‘Why aren’t you under the Pope?’ Orthodox believe the church in its fullness is present wherever the faithful are gathered around their bishop — a successor to the apostles holding the true faith — celebrating the Eucharist. (Priests in the thinking of the early church are ordained to stand in for the bishop at the local community’s offering of Christ’s sacrifice.) Therefore national or autocephalous (self-headed) churches (under their own patriarchs — some of these churches date back to the apostles) are each the church in its fullness. (The patriarch of Constantinople is not ‘the Orthodox Pope’ or ‘the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians’ as is often wrongly reported.) The word ‘church’ often is used in four ways: the one true church (the universal or Catholic Church) is made up of churches (particular autocephalous or autonomous churches) in communion with each other. These in turn are made up of local churches each gathered around a bishop, and these are made up of local congregations (including, for example, geographical parishes).
‘The Catholic Church has the Eastern rites. Why don’t you all just join those?’ Catholicism holds the Orthodox and other Eastern churches separated from it have real bishops and real sacraments and therefore that corporate reunion with the Orthodox as whole churches, not as individual converts, is possible. (This is not true of Protestants.) This in part makes the existence of the Eastern Catholic churches possible. But with the creation of the Byzantine Catholic churches from the late 1500s onwards rather than seeking corporate reunion, Catholics sought to gain individual conversions at the Orthodox’ expense, angering and hurting the Orthodox to this day. While Catholics (including the Popes) did not officially sanction ‘latinization’, they did view their Byzantine churches as some sort of substitute or replacement for the Orthodox: a strategy called ‘Uniatism’. Today, one of the few good outcomes of Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is that this approach to the Orthodox has been dropped, and again, corporate reunion — a restoration of communion between the churches, not the liquidation of the Orthodox — is the goal. Catholicism today defends the right of the present-day Eastern Catholics to exist in communion with Rome, but does not use these churches to solicit conversions from the Orthodox. Also, the Byzantine Catholics are being told to remove latinizations and become as much like the Orthodox as possible to prepare for an eventual reconciliation.
‘If you’re all one religion, why are you in different churches in America?’ In America before 1917, all Orthodox of any ethnicity were under one church jurisdiction, the Russian mission, otherwise made up mostly of Slavic former Eastern Catholics from the Austro-Hungarian Empire reacting to the bad treatment they got from the Roman Catholic bishops in the US and some immigrants actually from Russia. But after the Russian Revolution, communication with the church in Russia became difficult and unreliable so the various ethnic groups started their own jurisdictions, asking the churches in their homelands for help. (The Russians themselves split into three groups to deal with this problem.) Today, the Orthodox in America recognize that their multiplicity of jurisdictions is an historical anomaly that is uncanonical and needs correction, especially since the original reason for the proliferation of separate church groups — Communism in Russia — no longer exists. (The apostolic ideal is one bishop per city; Americans live simultaneously in at least five Orthodox dioceses.) All of the divisions are superficial and temporary, and have nothing to do with the essence of Orthodoxy. All Orthodox can cross jurisdictions and receive the sacraments at other canonical Orthodox churches.
‘Why are some of your priests married?’ In the early church, priests often were married, and the Orthodox have maintained this discipline, confirmed by the (non-ecumenical) Council of Trullo, which also ruled that bishops must be celibate (a discipline, not a doctrine). Orthodox bishops are either widowers or longtime monks. Except in places where Rome banned it, the Eastern Catholics also ordain married men. The rule is ‘a married man can become a priest but a priest can’t get married’. In the Roman Catholic Church, there are deacons and former Protestant ministers, now priests, who are married; these follow the same discipline as the Orthodox. They were married before ordination to major orders (starting with the diaconate) and when the wife dies they can’t marry again except by dispensation.
‘Why do your churches have those paintings and not statues? Why don’t you have Stations of the Cross?’ Byzantine Rite churches — most Orthodox and some Catholic churches — are full of special paintings called icons, which are more than decoration, teaching tools — though a lot of theology is behind their designs, and they do teach theology — or devotional aids. They are more like a sacrament. The person shown in the icon is mystically present. However, icons are not idols — the prayer passes through the icon to the person represented and so the wood and paint aren’t literally worshipped or adored. Icons aren’t meant to be lifelike or realistic, but instead are painted following strict rules, an elaborate language of colors and symbols. They are blessed by a priest before being used in church or at home. Early and medieval Western religious paintings, before the Renaissance, resembled icons. Also, using paintings instead of statues is partly cultural. In the early church there was controversy over whether one could use images in worship — the Jews say it violates the First Commandment and the Muslims have adopted this position. For about 100 years, enforced by the Byzantine emperor, the anti-images faction in the church, called iconoclasts (Greek for ‘image-smashers’) won. But then the whole church had a council, the second Council of Nicaea, which restored the use of images — the fact that God has become man means we can show His face in figural art. But in the East there was and still is a compromise: instead of statues, which look like the figures of Greek and Roman gods in pagan temples, Christian images are flat, or at most bas-relief. Every year, on the first Sunday of Great Lent (the fasting period before Easter), called ‘the Sunday of Orthodoxy’, the Byzantine Rite celebrates the church’s teaching on icons.
The Stations of the Cross is a medieval devotion spread in the Roman Catholic Church by the Franciscans, who based it on the route Jesus took on the way to His crucifixion. Because the Byzantine Rite evolved separately from the Roman Rite, there are no Stations in Orthodox churches. Also, Orthodox devotion tends to emphasize the glorified, transfigured, risen Christ more than His earthly sufferings, but the latter are not ignored. Orthodox use and venerate the crucifix.
‘Why dont you pray the rosary?’ The Byzantine Rite used by Orthodox and some Catholic churches has its own devotions to Mary including its own version of the Hail Mary: ‘Rejoice, O virgin Mother of God, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou has borne the Saviour of our souls.’ There are long litany-like akathists and canons. There is also the prayer rope counting the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’, but unlike the Roman rosary it's not a lay devotion at home and in the parishes but a monastic practice. Like the Stations of the Cross, the rosary developed in the Roman Church after the split. St Dominic introduced it, originally as a substitute for the 150 psalms for the illiterate.
‘Why do you cross yourselves backwards?’ Why do you? :) Those who follow American football might remember Bernie Kosar, who played for the Cleveland Browns and would cross himself the Orthodox way on the field. (He is a Byzantine Catholic.) Actually, some think the way people make the sign of the cross in the Byzantine Rite used by the Orthodox and some Catholic churches — using the fingers of the right hand, touching the forehead, below the chest, right shoulder, then left shoulder (actually a bigger, fuller gesture than what’s done in the Roman Rite) — is the original way of doing it. But non-Byzantine Eastern churches do it left to right like the West. The Byzantine way also uses the fingers symbolically, holding the thumb, index and ring fingers together to stand for the Trinity, and the third and little finger folded against the palm to stand for the two natures, human and divine, of Christ. Sometime in the 11th century, starting in Italy, Roman Catholics began touching the left shoulder first. Nobody really knows why.