained deacon is directly accountable to the bishop. That is, of a class of order unique to itself."

Another added: "You state that the deacon is a lower grade than a priest. 'Lumen Gentium,' No. 29, does indeed say 'at a lower level of hierarchy are deacons,' but it does go on to say 'in communion with the Bishop and the presbyterate.' So though there is a hierarchical difference between deacon and priest, and of course bishop and priest, there is also a fundamental unity and communion. Talk of lower grades by itself does not seem to me to do justice to this understanding of Vatican II.

"I do not think priests would welcome being told they are a lower grade than bishops, full stop. That would again not do justice to a proper understanding of priesthood and their share in the high priesthood of Christ to which a bishop is ordained." The writer went on to say that a deacon is an ordained minister, who, like a priest, shares in the apostolic ministry of the Church "but with a distinct, different and differentiated but not lesser ministry than the priest."

While I appreciate both the interest and the sincere friendliness of these observations, I believe that the term is technically accurate from the point of view of the sacrament of orders. Bishop, priest and deacon are not three separate sacraments but different levels (or grades or degrees) of the one sacrament of holy orders.

Each level has its own value and its proper sphere of ministry and specific liturgical functions. Yet, they are not simply three distinct modes of orders but are indeed hierarchically structured. The deacon has many particular functions, but insofar as he is at the service of the Eucharistic mystery his ministry necessarily depends upon and is related to the priestly ministry, not as subservience but as service.

Given that the Eucharist is the center and lifeblood of the Church, all other possible diaconal ministries such as celebrating baptism and matrimony ultimately flow from the priest's Eucharistic ministry.

However, the priest's Eucharistic ministry, and hence the deacon’s relatedness to him, in turn depends on the bishop and finally upon Christ himself as the foundation of all the sacraments.

In this sense of sacramental and hierarchical communion and interdependence, it is no slight to a deacon to state the fact that his is a lower grade of the sacrament of orders, just as the priest's dignity is in no way demeaned by saying that he is at a lower grade of orders compared to the bishop. This is implied in the Latin text of the prayer of priestly ordination which asks that the candidate receive the second grade or degree of priestly ministry.

For this reason I believe that our first correspondent's affirmation regarding the deacon and priest's direct accountability to the bishop confuses two distinct spheres. One thing is that all clerics depend directly upon the bishop with regard to assignments and ministries; another is the specific liturgical functions, which depend on the nature of the sacrament itself.

As stated in the previous article, among the practical consequences of this sacramental reality is that the deacon should not ordinarily preside over the assembly whenever a priest is present and available, just as a priest should not normally preside over the assembly in the presence of a bishop.

There may be some legitimate exceptions to this general rule, but I believe that it is important to recognize that this rule is grounded in the nature of the sacrament and is not a mere question of protocol and human criteria.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.