Letter to a formerly Orthodox friend who became a Roman Catholic

To an agnostic-turned Orthodox friend who left Orthodoxy for Catholicism at the time of his marriage to a Roman Catholic. December 2015.
Dear  _______,
Congratulations on your marriage! Many years! I hope you both are doing well. I appreciate your thoughtfully detailed comments. I am in the midst of exams, so I will respond to your specific points in more detail later.
I remember that at a Bible study Metropolitan Jonah was hosting at St Mark’s OCA parish in Bethesda some years ago, probably late fall 2013, you commented that you hadn’t felt Christ truly present when you communed of the Eucharist. That always astounded and saddened me, since it was entirely the opposite of my own experience upon becoming Orthodox. I hope and pray you did come to experience Him noetically while you were still Orthodox, or, if not, that you have begun to experience this when communing now as a Catholic. I fell in love with Orthodoxy above all else because I encountered Christ in a way I never had as a Roman Catholic. I saw Him acting and alive in the Orthodox around me, in the beauty, truth, and majesty of the divine services, and in the words of her Saints and the ancient Fathers’ writings which simply breathe grace. Immersed in living (and failing repeatedly to live up to) Orthodoxy, God touched my soul and illumined my heart in a way I had never encountered as a Catholic. Time and again since becoming Orthodox, I have experienced profound grace and God’s healing (salvific and therapeutic) presence, mainly through moments in church, communing of the Eucharist, reading the Bible and the Fathers’ writings, talking with the poor, and in deep noetic prayer. I pray that you have found and continue to enounter Christ in this real, intimate way, above all in your marriage and in becoming a Catholic. Although I naturally was sorry to hear you had left Orthodoxy, and am grieved for you, I respect you too much to think you could ever make such a decision lightly.
I guess I’m wondering: what inspired you to leave Orthodoxy for Rome? Are you predominantly worshiping now according to one of the Roman Rites (Ordinary Form/Novus Ordo Missae/Mass of Pope Paul VI, or the Extraordinary Form/Tridentine Latin Mass) or one of the Eastern rites? I have several Melkite and Ukrainian Greek Catholic friends, so I couldn’t help but wonder which rite(s) you and your wife decided on in terms of worship.
A major factor for me in moving from Roman Catholicism (my faith for the first 21 years of my life) to Orthodoxy was not so much the papal claims in theory (these were problematic enough) so much as what I saw as their utter failure in practice. By this I mean: it’s all well and good and right (and apostolic) to have the Pope of Rome serve as the “servant of servants”, as St Gregory the Great called himself. The Pope ought to be Primus in rank and Protos in authority and honor, exercising a supreme archpastoral role, presiding in love, mediating conflicts between local Churches (jurisdictions), etc. I and most Orthodox would welcome this someday. Metropolitan John Zizioulas has written superbly in this area (a man whom Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has recently and publicly referred to as the best Orthodox theologian alive today).
To be honest — this may surprise you — the papal claims themselves aren’t nearly as unnerving as what many of my Orthodox friends call among ourselves “the L factor”. Both the papal claims and “the L factor” are supremely interrelated — the latter could never have taken place without such a concentration of power over the fate of the sacred liturgy itself in the papacy’s hands. We are terrified — genuinely — and deeply concerned more than anything else about the radical innovations which have taken place in Rome’s liturgical worship since the implementation of the Novus Ordo Missae/Mass of Pope Paul VI beginning in 1969. Put simply, Pope Benedict’s well-intended but, I believe, ultimately futile efforts to defend the Ordinary Form as a valid Mass when properly and reverently offered does not convince me. Where the Holy Father insists on defending both the Mass of Pope Paul VI and the Tridentine Mass as equally valid forms of the Roman liturgy, as much as I respect him, I can’t accept this view. Rather than accept his earnest contention that faithful Catholics must try to understand, reform, and improve the Novus Ordo rite through a “hermeneutic of continuity”, Benedict himself admitted to observing with alarm a noticeable “hermeneutic of rupture” between the 1969 Missal/Ordinary Form and the previous, organically developed missals of the Roman Mass. In his Introduction to the French edition of The Reform of the Roman Liturgy by Msgr. Klaus Gamber, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

  What happened after the [Second Vatican] Council was something else entirely: in the place of the liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries and replaced it, as in a manufacturing process, with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product (produit banal de l’instant). [Introduction by Cardinal Ratzinger to La Reforme Liturgique en question (Le-Barroux: Editions Sainte-Madeleine), 1992, pp. 7-8.]

Bearing this in mind, how can we Orthodox possibly consent to lowering and denigrating the Divine Liturgy and our other ancient, holy services and admit, as Pope Benedict and certainly Pope Francis would have us do, that the Mass of Pope Paul VI — as it is commonly and usually offered — is on the same level as the Orthodox divine services when spiritually, noetically, and liturgically it simply and obviously isn’t? How can we be seriously be expected to say that the Novus Ordo, as usually offered, is right glory and right worship truly befitting God when so often its celebration is marked with profound irreverence, liturgical abuse, and an overall Protestant atmosphere? How am I, or anyone with eyes to see and noses to smell and ears to hear, supposed to seriously believe that a solemn, reverent High Church Anglican service is supposed to count as less valid in God’s eyes than the most sloppily offered Ordinary Form Mass? Because one is offered in communion with Rome, and the other not?
Such a claim astonishes me in both its sweeping arrogance and its utter dismissal of the crucial importance virtues like beauty, reverence, solemnity, and dignity play in leading and beckoning the worshiper to God. All these things, Rome says, matter less than being in communion with one man. How can you expect me to explain to my Russian or Greek or Antiochian friends that the Novus Ordo Mass as commonly offered is, in Rome’s view, actually equal to the Divine Liturgy? Even if liturgical abuse were not nearly as widespread as it is among so many Novus Ordo parishes, these kinds of abuses should not be taking place at all. Yet these abuses have gone on for decades with little to no real interference from Rome, because, I suspect, she values 1) even a nominal communion with her See no matter how skin-deep or threadbare, and 2) Novus Ordo parishioners’ continued tithes rather than risking driving them from the pews by restoring traditional, reverent worship to replace what they’ve gotten used to since 1969, all over an actual fidelity to orthodox, organically developed Catholic worship and spiritual tradition.
How can you justify these liturgical abuses or explain them away, when many of them take place with the full knowledge and support of local Catholic bishops and archbishops, even the papacy itself?
To illustrate my point, think on the sad reality that every year the horrifically irreverent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress occurs, sponsored by the L.A. Archdiocese, one of the nation’s largest, and attended by numerous faithful laity, priests, and bishops, including the Archbishop himself. Far from only occurring in a few tiny, marginalized liberal name-only Catholic parishes such as this one in Seattle, these liturgical abuses are taking place at major stadium events, major “valid but illicit” Masses celebrated with the full knowledge and blessing of Church leaders as high as the L.A. Archbishop himself. You then might say, in defense of Rome, “well at least this wrong, unfortunate toleration of liturgical abuse and error is only a problem among liberal bishops and archbishops. At least it does not extend all the way up to the Papacy itself!” Sadly, Rome is entirely complicit in not only allowing such abuses and turning a blind eye, but as recent as 2011, the man who is now the Pope of Rome himself happily presided over a “Children’s Mass” replete with liturgical abuse. Think on the sad reality that in this public “Children’s Mass” celebrated in Argentina in 2011, the presiding celebrant was none other than then-serving Buenos Aires Cardinal and Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.
According to the video,
El 15 de octubre de 2011 se realizó la Misa Arquidiocesana de Niños en el Estadio del Parque Roca. La jornada se llenó de sol y alegría con la participación de muchísimos niños acompañados por sus catequistas, dirigentes y delegados. La Misa fue presidida por el Cardenal Jorge Bergoglio.
[My translation] On the 15th of October 2011 was celebrated the Archdiocesan Children’s Mass in the Parque Roca stadium. The day was filled with sunshine and joy with the participation of many children accompanied by their catechists, leaders and delegates. The Mass was presided over by Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.
Think of the reality that not only was this event somehow seen, indefensibly, as a proper form of catechetical instruction for Catholic youth, but that the man who is now the Roman Pope, allegedly the Vicar of Christ Himself, willingly presided over such a Mass! How does this kind of banal, ugly worship lead anyone to salvation? Yet we Orthodox are often accused of chauvinism and triumphalism (“our liturgical life could never get that bad!”). We are somehow expected to “mind our own house” and not express our horror that, were we to reunite with Rome anytime soon, we would be obliged and expected to accept as entirely legitimate this kind of “worship” as a valid Mass! This is theological-liturgical minimalism — “let’s set a low baseline standard of what has to take place in a service for it to be counted as a valid Mass. The rest doesn’t matter”. This overly permissive, I would argue fundamentally lazy attitude to offering the Eucharistic liturgy could not be more estranged from the ancient Orthodox phronema which holds instead that we are to offer the most beautiful, glorious, reverent, and majestic worship to our King and Creator. Man’s primary purpose, his intrinsic end, is to worship God and grow closer to Him — so how can such irreverent, minimalist  “I guess this is good enough to count as valid” worship be pleasing to Him? Why do we presume to offer anything less than the most beautiful and sublime worship to God?
Perhaps the sad truth is that we, Rome and the Orthodox, have gradually, in the past millennium of intermittent levels of cultural and liturgical and theological estrangement, but more rapidly in the past five decades, developed apart from each other fundamentally different understandings of what true beauty and true sublime worship actually are, and thus, we sincerely believe in worshiping God in very different ways? From an Orthodox perspective, this chasm has only occurred because Rome, by giving a primacy of emphasis to her political and jurisdictional claims, has tragically over centuries cut herself off from her organic roots, from the single, united deposit of apostolic Faith and post-Nicene worship which defined the pre-Schism Church, East and West. (Let us leave the Arians and Nestorians and Non-Chalecedonians aside here, since both Rome and the Orthodox view these divisions as ruptures by heretical groups from and out of the one Catholic Orthodox Church). Thus we Orthodox are forced to ask, especially when we walk into most Novus Ordo liturgies and are confronted with the spectacle of what is clearly another faith separate from our own: what have we carried on and preserved which Rome has lost, and what has Rome accrued and accepted which we reject as, at best, unhelpful, and at worst, heretical? There is, I believe, a close interconnection between the two components.
I understand and have processed the intellectual draw of the papacy and its claims, yet all my research using numerous patristic sources and Greek language scholars over the past five years supports an Orthodox understanding of the papacy (pre-Schism), an understanding which is very different from how Rome has gradually come to define its understanding of the proper universal powers and role of the papacy from 1213-15 (Fourth Lateran), to  Trent (1545-63), to Vatican I (1868-70) and Vatican II (1962-65), and of course in the latest edition of the constantly updated Catechism (CCC).
Fundamentally, I believe that the Orthodox are correct in arguing that the Roman papacy has evolved its theological views, and more recently ruptured its ancient, inner liturgical life, to become, since the Schism gradually became reality, something now which it was not prior. Put another way, the papacy tragically claims today for itself a degree of absolute spiritual authority and power which it simply did not always have.
Then you have the disturbing theological and pastoral implications of Rome’s opposing approach to chrismation/confirmation between the Roman and Eastern rites. Rome delays confirmation and communion in the two Roman rites, but now encourages and supports the ancient Catholic and Orthodox practice of chrismating and communing infants among Byzantine and other sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches. This disparity is extremely disturbing to me. How can they both be right? Regarding ministering chrismation and communion to infants, it is either an apostolic, orthodox practice and therefore essential for the good of the young souls being chrismated and then communing, or it is, on the other hand, wrong to offer confirmation and communion, as the Scholastics argued, to those who could not begin to rationally discern what they were consuming. One approach being right/orthodox logically and rationally necessitates the other one being wrong/heterodox. That Rome endeavors to try to allow and maintain these two fundamentally contradictory approaches to such major questions is to me astonishing, and reinforces my belief that she values maintaining communion with her to the great expense of any notion of enforcing orthodox of belief and practice. My same concern applies with equal weight to the Latin/Western Church’s longstanding custom (with almost the force of law) since the 13th century of requiring celibacy vows of all priests. This innovation goes against the pre-13th century universal practice in West and East alike of married clergy (excluding monks who were always celibate, from whose ranks bishops in the East are selected). There are numerous other examples of Rome departing from the pre-Schism practices of the Church, but for time’s sake i will not delve into them here. Suffice it to say that, far from serving as the universal conservator of Truth and the early apostolic and pre-Schism Faith, Rome seems to have become a great innovator and enabler of new theological ideas, customs, and pastoral practices.
Far worse, in my estimation, the Magisterium has colossally failed in the past fifty years (since the conclusion of the nebulous, much-misinterpreted and much-misunderstood Second Vatican Council and the subsequent issuing by Pope Paul Sixtus of the revised, much abbreviated Roman Missal) to preserve intact the most basic and important of all things — orthodox, reverent, holy Catholic worship. Isn’t it a scandal that something like the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress exists, much less that it is so expensive and yet continues to be held and publicized annually? I was raised in the Novus Ordo/Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. I attended two parishes when I was a child and went to Mass every Sunday with my family, one parish from 1990-1997 when I was in northern VA and then one in suburban Long Island, NY from 1997-2010, when I started exclusively going to Orthodox divine services. These churches were both very modern, ugly (built, of course, in the 60s), and everything there was conscientiously done to adhere to the so-called, nebulous, somehow decidedly progressive “Spirit of Vatican II”.
The vast majority of Masses offered by the Catholic Church today are Novus Ordo (Mass of Pope Paul VI/Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite). I know that the Revised Missal’s rubrics prescribe great reverence, assume that the priest is celebrating ad orientem and using incense, defend the continued pride of place of Gregorian chant and the organ to the exclusion of “secular” instruments and music bands. Yet visit most OF/NO parishes around the Catholic world and this is never the case. Ask yourself: why and how is this? What is the purpose of the Pope’s supposedly universal spiritual authority and jurisdiction if not precisely to enforce such rubrics’ liturgical orthodoxy, while working to forbid and prohibit liturgical abuse and innovations?
Every year I dread going to Western Christmas Eve Mass with my mom and sisters because of how fundamentally Protestantized, how “happy clappy”, how fundamentally irreverent and banal the ethos of the service is, how ugly the building is, etc. I try so hard to find beauty there, but compared to Orthodox worship it is like night and day. Beauty points to holiness and witnesses to and conveys inner spiritual truths. Its absence is jarring to me. 
The “Spirit of Vatican II” as interpreted by theologically progressive liberal bishops and priests has been devastating to Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Where is Rome in all this? What has Rome done to restore proper, orthodox Catholic catechism, discipline flagrantly heretical, progressive”social justice warrior” priests and nuns such as the defiant LCWR groups, and encourage the restoration of dignified, reverent, orthodox worship in its Ordinary Form? Pope Benedict’s “New Evangelization” was laudable, but all of his efforts seem to be quietly, and sometimes not so quietly opposed, by his perplexing successor. This highlights another major vulnerability to the papal Church’s governmental structure — one more traditional, orthodox Catholic pope can work so diligently to reform and undo decades of poor catechism and liturgical abuse, but then his more liberal successor can in turn undermine, slow, or undo all his efforts. The hypercentrality of the Papacy–which has the practical effect of rendering all Catholic diocesan bishops worldwide as essentially little more than deputies or vicars of the Pope, who thus becomes the only one true ruling bishop– has the major liability of allowing successive popes to greatly disrupt, interfere with, and disturb the organic liturgical life of the Church via papal fiat, Vatican council, or committee agenda. This kind of concentrated power to alter or revise or even do away with the sacred liturgy is incomprehensible to the Orthodox.
It is deeply saddening, and terribly ironic to me, that at the end of the day we Orthodox are being asked to sacrifice our commitment to absolute, organic, high and ancient standards of truth-conveying beauty in our liturgical life for the sake of external unity. We are being told “keep your liturgy as you like, for now, but if you enter into communion with Rome, you have to recognize even the most irreverent Novus Ordo Mass as valid.” This is theological and liturgical minimalism and I just can’t bring myself to accept it. I can’t see how it is right to offer second-rate worship to God in purposely-built ugly buildings with banal services but still pride oneself on being in communion with Pope Francis. What would one gain from entering into communion with him which one does not already have as an Orthodox Christian? My spiritual life would be greatly impoverished were I to do that, and I would lose so much of my relationship with God which the Orthodox Church has helped me deepen and cultivate.
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We so clearly have two different religions, two different faiths — Rome and the Orthodox. At our worst we Orthodox are factious and feuding. We need papal primacy properly exercised. But at Rome’s worst, you have archbishops and bishops presiding over the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress every single year, with either Rome’s tacit approval or her inability to stop the madness. Then you have the current Pope himself happily and freely presiding over, enabling, and doing nothing to correct a Children’s Mass in Buenos Aires filled with numerous examples of liturgical abuse. This man is supposed to Christ’s Vicar on earth? The idea is really laughable, were it not so sad.
My studies of all the Vatican I and Vatican II documents — and my years of seeing their poisonous fruits firsthand (appallingly bad-to-nonexistent parish Catholic catechesis, openly heretical “Spirit of VII” priests and nuns who deny the Real Presence and the Trinity and Christ’s maleness and even His (and thus all of our hope for) bodily resurrection, all sorts of liturgical abuse uncriticized and unchecked)– have convinced me that Rome has fundamentally erred and has lost in various ways the pre-Schism deposit of Faith which she once shared with the Orthodox. Put simply, if you go into almost any Novus Ordo/Ordinary Form parish on a Sunday, and then visit an Orthodox Divine Liturgy the next weekend, you will not be able to believe that these two services, worlds apart in content, ethos, atmosphere, decorum, style, and reverence, are somehow of the same religion and a shared faith.
We Orthodox are asked and expected to acknowledge the full, immediate, and supreme jurisdictional authority of a Pope, resting by virtue of his office in and on a man who, in the case of Pope Francis, willingly presided over flagrant liturgical abuse. Seriously? I just can’t believe that this man is who Rome claims him to be.
My point in all this is that the Orthodox have preserved, over centuries, in a living Faith, an astonishing degree of beauty and inner truth without the externally-imposed unifying power of a theoretically (in certain situations) infallible and unerring Pope. We have, despite centuries of Ottoman Turkish and then communist Soviet oppression, preserved something in and by and through the inner life of our Church — the divine services above all — and defended and kept and passed down such an inheritance of beauty united with Truth. Sadly, despite having her theoretically universally-ruling and situationally infallible Pope, or more likely because of this overcentralized papal structure, Rome could or would not preserve and keep intact this same rich and timeless deposit of Faith.
This is by no means to argue that the Orthodox Church does not have serious problems of its own, especially concerning evangelism and petty jurisdictional disputes, or that every Novus Ordo Catholic parish is a nest of irreverence or liturgical abuse. One can search hard and find a OF/Novus Ordo Mass properly offered according to the prescribed, rarely followed rubrics. These are a tiny minority — and this reality speaks volumes. With Catholic parishes in most Atlantic and Pacific coast towns and many even in more Protestant Midwestern states, something is really wrong if one has to drive hours, even across state lines, to find a reverently offered Novus Ordo Mass or Tridentine Mass. One can also remain in communion with the Pope and choose to worship in the different Eastern Rites or the Extraordinary Form (TLM) and shut one’s eyes and ears to flagrant liturgical abuse in Ordinary Form parishes. That defensive, withdrawing attitude of “what isn’t around me can’t harm me” is understandable for Catholics looking for a healthy, liturgically orthodox parish, but it is ultimately a kind of head-in-the-sand denial of the reality of how things are for the vast majority in the Catholic world. The sad reality is that the vast majority of Roman Catholics will never experience anything beyond a banal (to use Pope Benedict’s word), protestantized Mass of Pope Paul VI, which, as it is usually offered, is such a profoundly impoverished, sad departure from the glorious musical, artistic, liturgical, theological, and architectural patrimony of ancient and medieval Catholic tradition. 
Despite the laudable attempts at restoring Catholic orthodoxy via the recent New Evangelization, this movement has made very little headway outside of elite Catholic intellectual circles. I can guarantee that, once again on Western Christmas Eve this year, my local Catholic Novus Ordo parish will celebrate Mass on the second-holiest day of the year without incense, versus populum, clapping for the choir’s performance during the service against Pope Benedict’s ethos, a full music band, communion in the hand in an assembly line, etc. This kind of worship can’t possibly somehow be passed off as “basically the same thing” as the Orthodox Liturgy. No one can seriously be that blind. The ethos of the Mass will feel more like a banal, lovey-dovey Unitarian Universalist assembly than an authentic, reverent, traditional Catholic liturgy where Christ’s Sacrifice at Calvary is fully made reality and He is offered, by and of Himself, on the altar to be worshiped and consumed body, soul, and divinity. Yet if I were to ask the parish priest beforehand to celebrate ad orientem and use incense, he would either be confused, laugh at me, or be annoyed that I dared to question or disrupt the “new normal” of post-VII life. Most Catholic laity have in this environment only a tiny glimmer of the glorious patrimony of Catholic sacred music or art or architecture. This is so sad.
How do you explain or reconcile yourself to all this? How did you come to terms with the rampant liturgical abuse, the poor state of parish catechism, or the hundreds of radical feminist liberal pro-abortion nuns (LCWR) who openly espouse various heresies, whom Benedict XVI sought to discipline but whom Francis let go free? How do you view the internal Vatican reaction to the child abuse scandals, or the reality that the Orthodox have preserved liturgical integrity and orthodoxy of belief far better without a supreme Pope than Roman Catholicism has managed to do with popes? I’d love to hear your thoughts when you have time. Thanks, and God be with you.
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2014 Nativity Reflection by Metropolitan Jonah

A 2014 Nativity Reflection by His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, ROCOR bishop and former Primate of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) from 2008-2012:

In silence let us behold the Incarnate God
as an infant,
Radiant with glory,
Swathed in rough cloth and lain in a manger.
Let us stand struck with awe
At the Presence of the Infinite Eternal One,
Born of the Virgin,
And exalted by the Angels.

We look through the cave of His Tomb
To the cave of the Nativity, overflowing with grace.
Swaddled in grave clothes, wrapped in swaddling clothes,
The same Christ comes forth clothed in glory.
We see the radiance of the Godhead in His face,
As an infant lying in the manger, and as a man hanging on the cross,
Coming forth from the tomb, a man reveals Himself as God,
Coming forth from the manger, God reveals Himself as man.

He became an infant to take on our weakness,
He became a man to identify with us in our suffering.
He showed our flesh to be a vessel of His Divinity,
And that His Divinity might contain our humanity:
God became flesh that we might become Divine,
The fullness of His Divinity indwelling our humanity,
That we might behold with our spiritual sight
The radiance of His Presence in our hearts.

He is baptized into our human life,
And takes on our death;
He is baptized into our death,
And imparts to us His eternal life.
He transforms our death by His life,
And transfigures our life by His death.
He buries us in the waters,
And shares with us His own life, enlightening and sanctifying us.

Look into the Cave,
And behold the Infant God;
Look into the Tomb,
And behold the Resurrected Christ.
Plunge into the depths of the waters,
And partaking of His death, be raised with His life,
That we too may be born
In the Kingdom of Heaven.