If you are reading this, chances are that you are a Roman Catholic. Or, to put it more officially, you are a Catholic of the Roman Rite within the Latin Catholic Church. Sounds a little confusing, doesn’t it? What’s the purpose then of having such a long description for someone most people will call simply “a Roman Catholic”? That’s because not every Catholic is Latin. This is something many Latin Catholics are not aware of. I know one priest who describes himself this way: “Oh, I’m a Catholic all right, just not a Roman or Latin Catholic.” So what exactly is he talking about then? Well, it turns out that this man is what we call an Eastern Catholic, and belongs to one of 23 Eastern Catholic Churches. This essay will serve as an introduction for those Roman Catholics who are not very familiar with the Eastern Catholic Churches.
Oftentimes, when one passes one of these churches, you’ll hear the comment “Wait, it doesn’t say ‘Roman’ Catholic… Are they really Catholic?” To be sure, some churches call themselves “Catholic” (e.g., the Old Catholic Church, the Polish National Catholic Church), and are in fact not in communion with the Catholic Church. However, this article is not dealing with such organizations, and instead is focusing on those Churches that are truly Catholic. Unfortunately, some people are very weary of, or sometimes, even show a hostility towards these true Churches (including people I have known) when they are unfamiliar with them. But once these people get the real story, and are able to appreciate the beautiful patrimony and treasure of the Eastern Catholic Churches, it’s obvious that you don’t have to be “Roman” to be fully Catholic.
Before we go any further, let’s first define terms. Many people misunderstand what the Catholic Church is in relation to the Eastern Churches. Now, we have the Catholic Church. No prefixes, no other labels, nothing else. We just have the Catholic Church, or if one wants to, we can refer to this as the Universal Catholic Church.
As it turns out, there are 24 sui iuris (autonomous or self-governing) Churches within the Catholic Church. These 24 Churches are all in communion with one another and all recognize the primacy of the Pope in Rome.
The Latin (or Roman, but we’ll continue to refer to it as “Latin” from now on) Catholic Church is the largest of these 24 Churches, and is the only Western Church. The other 23 Catholic Churches are all referred to as Eastern Churches and have their own traditions and forms of Liturgy that at many times are quite different from the Latin Church’s traditions and Liturgies, while almost paradoxically, retain the same basic liturgical structures and theology as seen in the West. Usually, in the media and in other places throughout our daily lives, the entire Catholic Church is commonly referred to as the Roman Catholic Church. Obviously that's not correct, and lots of Catholics get confused by that too. It's just a common mistake. It’s one we really shouldn’t be making any more, though. Sometimes it surprises me to see that so many people are completely ignorant, or know very little of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Many Popes over the last few hundred years have sought to safeguard the significance of the Eastern Churches, and bring Latin Catholics to a greater knowledge of their Catholic brothers and sisters. It’s amazing how much time we seem to spend in ecumenism between other non-Catholic Christians, yet we forget that we have Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters that we remain ignorant about, and fail to learn from their rich patrimony.
Pope Leo XIII had this to say of the Eastern Catholic Churches in his Apostolic Letter Orientalium Dignitas in 1894:
“The Churches of the East are worthy of the glory and reverence that they hold throughout the whole of Christendom in virtue of those extremely ancient, singular memorials that they have bequeathed to us. For it was in that part of the world that the first actions for the redemption of the human race began, in accord with the all-kind plan of God. They swiftly gave forth their yield: there flowered in first blush the glories of preaching the True Faith to the nations, of martyrdom, and of holiness. They gave us the first joys of the fruits of salvation. From them has come a wondrously grand and powerful flood of benefits upon the other peoples of the world...”
In addition to this, it goes without saying that all 23 Eastern Catholic Churches submit to the doctrines and dogmas defined by the Catholic Church. Dogmas cannot be rejected by Catholics, be they Eastern or Western. As the Council Fathers during the Second Vatican Council taught in Unitatis Redintegratio: “All in the Church must preserve unity in essentials. But let all, according to the gifts they have received enjoy a proper freedom, in their various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in their different liturgical rites, and even in their theological elaborations of revealed truth.”
Eastern Catholics may go about their theology in a way that is different from what we see in the Latin Church, but it is equally valid and never strays from the essentials of doctrine. Furthermore, this means that any Catholic of a sui iuris Church may receive the sacraments and attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (or Divine Liturgy, Holy Qurbono, etc. as it is called in the East) at any sui iuris Church. Each of the 24 Churches are fully Catholic; one can fulfill their obligation for Mass at any one of these Churches whenever they want.
This high praise for the Eastern Catholic Churches was continued in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, specifically in Orientalium Ecclesiarum, promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1964, emphases mine:
“The Catholic Church holds in high esteem the institutions, liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and the established standards of the Christian life of the Eastern Churches, for in them, distinguished as they are for their venerable antiquity, there remains conspicuous the tradition that has been handed down from the Apostles through the Fathers…
“The Holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government and who, combining together into various groups which are held together by a hierarchy, form separate Churches or Rites. Between these there exists an admirable bond of union, such that the variety within the Church in no way harms its unity; rather it manifests it, for it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite should retain its traditions whole and entire and likewise that it should adapt its way of life to the different needs of time and place.
“These individual Churches, whether of the East or the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves in… liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage, are, nevertheless, each as much as the others, entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in primacy over the universal Church.”
Now we’ve seen a few times the words “rite” and “Church” pop up. What the difference between these terms? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USSCB) put it pretty succinctly in 1999: “We have been accustomed to speaking of the Latin (Roman or Western) Rite or the Eastern Rites to designate these different Churches. However, the Church's contemporary legislation as contained in the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches makes it clear that we ought to speak, not of rites, but of Churches. Canon 112 of the Code of Canon Law uses the phrase 'autonomous ritual Churches' to designate the various Churches.”
In the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches the USCCB speaks of, Canons 27 and 28 clearly define what the difference is between “rites” and “churches”:
“Canon 27 - A group of Christian faithful united by a hierarchy according to the norm of law which the supreme authority of the Church expressly or tacitly recognizes as sui iuris is called in this Code a Church sui iuris.
“Canon 28 - A rite is the liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary patrimony, culture and circumstances of history of a distinct people, by which its own manner of living the faith is manifested in each Church sui iuris.”
To simplify, the Catholic Church is divided into six distinct rites, and within those six rites, there are 24 distinct and autonomous Churches. Of course, to reiterate, all 24 of these Churches are in communion with the Pope in Rome. Below is a list of the six rites of the Catholic Church, followed by which sui iuris Churches are contained within them:
A. Latin Rite
1. Latin (or Roman) Catholic Church
B. Alexandrian Rite
2. Coptic Catholic Church
3. Eritrean Catholic Church
4. Ethiopian Catholic Church
C. West Syrian (or Antiochene) Rite
5. Maronite Catholic Church
6. Syriac Catholic Church
7. Syro-Malankara Catholic Church
D. Armenian Rite
8. Armenian Catholic Church
E. Chaldean (or East Syrian) Rite
9. Chaldean Catholic Church
10. Syro-Malabar Catholic Church
F. Constantinopolitan (or Byzantine) Rite
11. Albanian Catholic Church
12. Belarusian Catholic Church
13. Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church
14. Byzantine Church of Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro (or Križevci Catholic Church)
15. Greek Byzantine Catholic Church
16. Hungarian Greek Catholic Church
17. Italo-Albanian Catholic Church
18. Macedonian Catholic Church
19. Melkite Greek Catholic Church
20. Romanian Catholic Church
21. Russian Catholic Church
22. Ruthenian Catholic Church (also known as the Byzantine Catholic Church in the United States)
23. Slovak Catholic Church
24. Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
A good visual of all this can be found by checking out this handy flow chart HERE. Now that we have a list of all the Churches in communion with the Pope in Rome, we have a good starting point and a nice reference to go back to. We can see that each of these Churches come from distinct cultural backgrounds, from all corners of the Earth, yet each of these 24 Churches all share the same Catholic faith! How amazing is that; that our holy Catholic Church has such a multitude of traditions (small “t”) while keeping the same unbroken Tradition (big “T”) from Apostolic times?! After this primer, we will be following up with five more essays detailing each of the five Eastern Liturgical Rites and their respective Churches. But this being an introduction, it would be good to note right now that each of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches (save two) have an Eastern or Oriental Orthodox counterpart.
When the Great Schism occurred in 1054, the Church was splintered, but over time parts of these Churches came back into communion with the Catholic Church. The next essays will detail when these reunions happened. As for the only two Churches that never broke communion with Rome, those would be the Maronite Catholic Church and the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church.
As was mentioned above, many of the Eastern Catholic Churches have traditions (with a small “t”) that differ from the Latin Catholic Church. But it should be duly noted that all of the Eastern Catholic Churches are fully Catholic in that they recognize the timeless Tradition (with a big “T”) of the Catholic Church, such as the seven sacraments, the primacy of the Pope, and as was mentioned previously, the doctrine and dogmas defined by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, and so on. Still, the Eastern Catholic Churches are exhorted to retain their own theological understandings of doctrine (e.g., the Assumption) and to express it in the way they have received from their bishops and teachers of blessed memory. Referring back to Unitatis Redintegratio, the Fathers of the Council had this to say:
“What has just been said about the lawful variety that can exist in the Church must also be taken to apply to the differences in theological expression of doctrine. In the study of revelation East and West have followed different methods, and have developed differently their understanding and confession of God's truth. It is hardly surprising, then, if from time to time one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or has expressed it to better advantage. In such cases, these various theological expressions are to be considered often as mutually complementary rather than conflicting.”
So what are some of these traditions then? Briefly, as we’ll go into more detail in the next series of essays, these traditions include a married priesthood, or the use of leavened bread at the celebration of the Eucharist. Some of these Churches that use leavened bread (mostly in the Byzantine Rite) and even some that use unleavened bread as Latin Catholics do (i.e. the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church), distribute Holy Communion through intinction. Through intinction, the consecrated Host is placed in the chalice and is given together with the consecrated Blood directly into the communicant's mouth, often with a small, liturgical spoon. Other traditions include sacramentals such as prayer ropes or chotki, and different devotional prayers such as the Jesus Prayer. These are all things that might seem a bit foreign to many Latin Catholics, but as seen by the words of various Popes, these liturgical traditions are all as equally valid and to the faithful’s benefit as are traditional Latin devotions.
Pope St. John Paul II laid it out pretty plainly when he said that “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!” The East and West are part of the same Body, therefore the entire Church should appreciate and respect the valid gifts and traditions that are breathed from both traditions. St. John Paul further stated in his 1995 Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen (Light of the East), with my emphases:
“Since, in fact, we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ's Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each.
“Our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters are very conscious of being the living bearers of this tradition, together with our Orthodox brothers and sisters. The members of the Catholic Church of the Latin tradition must also be fully acquainted with this treasure and thus feel, with the Pope, a passionate longing that the full manifestation of the Church's catholicity be restored to the Church and to the world, expressed not by a single tradition, and still less by one community in opposition to the other; and that we too may be granted a full taste of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church which is preserved and grows in the life of the Churches of the East as in those of the West…
“It has been stressed several times that the full union of the Catholic Eastern Churches with the Church of Rome which has already been achieved must not imply a diminished awareness of their own authenticity and originality. Wherever this occurred, the Second Vatican Council has urged them to rediscover their full identity, because they have ‘the right and the duty to govern themselves according to their own special disciplines. For these are guaranteed by ancient tradition, and seem to be better suited to the customs of their faithful and to the good of their souls.’
“…[C]onversion is… required of the Latin Church, that she may respect and fully appreciate the dignity of Eastern Christians, and accept gratefully the spiritual treasures of which the Eastern Catholic Churches are the bearers, to the benefit of the entire Catholic communion; that she may show concretely, far more than in the past, how much she esteems and admires the Christian East and how essential she considers its contribution to the full realization of the Church's universality.”
Over the coming days and weeks, we will explore much more in-depth what “spiritual treasures” these Eastern Catholic Churches hold and gift to the universal Catholic Church.