Revised: 18 January, A.D. 2002
Question: What is a Greek Catholic? Aren't all Catholics Roman (or Latin)?
Answer: Our Lord left the Apostles with the basic rituals of the Sacraments and the authority to govern His Church on earth. He did not prescribe all of the detailed ceremonies that would be used in Divine worship, nor did He specify a code of canon law for the Church's government. As the Apostles brought Christianity to the nations, local cultures and customs influenced the development of law and ritual. The first Mass was in Hebrew, but Greek (the international language of the period) would have been used for communities of non-Jews. After a few centuries Latin came into use in the Western Empire as intellectual life and the knowledge of Greek fell into decline.
In both ritual and discipline, the Catholic Church was organized around the great cities of the ancient world. Saint Peter established the Church first at Antioch and then at Rome. His disciple Mark is recognized as founder of the Church at Alexandria. St. James appears to have been the first Bishop of Jerusalem. The Emperor Constantine established the capital of the Eastern Empire at Constantinople (or Byzantium). The archbishops of these great cities acquired precedence over the bishops of the surrounding towns, coming to be called "patriarchs." Generally, the "suffragan" churches followed the ritual and law of their patriarch.(1) Other patriarchates developed along ethnic lines: the Melkite Patriarch for Arab Catholics, the Maronite for Lebanese, the Armenian for Armenians, and the Chaldean Patriarch for Persians. Metropolitanates (jurisdictions under archbishops) formed along ethnic lines in India and Ethiopia. It should be understood that in spite of this diversity of law, ritual, and ethnicity, the early Church was united in one Faith.
Division came to the Church only after persecution by the Roman authorities ceased. While a few heresies bloomed in the early years, they were either tied to pre-Christian mystery religions like Manicheism or to end-of-the-world cults like Montanism. These early heresies were cults, not believable enough to draw large numbers of Catholics away from the Church founded by Jesus Christ. But with the end of persecution and the Imperial recognition of Christianity, priests and bishops found themselves with the time and means of communication to speculate about things central to the Church itself: Was Jesus Christ God, man, or both; creator or created; endowed with human nature, divine nature or both; with divine will, human will, or both? Was Mary the mother of man, of God, of both? Such divisions of theological opinion brought new churches into being, leaving entire peoples and nations unsure as to which church was the true Church of Jesus Christ. "Nestorians" held that the Blessed Virgin was only the mother of Christ's human nature, rejecting the Council of Ephesus (429). The Copts, Ethiopians, and Syrian Jacobites who rejected the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon (451) were known as "Monophysites," professing but one (divine but not human) nature in Christ.
The Council of Chalcedon elevated the See of Constantinople -- the seat of Imperial government since Constantine -- to the status of a patriarchate in 451. The barbarian invasions of Western Europe brought the Western Empire into social and cultural eclipse. Citizens of the Eastern Empire began to feel that Constantinople should replace Rome as the primatial city of the Church. In 859, and again in 1054, schism divided the Church -- roughly along east-western boundaries of the Empire. With time, theological differences were found to make the schism more or less permanent. In retrospect, the theological differences seem rather to have been contrived to fit the political situation: unprovable arguments about the origin of the Holy Ghost, and quarrels over disciplinary things like the admissibility of yeast in the bread for Mass, and the wearing of beards.
In some cases, primitive communications and poor translations of Council edicts made some Christians appear to be separated from the Universal Church for no real reason at all. The Maronites hiding in Lebanon, for example, or the Armenians who rejected the poorly translated acts of Ephesus and Chalcedon.
Over the centuries the Holy See has recognized the right of Eastern Christians who did not fall away into heresy (or who have returned from the errors of their forebears) to retain their proper ritual and law. As will be seen in the table following, there is no single "Eastern Rite," so customs very greatly. A few of the practices of the east surprise some Catholics on first becoming aware that not all Catholics are bound to the customs of Rome.
In the Western Church, reception of Holy Communion from the chalice ended around the twelfth or thirteenth century; most Eastern Catholic receive under both forms. In the West clerical celibacy became generally mandatory in the eleventh century; in most of the East, married Catholic men may be ordained to the parish clergy, although religious order clergy are celibate. Bearded priests are much more common among Eastern priests. Leavened bread is employed in some Eastern rites. In the West, Latin is almost exclusively the language of the Mass and Sacraments. In the Catholic East there is much more variability, with Greek, old-Slavonic, and Armenian being among the most widely used. Art forms vary as well, with Eastern vestments tending to be more flowing, music and incense being more common, and paintings being preferred to statues. Even in this century, some Eastern Catholics use the Julian calendar, and commemorate their local saints (in addition to some western ones).
Normally the "Easter duty" to Confess and receive Holy Communion during Paschaltide should be fulfilled by Roman Rite Catholics in their own traditional Latin Rite church, and we must support our own parish both financially and with regular attendance. But apart from these duties, Roman Rite Catholics may satisfy their obligation to attend Mass, Confess, and Receive Holy Communion in any Catholic rite.(2) Because they have suffered Communist persecution, many Eastern Catholics are theological and political conservatives. Nonetheless, visitors to Eastern Catholic churches increasingly report encountering the same Modernism as found in the Novus Ordo churches of the West. Caveat emptor!
| Coptic Rite (Egypt) ALEXANDRIA (N. Egypt)----------------------| | Ethiopic Rite | Syrian Rite | -- West Syrian-- | Malankarese Rite (India) | | Maronite Rite (Lebanon) ANTIOCH (Syria)-------| | | | Chaldean Rite (Iraq) | -- East Syrian -- | Malabarese Rite (India) | | Greek Rite CONSTANTINOPLE (Turkey) | Melkite Rite (Arabia) Byzantine Rite ------------------ | Russian Rite with various | Romanian Rite national divisions | Ukrainian-Ruthenian Rite ARMENIA --------------------------- | Armenian Rite
Chart adapted from Nicholaus Liesel, The Eucharistic Liturgies of the Eastern Churches (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1963), p. 7.
(1) Rome was a notable exception, allowing a large variation in ritual within its area of jurisdiction (Western Europe).
(2) C. 1249, c. 905, c. 866.