Eight years ago, area Catholics of the Melkite rite, most of whom are second and third generation Americans of Middle Eastern descent, had nowhere to go to practice their religion - but they made do.
"Often they went to mass at other Eastern rite churches, some of the Orthodox Eastern rite, in the area," explained the Rev. Joseph Francavilla, paster of Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Vienna.
For those who attended the Orthodox Churches it was a substantial sacrifice. Although the Orthodox Eastern churches share, for the earnest part, the same beliefs and liturgy wit the Byzantine or Eastern rite churches (to which Melkites belong), they are considered dissidents in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox churches do not recognize the authority of the pope.
The Byzantine churches, on the other hand, are said to be in communication with Rome since they recognize the authority of the pope. Their liturgies, canon law and customs however, are their own and differ from those in the Latin, or Roman, rite.
The problem for Melkites of where to go for mass was solved in 1970 when the Rev. Armand J. Jacopia, a wellknown Melkite preist and promoter of the Melkite rite in Washington, established with 14 families Holy Transfiguration parish. The church now owns a former Methodist church on Leesburg Pike, and according to Francavilla, has become one of the fastest growing Melkite parishes in the country, serving 200 to 220 families.
A large number of its parishioners, nearly 40 percent, says Francavilla, are Roman Catholics who have become dissatisfied with the more secular orientation of the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II.
Francavilla attributes much of his parish's past and anticipated growth to these Catholics and also to the continuing influx of Middle Easterners to Washington.
Last week, during a visit to Holy Transfiguration, the eparch of the Melkite Catholic Church in the United States, Archbishop Joseph Tawil, explained what he feels is the appeal of the Melkite Church for other Catholics.
"The difference between the Latin rite and Byzantine rite is one of the interpretation of faith. The eastern approach is more contemplative and concerned with the invisible. The western approach is more analytical and rational. It is more concerned with making it to heaven."
Francavilla himself was reared in the Latin rite and was a seminarian at Catholic University when he first attended a Melkite mass.
"I knew immediately it was for me," he says. He was attracted he says, not only by the very symbolic liturgy, but also by the sense of community, stability and smallness of the Melkite church. There are currently 29 Melkite Catholic parishes and six missions in the United States. The church is also flourishing, according to the archbishop, in Latin America and Canada but has its largest numbers in the Arabic speaking countries of the Middle East where it originated.
"There is great emphasis on family and religion is taken very seriously," says Francavilla. "I guess the best word to characterize our church is sobriety.There is change but it is organic."
Archbishop Tawil says the ordination of women is not a question of debate.
"It takes a man 10 years to become a priest. He is observed as he grows up and lives in a community and the people nominate someone they feel would be a good candidate. His wife is consulted, of course, and must agree with his decision," said the archbishop. A priest may be married in the Melkite church as long as he is married before ordination. Bishop must be celibate.
The most obvious difference between the Byzantine and Latin rite churches is the prevalance of icons, gilded pictures of Jesus, Mary and the saints drawn with an Eastern eye, which cover the walls of Eastern churches.
"I had trouble adjusting to that at first," says Francavilla. "I encourage Protestants who come to our church for the first time and find the atmosphere strange to come anyway. Gradually they get used to it," he says.
Gary Potter, president of Catholics for Christian Political Action, a conservative national laymen's organization, is an active member of Holy Transfiguration and finds the traditional Melkite liturgy very appealing.
"The mass is emphazised as a sacrifice and we are very penitential. There are still a lot of 'Lord have mercys' in our mass.
"Also, there is a strong vertical emphasis or looking up towards God" Potter continues, "as opposed to the horizontal orientation of the Latin church, which is striving to establish a sense of community. We take community for granted. We're still big on angels, too."
Francavilla says the sense of community within the church is due in large part to the strong family ties perpetuated in most Middle Eastern families.
Communication between generations in most families is still good, he says, even among second-and-third generation families "because Middle Eastern families tend to show a lot of obvious affection towards one another. There is a lot of hugging and kissing."
The church encourages family participation in the liturgy and families often read scripture in the home together. "We even distribute communion to infants," says Francavilla.
But according to the archbishop, even the Melkites are feeling the stresses of modern life. He says the most common problems he hears from parishioners around the country are related to the disclocation of families, sometimes caused by divorce, which is forbidden in the Melkite church.
"There is no doubt that family life is being assaulted," he said.