Two men flying across the country settle into their seats and soon strike up a conversation. The conversation turns to religion. Paul, a devout Evangelical Protestant, asks Richard, “So, are you a believer?”
“Um, yes. I’m a Catholic,” replies Richard.
“Oh. I see,” says Paul. There is a brief, awkward silence. “I used to be a Catholic.”
“Really?” says Richard.
“Yep. In fact, I used to be an altar boy back when everything was in Latin.”
Richard nods. “Well, my church doesn’t use Latin.”
“Yeah, that all changed in the 60s, didn’t it?”
“What I mean is that my church hasn’t used Latin for centuries, if ever.”
Paul is puzzled. “Oh. Well, one reason I left the Catholic Church is because I believe that married men should be allowed to be priests.”
“My church has always had married priests,” responds Richard.
“What? Really? What about women priests?”
Richard shakes his head. “No women priests. In fact, we don’t even have female altar servers or even extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.”
“You can’t be Catholic!” Paul laughs. “Next you’ll tell me your church doesn’t have statues, rosaries, or adoration!”
Richard smiles. “That’s right—we don’t. Believe it or not, we don’t even kneel while at Mass. And we never celebrate Ash Wednesday.”
“I’m sorry,” Paul says, shaking his head, “but you have to be pulling my leg. I was raised Catholic and I know the pope would never allow the Roman Catholic Church you’re describing to exist.”
“I never said I was Roman Catholic,” says Richard. “I said I was Catholic. And Pope John Paul II explicitly praised the Catholic tradition I come from.”
Those Other Catholics
If you haven’t guessed by now, Richard is an Eastern Catholic. And although Paul’s confusion is unfortunate, it’s also quite understandable. Eastern Catholics often hear these sorts of questions and comments—and not just from non-Catholics. In fact, it sometimes seems that Western Catholics (also called Roman or Latin Catholics) are the most confused about the Eastern Catholic Churches and their customs, beliefs, and place within the Catholic Church.
Of course, many Western Catholics have little if any contact with Eastern Catholicism, as there are far fewer Eastern Catholics than Western Catholics in North America. (Because most Eastern Catholics use the Byzantine rite, this article will focus on that rite in speaking of Eastern Catholicism.)
It is estimated that today there are about 17 million Eastern Catholics worldwide, just a tiny fraction of the estimated total of 1 billion Catholics. Western Catholics who encounter Eastern Catholicism will notice some differences, many of them striking and some of them puzzling. Eastern Catholics don’t attend “Mass” but “Divine Liturgy,” they don’t pray the rosary (a Western devotion), they prefer icons over statues, and their parishes often have no musical instruments—especially no organs—and won’t have perpetual adoration. Many Eastern Catholic parishes have married priests, which can be cause for puzzlement, especially if the discipline of celibacy is mistaken for a dogmatic teaching.
Unfortunately, more than a few Eastern Catholics have been informed by well-meaning Western Catholics that their parish isn’t Catholic and the Eucharist they receive is not valid. An Eastern Catholic from my parish recounts that he was once told by the director of religious education of a Western Catholic parish that his church—The Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church—was “only 80 percent Catholic,” which he found slightly amusing and very frustrating.
Pope John Paul II, who had a great affection for Eastern Christians, was so concerned about such misunderstandings that he wrote Orientale Lumen (Light of the East), an apostolic letter on the Eastern Churches marking the centenary of Leo XIII’s Orientalium Dignitas (On the Churches of the East). The late Holy Father stated that “conversion 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” (OL 21).
In 1999 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the document “Eastern Catholics in the United States of America,” which stated, “The sharing of the riches of the faith and traditions of the East nurtures and strengthens the unity in diversity of the Church.” This concept of unity in diversity is not simply poetic language, nor is it a nod to political correctness. On the contrary, it reflects ancient and important truths about the history, theology, and structure of the Catholic Church.
East and West
As the USCCB document pointed out, the universal Church has traditionally been divided into “East” and “West.” These terms date back to the earliest centuries of Christendom, to the end of the third century and the division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western Empires at the time of Diocletian. In the East, there are four original traditions rooted in Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Jerusalem.
Historically, the Catholic Church had its origins in the East, as Pope John Paul II noted:
Indeed, in comparison to any other culture, the Christian East has a unique and privileged role as the original setting where the Church was born (OL 5).
This echoes Leo XIII’s statement at the opening of Orientalium Dignitas:
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 (OD 1).
The Church was founded in Jerusalem and spread out into Palestine and then into the Mediterranean world, the Near East, and the Middle East. Churches from different regions had their own liturgies, but they were in full communion with the See of Peter.
The East was mostly Greek-speaking, while the West later spoke Latin. The language barrier combined with cultural differences and complex political situations led to quarrels and misunderstandings over theological language and concepts. Sadly, these rifts between the East and West eventually resulted in Christians leaving communion with Rome. After the Council of Ephesus in 431, the Nestorians retreated to Persia and established their own hierarchy. Similar actions took place after the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when the Oriental Orthodox Churches broke away because of disputes over theological definitions.
But the split between East and West became most severe at the end of the first millennium, when a number of ongoing feuds resulted in schism. The year 1054, when Pope Leo IX and the Patriarch Michael Keroularios excommunicated each other, is the convenient date given for the break, but the vicious sacking of Constantinople by Crusaders in 1204 marked the emphatic, violent split between the Eastern and Western Churches. Successive councils attempted to repair the damage, but they failed.
Over the past few centuries, groups of Eastern Christians have come back into communion with Rome and have been recognized as Eastern Catholic Churches. Most of these reunions have taken place in the last five hundred years. For example, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the largest Eastern Catholic Church with some five million members, was founded in 1596. The first bishop of the Coptic Catholic Church was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV in 1741. The Greek Catholic Church, which is very small, wasn’t established until the nineteenth century. The Maronite Catholic Church, founded by the hermit Maron in the fourth century, is unique in that it has always remained in communion with Rome and doesn’t have a counterpart in the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Many in One
Today there are more than twenty Eastern Catholic churches in union with the Pope; they include the Ukrainian, Maronite, Romanian, Melkite, Chaldean, Ruthenian, Coptic, Armenian, and others. Each has its own bishops and each is considered a “particular church,” but their parishes are just as Catholic as the local St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Ignatius of Loyola parish.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that there is one universal Church, the “unique Catholic Church,” and many particular churches, each a community of Catholics who are joined by faith and the sacraments and their bishop (CCC 833). The Second Vatican Council teaches that from these individual churches comes the fullness of the one and only Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium 23).
The term “Roman Catholic Church” can be misleading (it was originally created by Anglicans, not Catholics) because in English-speaking countries it is commonly used to denote the entire Catholic Church—which ignores all the other particular churches that have their own rites and traditions.
Ultimately, true Catholicism is not found in uniform worship or liturgy—the Catholic Church has not, since its earliest days in Jerusalem, been uniform in those areas. Rather, it has been united in its common faith, doctrine, and sacraments, concretely demonstrated by communion with the pope, the bishop of Rome. While there is a proper diversity in the realm of liturgical practice, devotions, and even disciplines, there is an essential unity in doctrine and dogma.
John Paul II explained in Orientale Lumen that the Catholic Church is made up of Christians who are united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments, and the same government, formed into various groups held together by a hierarchy and forming distinct churches or rites (OL 2). He also wrote that the authentic variety within the Church does not harm its unity but “manifests it,” and each particular church “should retain its traditions whole and entire” (OL 2).
The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum) emphasized that “the Catholic Church values highly the institutions of the Eastern Churches, their liturgical rites, their ecclesiastical traditions, and their ordering of Christian life.” It further stated that the tradition found in the Eastern Catholic Churches are of “venerable antiquity” and “has come from the apostles through the Fathers and is part of the divinely revealed, undivided heritage of the Universal Church” (OE 1).
What They Can Teach Us
The Eastern Catholic Churches’ rich treasury of spirituality, practice, and culture demonstrates the true catholicity of the faith and can bring a deeper appreciation for the wonderful gift of the Church, the mystical body of Christ.
This appreciation is evident in the words of John Paul II, who wrote:
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 (OL 1).
All Catholics are united by common doctrines and beliefs, but they often express them in different ways. In Eastern Christianity, theology is not viewed in the scholastic manner that it has often been in the West. Theology cannot be separated from spirituality; they are intimately joined and related. For example, because of the theological emphasis on the participation of the baptized in God’s divine life, even infants are chrismated (confirmed) and receive the Holy Eucharist from baptism onward.
The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity summarizes Eastern Christian spirituality in this way:
From the earliest centuries, the Christian East has understood the practice of theology as primarily a personal communion with Ho Theos, the Father, through the Logos, Christ, in the Holy Spirit, an experience lived in the state of prayer.
Traditions, devotions, and the liturgical life are intertwined; they can be distinguished but never separated. Contemplation of the Triune God is the goal of life, the goal of theology, and the pinnacle of spirituality.
In Eastern Christianity there is an intense focus on the reality of divinization, the partaking of the divine nature of the Triune God. A passage from St. Irenaeus’s Against Heresies (c. 180) aptly captures this point:
For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man and he who was the Son of God became the Son of Man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving adoption, might become son of God.
There is great emphasis on the belief that Christians are called “to become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), not just to be “saved” from sin. Those united to Christ in faith and by the sacraments truly do become filled with the supernatural life of the Triune God and do become true children of God.
Why It’s Important
Knowledge of Eastern Catholicism (and Eastern Christianity in general) can be very helpful to the Catholic apologist, although that shouldn’t be the primary reason for gaining such knowledge. As the fictional conversation between Paul and Richard indicates, the reality of Eastern Catholicism can clear away many misconceptions and misunderstandings about Catholicism in general.
For example, the fact that married men are allowed to become priests in the Eastern Churches helps to do away with the notion that the Catholic Church has dogmatically declared that all priests must be celibate; it can help to demonstrate the difference between dogmas and disciplines.
Many people, including some Catholics, think the Christian world has always been made up of Catholics and Protestants, so it’s helpful to point out that prior to the Protestant Reformation, all Christians—Catholic, Orthodox, and Ancient Oriental—believed in the Real Presence, the sacramental forgiveness of sins, a priestly hierarchy, and veneration of the saints. Knowledge of Eastern Christianity, both Catholic and otherwise, can be invaluable when discussing Church history, doctrine, and practice.
Most importantly, the Eastern Churches show forth the authentic unity and diversity that is truly Catholic. Eastern Catholics are concrete evidence that the Catholic Church is not a monolithic and homogenous Western institution but an ancient, catholic, and worldwide communion of the faithful united by dogma, doctrine, and the See of Peter. In the beautiful words of the Catechism:
The rich variety of ecclesiastical disciplines, liturgical rites, and theological and spiritual heritages proper to the local churches unified in a common effort, shows all the more resplendently the catholicity of the undivided Church (CCC 835).