Liturgical Families of the East
Eastern Catholic Churches belong to distinct liturgical families. Understanding these families helps us to understand that the differences among the Churches have mostly to do with local cultures. The distinct liturgical families relate to the three major Eastern patriarchates (Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria) and to Edessa. These in turn influenced other Churches in the Christian East, especially in Chaldea (modern-day Iran) and Armenia. Some of the Eastern Catholic Churches are reunited from the Eastern Churches that separated from Rome during the fifth century, or in 1054, or at other times in the Church’s long history. (The years in parentheses note the approximate dates of reunion with Rome.)
The Antiochian liturgical family has two branches:West Syrian and East Syrian. Antioch was founded by St. Peter, and St. James is credited for its liturgy, which is celebrated in the ancient Syriac language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, as well as in local vernacular. The West Syrian Churches are the Maronite (which claims always to have been in union with Rome), Syriac (1781), and Syro-Malankarese (1930). The East Syrian, whose liturgy shows the influence of Edessa, are the Chaldean (1692) and Syro-Malabarese (16th century). The Syro-Malabarese, like the Syro-Malankarese, finds roots in the evangelization of St. Thomas in India.
The Alexandrian liturgical family includes the Coptic (1741) and the Ethiopian (1846). Its liturgy is attributed to St. Mark the Evangelist, and is variously celebrated in Coptic (Ancient Egyptian) and Arabic in Egypt and the Near East, and in Geez (Ethiopian) in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Jerusalem.
The Byzantine liturgical family, by far the largest of the liturgical traditions of the East, is related to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. As we trace the lineage of each Byzantine tradition, we find close relations among those Churches linked by geography and/or language.
The oldest Byzantine or Constantinopolitan liturgies are those of the Greek (mid-19th century) and Melkite communions. The Patriarchal Melkite Church (18th century) actually began in the Antiochian tradition, but now celebrates liturgy in Greek as well as several local vernacular languages. The Byzantine Slav liturgical family celebrates the liturgy in Old Slavonic and the local vernacular, and comprises the Belarussian (17th century), Bulgarian (1861), Hungarian (1646), the churches of the former Yugoslavia, including Križevci (1611), Russian (1905), Ruthenian (17th century), Slovak Ukrainian (1595).
The sui iuris Albanian (1628) and Italo-Albanian (or Italo-Greek, which never separated), and the Metropolitan Romanian Church (1697) tend to use the vernacular despite their Greek roots.
All Byzantine Churches celebrate the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on Sundays and holy days, and the Liturgy of St. Basil during Lent.
Some scholars consider the Armenian rite, celebrated by the Patriarchal Armenian Church in classical Armenian, as its own rite. The Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia converted to Catholicism at the time of the Crusades, but this did not include the majority of Armenians located north of there, in modern eastern Turkey and the Republic of Armenia. Armenian Catholics are found throughout the Middle East and in Argentina, France and the United States.
The Latin or Western Church is what we know of as the Roman Catholic Church, joined fully and wholly to the Catholic Churches and ecclesial communions of the East. We often recite four words which signify our belief in the unity of the Church—one, holy, Catholic and apostolic—every time we say the Nicene Creed at Sunday Mass. The words refer to our Church’s unity, its sanctified and sanctifying nature, its universality and its relation to the Twelve Apostles.
Christians understand the term Church to mean a territorial assembly of the faithful. Yet the Catholic Church is worldwide. Particular, or local, Churches exist in the West as archdioceses, dioceses or patriarchates, and the heads of these particular churches are called archbishops, bishops or patriarchs.
Pope Pius V, whose pontificate lasted from 1566 to 1572, imposed the liturgical rite of Rome on the Latin Church, in response to the confusion that preceded the Protestant Reformation. A few other Western rites already hundreds of years old were allowed to remain active. In succeeding centuries, a few additional rites or observances have been created or added for the Western Church.
For the most part, Roman Catholics participate in Roman-rite liturgy, codified by the Missale Romanum, established at the Council of Trent and updated by Pope John Paul II, in response to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
The Catholic Church counts over one billion persons, slightly more than half of the total number of Christians in the world, or 16 percent of the world population. Most belong to the Latin Church and worship according to the Roman rite. But there are 16 million members of Eastern Catholic Churches, of whom approximately 7,650,000 worship according to the Byzantine tradition, and 8,300,000 according to various other ancient Eastern Christian traditions, such as the Armenian, Coptic and Syriac traditions.
All, East and West, belong to the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.
Phyllis Zagano is the author of several books, including Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (Crossroad/Herder, 2000). She teaches at Hofstra University, in New York.
Next: Radical Grace—Daily Lenten Meditations (by Richard Rohr)
The first large branches in the Catholic family tree appear in the fourth century. The Roman Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity, transferred his—and its—headquarters from Rome to the ancient city of Byzantium in the year 330. He renamed this city Constantinople. (We now know it as Istanbul, Turkey.)
There were three other important centers of the Roman Empire: Rome, Antioch in Syria, and Alexandria in Egypt. The bishops of these four great cities of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria attained greater preeminence over time, especially at the Council of Constantinople in 381. There the Bishop of Constantinople received honorary status, after the Bishop of Rome.
Rome had been the center of a vast empire, and the site of martyrdom for Sts. Peter and Paul. But the East was growing in prominence.
At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Bishops of Constantinople and of Jerusalem received territorial authority over their respective areas. Eventually, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem came to be known as patriarchates, that is, Church territories headed by a patriarch.
Coincidentally, Christianity spread beyond the Roman Empire. Syriac-speaking Christians looked to Edessa in East Syria as their center.
In four of the original patriarchates, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria—and in Edessa—we find the origins of major liturgical families of the Catholic Church, some Eastern and some Western.
The 11th-century East-West split created a complex situation. A large part of the problem was the supreme authority of Rome over other patriarchal Churches. What we know of as Orthodoxy ensued in most of the Christian East. Virtually all the Eastern Churches broke communion with Rome at some point, and present Eastern Catholic Churches are the result of efforts to restore that communion either spontaneously or because of the work of Catholic missionaries.
At present, there are 22 separate ecclesial groupings of the East that recognize the supreme authority of Rome. In some cases, parts of these communions—21 are “Churches”—are locally administered by a Western bishop. One, the Georgian, is recognized as an ecclesial grouping, but not as a Church. Each follows the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches, and uses its own liturgical rites.
Patriarchal: The six patriarchal Eastern Catholic Churches are: Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite and Syriac. Their patriarchs, along with their synods (assemblies of bishops), enjoy superior authority in their respective churches.
Major Archepiscopal: In these, the Ukrainian, the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankar Churches, a major archbishop is essentially the same as a patriarch, although his election, unlike a patriarch’s, must be approved by the Roman pontiff.
Metropolitan: The Ethiopian (or Abyssinian), the Romanian and the Ruthenian Churches are distinct in that their Metropolitan, that is, principal bishop, must request the pallium—his sign of authority—from the pope rather than by election from his Church. In these cases the local synod must provide three nominees to the pope, who makes the final choice.
Others: Nine Eastern Catholic Churches are none of the above. In law they are called “sui iuris” and are a separate category of churches. For the most part they are a single diocese or eparchy: the Albanian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Italo-Albanian, Slovak, Russian, and churches of the former Yugoslavia—once called Križevci, but now including separate apostolic exarchates for Macedonia and Serbia/Montenegro. These nine do not have the highly developed hierarchical structures of the other 12. The pope grants authority to the bishop who governs these churches.
The Eastern Churches in union with Rome were once called “uniate,” but this term is seen as non-complimentary since it implies an unequal status. The Eastern Churches are still mistakenly called “Eastern-rite” Churches, a reference to their various liturgical histories. They are most properly called Eastern Churches, or Eastern Catholic Churches.
What All Catholics Should Know About Eastern Catholic Churches
Jesus prays, at the Last Supper, in John’s Gospel, that his followers might “all be one.” Before his ascension, he commissioned his disciples out to preach the gospel “to the whole world” (see Mk 16:15). But, as the Church brought the Christian faith to lands near and far, it strained to maintain common understandings among various peoples.
Early Christianity suffered from disagreements about the nature of Christ’s divinity and the understanding of the Trinity. Two early Church Councils—one at Nicea in 325 and another at Constantinople in 381—set Church teaching on these crucial dogmas, which have been handed down to us in the Nicene Creed. Centuries of wear and tear resulted in the East-West schism of 1054, between what came to be known as “Catholicism” and “Orthodoxy.” Centuries later, Catholicism fractured with the Reformation in 16th-century Europe. The new terms were “Roman Catholicism” and “Protestantism.” All along the way, the papacy sought to strengthen its central governing authority.
For Catholics, the branches of the Church are properly called the Latin Church and the Eastern Churches. There are two separate codes of canon law, one for the Oriental, or Eastern Churches in union with Rome and another for the Latin, or Western Church (which we usually term the Roman Catholic Church). Each of these legal codes recognizes the supreme authority of the Roman pontiff, the pope in Rome.
Today, those in full communion with Rome are rediscovering their common ancestry and better recognizing each other as more than distant relations. But while liturgical practice in the West is fairly uniform, a complex pattern of governance and liturgical practice remains in the East, bound to both history and geography.
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Jesus asked his disciples: "Who do people say that the Son of man
is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptizer, others Elijah, still
others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." "And you," he said to them,
"who do you say that I am?" "You are the Messiah," Simon Peter
answered, "the Son of the living God!" (Mathew 16:13-16)
As the Christian Church grew, each nation and culture who received the Gospel in turn influenced the growth of the Church. Even at a relatively early stage in the history of the Church, two major heritages developed and remain with us today: the Eastern or "Greek" tradition, and the Western or "Latin" tradition. The Church in the West had its principal center at the Imperial capital of Rome, and is known in our present-day as the Roman Catholic Church. The Church in the East grew and developed from the Churches in Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. These three Eastern centers shared a common language, Greek, and similar mode of discourse which formed the basis for the subsequent development of the Eastern Christian tradition. The Byzantine Catholic Church shares in the inheritance of the first Greek-speaking Christian communities of the Eastern Mediterranean world, founded by the Apostles of Jesus Christ.
The Byzantine Catholic Church shares in the inheritance of the Byzantine Religious Culture of the Christian East.
A landmark event in the history of the Church, and particularly the Eastern Church, was the decision in 325 by the Roman Emperor Constantine to move the Imperial capital from Rome to Byzantion, a small town on the Bosphorus strait which he renamed Constantinople (and which is presently Istanbul, Turkey). This shift in the secular political balance had a dramatic impact on the Eastern Church, for a new secular and religious center – Constantinople – was created in the heart of the Christian East. The Eastern Roman, or "Byzantine", Empire centered on Constantinople was a Christian Empire that flourished for over 1,000 years, and which engendered a new and unique culture infused with Christianity. Naturally, the Church based in the capital city of Constantinople gradually came to have a pre-eminent influence in the Christian East, spreading a religious culture that was both a synthesis and dynamic restatement of the existing strands of Eastern Christian culture that had been cultivated in the Greek-speaking world – the "Byzantine" religious culture. Byzantine Catholics in America are the spiritual descendants of Christians in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East who are the heirs of this Byzantine religious culture, and who therefore trace their spiritual heritage to the Great Church of Constantinople, known as Hagia Sophia (The Church of Holy Wisdom).
The spiritual heritage of the Byzantine Catholic Church is the same given to us by the Apostles and which matured in the Christian East, during the period of the Byzantine Empire. This heritage includes the doctrines, liturgical practices and underlying theology and spirituality which come to us from the Christian Church of the Byzantine Empire. This heritage is shared among all of the Christian peoples, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, who trace their spiritual roots to the Great Church of Constantinople, and the Byzantine religious culture which grew from that Church. From the First Millennium, Christians of the Byzantine tradition have referred to themselves as "Orthodox Christians". Byzantine Catholics are Orthodox Christians who embrace full communion with the Church of Rome and its primate, Pope Benedict XVI, the successor of St. Peter, the first among the Apostles. Sadly, however, the break in communion between the Orthodox East and the Catholic West of 1054 still affects us today, as our communion with Rome means we are not in full communion with our mother Orthodox Church. We pray for the day when the Churches will again be one.
Byzantine Catholic worship joyfully celebrates the presence of the Kingdom of God on Earth in and through its divine services and liturgical life. Byzantine Catholics are witnesses to the reality of the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, and follow Christ, in and with Him, to His heavenly Kingdom in the Divine Liturgy, the principal liturgical service of the Byzantine Church. In the Divine Liturgy, we begin worship by assembling together as the Body of Christ, and celebrating the presence of Christ among us with psalms and hymns. Standing attentively in His presence, we are taught by His Words in the Epistle and Gospel, and learn how to apply the Gospel to our lives in the sermon. We then respond to God by freely offering the sacrifice of our own lives to Him in the form of bread and wine, and, uniting our sacrifice with Christ’s own eternal sacrifice, we ascend with and in Christ to His table in His heavenly Kingdom, where He feeds us with the gift of His Body and Blood, transforming us into His Body, making us bearers of Christ and partakers in His nature, and uniting us with Him in His Kingdom. Following the Divine Liturgy, we return to the world as "witnesses to what we have seen" in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God before our eyes, and as missionaries to the world, sanctifying it with the presence of Christ.
Byzantine Catholic worship also celebrates the time of salvation in which we live, sanctifying the time of the world with the presence of Christ at regular periods each day. For Byzantine Christians, following the Jewish tradition of reckoning time, the day begins at Vespers, the ancient service of evening prayer which makes present the finality of the present world and the dawn of the eternal new day in Christ, celebrating the birth of the Kingdom of God which itself begins with the end of this world, with the ‘evening’ of this world. At Vespers, we chant psalms and hymns that celebrate the creation and fall of this world, and its redemption, renewal and transfiguration inaugurated by Christ’s Death and Resurrection. At Dawn, the Byzantine Church runs to greet the Risen Lord in the prayer service of Matins (Greek: Orthros), where the dawn of new life made possible through the Resurrection of Christ is made present in psalms, chants and hymns. At Matins, we praise the dawn of the ‘day without evening’, and glorify God who has fulfilled all things in Himself. During the course of the day, the Byzantine Church remembers the saving presence of God, and in particular the events of Christ’s suffering passion for us, in a series of brief services known as the Divine Hours.
Byzantine Christians, in celebrating the divine presence among them at worship, recognize this presence in all senses and forms of expression, realizing that with the advent of His Kingdom, Christ has filled all things with Himself, and made all things sacred and beautiful in His sight. Byzantine Christian worship is therefore holistic in content and expresses and manifests this beauty in various forms -- ancient sacred religious poetry and hymns, moving chanting styles, bright, brocaded vestments, the burning of incense, the use of candles, the veneration of icons. The Byzantine Christian worships God with his whole person, and recognizes the presence of God in all of his senses, bearing witness to the fact that, in Christ, there is no distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’, but that in the Kingdom of God, which is manifested in this world by the Church, all things are fulfilled in Christ to be what they were created to be – namely, a means of communion with Him.
Byzantine Catholic churches are designed to manifest, or make present, in their architecture and arrangement, the presence of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The sanctuary, located behind an icon screen, manifests Heaven, the dwelling place of God. The Holy Table makes present, in a particular way, Heaven, and manifests the Lord’s banquet table to which all are called. On the Holy Table are placed the Book of Gospels and the Holy Gifts during the Divine Liturgy, and in the center of the table stands the tabernacle (artopohorion) containing the reserved Eucharist.
Shining forth from heaven, the divine light transfigures and
‘defies’ the figures depicted in the icons placed on the icon screen
(Iconostasis), transforming them by God’s uncreated energies into
bearers of the divine nature. Icons, whether depicted on the icon
screen or elsewhere, are therefore a graphical depiction of the saving
energies of God and their tremendous transformative and transfigurative
power – they are a graphic and tangible manifestation of salvation in
Christ, of what transfigured life looks like, and where our lives are
hopefully leading us. Unlike other religious art, icons are also a
participation, here and now, in the event or person depicted in the
icon – icons make present these events and persons for us. We therefore
show icons the same respect we would for the event or person
represented in them, because these are, in reality, present before us
in the form of the icon. When we venerate icons, our veneration is
therefore directed at the event or person depicted, and not at the
picture itself or the wood on which the icon is painted. Icons are
venerated, but are never worshipped, for worship belongs to God alone.
In fact, in venerating the persons depicted by icons, we are in fact
rendering glory and praise to God, who by His great mercy and love has
transfigured these persons and made them holy.
entire work of Christ – his birth, death, resurrection, and ascension –
has been undertaken to provide to us the gift of New Life in Christ.
This gift of New Life is given by Christ to the Church in the Holy
Spirit – and, in a special and profound way, through the Holy
Mysteries, or sacraments, of the Church. Every Holy Mystery is a
participation in the New Life that is Christ’s gift to us in the
Church, and is a participation, in this world, in His Heavenly Kingdom
which is to come.
All Christians are witnesses to the New Life that Christ has given to us in His Church. Byzantine Catholics recognize this and know that there are many good people outside the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and that these other religions can and do bring their members close to God. The Byzantine Catholic faith, however, is not simply a way of life, a set of doctrines and beliefs, ritual practices and customs. Our Byzantine Catholic faith is Life itself. It is a Life that is truer, fuller, more abundant and more authentic than any other life – it is Life which is everlasting and has no end, and over which even death has no power. We warmly invite you to join us and share, even now, in this New Life in Christ.
Are you a Byzantine Catholic who is no longer active in the Faith? Are you not a member of any Church or maybe find that the Church you currently belong to is not a home to you? To you we issue a special invitation to come join us. We both need and want you as a member of our family.