While Roman Catholics marked the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, parishioners at St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Church gathered to welcome “Great Lent” with a special vespers service three days prior.
Known as Forgiveness Vespers, the late-afternoon service kicks off the penitential season by focusing on the universal need for forgiveness from the Lord and from each other. Father Jim Theby, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Washington who also has bi-ritual faculties, led the chanted vespers, or evening prayer, before concluding with the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness.
Father Theby began by asking forgiveness himself: “Brothers and sisters, forgive me, a sinner.” Then, one by one, parishioners approached Father Theby, saying, “Forgive me, a sinner,” to which Father Theby replied, “May God forgive you.” Moving to stand next to Father Theby, they formed a line to repeat the same words to their fellow parishioners; so, by the end, each person in the church had exchanged forgiveness with every other person.
This focus on mercy and forgiveness helps the faithful enter Lent with a spirit of repentance, said Father Joe Weber, administrator of St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Church and pastor of St. John Bosco Parish in Creve Coeur.
“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity that we have to be able to recognize and see how important it is that we do forgive one another,” Father Weber said. “God blesses us, protects us, strengthens us and calls us to that forgiveness, which is so powerful.”
Earlier that afternoon, the Divine Liturgy’s Gospel dealt with the same subject, Father Weber noted: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Jon Bruno and his family have been part of the St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Church since they moved to St. Louis in 2011. They were introduced to the Eastern Rite when they lived in North Carolina, and an Eastern Rite parish happened to be the closest one to their home.
“The ceremony (of forgiveness) was one of the first ones we went to, and it was just — wow. Everyone in the church, lining up and asking for forgiveness from each other — it’s just beautiful,” Bruno said.
In a small community like the St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Church, with around 20-30 families, asking for forgiveness from each person can be extra meaningful, as every parishioner knows each other personally, Bruno said. “We all have our faults, and it’s a small church,” he said. “We have our problems, our good and bad, as we know.”
“And it’s personal among siblings, who occasionally get mad at each other,” Bruno’s daughter Bethany — one of 10 children — chimed in.
“Christ came to forgive us, and we have to do the same thing,” Bruno said. “And everyone is happy and laughing by the end. As intimidating as it is, it becomes this great joy.”
St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Church is an Eastern Rite Catholic parish in the Byzantine tradition, one of several Eastern Catholic traditions in full communion with the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. In Eastern Rite churches, evening vespers marks the beginning of the following day’s feast — in this case, Clean Monday, the first day of “Great Lent” or the “Great Fast.”
Even before Lent began, Eastern Catholics had been preparing for the season in the preceding weeks. The last Sunday before Lent is known as Cheesefare Sunday, the last day Catholics eat dairy before Lent; the previous Sunday was Meatfare Sunday, the final chance to eat meat. In traditional fasting practices, Byzantine Catholics abstain from meat, fish, dairy, wine and oil during Lent; now, this strict abstinence is only required on Clean Monday and Great Friday (Good Friday), with a simple abstinence from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Besides the observances of Lent, there are other differences in liturgy and tradition between Eastern Rite and Roman Rite Churches — Divine Liturgy or Mass, placing the altar behind an icon screen (iconostasis) or in an open sanctuary, to name just a few. It’s valuable for members of all rites to appreciate other traditions while recognizing the communion of the universal Church, Father Weber said.
“St. John Paul II had a wonderful line in his encyclical about the Eastern Church saying that we have to breathe from both lungs, the Eastern lung and the Western lung,” Father Weber said. “His whole concept was that we need to see how we can grow closer and walk with the Lord, and see Him and experience Him. (Eastern and Roman) are complementary — they’re two sides of the same coin.”
Parishioner Zach Peterson is a recent convert to Catholicism. He was a “fairly non-practicing Protestant” who fell in love with Eastern Christian traditions after an invitation to Divine Liturgy with a friend. He received chrismation — the Eastern Rite equivalent of confirmation — in October. “This has the best of both worlds — you have the Eastern liturgy, you have the icons, and you also have communion with the pope,” he said.
He was also drawn to the tight-knit community at St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Church. In the months he’s been part of the parish, he’s seen how dedicated families play a vital role in cultivating a strong community. “Every Sunday, the laity are part of putting this together — you’ll walk into the office, and someone’s kids will be putting together the handouts for the week. There’s a very real sense of, ‘if something needs done, I will do it,’ and that’s what keeps the parish community functioning very neatly,” he said.
>> St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Church
Western Ukrainian immigrants from Austria-Hungary began settling in the St. Louis area toward the end of the 19th century. In 1907, St. Mary’s Assumption Ruthenian Catholic Church, which follows the Byzantine liturgical rite, was founded to minster to Ukrainian and Ruthenian Catholics. They first began meeting in the basement at St. John Nepomuk Church, which served the Czech immigrant community at the time.
In the 1970s, St. Mary’s Assumption Ukrainian Catholic Church was moved to its current location in south St. Louis County, and St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Mission was established as a Ruthenian mission and later parish. The parish had several different homes, including St. Wenceslaus Church and a side chapel of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, before coming to its current location in the Carondelet neighborhood of south St. Louis.
The parish is part of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma and is in full communion with the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Sacraments are celebrated by five bi-ritual priests: Father Joe Weber, Father Paul Niemann, Father James Theby, Father James Deshotels, SJ, and Father Steven Hawkes-Teeples, SJ.
Divine Liturgy is celebrated at 2 p.m. on Sundays.
7100 Virginia Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63111
>>The Eastern Catholic Church in St. Louis
As part of the Eucharistic Revival, Catholics are invited to a Come and See hosted at several Eastern Rite Catholic churches this spring. All are welcome to join with Eastern Rite Catholics, who are in communion with the Roman Rite, to experience how the West meets the East in the sacred celebration of the Eucharist. Sessions will be held at 2 p.m. at St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Church on April 16 and 23 and May 7 and 28; 2 p.m. at St. Mary’s Assumption Ukrainian Catholic Church on April 23 and May 7 and 14; and 10:15 a.m. at St. Raymond Maronite Cathedral on March 18 and 26, April 16 and 23 and May 21. Spots are limited. To register, visit archstl.flocknote.com/signup/110733.