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For Byzantine Catholics, Lent is stricter

By James DeCrane
February 21st, 2008
Catholic Anchor (

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Catholic Anchor) - The great main dome at St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church in Anchorage is the only one of its kind in the world. Built in 1996, the dome contains thousands of tiny holes that allow light to radiates out in unique patterns. The design so distinct it has an official patent.

Light radiating from the unusual dome will be a familiar site for many of Alaska’s Eastern rite Catholics as they journey on one of the most solemn times of the liturgical year — the Great Fast.

While the fast takes place during some of the darkest and coldest times of winter, the goal is that an interior light will grow in the hearts of each penitent.

As an approved Catholic Church, St. Nicholas is in full communion with the pope. It’s liturgy and practices differ, however, from the more common Roman rite, to which the majority of Alaska Catholics belong.

The Great Fast is similar to the Roman Lenten season, with a couple of key distinctions.

“The Lenten practices are more rigorous,” Father Michael Hornick said of the Byzantine rite. Father Hornick is the canonical pastor of St. Nicholas and serves there with the consent of Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz.

The Great Fast begins Feb. 4, on Pure Monday, two days before Roman rite Catholics begin their Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday.

Three key components define the Great Fast. According to the Byzantine Seminary Press Leaflet #13, these components include both an internal and external fast and a spiritual renewal. The journey is “marked with practice of virtues and good works,” as well as self denial.

External fast

In the Byzantine tradition, there are two types of fasting, simple and strict. Strict abstinence is obligatory two times during the Lenten season — On Pure Monday and Great and Holy Friday. On these days, all meat and dairy is forbidden, including eggs and all egg and dairy product derivatives.

“Of course people can observe (additional) stricter fasts out of a spirit of penance if they want to, but they are not obligated beyond the requirements,” Father Hornick said.

Simple Abstinence is observed on all Wednesdays and Fridays, and is similar to the Roman Rite in that they are meatless fasts.

But the fasts are not an end in and of themselves.

John Michalski, a cantor at St. Nicholas, said the goal of fasting is similar to the Roman rite, as a penitential time of spiritual growth.

Internal fast

According to Byzantine tradition, St. John Chrysostom taught that the value of fasting lies in the interior — that by fasting and penance the faithful withdrawal from sin and progress towards greater holiness.

One noticeable difference between the Roman Rite and the Byzantine rite with regards to Lent is the Liturgy (or Mass as Roman rite Catholics say). In the Byzantine tradition, the sacrifice of the Eucharist is only celebrated on Sundays with no other Eucharistic celebrations throughout the week.

During the weekdays of Lent, the Byzantine faithful gather for Hours of the Divine Praises on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Wednesdays and Fridays they gather for the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts.

“Essentially it’s vespers with the distribution of Communion,” Michalski said.

The Eucharist is a celebration of the Resurrection, he explained. With Lent being a penitential season, “Part of the suffering is you don’t go to Liturgy. It’s part of the penance.”

Spiritual renewal

The Byzantine rite offers a number of additional devotions during Lent.

One such devotion is a special prayer service to the Blessed Virgin Mary, honoring her motherhood in a hymn of praise known as Akathistos, which takes place this year on March 8.

“It’s a service that encapsulates the theology of Mary,” Father Hornick said.

Michalski agreed, adding that the hymn is extremely beautiful and moving.

Parishioners at St. Nicholas are also encouraged to do a daily personal prayer service devotion to Blessed Theodore Romzha, the namesake of the parish’s mission in Wasilla.

Blessed Theodore was martyred by the communists in 1947 for defending Christian faith. Pope John Paul II beautified him on June 27, 2001.

Last year, the parish distributed pamphlets to all parishioners to assist them in the daily prayers.

“It’s takes about ten minutes a day to do the prayer service,” Father Hornick said. “And is a special devotion to have during Lent.”

Solemn and rigorous time

Both Father Hornick and Michalski admit that the Lenten practices in the Byzantine rite are meticulous.

“Pre-sanctified liturgy is so different compared to the rest of the year,” Michalski said. “It’s more solemn and rigorous.”

But through the fasts and practices, Byzantine Catholics hope to strive for true internal conversion.

“Turning away from all wickedness means keeping our tongue in check, restraining our anger, suppressing evil desires and avoiding all gossip, lying and swearing,” St. Basil the Great said of Lent.”To abstain from these things – herein lies the true value of the fast.”

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