By Phillip Rolfes

[T]he Catholic Church wishes the traditions of each particular church… to remain whole and entire. (OE p. 2)

What is a “Latinization?” If you spend much time among Eastern Catholics—whether at a parish or in online forums—you’ll inevitably hear this word thrown out… And it’s never a good thing.

One blogger I saw defined “Latinization” in this way: “Latinization is the practice of making the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches more like the Roman Catholic Church by replacing Eastern Catholic customs and practices with Latin practices.”

Latinization of Externals

This definition is a good place to begin our discussion because it’s the easiest to observe. A “Latinization” in this sense would be something along the lines of replacing icons with statues, ringing the Sanctus bells, Eastern priests wearing Roman vestments, the celebration of “private” or “low” Mass, and even things like Eucharistic Adoration.

What are a few of the more common examples of this type of Latinizations?

  1. The Rosary
    The rosary, properly speaking, isn’t an Eastern devotion, although it does enjoy a great deal of popularity among Easterners today. We in the East have our own proper devotions to the Mother of God. The Byzantines, for example, have two beautiful (and lengthy) hymns/prayers: The Akathist to the Mother of God and Paraklesis. And my own Maronite tradition has the beautiful hymn “Ya Oum Allah” or “Oh Mother of God”, traditionally sung at baptisms.The bigger issue with the rosary isn’t so much its private recitation—prayer to the Mother of God is prayer to the Mother of God, after all! Rather, the issue is the public recitation of the rosary before the Divine Liturgy, replacing our traditional practice of celebrating “Morning Prayer” immediately prior to the Divine Liturgy.But for you staunch adherents to the rosary, fear not! We in the East do have a closer equivalent in the Prayer Rule of the Theotokos. In its most basic form, this Prayer Rule is the simple repetition of 150 “Angelic Salutations” (basically the first half of the Hail Mary). The origins of this Rule are unknown, and it’s not clear whether it’s an Eastern adaptation of the rosary, or if the rosary itself has its origins in this Rule.
  2. A Celibate Clergy
    When the recent Amazonian Synod was discussing the possibility of ordaining older married deacons to the priesthood, there was quite an uproar among many Catholics. But not so much among Eastern Catholics…We have almost always drawn our parish priests from the ranks of married men. Celibacy, for us, is a separate (and highly revered) vocation. Usually if a young man feels called to a life of celibacy, that means his vocation is likely to the monastic life—although there have been parish priests who chose celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom.However, when Eastern Catholics started emigrating from their “traditional territories” into Western countries, the local Roman bishops were concerned that the presence of a married Catholic clergy would cause scandal to their flock. In response, Rome required any young Eastern Catholic who felt called to serve as a priest in the “diaspora” to also embrace celibacy. That requirement has since been officially reversed, but many Eastern bishops in the West are still hesitant to ordain married men.
  3. Kneeling at Liturgy
    In the West, kneeling is a sign of utmost respect for the person being reverenced. Historically, people knelt in the presence of kings and emperors. Biblically we see all sorts of people kneeling in the presence of Jesus. But did you know that kneeling at Sunday Mass was forbidden at an ecumenical council?The 20th canon of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea states:“Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.”The Eastern mentality has always been that standing is the proper sign of respect and reverence. Kneeling, on the other hand, is seen as a sign of penance and is, therefore, not appropriate to the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection on Sundays.However, the Western practice of kneeling was adopted by many Easterners at various points after their individual reunifications with the Church of Rome. Since Vatican II this practice has been largely replaced by our more ancient practice of standing, however there are still some people who prefer to kneel, particularly during the Consecration.

Pray Like an Eastern? Think Like a Latin?
There’s a key element missed in the above definition of “Latinization:” the Latinization of the Eastern phronema or worldview. Fr. Cyril Korolevsky, in his eye-opening book Uniatism, refers to this as a “Latinization of the mind.”

This “Latinization of the mind” refers to the introduction of Roman Catholic (i.e. Latin) methods of theology and theological worldview into the Eastern methodologies and worldview. This introduction oftentimes completely replaces the Eastern ways of reflecting on the mysteries of our salvation.

Here are just a couple of examples:

  1. Thomistic and Systematic Theology
    In their passion for all things Aquinas, many Roman Catholic theologians often equate Catholic theology with Thomistic or scholastic theology. If a theological system is not either explicitly or implicitly Thomistic, then it’s just not good Catholic theology.The reality, however, is that even within the Roman tradition there are multiple approaches to theology. That being said, the Eastern Christian approach to theology is much closer to today’s “Resourcement” theology—i.e. a return to the Patristic sources—than it is to the systematic theology of Aquinas and the scholastics.Don’t get me wrong. Aquinas is much-revered in the East (even in the Orthodox East), but our approach to theology tends to emphasize liturgy, liturgical poetry, and prayerful and pastoral reflection on the Scriptures and writings of the Fathers, than on drawing syllogistic conclusions from the premises and propositions of our Faith.
  2. Western Mystics or Eastern Mystics
    John of the Cross? Amazing!
    Teresa of Avila? She’s the BOMB!Therese of Lisieux? Love her!Mar Isaac (the Syrian) of Nineveh…? Huh?

    Saint Symeon the New Theologian…? Who?

    Saint Gregory of Narek…? *crickets*

    There has always been some cross-pollination of mystics between the East and West. As I pointed out in a previous post, the great Desert Fathers, particularly Evagrius, have had a lasting influence on the mystical traditions of the West. And today the classic Russian text on the Jesus Prayer, The Way of a Pilgrim, has enjoyed huge popularity among Roman Catholics and Protestants alike.

    But we must also acknowledge that some of the most-beloved spiritual classics of the West have also become classics in the East—the Imitation of Christ and the Spiritual Combat for example. Excerpts from the writings of Saint John Cassian were translated from Latin into Greek and included in the Philokalia. And Saint Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul enjoys an understandable popularity throughout the Catholic East.

    So where’s the issue here? The problem comes when Eastern Catholics are more familiar with the writings of the Western mystics than they are with their own mystical/spiritual patrimony.

    I was at a gather of Eastern Catholic youth once, where I heard constant references to Saint Faustina’s diary and the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila, but nothing about our own Eastern mystics.

    I’ve also been in social gatherings after the Divine Liturgy where Saint Catherine of Sienna’s Dialogue was the focus of conversation. Really? How about the Ascetical Homilies of Saint Macarius or the Mystic Treatises of Saint Isaac of Nineveh?

    Western mystics are phenomenal, and I believe that we Eastern Catholics should read them. But not to the exclusion of our own mystical tradition. Rather, our study of the Western mystics should be to shed further light on our own Eastern mystical tradition.

As Vatican II pointed out, Latinizations in the East took place at a specific point in history and for specific reasons (even if they were bad reasons). But that time is now long past. After several centuries of living in communion with one another, the Church is finally learning to embrace her universality-in-diversity. But there is still work to do. That’s why Vatican II was adamant:

“All members of the eastern churches should be firmly convinced that they can and ought always to preserve their own legitimate liturgical rites and ways of life… and if they have fallen away due to circumstances of times or persons, they are to strive to return to their ancestral traditions.” (OE 6)

Phillip Rolfes is That Eastern Catholic Guy. A “canonical convert” from Roman Catholicism to Maronite Catholicism, Phillip loves researching and sharing the rich traditions of the Christian East. He lives in Cincinnati, OH. with his wife and four children, and is parishioner at St. Anthony of Padua Maronite Catholic Church.

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