Who Are Eastern Catholics?
Many people do not realize that the Catholic Church is actually composed of some 23 different Churches sui juris
. While the Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest and most powerful of these 23 churches, it is not the whole of the Catholic Church. But what of the other 22 Churches? This article is not intended as a comprehensive listing of all the Churches that comprise the One Catholic Church. Instead, I will be highlighting some of these Churches in order to give a comparison and contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, with which most are familiar.
Each of the 23 churches belongs to a Rite
, or follows certain specific liturgical traditions. The Latin Church, commonly referred to as the Roman Catholic Church, uses the Roman Rite to express their spirituality and patrimony. This would include the Tridentine and Novus Ordo Masses. The Latin Church practices a celibate priesthood, uses statues to help the faithful remember the saints, fasts from all meat except fish on Fridays during Lent, uses a rosary as a prayer counter, etc.
There are several Churches that belong to the Byzantine Rite, including the Melkites, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the Ruthenians, and others. These churches all use the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the Liturgy of St. Basil for their worship services, have practiced for centuries both a married and celibate priesthood, venerate icons instead of statues, fast for the entire period of Lent instead of just on Fridays, use a beaded chotki or knotted komboschoinia as a prayer counter, etc. They bring their liturgical traditions from Greek and Slavic cultural backgrounds, so their Divine Liturgy (Mass) resembles a Greek or Russian Orthodox service. But they are not Orthodox; they are Catholic, in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church and completely under the jurisdictional authority of the Pope of Rome.
In addition to the Byzantine Catholic churches, there are several other Eastern Rite Catholic churches, including Maronite, Syriac, Ethiopian, and Armenian, among others. Most of these churches have Middle East origins. These are the Christians that contend with daily persecution in countries such as Iraq and Egypt. Each has its own Liturgy, its own traditions, and its own way of expressing the Truth of the Catholic Faith. For example, the Ethiopians have a prayer staff with notches to count their prayers, instead of beads or knots.
Most of the Catholics in the United States are Roman Catholic. About 100 years ago, immigrants from Eastern Europe wanted to set up Byzantine Rite parishes here in order to continue their liturgical traditions. An agreement was signed with the Roman Catholic bishops, allowing these Byzantine Rite parishes jurisdictional autonomy from the Roman Catholic Church, as they had in the Old Country, if certain concessions were made on the part of the Byzantine Catholics. One of these concessions was a ban on ordaining married men to the priesthood in North America. The Roman Catholic bishops felt that their laity, who had never heard of married priests, would be scandalized by a married priesthood among the Byzantine Catholics living in the same towns and cities. But today, in this age of information, with the shortage of priests in view, and with the knowlege that married Anglican and Lutheran pastors are converting to Roman Catholicism and being ordained as Catholic priests, many Eastern Catholics are calling for a lifting of the ban. Meanwhile, married Eastern Catholic priests are arriving from Europe in order to pastor congregations that otherwise would be without a priest.
If you live in a large metropolitan area, there are probably several Eastern Catholic parishes within driving distance. You may have even driven past one and said to yourself, "what in the world is a Melkite?" Now you know. Stop in one of these days for Divine Liturgy. Attendance at an Eastern Catholic liturgy fulfills your Sunday obligation to attend Mass. You might want to call ahead first, and find out if they have an English service. Also, watch the other parishioners receive Communion so that you know what to do when you go forward! Most Eastern Rite parishes distribute Communion differently than the Latin Rite does.
If you have the opportunity to attend a Liturgy at a parish of another church sui juris
, take advantage of it. It is a good cultural experience and keeps you aware of the uniqueness of your own church. For example, the Ruthenians and the Melkites are both Byzantine Rite, so it is fairly easy for a Ruthenian to follow along in a Melkite service, yet the tones have an Arabic sound, the icons may be mosaics instead of paintings, and the distribution of Communion is slightly different. I always enjoy comparing the two, and knowing that each is its own expression of faith and love for God.
See also a Brief History of Prayer Beads, including the origin Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Prayer Ropes