By Ann Schneible
ROME, MAY 24, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Bishops and archbishops from the Eastern Catholic Churches in the United States were in Rome last week for their ad limina pilgrimage, including the Ukrainian Rite archbishop of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia.
Previously, Eastern bishops coming to Rome for their ad limina pilgrimage had been part of the region to which they geographically belonged. They would therefore make their visits with bishops of the Latin Catholic Church. This time around, however, bishops from the Eastern Catholic Churches in the United States have been given their own region.
Among those visiting Rome last week was Ukrainian-rite Archbishop Stefan Soroka of the Archeparchy (archdiocese) of Philadelphia. A Canadian native, the archbishop spoke with ZENIT about the visit.
ZENIT: This is the first year that the Eastern Rite Churches have had their own region in the ad limina visits. What have been the benefits of this arrangement?
Archbishop Soroka: This whole set up of the region is nice because we were always part of the Latin Church regions. We had our place there – they were very welcoming, and we had a very good relationship. But America has, uniquely, 12 different Eastern Catholic Churches; there are 17 or 18 bishops now. And with that number, we asked our brother Latin bishops to consider a separate region. If you have a separate region, then you automatically have representation on many major committees in the world.
This also mandates that we step forward more… We’ve had to step forward, take our responsibility, contribute. We’re learning much more about one another, and our role in the larger Church.
This [ad limina] experience is much more intense; we’re living together, we’re praying together, we’re eating together, we’re going to the congregations speaking and sharing our challenges and the gifts and the negatives that we have to face. We have something of uniqueness in every Church, and it’s really beautiful to hear that in every congregation in different kind of missions of the Church.
ZENIT: What makes the Ukrainian liturgy unique?
Archbishop Soroka: What’s beautiful about the liturgy is that it invokes all the senses of a person. It’s beautiful how you enter and continue to ask for Our Lord’s presence, and asking for forgiveness of sins. Also the liturgy constantly prays for those in leadership and authority, be they in the Church or in civil government, and those who are involved in our protection. It also prays for those who are in misfortunes or difficulties or challenges. The method, the singing, the petitions takes us ever deeper into hearing the Word of God and meditating on the Word of God, and afterward to receive him in the Eucharist; and in the Eucharist we are transformed in Christ’s Body.
ZENIT: What are some of the pastoral considerations for the Archeparchy of Philladelphia?
Archbishop Soroka: Some of our areas were settled around 125 years ago, and we’ve had four or five waves [of immigrations over the years]. Many of those communities are declining in numbers. The orders are dying, and many of the young of those communities have moved to other centers. They don’t have the same vibrancy that they once had.
But on the other hand, particularly in New Jersey, parts of Pennsylvania, and in much of the East Coast, you have a whole new wave of immigrants who are arriving for economic reasons, due to the difficulties in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. The traditions and the culture is strong [among these immigrants], but they need to be formed in the faith. That is a great challenge for us; how do we speak to them in a manner they will understand and teach them the basis of the faith?
Also, about a third of our clergy comes from Ukraine, and they have adapted very well. We screen them very well before coming; not everybody can adapt to a new land, so you really have to search that out with individuals. I’m very pleased with my priests. We’re going now through some renewal in how they present the Word, in how they celebrate the sacraments, that we have more charity and activity in helping others in the parishes. We want the parishes to be much more vibrant.
ZENIT: A pastoral letter was released this past December, “The vibrant parish: a place to encounter the living Christ,” which focused on renewing the parish life. Could you speak a little about this?
Archbishop Soroka: It is a program that the Ukrainian Church throughout the world, under the leadership of our major archbishop in Ukraine, is embracing in different ways. We had committees working on this over a number of years preparing this. It involved bishops from all over the world, and we were involved from the States very actively.
It really calls people to reflect on how they offer the Word of God. How do you get your message across? People want to be stimulated in their interest. How well prepared are we? How do we transmit the faith? [How are we taking into account the daily experiences of people to help] them to bring the life of Christ in their daily experience? One has to be more in touch.
And then there’s the quality of how we celebrate the sacraments and the liturgies. Do we just go through it, or do we give it life and invite people to sing more? It’s a beautiful tradition of our culture, that we involve singing and responding; how well do we do that?
It has to be almost that you feel the kiss of God in that experience of the liturgy. If people don’t have that, then where do they experience God in an intimate way? It has to be in that worship.
ZENIT: The United States is facing a dynamic presidential election. How can the Church help guide the people to make informed decisions to help promote the culture of life?
Archbishop Soroka: All of the society is around us, and there is pressure to conform to all the different trends and changes. But I think that what we have not done is to educate people in the faith. How can they understand the culture of life – not to just know “thou shalt not,” but “why?” What is the essence, the beauty, the gift of life?
I think this is a beautiful invitation for us to step forward on [the theme of] marriage. Have we looked at our own Church within our Church? How many now bother to seek an annulment? They just live with someone else, or “marry” someone else, and so on. That tells me how we have failed in encouraging that person’s understanding of what marriage means. Our people are being drawn in to all these different societal trends because they are lacking a good understanding of their faith.
Also, we need to use modern means to get the message out; even if it just challenges people to think, and question something, and to go further to [learn more], I think that’s what we have to do. Not to get high on academia – that’s important in its own place – but I really believe that for my Church, for my faithful, that we need to raise the level of their catechetical knowledge.
Society is drawing everyone into this conformity of thinking, and we need to give people what they need to challenge that, and to question.