The Eastern Christian Churches are characterized by a rich heritage with Apostolic origin, and are treasured by the universal Church, for the East was the home of Jesus Christ our Savior! Those Eastern Churches that are in communion with Rome are known as the Eastern Catholic Churches. 1-3
The Levant, the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, served as the cradle of Christianity. With respect to the nations bordering the Mediterranean, the Levant referred to the area of the rising of the sun, and comprised Israel, Phoenicia (now Lebanon), and Syria.
Heeding the message of Jesus of Nazareth to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19-20), the Apostles traveled East and West to all parts of the known world to spread Christianity. Christianity was known as the Way (Acts 9:2). Antioch, Syria became an early center for Christianity, especially following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Indeed, followers of Christ were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26). They also became known as Nazarenes (Acts 24:5), particularly in the East. Saints Peter and Paul evangelized Rome before they were martyred by Nero. Andrew, Peter's brother, evangelized Byzantium and appointed Stachys (Romans 16:9) the first Bishop. St. Mark the Evangelist founded the Church of Alexandria. Nathaniel Bartholomew brought the faith to Armenia. Jude Thaddeus spread the faith to Edessa, Syria, beyond the Euphrates River. Thomas traveled through Chaldea and Persia all the way to India!
Jerusalem is the birthplace to all of Christianity. After his mother Helena discovered the True Cross, Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the site of the crucifixion, burial, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. Five centers of Christianity within the Roman Empire - Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Byzantium, and Rome - evolved into Patriarchates. The Eastern Catholic Churches originate from the Eastern centers of Antioch, Alexandria, and Byzantium, while the Western Latin rite originates from Rome.
On 11 May 330 Constantine renamed the Greek city of Byzantium in his honor, and, while Church authority rested with Rome, Constantinople became the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor, and gradually became the dominant Patriarchy for the Eastern Churches. 4-9
Christianity remain undivided until mankind sought to define the hidden nature of God and the mystery of Christ. The Christian Churches held seven Councils, all of which were accepted by Rome and Constantinople. A dispute concerning the relation of the Father and the Son arose in Egypt known as the Arian controversy. Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325, which declared that the Son was of the same substance (ὁμοούσιος - homoousios) as the Father, and formed the initial Nicene Creed. Athanasius of Alexandria reasoned from the theology of Christian redemption, that Christ had to be divine for our own salvation and redemption. St. Cyril of Jerusalem and the Cappodochian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa) believed in homoousios for the Holy Spirit as well, so the Nicene Creed was expanded to quote John 15:26, the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The Council of Ephesus in 431 defined Mary as the Mother of God, which was intrinsic to the human nature (ϕύσις - physis = nature) of Christ. The independent Church of the East in Persia believed in two distinct natures (dyophysite) in Christ and did not accept the wording. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 declared that Jesus was one Person with two natures, Divine and human in perfect harmony, according to the Tome of St. Leo the Great; this established the theology for Latin and Byzantine Christianity. However, Christians in Armenia, Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, and India who still held the belief that Christ was one incarnate nature (monophysite) of the Word of God objected to Chalcedon and formed the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The fifth ecumenical council at Constantinople II in 553 was called by the Emperor Justinian and reaffirmed that there is only one person or hypostasis in our Lord Jesus Christ. In response to the Monothelites, that Christ had only one will, the sixth ecumenical council affirmed the efforts of St. Maximus the Confessor at Constantinople III in 681 and confessed that Christ had two wills and two natural operations (John 6:38), divine and human in harmony. The seventh ecumenical council at Nicaea II in 787 resolved the iconoclast controversy thanks to the writings of St. John of Damascus: since Jesus had a true humanity and his body was finite, it was only proper to venerate holy images of the human face of Jesus, as well as Mary and the saints.
The gradual evolution of the Latin West and the Greek East culminated in the tragic Schism of the Church in 1054. Many of the remaining Eastern Churches, except the Maronites and the Italo-Albanians, joined the Byzantine Orthodox Church of Constantinople. The Eastern or Byzantine Orthodox Churches are a family of self-governing Christian Churches, the largest of which are in Greece, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Georgia, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Orthodox Church in America.
Eastern Christian Churches are essential to a true study of Christianity. For example, Eastern Catholics and Orthodox generally refer to the Eucharistic Celebration as the Divine Liturgy, whereas the Lord's Supper is called the Mass in the Latin rite of Rome. The Syriac Aramaic dialect of Edessa, Syria became the original biblical and liturgical language of Syriac Christianity throughout Asia.
Eventually portions of many of the separated Churches of the East returned into union with Rome, and became included in the group that form the Eastern Catholic Churches. They are located in Asia, Africa, and Europe, from Ukraine north of the Black Sea south to Egypt and Ethiopia in East Africa, west from Sicily in the Mediterranean east all the way to India! These individual Catholic Churches, both Eastern and Western, while they form the universal Church of Jesus Christ, are unique for a distinctive rite or tradition, namely in language, liturgy, spiritual tradition, and ecclesiastical discipline. The liturgical traditions or rites presently in use are the Armenian, Byzantine, Chaldean, Coptic, Latin, Maronite, and Syriac rites. 1-10
There are at present 24 churches in the universal Catholic Church, 23 churches comprising the Eastern Catholic Churches, and the Latin Western Church. They are outlined in the following chart. A brief study of each one proves to be a fascinating study in Church History!
Lebanon is the home of the Phoenician alphabet, one that was widely received and readily adapted throughout the Mediterranean world and the West. Lebanon is a country with a rich Biblical heritage. Lebanon figured in the origins of Christianity, for Jesus Christ visited Tyre with his mother Mary and performed a miracle for the Syro-Phoenician woman's daughter, as noted in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. St. Peter founded a small church in Tortosa dedicated to the Virgin Mary on his travels through Phoenicia. Our Lady of Lebanon is the Patron Saint of Lebanon.
Lebanon is the home of the Maronite Eastern Catholic Church, one of the Patriarchates of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Maron, a contemporary and friend of St. John Chrysostom, was a monk in the fourth century who left Antioch for the Orontes River to lead an ascetic life. As he was blessed with the gift of healing, his life of solitude was short-lived, and soon he had many followers that adopted his monastic way. Following the death of St. Maron in 410, his disciples built a monastery in his memory that formed the nucleus of the Maronite Church.
The Maronites held fast to the beliefs of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. When 350 monks were slain by the Monophysites of Antioch, the Maronites sought refuge in the mountains of Lebanon. Correspondence concerning the event brought papal recognition of the Maronites by Pope Hormisdas on February 10, 518.
The martyrdom of the Patriarch of Antioch in 602 left the Maronites without a leader, and led them to elect their first Maronite Patriarch, St. John Maron, in 685.
Little was heard from the Maronites for 400 years, as they quietly escaped the Muslim invasions in the mountains of Lebanon. They were not noticed again until the time of the Crusades, when Raymond of Toulouse discovered the Maronites in the mountains near Tripoli, Lebanon on his way to conquer Jerusalem. The Maronites again confirmed their loyalty to the Pope in 1181. The Maronite Patriarch Jeremiah attended the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and Pope Gregory XIII inaugurated the Maronite College in Rome in 1584. The Maronites, because of their monastic origin, were able to withstand intense pressure and even persecution to preserve their Church. Lebanon is the only country in Asia that maintains a Christian culture, primarily because of the Maronites.
The celebration of the Divine Liturgy is spoken in the native tongue, Arabic in Lebanon, while the Consecration of the Eucharist is still celebrated in traditional Syriac Aramaic.
The Maronites in Lebanon to this day allow clerical marriage. They accept the gift of human sexuality given by God, who said, "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18). Hebrew Scripture noted the Levites, priests of Israel, were permitted to marry (Leviticus 21:7, 13; Ezekiel 44:22). St. Peter, our first Pope, was married, as we learn of the healing of his mother-in-law in the Gospels (Matthew 8:14-15, Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-39). St. Paul reaffirms the tradition: "Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Kephas?" (I Corinthians 9:5). Priestly celibacy is held in great honor in the Eastern Churches and many priests have chosen it for the sake of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:12). Celibacy is practiced by Bishops and those priests who are single at ordination or become widowers.
The Maronites have especially thrived since the Second Vatican Council, and are now the third largest Eastern Catholic Church, numbering about 3,500,000 faithful in Lebanon, the Middle East, and throughout the world. Maronite dioceses are also located in Damascus, Jerusalem, Haifa, Amman, Cairo, as well as parishes in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, France, Mexico, and the United States. We are blessed to have Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Seminary in Washington, D. C., established in 1961. 10-16
Antioch, Damascus, and Edessa, Syria were early centers of Christianity. St. Peter served as the first Bishop of Antioch and Syria. St. Paul experienced his Conversion on the road to Damascus. Saul first preached in Damascus, then traveled to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus, where he remained for three years (Galatians 1:17-18). St. Jude Thaddeus evangelized Edessa during the reign of King Abgar. The Syrian Church was one of the first to establish a feast day in honor of the Revelation to St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin. The Apostolic Father St. Ignatius of Antioch was the third Bishop of the See of Antioch and established the Church order of bishop, priest, and deacon. He was the first to use the term "Catholic Church" in his writings. The Syrian Patriarch always takes the name of Ignatius in honor of St. Ignatius of Antioch.
The Syrian Churches are noted for three Fathers and Doctors of the Catholic Church. The theologian St. Ephrem of Syria (306-373) was born in Nisibis and later settled in Edessa. He is noted for his religious poems, beautiful hymns, and his writings on Scripture, particularly his Syriac Commentary on the Gospels. He wrote of the hidden nature of God; it is only because of God's self-revelation through the Incarnation, scripture, and nature that one comes to know Him. The great orator and writer St. John Chrysostom (344-407) was born in Antioch and eventually was chosen as the Archbishop and Patriarch of Constantinople in 397, where he developed the Byzantine Liturgy. St. John of Damascus (675-750), a Doctor and the last Father of the Church, in addition to his influence at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, wrote on the Dormition and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
The Syrian Churches were divided by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 initially into two branches - the Church of Antioch which accepted the teachings of Chalcedon, and the Syriac Oriental Orthodox Church which believed that Christ was one incarnate nature of the Word of God. The Syriac Orthodox Church was once called the Syrian Jacobite Church after the evangelizer Jacob Baradaeus, the sixth century Bishop of Edessa. The Church of Antioch became Byzantine Orthodox following the Schism of 1054 and became known as the Byzantine Orthodox Church of Antioch. A schism in the Byzantine Orthodox Church of Antioch occurred in 1724 which gave rise to the Melkite Eastern Catholic Church (see below). A group from the Syriac Oriental Orthodox Church reunited with Rome as the Syrian Catholic Church in 1782. All Syrian Christians suffered persecution at the hands of the Turks in World War I, which diminished their numbers.
The liturgical language of Syrian Christians remains the West Syriac dialect of Aramaic along with Arabic, the native tongue. The Bible of the early Christian Churches in the Levant was the Peshitta, which was actually written in the Syriac script of Aramaic. Although Syriac is still spoken in isolated villages, the majority of Syrian Catholics living in Syria and Lebanon speak Arabic. In fact, the earliest inscription found of the Arabic alphabet is dated 512 AD, a trilingual one in Arabic, Syriac, and Greek at the Church of the Christian martyr St. Sergius in Zebed, near Aleppo, Syria; the Arabic writing included the name of God - Allah.
As in the time of Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 2:23) and the early Christian Church (Acts 24:5), a Christian in the Middle East today is still called a Nazarene or in Arabic Nasrani or plural Nasara. The present turmoil in Syria has resulted in over 700,000 Christian refugees fleeing to Jordan, Lebanon, and other Middle Eastern countries. The diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance in Newark, New Jersey was opened for Syrian Catholics in the United States and Canada in 1995. 3, 5, 7-9, 16-19
The Church of the East was the Church of ancient Mesopotamia, and was noted for its widespread missionary efforts throughout Asia, extending from Persia along the Silk Road all the way to India and the Far East, reaching China, Tibet, and Mongolia. The Acts of the Apostles reports that the "Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia" (Acts 2:9) heard Peter's speech following the Pentecost. Their theology was influenced by the Demonstrations of the Persian sage Aphrahat and the writings of Theodore of the School of Antioch. An early center of Christianity was Arbela, the capital of the Persian province of Adiabene, 50 miles east of the Tigris River. Theological training took place at the Community School of Nisibis. At the Synod of Bishop Isaac in 410 AD in the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, the Church of the East accepted the first two Ecumenical Councils, Nicaea and Constantinople, indicating their belief in the Trinity. Due to centuries of wars between Persia and the Roman Empire, the Church developed independently, outside the sway of Roman and Byzantine thought. The discovery of the Nestorian Monument with Chinese and Syriac characters documents the arrival of Christianity in Chang'an (now Xian), China in 635 AD during the Tang Dynasty. The Church of the East represents Eastern Syriac Christianity. They have added a presence in America and Australia. The Patriarch today resides in Erbil (Arbela), now in Iraq.
The Church of the East evolved into the autocephalous Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean Catholic Church. Pope Pius VIII confirmed Metropolitan Jean Hormizdas as head of the Chaldean Catholics on July 5, 1830. Dialogue between the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East has improved since Pope John Paul II signed a Christological agreement with the Assyrian Patriarch in Rome in 1994.
The Divine Liturgy is of the East Syriac dialect of Aramaic or the Chaldean rite. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Divine Liturgy may be said in the national language as well, primarily Arabic.
All Christians have suffered severe persecution since the Iraq War. At least 58 Christians were massacred at Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad on October 31, 2010. In July of 2014 the terrorist Islamic State marked remaining Christian homes in Mosul with the Arabic letter Nuun - for Nazarene, Nasrani, or Nasara - and advised residents that they have 24 hours to leave, convert to Islam, or die. Sixty thousand Christians in Mosul have been displaced from their homes, and over one million Christians have fled Iraq since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. The mass exodus of Chaldean Catholics from Iraq has added to the two dioceses in the United States, the first in Southfield, Michigan serving Detroit and Chicago, and the second in San Diego, California. 5, 18, 20
A Syro-Malabar faithful is called a Mar Thoma Nasrani or St. Thomas Christian, as they trace their origin to the Apostle St. Thomas, who arrived at the ancient port of Muziris in Kerala on the Malabar coast of southwestern India. They were in communion with the Church of the East of Persia, and followed the East Syriac or Chaldean liturgy. St. Thomas Christians were united during the early years of the Christian Church.
Aggressive latinization by the Portuguese Bishops in the sixteenth century led to rebellion through the Coonan Cross Oath in January 1653, but fragmented the St. Thomas Christians. Relations were improved by Pope Alexander VII in 1662 through Carmelite Friars. Pope Pius XI established the Syro-Malabar Catholic hierarchy in 1923. The restoration of the Oriental rite has made considerable progress since Vatican II. Pope John Paul II elevated the Church to Major Archepiscopal status on December 16, 1992, and in 1998 gave the Syro-Malabar Bishops full authority in liturgical matters in an effort to promote union.
The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church has rapidly expanded until it is now the second largest Eastern Catholic Church with 4.25 million faithful in communities throughout India, the United States and Canada. 5, 12, 20
The Syro-Malankara Christian Churches of Kerala, India also trace their origin to the Apostle St. Thomas, who arrived at the ancient port of Muziris near Maliankara island in Kerala in 52 AD. They are primarily Oriental Orthodox Churches and are distinguished from the Syro-Malabar Church by the use of the West Syriac or Antiochene liturgy.
Latinization by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century produced widespread division, and by the Coonan Cross Oath of 1653, the community joined with the Syriac Oriental Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. Following an appeal by Mar Ivanios, one of the Malankara Bishops, Pope Pius XI established the Malankara Catholic Hierarchy in 1930. Pope John Paul II assisted greatly in the ecumenical movement with a Papal visit on February 8, 1986 to St. Mary's Cathedral, Pattom, Trivandrum in Kerala, India.
Today there are about 4,000,000 members of the Syro-Malankara Oriental Orthodox Churches and their affiliates, and 450,000 members of the Syro-Malankara Eastern Catholic Church. 5, 12, 19
Armenian Christians trace their heritage to the Apostles Nathaniel Bartholomew and Jude Thaddeus, both of whom serve as the Patron Saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Through the influence of St. Gregory the Illuminator, ancient Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion under King Tiridates III in 301. A cathedral was built at Etchmiadzin, near Yerevan, which remains the center of the Armenian Church. In 506 the Church of Armenia rejected the Council of Chalcedon and became the Armenian Oriental Orthodox Apostolic Church. The Armenian Oriental Orthodox Churches today have six million members and celebrate their liturgy in Armenian. The Armenian Apostolic Church is noted for the historic Cathedral of St. James, restored in the 1140s during the Crusader Kingdom in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. St. Gregory of Narek (950-1103) has long been revered by the Church of Armenia and has been named a Doctor of the Church.
Christian Armenia suffered persecution by the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century, as well as a horrific genocide by a Turkish decimation in World War I, which claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians. The Armenian community also suffered persecution under the Communists in their homeland.
Pope Benedict XIV recognized a growing Armenian Catholic Community by appointing a Patriarch for the Armenian Catholic Church in 1742. The residence of the Patriarch is now in Beirut, Lebanon. Armenian Catholics are recovering their numbers with over 750,000 members. They are also located throughout the Middle East but primarily in Beirut, Jerusalem, and Aleppo, Syria. Of the Armenian, Byzantine, and other Catholic communities that have settled in neighboring Georgia, only the Armenian Catholic community, formerly without a hierarchy, survived communist rule to resume a normal ecclesial life after Georgian independence in 1991. In June 2011 Pope Benedict XVI accepted the nomination of Archbishop Raphael Minassian as Patriarch of the Armenian Catholic Church of Armenia, Georgia, and Eastern Europe. 5, 12, 21
The Holy Family sought refuge in Egypt, as St. Joseph took his wife Mary and the infant Jesus on the Flight to Egypt to avoid Herod and the Slaughter of the Innocents (Matthew 2). The Coptic Christian Churches of Egypt trace their origin to St. Mark the Evangelist, who brought the faith to Alexandria. Monasticism began in Egypt with St. Anthony of the Desert and St. Pachomius. Alexandria was one of the original five Patriarchates within the Roman Empire and served as a major theological center, home to St. Clement, Origen, St. Athanasius, and St. Cyril. St Athanasius (295-373) was the defender and champion of the Nicene Creed. And since Jesus Christ was the same substance as God the Father, he called the Blessed Virgin Mary the Mother of God. He also was the first to list the final Canon of the New Testament in 367 AD.
The vast majority of Christians in Egypt belong to the Coptic Oriental Orthodox Church with 9 million members, as they believe that Jesus Christ was one incarnate nature of the Word of God. It was not until November 26, 1895 that the Catholic Patriarchate was established by Pope Leo XIII. The Coptic Catholic Church represents less than 2% of the Christian population of Egypt.
The traditional Liturgy and Scripture of Coptic Christians was in the Coptic language, but now they usually celebrate their liturgy in Arabic, and have an Arabic Bible. The Arabic Bible of the Coptic Oriental Orthodox Church includes all 27 Books of the New Testament. All Christians in Egypt have recently suffered persecution at the hands of Muslim fundamentalists.
The Coptic Orthodox Church has established a significant presence throughout Australia, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the USA. 5, 22
Ethiopia has a rich Biblical history, as it was identified with the ancient land of Cush (Genesis 2:13), with the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon (I Kings 10), and is noted in Psalm 68:32. The original Bible of the Ethiopian Church is of great interest, as it includes the Books of Enoch and Jubilees in its Old Testament, both of which have recently been discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ethiopia is the only country which remained independent during the years of Colonial Africa.
Philip met a minister of Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians, on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza in Acts 8:27. Christianity fluorished in Ethiopia following the efforts of St. Frumentius in the fourth century and the faith took on uniquely African characteristics. The Ethiopian Church also separated from Rome following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and formed the Ethiopian Oriental Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which remains both the largest Oriental Orthodox Church and the largest Christian Church in Ethiopia and Eritrea with a total of over 36 million members. The Church liturgy was once based on the Coptic rite, and the Church was under the jurisdiction of the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria. Their liturgical language is Gheez, the native Ethiopian tongue and one of the Semitic languages, although parts of the liturgy are said in Amharic, the modern language based on the Gheez script. Ethiopia remains predominantly a Christian nation and is one of the earliest nations to embrace Christianity in Africa.
Attempts at reunion with Rome failed until World War II during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, when Catholic missionary activity resumed. Stability slowly developed, until Rome established a Metropolitan see in Addis Ababa in 1961. Catholics in Ethiopia and Eritrea comprise less than 1% of the Christian population.
Eritrea achieved independence from Ethiopia in 1993, and established their capital at Asmara by the Red Sea. The Eritrean Catholic Church is now a separate Metropolitan church on its own. The Archbishop of the Eritrean Eastern Catholic Church resides in Asmara. 5, 11, 12
The Great Schism of 1054 left the Roman Catholic West divided from the Byzantine or Greek Orthodox East. There are several Eastern Catholic communities that trace their heritage to the Patriarchate of Constantinople and preserve the Byzantine tradition in their liturgy - the Italo-Albanian Eastern Catholic Church, and Eastern Orthodox communities that have had part of their faithful reunite with Rome to form the Byzantine Eastern Catholics.
The Byzantine or Greek liturgy is based on the tradition of St. Basil (Lent) and the subsequent reform of St. John Chrysostom (Sundays and weekdays). In addition, the Liturgy of St. James is celebrated twice a year, and that of St. Mark once a year. Leavened bread is used for the Divine Liturgy. Of interest, the doxology following the Our Father, "For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory," was found in the New Testament Codex used by St. John Chrysostom. The Byzantine Rite also has its own cycle of liturgical feasts and saints, ethnic traditions, and Church law. For example, the Byzantines make the Sign of the Cross from right to left. Byzantine Catholic Churches allow clerical marriage (I Timothy 3:2-5).
Southern Italy, Sicily, and Illyricum had a large Greek-speaking population since the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. In the fifteenth century, Byzantine Catholics from Southern Albania migrated to southern Italy to escape Turkish persecution. Known both as the Italo-Greek Church as well as the Italo-Albanian Byzantine Church, the Byzantine Catholics of Italy have preserved the Byzantine rite to the present day, even though the area was within the Latin Patriarchate. The Italo-Albanian Byzantine Catholic Church and the Maronite Church have always remained faithful to Rome and have no Orthodox counterpart.
The Byzantine Catholic Church in Italy maintains an eparchy (diocese) at Lungro in southern Italy, an eparchy at Piana of the Albanians in Sicily, and the exarchic monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata in Rome. 5, 12, 23, 24
The Bulgarian Church adopted the Byzantine rite in the ninth century, thanks to the efforts of Saints Cyril and Methodius of Thessalonica, who are known as the Apostles to the Slavs. They formed the Cyrillic alphabet for the Slavonic languages. Slavonic became the common liturgical language of the Bulgarian, Russian, and Serbian churches. Bulgaria was the first slavic nation to adopt Byzantine Christianity under Tsar Simeon circa 927 AD. 99% of Bulgarian Christians belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church of Bulgaria, with 8 million members.
The Bulgarian Eastern Catholic Church was recognized by Pope Pius IX in 1861, but suffered terribly during the Balkan Wars and are few in number. The Apostolic Delegate Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the beloved Pope John XXIII, who served in Bulgaria from 1925-1934, arranged a missionary Apostolic Exarchate in Sofia in 1926, which evolved into an Eparchy or Diocese. 5, 6, 11, 25
The Byzantine Orthodox Archbishop serves as the Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and All Palestine, and is considered the successor to St. James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem. The Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem resides and remains the primary custodian of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as well as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The majority of the membership speak Arabic.
Mount Athos in northern Greece is a center of Orthodox monasticism. About 99% of the population of Greece consider themselves Greek Orthodox. The Orthodox Church of Greece has 10 million members.
Catholic missionary work among the Greek Orthodox actually began in Constantinople in 1856 by Father John Marangos. Pope Pius X on June 11, 1911 created an Ordinariate for Greek Catholics. The entire Byzantine Catholic community was moved to Greece in a general exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, and a missionary Apostolic Exarchate was established in 1923 in Athens for the minimal number of Greek Catholics. 5, 6
Byzantine Catholicism has been present in Hungary ever since the Middle Ages, and has grown over time through conversion of both Orthodox and Protestants. Pope Leo XIII approved a petition from Hungarian Byzantine Catholics to have their own Diocese on June 18, 1912. The Hungarian Church has grown, as both Byzantine and Ruthenian Catholics in Hungary began to celebrate the liturgy in Hungarian. The Hungarian Byzantine Catholic Church is now a Metropolitan Church. 5, 12
The first recorded introduction of Christianity into Europe was by St. Paul in Philippi, Macedonia on his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 16:12).
Byzantine missionaries went to Serbia, which accepted Christianity in the second half of the ninth century. The Eastern Orthodox Church of Serbia now has 8 million members.
The Greek Catholic Church in Croatia was organized by Christians who had fled their homes from Bosnia, Dalmatia, and Slovenia during the Turkish invasions. Pope Pius VI gave the Balkan Christians their own diocesan bishop on June 17, 1777, with the seat in Krizevci, Croatia. The diocese of Krizevci was extended to all Greek Catholics in Yugoslavia when the country was founded after World War I. The Church was reorganized with the 1991 dissolution of Yugoslavia into independent republics. In 2001 an Apostolic Exarchate was established for Macedonia, which reports directly to the Holy See. In 2003 an Apostolic Exarchate was established in Ruski Krstur for Serbia and Montenegro, which remains in association with Krizevci. The eparchy (diocese) of Krizevci also serves Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina. 3, 5, 6
Melkites are descended from the ancient followers of Christ in the Holy Land who adhered to the Council of Chalcedon, and follow the Byzantine rite of worship. The word "Melkite" derives from the same Phoenician and Hebrew root which means "king" or "kingly." The Melkites trace their origin to Antioch, but adopted the Byzantine liturgy following the Crusades. The Melkite Patriarch resides in Damascus, Syria.
The Melkites separated from the Byzantine Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and reentered into communion with Rome as the Melkite Byzantine Eastern Catholic Church, on an "equal-with-equal" basis in 1724. They are the most tenacious in preserving their Byzantine identity within the Catholic Church. The Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV played a major role at the Second Vatican Council.
The Melkites have a strong presence throughout the Levant with Churches in Damascus, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Haifa, Acre, Lebanon, and Petra, Jordan. As most Middle Eastern Churches, they generally celebrate their liturgy in Arabic and have an Arabic Bible. They have over 1.5 million members throughout the Middle East and the world, including Eparchies in Jerusalem, Akka, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, and Newton, Massachusetts. 1, 5, 12, 19
Romania has a Latin culture, and Romanian is one of the romance languages. Modern Romania basically arose from the principalities of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Transylvania, once part of Hungary. Romania is predominantly an Orthodox country, as the Romanian Eastern Orthodox Church has over 20,000,000 members.
The Romanian Byzantine Catholic Church has undergone intense persecution since Communist rule. Aware of Protestant inroads, the Orthodox Metropolitan of Transylvania sought and achieved union with Rome on September 4, 1700, establishing the Romanian Byzantine Catholic Church. The Romanian Church went underground during Communist rule, and was re-established by Pope John Paul II on March 14, 1990. The Romanian Byzantine Catholic Church has since flourished. 5, 6, 26
The Ruthenians, or Rusyns, have a noble history and an indomitable spirit, having suffered persecution in their homeland of Carpatho-Rus and elsewhere. They trace their origin to the Byzantine Saints Cyril and Methodius who set out to the land of Carpatho-Rus or Moravia. The two were successful in bringing conversion of the people, for they created an alphabet primarily of Greek letters to complement the native tongue of this Slavic nation. The liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was translated into the Cyrillic alphabet and Byzantine Catholicism prevailed. The Union of Uzhorod in 1646 reunited them to Rome after the Schism of 1054 between Catholic and Orthodox.
Some Ruthenian Catholics migrated to the United States in the nineteenth century and were often accompanied by their own married priests. The US Roman Catholic hierarchy requested a ban on married priests, approved by the Vatican in the decree Cum Data Fuerit in 1929. Dismay led many Ruthenian Catholics to petition Constantinople, who received this group to form the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the USA. They are headquartered in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Pope Francis lifted the ban in a Decree on June 14, 2014 allowing the ordination of married men to the priesthood in Eastern Catholic churches outside their traditional territories, including the United States, Canada and Australia!
Today there are three distinct Ruthenian Catholic jurisdictions: the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Metropolitanate in the United States centered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, declared a Metropolitan Church sui juris in 1969; an Eparchy in Ukraine; and an Apostolic Exarchate in the Czech Republic. The Ruthenians have recently flourished, preserved the Byzantine liturgy, and have allowed married priests. 5, 12, 27
The nation of Czechoslovakia dissolved into Slovakia and the Czech Republic on January 1, 1993. The modern country of Slovakia is bordered by Poland to the North, Ukraine to the east, Hungary to the south, and the Czech Republic and Austria to the west. It is divided from the Czech Republic by the Carpathian mountains. The Byzantine Catholic Church traces their heritage to the missionaries Saints Cyril and Methodius who arrived in the ninth century AD. Cyril developed the first Slavic alphabet and translated the Gospel into the Slavonic language. The religious history of the Byzantine Catholics in Slovakia is closely related to the Rusyns, as both were reunited to Rome following the Great Schism by the Union of Uzhorod in 1646, and both Slovak and Rusyn Byzantine Catholics were included in the territory of Czechoslovakia after World War I. Many have returned to their Greek Catholic roots following Communist suppression, and Pope John Paul II has supported the Church by creating an Apostolic Exarchate of Slovakia in 1997. Pope Benedict XVI recently has elevated the Church to a Metropolitan Eastern Catholic Church. 5, 12
Ukraine was known as Kievan Rus from the 9th to the 16th century, and adopted Byzantine Christianity in 988. Following the Great Schism, the Ukraine and Belarus rejoined Rome in the Union of Brest in 1595. In spite of overwhelming persecution by Communist rule, the Ukrainian Catholic Church has recovered and is now the largest Eastern Catholic Church with about 4.5 million faithful! The liturgy is traditionally in the Slavonic language, although parts of the Divine Liturgy are in Ukrainian.
The Lviv Theological Academy evolved into Ukrainian Catholic University, the first Catholic University in the former Soviet Union and the first university opened by an Eastern Catholic Church! The Ukrainian Catholic Church now has a presence in the USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, England and Australia. The Ukrainian people have a special devotion to the Blessed Mother, and her reported appearances at Hrushiv and Seredne encouraged the faith of these devout people. 5, 12, 23
This group includes the Albanian, Belarusan, and Russian Byzantine Communities, and a newly-designated Apostolic Administrator for Byzantine Catholics in Kazakhstan and Central Asia.
There is an Albanian Byzantine Catholic Community with a surviving presence in Southern Albania. The Church, along with its Orthodox counterpart, has been almost completely absorbed by the Latin rite. The Albanian Byzantine Catholic Community is administered from Southern Albania. Both Catholic and Orthodox have faced persecution under the Albanian communist government, and are few in number.
Byelorussia, east of Poland, became Belarus with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Belarusan Greek Catholics originated from the Union of Brest in 1595. They have suffered persecution throughout history. While they do not have an official hierarchy approved by Rome, their communities, which celebrate the Byzantine liturgy, are beginning to thrive with the end of Communist oppression.
The Russian Eastern Orthodox Church enjoys 110 million members since the fall of Communism, headed by the Patriarch of Moscow. The Russian Government has supported the Russian Orthodox Church and has restricted inroads from other groups such as the Catholic Church. Three tiny communities of Russian Byzantine Catholics exist in Harbin, China, the United States, and Canada without hierarchy. 5, 6, 12
The surprise announcement of Pope John XXIII for a Second Vatican Council on January 25, 1959 was welcomed with open arms by the Christian Churches of the East, for the Pope called not only for "an intense spiritual cultivation" of the modern world, but also for a "renewed invitation to the faithful of separated communities." His opening speech convening the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962 signaled a turning point for improved relations between East and West, as he called for Christian Unity. 28
Perhaps the primary issue between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox centers on the hierarchy of the Church. Eastern Christians find Scriptural support in the election of Matthias to fill the place of Judas Iscariot in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:15-26). Peter "stood up among the brethren" and presided over the group of about 120. The Apostles and disciples "put forward" two, Joseph and Matthias. "And for them they cast lots, and the lots fell on Matthias" (Acts 1:26).
Rome sees the Pope as the Pastor and Shepherd to the whole Church, citing Matthew 16:18-19, when Jesus gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom, and John 21:15-17, the three calls to Peter to "feed my lambs." Thus the Pope appoints each new Roman Catholic bishop throughout the world. The Eastern Orthodox see the Pope, the Bishop of Rome and representative of Peter, as "presiding with love, as a first among equals." Thus the final choice of a bishop for each autocephalous ("self-headed") Orthodox Church is chosen by its synod of bishops. Eastern Catholics maintain an intermediate position, as described by Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV, who pointed out the appointment of bishops in the East is done by synods of bishops and then simply confirmed by the Pope. It is the hope that Eastern Catholics serve as a bridge between Catholic and Orthodox! 3, 6, 7, 29
The Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches passed on November 21, 1964 with a vote of 2110 to 39, and was promulgated by Pope Paul VI the same day. The Decree was key to Catholic unity, for it insisted on the equality of rites, avoidance of latinization, and the restoration of the heritage of each Eastern Church.
Important concessions were the recognition of each group of Eastern Catholics as Churches with a particular rite or tradition (OE 2 - Orientalium Ecclesiarum, Article 2), and that these Churches are of equal rank (OE 3). Eastern hierarchies should be established where needed (OE 4), and the Churches of the East like those of the West have the right and duty to govern themselves according to their own discipline and tradition (OE 5), as well as the role of the Patriarch (OE 7-11).
Articles 12-18 address the particular issues of sacramental discipline, especially those involving mixed marriages and the reception of sacraments. Articles 19-23 concern Divine Worship, for example, the faithful should follow the liturgical dates - including Easter - of their own particular tradition. Article 23 confirms the authority of the Patriarch or each church to regulate the use of languages in the sacred liturgical functions and of approving translations of texts into the vernacular or native language.
Articles 24-30 define the special role of Eastern Catholics in promoting the unity of all Christians, especially with the Eastern Orthodox, "first by prayer, then by the example of their own lives, by their fidelity to the ancient traditions of the East, and by working together and a brotherly attitude" (OE 24), so that all Christians may be one (OE 30).
The Second Vatican Council and Orientalium Ecclesiarum have had a dramatic impact on the viability of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Father Giles Dimock of the Dominican Institute in Washington D. C. has pointed out that one should adopt the faith of his heritage (personal communication). Article 6 of the Decree confirms that members should "strive to return to their ancestral traditions." The statistics on Eastern Catholics are clearly underestimated, for there are Eastern Catholics worldwide that do not have their Eastern Church available in their region. The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council is apparent in the renewed commitment to Christian unity, in the unity of Catholics among themselves, and especially in the spiritual renewal of Eastern Catholics. 1, 2, 28-30
Pope John Paul II made a tremendous commitment for the protection and survival of the Eastern Churches throughout the world. His lifelong dedication to the Second Vatican Council was particularly evident in his efforts on behalf of the Eastern Catholic Churches.
In addition to his international visits to the Eastern Churches, Pope John Paul II promulgated The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, published on October 18, 1990, and which came into effect on October 1, 1991. The Code governs and protects the ecclesial life of the Eastern Catholic Churches. These churches are divided into four categories depending on historical duration and stability: Patriarchates, Major Archepiscopal Churches, Metropolitan Churches, and Other Churches sui juris or autonomous, which include nine Eastern Catholic communities with territorial eparchies or missionary apostolic exarchates: Italo-Albanian eparchies of Italy, and the Exarchic monastery of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata; Ruthenian Eparchy of Mukachevo in Ukraine; Eparchy of Križevci in Croatia; Eparchy of Strumica-Skopje in North Macedonia; Eparchy of Ruski Krstur in Serbia; Eparchy of Sofia in Bulgaria; Apostolic exarchates of Greece and Turkey; and the Apostolic exarchate of the Czech Republic. The Patriarchates have the highest degree of independence, and elect their own Patriarch, who in turn request ecclesiastical communion with Rome. The Major Archepiscopal Churches require the elected Major Archbishop to be confirmed by the Pope. The Metropolitan Churches submit three names, one of which is chosen by the Pope. The Pope names the head of the Church in the fourth group. The following image categorizes the Eastern Catholic Churches: 2, 5, 10, 12
In summary, the Second Vatican Council and the efforts of Pope John Paul II have produced worldwide expansion of the Eastern Catholic Churches. In the United States, for example, Eparchies exist for the Maronites (Brooklyn and Los Angeles); the Ukrainian Catholics (Philadelphia); the Melkites (Newton, Massachusetts); the Syro-Malabars (St. Thomas in Chicago); the Ruthenian Byzantines (Pittsburgh); the Romanians (Canton, Ohio); the Chaldeans (Southfield, Michigan and San Diego, California); the Syrians (Newark, New Jersey), and the Armenian Catholics in New York. 5, 12, 28
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7 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Second Edition, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, paragraphs 461-478, 1203, 1580; 2000.
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12 2019 Statistics, The Catholic East. Valore Italiano and the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Pontifical Oriental Institute, The Vatican, Italy, 2019.
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25 Christopher Dawson. "The Byzantine Renaissance," in The Making of Europe. (London: Sheed & Ward, 1932), 155-168.
26 Church of Romania. New Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 12, 337-340, 2003.
27 "Pontifical Ruling on Married Eastern Clergy," Acta Apostolicae Sedis Vol CVI, No 6, 496-499, June 6, 2014, www.vatican.va; Translation byzcath.org.
28 Pope John XXIII. Announcement and Opening of Second Vatican Council. Vatican II Council Daybook, Volume 1, Session 1, October 11- December 8, 1962. National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington, D. C., 1-2, 25-29, 31, 43, 54, 1965.
29 Vatican II Council Daybook, Volume 1, Session 2, September 29-December 4, 1963: 168, 1965.
30 Vatican II Council Daybook, Volume 2, Session 3, September 14-November 21, 1964: 142, 1965.