In the previous essay, we took a look at the rich history of the various particular Churches in the Byzantine Rite. Now, we'll look more closely at the liturgy and traditions of Byzantine Catholics, as well as what's happening in each particular Church today.
Liturgy and Traditions
The Byzantine Rite features two main liturgies, and a third that is used sparingly. All of these Divine Liturgies feature three main aspects. The first part of the liturgy is the Preparation. Here, the priest and deacon privately say their vesting prayers, venerate the icons, and prepare the bread and wine for the Eucharist. Next follows the Liturgy of the Word, also known as the Liturgy of the Catechumens. This encompasses the readings and homily. Finally, the Liturgy of Sacrifice, or Liturgy of the Faithful takes place. This is where the consecration happens and the faithful receive the Eucharist. As for the different liturgies themselves, the first, and most common, is the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. This liturgy is basically a reformed and slightly shortened version of the older Liturgy of St. Basil. St. John Chrysostom became patriarch of Constantinople in 397, and it was then that he made changes to the Liturgy of St. Basil in order that fickle persons would not stay away from the holy sacrifice because of length of time.
The Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, however, is still used on certain days throughout the year, and as mentioned above, is basically the same as the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, but longer with several more prayers included. This form of the liturgy is only said about 10 times per year. That includes every Sunday in Lent and on his feast day, January 1st. The liturgy is also combined with Vespers on Holy Thursday, Holy Saturday, the vigil of Christmas and the vigil of the Epiphany (or, Theophany, as it is called in the East). The third of these liturgies is very rarely, if ever, used and is known as the ancient Liturgy of St. James, which we see used often in the Syrian Rites. In the Byzantine Rite, this liturgy is only used on the feast of St. James the Less, which is October 23rd, as well as the Sunday after Christmas. In addition to these three liturgies, there is one more named the Liturgy of the Presanctified. This is what Latin Catholics see every Good Friday in their churches, but the practice of having a liturgy with an already consecrated Eucharist began in the East. This liturgy is only said typically on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent. The sacrifice of the Mass does not take place during the week in Lent; Sunday is the only day.
While Lent is something common to all rites of the Church, Lent in the Byzantine Rite differs a bit from what we see in the Latin Church. Referred to as “Great Lent”, there is no Ash Wednesday in the Byzantine rite, and Lent instead starts with Clean Monday, and runs 40 days just as Lent does in the Western calendar. The abstinence and fasting laws are also stricter than what is seen in the Latin Churches. As some Latin Catholic dioceses do, all Byzantine Catholics abstain from meat every Friday throughout the year. During Lent, the traditional fast or the modern fast can be observed in many of the Byzantine Churches. The modern fast more closely models the requirements seen in the West, but for those that take part in the traditional fast, much more stringent guidelines are followed. For example, during the pre-Lenten period (which mirrors Septuagesima) some fasting begins a few weeks before Lent; first from meat, and then from all dairy products as well as eggs. The full fast begins on Clean Monday, and abstinence from other foods such as olive oil and even fish takes place on certain days. Other fasts throughout the year precede the Feast of the Dormition (the Assumption) and Christmas.
Interestingly enough, Byzantine Catholics also fast, in a sense, from the Divine Liturgy during Lent, and this is where we see the Liturgy of the Presanctified, as mentioned above. Lent in the Byzantine tradition also features several “All Souls Saturdays”. While the Latin Rite only feature one All Souls Day in November, the Byzantine Rite features several throughout the year, with most taking place within the context of Lent.
Other liturgical traditions include the communing of infants, just as we see in some of the other Eastern Rites. The three sacraments of initiation are all given at the same time, with baptism being given via full immersion, usually dipped into the water three times. The Eucharist is then given, followed by Confirmation, or as it is called in the East, Chrismation. When the Eucharist is administered to the faithful during the Divine Liturgy, it is done through intinction, under both species. The bread used is leavened, and is cut into small cubes, and after the consecration, is put into a chalice which holds the Precious Blood. The Eucharist is given to the faithful through the use of a liturgical spoon. As for the clergy, both species are taken separately. The host is placed in the deacon’s (or assisting priest’s) hand, and, typically, instead of picking the Eucharist up with the other hand as is common in the Latin Rite, the communicant brings his open palm which holds the Eucharist to his mouth, and ensures that no crumbs remain on his hands following consumption.
Married men are also able to become priests in the Byzantine Rite, and unfortunately, this led to some confusion among Latin Catholics in North America and other areas around the diaspora in the early 20th century. This confusion led to the decision to bar any men in the diaspora from entering the priesthood as a married men. Often, a married man was ordained in the Church’s native country (Ukraine or Romania for example), and then the newly ordained priest was sent back to America to serve. Thankfully, in 2015, Pope Francis lifted this restriction on married men serving in the priesthood in the diaspora, and this valid tradition of the Byzantines continues today with more married men entering the priesthood.
As for the liturgical year, it begins on September 1st, and there are 12 major feasts that are celebrated throughout the year. Of those twelve feasts, several are considered Holy Days of Obligation, and these may slightly differ in each particular Church. For example, the Holy Days recognized in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church include Christmas, Theophany (Epiphany), the Ascension, the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, and the Dormition. The remaining Great Feasts all represent an important moment in the life of our Lord or our Lady, such as the Transfiguration or the Nativity of the Mother of God.
The Churches of the Byzantine Rite Today
Ukrainian-Greek Catholic Church
Following Ukrainian independence, the Ukrainian-Greek Catholic Church has enjoyed a great prospering both at home, and even overseas throughout the diaspora. This particular Church is currently the largest of all 23 Eastern Catholic Churches. According to the 2016 Annuario Pontificio, Ukrainian Catholics make up 26% of all Eastern Catholics throughout the world, with a total of over 4.6 million faithful. In just the last year, from 2015 to 2016, the number of priests in grew by 87 men, for a total of 3,405 priests. The number of seminarians also saw some minor growth. It seems that the Ukrainian Catholic Church keeps getting younger, and that is a wonderful thing.
The head of the Church serves as a good example. The Major Archbishop, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, was enthroned on March 25, 2011 at the age of 41. His vigorous approach to the New Evangelization has been met with great success as vocations continue to grow under his leadership. The diaspora has also been in excellent shape, with the recent creation of the Eparchy of the Immaculate Conception in Prudentopolis, Brazil in 2014, as well as growth being recorded in jurisdictions in Paris and Munich. There is also a movement growing for the status of the Church to be raised to a patriarchy from that of a major archiepiscopate. Major Archbishop Shevchuk has typically been referred to as “Patriarch”, but formal conferral of that title from the Holy See still awaits.
Belarusian Catholic Church
Today, the population of this sui iuris Church is miniscule, yet hopeful for the future. According to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), there were 20 parishes in Belarus (with only 13 registered by the state) with 10 priests, serving about 3,000 faithful. There are thought to be another 4,000 faithful dispersed throughout western Europe and North America. The Church currently has no hierarchy of its own, and is entrusted to the care of the Latin Church, subject to the local Latin Ordinaries. The closest thing to an ordinary or leader that this Church has is their Apostolic Visitor, Archimandrite Jan Sergiusz Gajek, M.I.C. The hope for the future, however, can be seen as far away as London. After a few years of planning and construction, the Church of St Cyril of Turau and All the Patron Saints of the Belarusian People was consecrated on December 17, 2016 in Woodside Park London. The church is the first wooden church built in London since the Great Fire of 1666, and hopes to serve the Belarusian, as well as the rest of the Catholic faithful, for years to come.
Križevci Catholic Church
The Church in former Yugoslavia is now comprised of two jurisdictions; the Eparchy of Križevci and the Apostolic Exarchate of Serbia (Novi Sad). The population of this sui iuris Church is miniscule, numbering around 32,000 faithful. There is still hope for the future of this Church, with about 11 men currently in seminary as of 2016. Since the Križevci Catholic Church is so tiny, it does not have a hierarchy of its own, as the Ukrainian and Melkite Catholic Churches do. As the new Apostolic Exarchate is still associated with the Eparchy of Križevci, the leader of the Križevci Catholic Church as a whole would be Bishop Nikola Kekic, who was consecrated bishop of the eparchy in 2009.
Albanian Catholic Church
In 1992, the Communist government in Albania fell, making it easier for Christians to practice their faith. The Albanian Catholic Church had all but evaporated, but the Church appointed Archbishop Ivan Dias, a Latin Catholic as the new Apostolic Administrator to the Albanian Catholics. He was succeeded by a Croatian born Byzantine Catholic, Bishop Hil Kabashi, O.F.M., in 1996. Bishop Kabashi is still the spiritual leader of the Albanian Catholic Church to the present day. He oversees a tiny pocket of Catholicism, which as of 2012 consisted of eight parishes served by 13 priests, made up of a little under 4,000 faithful. It’s hard to say what will become of this particular Church, but for now, the rebuilding continues following years of persecution by an atheistic government.
Ruthenian (or Byzantine) Catholic Church
The Ruthenian Catholic Church has flourished ever since the fall of Communism. A revival of the ancient traditions of the Byzantine Rite has removed many of the Latinizations that crept in during the 19th century, and vocations, especially in the Eparchy of Mukacevo, continue to rise. There are currently over 415,000 faithful throughout the U.S. and Europe. The Ruthenian Catholic Church is a bit odd in how its jurisdictions are handled, however. The head of the Church is Archbishop William Skurla, from the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh. There are three suffragan eparchies under Archbishop Skurla in the U.S., but two other jurisdictions exist in Europe which are immediately subject to the Holy See. Those two jurisdictions are the Eparchy of Mukacevo and the Apostolic Exarchate of the Czech Republic in Prague. Although the three jurisdictions are not united in one synod under one bishop, they still do belong to the same sui iuris Church. While their numbers may not be as large as the Melkites or Ukrainians, the Ruthenian Catholic Church has definitely benefited the universal Church by its tenacity to survive and by spreading the Gospel through its venerable Byzantine tradition.
Hungarian Catholic Church
In recent years, the Hungarian Catholic Church has seen some important developments. On March 20, 2015, Pope Francis elevated the Church to a Metropolitanate, also elevating the Eparchy of Hajdúdorog to the status of a metropolitan see. Archbishop Péter Fülöp Kocsis was appointed as its first metropolitan, and is the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church. In addition to that, the apostolic exarchate of Miskolc was elevated to eparchial status, while a new eparchy, the Eparchy of Nyíregyháza, was also erected. Looking at the Annuario Ponitifico, it might seem odd that this occurred with the population of the Church slightly down in recent years, but rest assured that this Church has been thriving nonetheless, as is evidenced in the number of seminarians (currently 79) which keeps increasing. As of 2016, there are 261 priests for the 255,000 faithful, all mainly residing in Hungary.
Slovak Catholic Church
Like the Hungarian Catholic Church, the Slovak Catholic Church has seen important changes occur in the last 10 years. In 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI elevated this sui iuris Church to a Metropolitanate, making the Archeparchy of Prešov into a Metropolitan see. Pope Benedict XVI also elevated the Apostolic Exarchate of Košice to an eparchy, and created a new eparchy in Bratislava.
The Slovak Catholic Church is headed by Archbishop and Metropolitan Ján Babjak, who was enthroned as the first Metropolitan in 2008. As of 2016, the Church was comprised of over 211.000 faithful in both Europe and Canada, with 511 priests and 88 seminarians serving the laity. Vocations, including those among the female religious, are doing well, and despite a drop in overall membership since 1990, the Church itself is forging ahead strongly.
Romanian Catholic Church
The Romanian Church United with Rome is still recovering from the mark Communism left in their history, waiting for churches currently occupied by the Orthodox to be returned to them. Fortunately, some new parishes have been built in the last 20 or so years, and the Church has seen significant changes in its makeup in recent years. On December 2015, Benedict XVI raised the Church to the status of a major archiepiscopal Church, and named Archbishop Lucian Mure?an of Fagaras and Alba Iulia as the church’s first major archbishop. Archbishop Mure?an still currently reigns as the Church’s head. The Romanian Catholic Church has also devoted much and energy into promoting vocations, opening five minor seminaries while running other theological institutes and colleges throughout the region.
It’s been hard to get accurate information on the current size of the Church in Romania. It’s estimated about 6% or so of the population is Catholic. According to the 2016 Aunnuario Pontificio, the Church (including those faithful in North America) included over 504,000 faithful, served by eight bishops and 877 priests. Vocations, both to the priesthood and female religious orders, are up, with 197 seminarians as of 2016. It’s been hard for this Church to fully recover following the fall of Communism, but with God’s grace, the Church will continue to grow and contribute its treasures to the universal Church.
Melkite Catholic Church
Today, this particular Church is thriving throughout the world, not only in Syria and Lebanon, but in Israel, the United States, Canada, several countries in South America, and Australia. The Melkite Catholic Church is the fourth largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and as of 2016 it boasted 1,522,802 members. Many have immigrated to other countries, but South America is the biggest part of the diaspora, with over 700,000 Melkite Catholic residing in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela. Like the Latin Church, there is somewhat of a vocations crisis, with only 74 seminarians worldwide as of 2016, but overall the Church is prospering and has seen tremendous growth in the last 10 years alone.
The Church has constantly been recognized as a patriarchate, and the current head of the Church is Patriarch Gregory III Laham. His official title is Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, and Alexandria and Jerusalem.
Greek Catholic Church
This particular Church is one of the smallest of all the particular Churches. Greece is predominately Orthodox, and even Roman Catholics in the area don’t number more than 50,000. Those Catholics that worship according to the Byzantine rite number even fewer, and make up less than 1% of all eastern Catholics. According to the 2016 Annuario Pontificio, the Greek Catholic Church consists of around 6,000 members, spread across four recognized parishes around Athens and Istanbul. They are ministered by seven priests and unfortunately have no current seminarians. The Church’s spiritual leader is Bishop Manuel Nin, O.S.B., who was recently appointed to this position by Pope Francis in early 2016. It’s hard to tell how much the Greek Catholic Church will grow, but the faithful within it are testament to the vitality of the Catholic faith; it can exist just about anywhere, even if its numbers are small.
Bulgarian Catholic Church
Today, this small Church consists of only one Apostolic Exarchate, located in Sofia. Since the fall of Communism, the Church’s numbers have remained fairly steady, but there aren’t much more than 10,000 faithful altogether. That number includes 19 priests for 19 parishes, and a few male and female religious as well. The Bulgarian Catholic Church is currently led by Bishop Christo Proykov, Apostolic Exarch of Sofia.
Russian Catholic Church
The Russian Catholic Church may very well be the smallest of all the Byzantine Rite Churches, especially since no solid numbers can be ascertained. Both Apostolic Exarchates are currently vacant, and while there are a few scattered parishes throughout Russia proper, there are no more than four Russian Catholic parishes in the United States, a couple in Argentina and Brazil, and a few more in France, Germany, and Australia. The faithful in these communities are under the jurisdiction of the local Latin Catholic bishops.
In 2004, a small group of Russian Catholic priests petitioned the Holy See for the right to hold an election of a temporary administrator for their Church. St. John Paul II quickly appointed Bishop Joseph Werth of the Latin Diocese of Transfiguration at Novosibirsk as the Ordinary and spiritual leader for Russian Catholics. If anything, the Russian Catholic Church has refused to retreat fully into the shadows. Despite the struggles the faithful have faced, they continue to hold fast to their traditions and make a name for themselves, whether that be in Russia or abroad.
Macedonian Catholic Church
When the Apostolic Exarchate of Macedonia became independent of the Križevci Catholic Church in 2001, the Macedonian Catholic Church was revived. This particular Church currently has one jurisdiction, the same Apostolic Exarchate just mentioned, with the faithful numbering just above 11,000. There are currently 15 priests serving the laity, with another six men attending seminary as of 2016. Like the Belarusian Catholic Church, the Macedonian Catholic Church has no hierarchy of its own, and its spiritual care is entrusted to Kiro Stojanov, the Latin bishop of Skopje.
Italo-Albanian Catholic Church
Today, the Italo-Albanian Catholic Church may be small (they make up less than 1% of all Eastern Catholics), but the faithful of this Church have preserved a tradition that has lasted for centuries in a land that is overwhelmingly Latin Catholic. The 2016 Annuario Pontificio recorded only 56,412 faithful, a drop from the last ten years, yet there are still vocations being formed with 14 seminarians on record. There are 45 registered parishes across the Church’s two eparchies, as well as the small Territorial Abbey of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata. There are essentially two spiritual heads of this particular Church, as the Italo-Albanians have not achieved the numbers to make themselves a Metropolitanate. Bishop Donato Oliverio leads the Eparchy of Lungro and Bishop Giorgio Demetrio Gallaro presides over the Eparchy of Piana degli Albanesi. As we’ve seen with the other small Byzantine sui iuris Churches, these Catholics refuse to let their traditions be forgotten, and with a few seminarians rising through the ranks to join the other 76 priests of their Church, the faithful will hopefully continue to cultivate the rich spiritual treasures of their ancestors so that the entire universal Church may reap the benefits.
In the final essay concerning the Byzantine Rite, we'll take a look at the various saints and blesseds that have come from these particular Churches.