It all started while I was attending college at Franciscan University of Steubenville. A couple of young men I knew were somehow different in their expression of Catholicism than I. One spoke of being Ukrainian Catholic, the other Ruthenian. At the time it didn't really register to me that this meant they not only celebrated a different form of the Mass, but that they even had their own theology, their own spirituality, their own traditions, and even their own history different from what I'd experienced growing up. Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard "Catholic" and presumed "Roman Catholic."
I grew up in an area where Eastern Catholic was more or less non-existent. Oh, there were the Maronites, but they were all the way out in Cincinnati and I had no experience of them. The most I knew of them was that a family friend had married a Maronite man and had become Maronite herself. Apart from the all I knew of Eastern Christianity was that there were some Churches called the "Orthodox Churches," they were not Catholic, and I couldn't fulfill my Sunday obligation at one of their parishes. Growing up in a rural German-Irish community we tended to be suspicious of anything that wasn't explicitly (and borderline triumphalistically) Roman Catholic.
So when these friends of mine at college began speaking of Eastern Catholics, somehow it didn't even register in my mind that Eastern Catholics are not Roman Catholic. I'd even watched brief videos of parts of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and it still didn't enter my thoughts that, hey, this is different from what I know. The language was different (Ukrainian). The music was different. The setting itself was different. And yet I was too thick-headed to see this.
I had occasion to encounter the Byzantine tradition on a more personal experiential level while I was studying on our campus in Gaming, Austria. There we shared a campus with the "International Theological Institute." It was here that I met my first married priest... and married to a Franciscan graduate nonetheless. Fr. Yuri was quite an amazing man. Very quiet and gentle mannered, but very good at leading and guiding young people. Despite the fact that he was married, it still didn't occur to me that he came from a different tradition within the Catholic Church.
I don't really remember being encouraged to attend the Liturgies in the Byzantine chapel on campus in Gaming. I had friends who went quite frequently, but I could never bring myself to do so. In my mind they were Orthodox. I wouldn't be permitted to receive Communion and I'd still have to go to Mass later that Sunday. So I just avoided the Byzantine Liturgies. Needless to say I've greatly regretted that decision ever since.
One thing I did do, however, was spend a great deal of time in prayer in the Byzantine chapel. There was something about it that kept drawing me in. It wasn't so much the icons, the mystique, or the exotic feel of the place. To me their chapel felt familiar, homey and warm. I felt as if I'd always been there; like I'd grown up there and was simply coming back to my childhood parish. There was nothing unfamiliar or exotic about the place to me. It simply was what it was and in being so it brought me closer to God. I spent more time in there than I did in our Perpetual Adoration chapel.
After I returned home I didn't really think about this experience in the chapel again for a number of years. It wasn't until after graduation and my move up to Ann Arbor, Michigan, that these rumors and shadows from the East began to take form. But you'll have to stick around for the next installment to hear about that.