East Meets West in Liturgy

I have spent the last nine (plus) years studying and now teaching at a Jesuit Institution of higher learning.  I am grateful for the experience and to the institution that funded (most of) my doctoral studies and to those with whom I have had the opportunity to study.  I have learned and continue to learn much about the Christian experience through my interactions with friends and colleagues of different faith traditions and, hopefully, they have done the same.  However, in many ways, this encounter has been and continues to be a challenge—what I have euphemistically called, a “stretching” experience. As someone steeped in the milieu of the Orthodox Church and, in particular, the Romanian tradition, I have learned that, although Orthodox and Catholics in this country all speak the same language (i.e. English), it is often very difficult for us to understand one another and communicate.  We have different (modern) histories and ask different questions and oftentimes have different starting points, assumptions, and categories when addressing them. We look to different figures for authority and citation.  In conversation, we may be using the same words, but mean different things by them and at other times, we may be using different words but actually mean the same or similar things.  The continual “translation” would often give me headaches.  However, little of this “translation” was necessary when studying and experiencing the liturgy together.  For me, the liturgy was a meeting place—where East and West could encounter God and our neighbor and grow towards our God together.  It was and is also an arena where we can continue to learn from one another.

For the Roman Catholic Church, the work of the scholarly study of liturgy, early church history and patristics (broadly speaking, the Liturgical Movement of the 20thcentury) culminated in the adoption and promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) at Vatican II.  As many know, this document set out broad principles for reform of the liturgical life of the Catholic Church, emphasizing the communal nature of the Liturgy and, among other things, the “full, conscious, and active” participation of all the faithful in its exercise. Today, such participation is the norm within the Catholic world.  Still, the effects of Vatican II and especially the reform of the Liturgy and its reception (both within the Catholic world and beyond) continue to be an area of debate.

Sacrosanctum Concilium… emphasizing the communal nature of the Liturgy and … the ‘full, conscious, active’ participation of all the faithful
in its exercise.

In my encounters within the Catholic milieu of my doctoral studies, many Roman Catholics see the Orthodox liturgy as having never gone through any type of reform and unaffected by the Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century.  Of course, anyone who knows anything about the liturgy of the Eastern Church knows that the Orthodox liturgy has gone through a great deal of development in its history.  However, whether the scholarship of the Liturgical Movement had any influence on the liturgy of the Orthodox Church is a more complicated question.  (And one that I hope to address further in future posts.) Suffice it to say that the answer is both “yes” and “not much”—“yes,” in its self-understanding of what we do in liturgy, “not much” in terms of any substantive structural changes.

Some Catholics (usually of the more traditional variety), upon hearing that I am an Orthodox Christian, have made it a point to proclaim their love for the Orthodox liturgy and critique the changes to the Mass after Vatican II.  Mainly, they lament the loss of beauty and reverence of their experience of the Novus Ordo and long for the Tridentine Mass.  I smile, but, as a scholar of liturgy, know that the Mass of Paul VI has much more in common theologically (e.g. its stronger pneumatological dimension) and ecclesiologically with the Eastern Church than the Tridentine Mass.  Still, having attended a few Masses (of the post-Vatican II style) that I found (in their words) overly “informal” and/or “dry,” their concern resonates.

Interestingly, the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II is also debated within some Orthodox circles.  Some Orthodox Christians are critical of the reform of the Mass after Vatican II as well.  In this case, they fail to distinguish between the greater theological and historical similarities of the Orthodox liturgy and the Mass after Vatican II while over emphasizing some of the phenomenological differences.  It is true that the Orthodox liturgy is incredibly rich and, personally, I have found (and still find) it to be life giving, but, in some cases, I acknowledge that we could learn a thing or two from the concerns that were addressed at Vatican II.  For instance, although in the United States, many (but not all) celebrations of the liturgy are in English or in the language of the people of the assembly, in many other parts of the Orthodox world, the liturgy is still celebrated in an antiquated version of the language of the respective national tradition.  Among other things, this disconnects the assembly from the celebration and does not engender “conscious” participation.  Furthermore, many of the actions and words of the service are done or said mainly by the clergy (with the response given by the chanter or choir)—the “actors” or “full, active” participants—while most of the assembly is often relegated to “spectator” status. For instance, in some places, the words to a prayer are still not said for all to hear and pray (i.e. the so-called “silent” prayers) and yet the assembly is expected to assent to them (with their “Amen”).  In addition, the Orthodox can be quick to highlight the beauty and reverence of the Orthodox liturgy, without acknowledging the ways in which it can be rushed and/or sloppily celebrated.  (Of course, all of this cries out for nuance. I am using a broad brush here.)

The Orthodox can be quick to highlight
the beauty and reverence of the Orthodox liturgy…

Liturgy is not just texts. It is the entire event of texts, music, art, architecture, movement, etc. —an encounter with God and neighbor through a harmonious symphony of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste that engages the mind and heart, soul and body.  So, what can we learn from one another?  For starters, maybe the Orthodox can learn to appreciate the importance of the “full, conscious, active” participation of all of the faithful in the Liturgy.  And maybe the Catholic can learn that the celebration of the Novus Ordo can have beauty and reverence.  And maybe, we can all learn that we can continue to learn from one another.


  1. Teva, I think your comments on the continual need for ‘translation’ between East and West are important. We use common language but we define words differently. In my experience the West struggles with the gift of bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ; struggles with the Theotokos in almost any form; and struggles with the personhood of the Trinity….in very different ways than we do.

  2. I find the supposed greater similarity between the post Vatican II Mass and the Eastern liturgies doesn’t really come out in practice – particularly when the Mass is celebrated according to what the reform’s biggest proponents consider best practices (as opposed to more “high church” or “Reform of the Reform” celebrations that are generally considered anti-Vatican II). In contrast, the Tridentine Mass – taken as a whole – bears so much more similarity to the Eastern rites because, as you say, “Liturgy is not just texts…” The whole experience of it is what makes it similar. I think that is why so many Catholic traditionalists – myself included – admire Eastern liturgy.

    It seems to me that the very things many people find appealing about Eastern liturgy – those things which inspire a sense of “beauty and reverence” – are exactly the things shunned most by the reformers as hindering active participation.

  3. Teva, thank you for your nuanced post. I for one am grateful for Eastern pneumatology, which the Western Church so desperately needs, instead of a bird. I am also grateful that you see the Spirit in post VII liturgy (i refuse to use the term Novus Ordo, it is a term of unnecessary condescension). I pray we can find more ways to be together separately, despite our headaches; and i vastly prefer Theotokos, which i actually use in prayer, as well as amin. That is my tiny iconic way of signing we need reunification. Blessings, sister!

  4. I find it quite strange to suggest that the development of Eastern (and specifically Byzantine) is remotely similar to the post-conciliar reform of the Roman Rite.

    Firstly, the small changes in Byzantine Liturgy were not a substantial break with their liturgical tradition.

    Secondly, the actual content of the Byzantine Liturgy did not change. The prayers of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom are still the same prayers that were used 400 years ago.

    Thirdly, the Byzantine Rite Divine Office has remained the same throughout the years.

    The list goes on and on…

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