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For Catholics, the branches of the Church are properly called the Latin Church and the Eastern Churches. Learn about the Eastern Churches in union with Rome, the four original patriarchates (Church territories headed by a patriarch), the causes and effects of the East-West split and the liturgical families of the Eastern Churches.

Catholic Update

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What All Catholics Should Know About Eastern Catholic Churches

Jesus prays, at the Last Supper, in John’s Gospel, that his followers might “all be one.” Before his ascension, he commissioned his disciples out to preach the gospel “to the whole world” (see Mk 16:15). But, as the Church brought the Christian faith to lands near and far, it strained to maintain common understandings among various peoples.

Early Christianity suffered from disagreements about the nature of Christ’s divinity and the understanding of the Trinity. Two early Church Councils—one at Nicea in 325 and another at Constantinople in 381—set Church teaching on these crucial dogmas, which have been handed down to us in the Nicene Creed. Centuries of wear and tear resulted in the East-West schism of 1054, between what came to be known as “Catholicism” and “Orthodoxy.” Centuries later, Catholicism fractured with the Reformation in 16th-century Europe. The new terms were “Roman Catholicism” and “Protestantism.” All along the way, the papacy sought to strengthen its central governing authority.

For Catholics, the branches of the Church are properly called the Latin Church and the Eastern Churches. There are two separate codes of canon law, one for the Oriental, or Eastern Churches in union with Rome and another for the Latin, or Western Church (which we usually term the Roman Catholic Church). Each of these legal codes recognizes the supreme authority of the Roman pontiff, the pope in Rome.

Today, those in full communion with Rome are rediscovering their common ancestry and better recognizing each other as more than distant relations. But while liturgical practice in the West is fairly uniform, a complex pattern of governance and liturgical practice remains in the East, bound to both history and geography.



The first large branches in the Catholic family tree appear in the fourth century. The Roman Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity, transferred his—and its—headquarters from Rome to the ancient city of Byzantium in the year 330. He renamed this city Constantinople. (We now know it as Istanbul, Turkey.)

There were three other important centers of the Roman Empire: Rome, Antioch in Syria, and Alexandria in Egypt. The bishops of these four great cities of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria attained greater preeminence over time, especially at the Council of Constantinople in 381. There the Bishop of Constantinople received honorary status, after the Bishop of Rome.

Rome had been the center of a vast empire, and the site of martyrdom for Sts. Peter and Paul. But the East was growing in prominence.

At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Bishops of Constantinople and of Jerusalem received territorial authority over their respective areas. Eventually, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem came to be known as patriarchates, that is, Church territories headed by a patriarch.

Coincidentally, Christianity spread beyond the Roman Empire. Syriac-speaking Christians looked to Edessa in East Syria as their center.

In four of the original patriarchates, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria—and in Edessa—we find the origins of major liturgical families of the Catholic Church, some Eastern and some Western.

Eastern Churches

The 11th-century East-West split created a complex situation. A large part of the problem was the supreme authority of Rome over other patriarchal Churches. What we know of as Orthodoxy ensued in most of the Christian East. Virtually all the Eastern Churches broke communion with Rome at some point, and present Eastern Catholic Churches are the result of efforts to restore that communion either spontaneously or because of the work of Catholic missionaries.

At present, there are 22 separate ecclesial groupings of the East that recognize the supreme authority of Rome. In some cases, parts of these communions—21 are “Churches”—are locally administered by a Western bishop. One, the Georgian, is recognized as an ecclesial grouping, but not as a Church. Each follows the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches, and uses its own liturgical rites.

Patriarchal: The six patriarchal Eastern Catholic Churches are: Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite and Syriac. Their patriarchs, along with their synods (assemblies of bishops), enjoy superior authority in their respective churches.

Major Archepiscopal: In these, the Ukrainian, the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankar Churches, a major archbishop is essentially the same as a patriarch, although his election, unlike a patriarch’s, must be approved by the Roman pontiff.

Metropolitan: The Ethiopian (or Abyssinian), the Romanian and the Ruthenian Churches are distinct in that their Metropolitan, that is, principal bishop, must request the pallium—his sign of authority—from the pope rather than by election from his Church. In these cases the local synod must provide three nominees to the pope, who makes the final choice.

Others: Nine Eastern Catholic Churches are none of the above. In law they are called “sui iuris” and are a separate category of churches. For the most part they are a single diocese or eparchy: the Albanian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Italo-Albanian, Slovak, Russian, and churches of the former Yugoslavia—once called Križevci, but now including separate apostolic exarchates for Macedonia and Serbia/Montenegro. These nine do not have the highly developed hierarchical structures of the other 12. The pope grants authority to the bishop who governs these churches.

The Eastern Churches in union with Rome were once called “uniate,” but this term is seen as non-complimentary since it implies an unequal status. The Eastern Churches are still mistakenly called “Eastern-rite” Churches, a reference to their various liturgical histories. They are most properly called Eastern Churches, or Eastern Catholic Churches.

Liturgical Families of the East

Eastern Catholic Churches belong to distinct liturgical families. Understanding these families helps us to understand that the differences among the Churches have mostly to do with local cultures. The distinct liturgical families relate to the three major Eastern patriarchates (Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria) and to Edessa. These in turn influenced other Churches in the Christian East, especially in Chaldea (modern-day Iran) and Armenia. Some of the Eastern Catholic Churches are reunited from the Eastern Churches that separated from Rome during the fifth century, or in 1054, or at other times in the Church’s long history. (The years in parentheses note the approximate dates of reunion with Rome.)

The Antiochian liturgical family has two branches:West Syrian and East Syrian. Antioch was founded by St. Peter, and St. James is credited for its liturgy, which is celebrated in the ancient Syriac language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, as well as in local vernacular. The West Syrian Churches are the Maronite (which claims always to have been in union with Rome), Syriac (1781), and Syro-Malankarese (1930). The East Syrian, whose liturgy shows the influence of Edessa, are the Chaldean (1692) and Syro-Malabarese (16th century). The Syro-Malabarese, like the Syro-Malankarese, finds roots in the evangelization of St. Thomas in India.

The Alexandrian liturgical family includes the Coptic (1741) and the Ethiopian (1846). Its liturgy is attributed to St. Mark the Evangelist, and is variously celebrated in Coptic (Ancient Egyptian) and Arabic in Egypt and the Near East, and in Geez (Ethiopian) in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Jerusalem.

The Byzantine liturgical family, by far the largest of the liturgical traditions of the East, is related to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. As we trace the lineage of each Byzantine tradition, we find close relations among those Churches linked by geography and/or language.

The oldest Byzantine or Constantinopolitan liturgies are those of the Greek (mid-19th century) and Melkite communions. The Patriarchal Melkite Church (18th century) actually began in the Antiochian tradition, but now celebrates liturgy in Greek as well as several local vernacular languages. The Byzantine Slav liturgical family celebrates the liturgy in Old Slavonic and the local vernacular, and comprises the Belarussian (17th century), Bulgarian (1861), Hungarian (1646), the churches of the former Yugoslavia, including Križevci (1611), Russian (1905), Ruthenian (17th century), Slovak Ukrainian (1595).

The sui iuris Albanian (1628) and Italo-Albanian (or Italo-Greek, which never separated), and the Metropolitan Romanian Church (1697) tend to use the vernacular despite their Greek roots.

All Byzantine Churches celebrate the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on Sundays and holy days, and the Liturgy of St. Basil during Lent.

Some scholars consider the Armenian rite, celebrated by the Patriarchal Armenian Church in classical Armenian, as its own rite. The Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia converted to Catholicism at the time of the Crusades, but this did not include the majority of Armenians located north of there, in modern eastern Turkey and the Republic of Armenia. Armenian Catholics are found throughout the Middle East and in Argentina, France and the United States.

Western Church

The Latin or Western Church is what we know of as the Roman Catholic Church, joined fully and wholly to the Catholic Churches and ecclesial communions of the East. We often recite four words which signify our belief in the unity of the Church—one, holy, Catholic and apostolic—every time we say the Nicene Creed at Sunday Mass. The words refer to our Church’s unity, its sanctified and sanctifying nature, its universality and its relation to the Twelve Apostles.

Christians understand the term Church to mean a territorial assembly of the faithful. Yet the Catholic Church is worldwide. Particular, or local, Churches exist in the West as archdioceses, dioceses or patriarchates, and the heads of these particular churches are called archbishops, bishops or patriarchs.

Pope Pius V, whose pontificate lasted from 1566 to 1572, imposed the liturgical rite of Rome on the Latin Church, in response to the confusion that preceded the Protestant Reformation. A few other Western rites already hundreds of years old were allowed to remain active. In succeeding centuries, a few additional rites or observances have been created or added for the Western Church.

For the most part, Roman Catholics participate in Roman-rite liturgy, codified by the Missale Romanum, established at the Council of Trent and updated by Pope John Paul II, in response to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

One Church

The Catholic Church counts over one billion persons, slightly more than half of the total number of Christians in the world, or 16 percent of the world population. Most belong to the Latin Church and worship according to the Roman rite. But there are 16 million members of Eastern Catholic Churches, of whom approximately 7,650,000 worship according to the Byzantine tradition, and 8,300,000 according to various other ancient Eastern Christian traditions, such as the Armenian, Coptic and Syriac traditions.

All, East and West, belong to the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.

Phyllis Zagano is the author of several books, including Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church (Crossroad/Herder, 2000). She teaches at Hofstra University, in New York.

Next: Radical Grace—Daily Lenten Meditations (by Richard Rohr)


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