“Youngkin family prays at Ukrainian Catholic Church in Front Royal” was our headline last week. Who knew before then there was a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Front Royal? And what is a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church anyhow? Royal Examiner decided to investigate.
Notice that word “Greek”: The first thing to understand is: “Catholic” does not always equal “Roman Catholic”. There are, in fact, many ways of being Catholic. There are actually many Catholic Churches inside the Catholic Church – of which the Ukrainian Catholic Church is 1 of 23. Doing the math, the Roman Catholic Church plus 23 Eastern Catholic Churches equals 24 churches that are the Catholic Church – some from far-flung parts of the world — who all look to the Bishop of Rome, aka Pope Francis, as their shepherd.
Ukrainian traditions and customs are rooted in the most ancient practices of Christianity. Sunday service is not called “Mass”; instead it is called “Divine Liturgy”. “Liturgy” just means a prescribed form of worship. It’s “Divine” because it focuses on Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior. The Ukrainian liturgy was essentially written in the fifth century by St. John Chrysostom. It is based almost entirely on Holy Scripture – practically every sentence of it can be traced directly to the Bible.
It’s hard to just sit and observe a service (though of course you can if you want to) because the whole congregation participates in singing the whole liturgy a capella. The liturgy is full of praise and worship, with continual calls for personal turning of the heart to Jesus. The personal prayers, especially before Communion, are extraordinarily humble and moving.
Many Ukrainian Greek Catholic traditions are shared with Eastern Orthodoxy, since the church is a daughter church of Constantinople (the city founded by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, after he ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman empire). Saints Joachim and Anna Church here in Front Royal will celebrate Easter at the same time as everyone else, however. It’s the Orthodox and some other Eastern Catholics who have a different way of calculating the date of Easter.
Inside, it looks different from other churches: There are no statues in Ukrainian churches – instead, there are icons. Icons are not themselves objects of worship – they are just highly-stylized pictures whose purpose is to remind people on earth of Christ, who is to be worshiped. Art historians know that iconography was the earliest form of Christian religious art, and is the direct ancestor of medieval art. There’s a screen of icons between the altar and the rest of the church. That’s not to keep people out (in fact, you can look through it easily) – it’s to remind everyone that what happens on the altar represents Heaven, while the rest of us are still on Earth. The priest, like Jesus Christ, goes between both. When the central doors (aka Royal Doors) are open during the Divine Liturgy, heaven and earth are united, and we are mystically participating in the heavenly liturgy which is beyond time as we understand it. That’s something to think about!
Other things are different too: In Eastern Christianity, praying in the language the people speak has always been the tradition. So in Kyiv, the Liturgy is in Ukrainian, but in Front Royal it’s in English.
Canon law is different too: in the Eastern Catholic churches, married men may be ordained deacons and priests, and the sacrament of Communion is given at the same time as Baptism – so you will see babies receiving Communion!
So how did our local Saints Joachim and Anna come to be?
By 2015, several Eastern Catholic and Ukrainian Catholic families whose parents had been born in Ukraine, or who had fled Communism themselves, had settled in the area (anywhere between Front Royal and West Virginia) and yearned for their ancestral liturgy and customs, with their more intense focus on the person of Christ and the call to personal conversion to Him. The Ukrainian Archeparchy of Philadelphia (www.ukarcheparchy.us) set up a “Front Royal Mission”. People with no Ukrainian background started coming – because they loved the beauty of the Liturgy and its continual call to prayer and holiness. A strong sense of community began growing around the small community. When Covid hit, things kept going: liturgy was celebrated outdoors under tents for many months, while a radio frequency broadcast the proceedings to the parked cars. Livestreaming on Facebook continues today.
The parish moved into its current location at 1396 Linden Street in Front Royal in December, 2020. Divine Liturgy begins Sunday at 10:30, and lasts more or less an hour, and there’s a fellowship time afterwards.
Lent, a special time of extra prayer before Easter, has begun, and every Wednesday evening during Lent a special Liturgy will be held in Front Royal. Special prayers for Ukraine are being held also; check the website, www.SSJoachimandAnna.org, or the FaceBook page (https://www.facebook.com/ssjoachimandanna) for updates. The parish is served by Fr. Robert Hitchens, the pastor. Father Andrii Chornopyskyi, recently arrived from Ukraine, is helping to serve the community.