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Holy Spirit Interactive: Kevin R. Yurkus: The Other Catholics: A Short Guide to the Eastern Catholic Churches

The Other Catholics: A Short Guide to the Eastern Catholic Churches

by Kevin R. Yurkus

As millions watched the funeral for Pope John Paul II, many were confused by the concluding Panakhyda celebrated not in Latin, but in Greek and Arabic by hierarchs in black hoods, turbans, crowns, and unusual vestments. Was this not the responsibility of the cardinals? And were those clerics even Catholic?

The answer may surprise you, as Catholics are generally unaware that they have millions of coreligionists who are not themselves part of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, even the term “Roman Catholic” isn’t quite right—it was actually a derogatory label assigned to us by Anglican Protestants, trying to legitimize their own use of the term “Catholic” over and against that foreign Church loyal to the pope of Rome.

In point of fact, the Catholic Church directly under the jurisdiction of Rome is properly and canonically termed the Latin Church. All official Church documents simply use the term, “Catholic Church.” And contrary to popular belief, most of the day-to-day work preformed by the Holy Father is not in his role as pope and pastor of the Universal Church but in his position in the Latin Church as the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of the West.

So who are these “other” Catholics? They have their own hierarchies and liturgies, as well as their own distinct apostolic lineages. They may look and act like Eastern Orthodox churches, but they recognize the pope of Rome as the head of the visible Church on earth and have suffered for the cause of that unity.

Meet the Catholic Churches. There are more of them than you think.

One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic

According to the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Catholic Church is understood to be “a corporate body of Churches,” united with the bishop of Rome, who serves as the guardian of unity. The other Catholic Churches are not merely Catholics with papal permission to use different liturgies. They were also founded by the apostles and are particular, autonomous Churches of their own rightful existence (sui iuris). Any individual Catholic may freely attend and receive the sacraments in any of them. After all, Catholic is Catholic.

Because we believe in “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church,” some might object, “There is only one Church, so how can we speak of many ‘Churches?’” It’s helpful to consider an analogy used by the Church Fathers: While there are three distinct Persons who share the One Divine Essence, there are likewise many autonomous individual Churches that make up the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. As it is with the Triune Godhead, we must be careful not to blur true and important distinctions of the individuals in order to emphasize their unity.

When Christ founded His Church, He commissioned the apostles to go out into the world to preach and baptize. Most Catholics are familiar with the founding of the see of Rome by Peter. The primacy of that Church was sealed with the blood of Peter and Paul, and the succession of bishops continues to the present day. What many do not know is that the other apostles themselves founded churches, and that their own successions of bishops continue as well.

As presently defined, there are 24 Catholic Churches that can be grouped into eight different rites. A rite is a liturgical, theological, spiritual, and disciplinary patrimony of a distinct people manifested in a Church. While each Catholic Church may have its own rite or customs, in general, there are only eight major rites. History, language, misunderstandings, nationalism, and basic human weakness have resulted in the current communion of 24 Churches.

With a few exceptions, the Eastern Catholic Churches result from incomplete reunions with the Orthodox Churches. In those instances, large numbers of bishops and faithful of the Orthodox mother Churches either held back or later rejected union with Rome. Today, many Orthodox are fearful of losing their distinct traditions in a world dominated by the Latin Church. Making matters worse, some of the Eastern Catholic Churches have adopted Latin customs and haven’t been very good examples of how union with Rome should work. This is tragic, since the traditions of these Churches are themselves apostolic and help preserve the catholicity of the Church with their own unique development of the gospel message. For example, unlike a good Latin parish, in a traditional Eastern Catholic parish you won’t find musical instruments, statues, rosaries, or stations of the cross. Indeed, the priest may well have a wife and children, and the church might be without pews or kneelers. In some circumstances, even the Bible might have a larger canon and include Third and Fourth Maccabees. Unity does not mean uniformity.

The following is a brief survey of each of the 24 sui iuris Catholic Churches—all of which are in full communion with Rome. Parishes can be found throughout the United States and Canada. They are grouped by rite and include brief descriptions, along with an estimate of their current membership numbers. Some of these Churches are headed by metropolitans or major archbishops who are independently elected and then confirmed by the pope. The Patriarchal Eastern Catholic Churches elect and consecrate their own patriarch completely independent of the pontiff; letters of official communion are exchanged after the installation. Other Churches simply submit a list of eligible candidates to Rome for consideration.

A final note: Any discussion of Eastern Catholicism necessarily involves ecclesiastical language alien to Latin Catholics. See the sidebar on page 22 for definitions of important Eastern Church terms.

1. The Patriarchal Latin Catholic Church

Rite: Latin
Membership: 1,070,315,000

There may have once been other Western Catholic Churches, but over time, they were absorbed into the direct jurisdiction of the Latin Church. In response to Protestantism, the Latin Church consolidated the various Western practices into what became known as the Tridentine Rite.

Some variation still exists in the Latin Church: The Mozarabic Rite continues in Toledo, Spain, and the Ambrosian Rite survives around Milan—even into Switzerland. The Bragan, Dominican, Carmelite, and Carthusian Rites were abandoned after Vatican II in favor of the revised Latin Rite.

2. The Patriarchal Armenian Catholic Church

Rite: Armenian
Membership: 368,923

The Armenian Church is a daughter of the New Testament Church of Caesarea, and Thaddaeus and Bartholomew were its founding apostles. Catholics there suffered persecution until the conversion of King Tridates IV made Armenia the first Christian state in history. The missionary work of St. Gregory the Illuminator resulted in an alphabet and translations of Greek and Syrian texts. The Armenian Rite is used exclusively by this Church and is related to both Greek and Syrian Christianity with some Latinization since the Crusades.

While Armenians attended the first three ecumenical councils, they weren’t represented at the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which condemned their faith in St. Cyril’s definition of “One nature of the Word of God incarnate.” Armenians formally accused the Byzantine and Latin Churches of the Nestorian heresy in the year 555.

Until the Muslim conquests, Byzantine emperors attempted to impose reunion on the Armenians with some success. Nevertheless, the Armenian Church continued to develop independently with its identity as a people centered on its own language and ecclesial body.

When the Byzantines pushed back the Muslims in 862, they again attempted reunion, only to be rebuffed. Serious discussion with the Byzantine Church began in 1165, but the Armenians established union with the Latin Crusader states in 1198. This union wasn’t recognized by those outside of Cilicia. And while Armenians were present at the Council of Florence in 1439, it had no lasting results. Finally, in 1742, Pope Benedict XIV confirmed a former Armenian apostolic bishop as Catholic Patriarch of Cilicia.

The vicious persecution and genocide in Turkey at the end of World War I decimated the Armenians, and the Church was later brutally suppressed under communism. Only with independence in 1991 have communities of Armenian Catholics begun to resurface.

3. The Patriarchal Coptic Catholic Church

Rite: Alexandrian
Membership: 242,513

The Egyptian Church was founded by the apostle Mark—a gospel writer and disciple of Peter—martyred around 63 A.D. His see was the first Church to develop a strong centralized hierarchy, and the succession from Mark continues to this day. The term Coptic is Arabic, derived from the Greek word for Egyptian. Interestingly enough, the Alexandrian patriarch is the only other patriarch to have the title of pope, and until the Council of Chalcedon, the see of Mark was second in primacy after Rome.

Like the Armenians, the Coptic Church rejected the Council of Chalcedon out of fidelity to St. Cyril of Alexandria’s doctrine of “One incarnate nature of Christ”—though there were also political issues regarding their opposition to growing Byzantine domination. Persecutions intended to force acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon only reinforced their resistance. Eventually a succession of Byzantine popes had a small following in the city of Alexandria, and the majority native Coptic popes resided in the desert monastery of St. Marcarius.

After the Arab invasion in 641, the Coptic Church went into decline. Islamic rule brought persecution as well as some periods of relative freedom. The Church has continued to grow, despite recent attacks by Islamic militants and the exodus of those faithful looking for a better life in the West.

While the Coptic Church attended the Council of Florence and agreed to union, it had no concrete results. Other attempts at reunification occurred in 1582 and 1814 but were also unsuccessful. During these failed attempts, many Coptic bishops and faithful did enter union with Rome. For this reason, the Coptic Catholic Church was organized in 1741 when the Coptic bishop of Jerusalem became Catholic. In 1895, Pope Leo XIII of Rome reestablished the patriarchate of Alexandria for the Coptic Catholic Church.

Monasticism began in the Egyptian desert. While there are no Coptic Catholic monasteries to rival those of the Coptic Orthodox, there are religious orders modeled on Western communities involved in educational, medical, and charitable activities.

4. The Ethiopian Catholic Church

Rite: Ge’ez
Membership: 196,853

The Ge’ez Ethiopian Rite is a variation of the Alexandrian Coptic Rite with Syriac and Jewish influence. Judaism was practiced by some Ethiopians before the arrival of Christianity, and pocket communities of Jewish Ethiopians still exist. The Church there is unique in retaining circumcision, dietary laws, and both Saturday and Sunday Sabbath.

When Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity in the fourth century, St. Athanasius of Alexandria ordained the bishops for the Ethiopians. Later, in 480, those who opposed the Council of Chalcedon fled to Ethiopia from Rome, Constantinople, and Syria and evangelized the pagans they found there.

From the time of Athanasius, Ethiopian bishops were routinely appointed by the Coptic patriarch. In 1948, Emperor Haile Selassie reached an agreement with the Coptic Church to establish an autonomous Ethiopian patriarch. And so, Ethiopian Orthodoxy became the state religion until the 1974 communist revolution.

In 1439, Pope Eugenius IV sent a letter to the Ethiopian emperor inviting him to unity with the Catholic Church, but it was rejected. A century later, under attack from the Muslims, the emperor requested military aid from the Portuguese. This led to Pope Gregory XV’s appointment of a Portuguese Jesuit as patriarch of the Ethiopian Church in 1626. Sadly, union lasted only ten years after the forced Latinization of the liturgy, customs, and discipline resulted in open bloodshed.

Catholic missionary activity resumed during the Italian occupation of Eritrea and Ethiopia, but the current structure of the Ethiopian Catholic Church wasn’t established until 1961.

5. The Patriarchal Antiochian Syrian Maronite Catholic Church


Rite: West Syrian Maronite
Membership: 3,106,792

Unique among the Eastern Churches, the Maronite Church is entirely Catholic with no corresponding Orthodox Church; it has never broken union with Rome. The Maronite Rite is of West Syrian origin but has been influenced by the East Syrian and Latin traditions. The Eucharist is a variation of the Syriac liturgy of St. James. Notably, this Church maintains the Eucharistic narrative in Aramaic—the actual language of Christ.

The Maronites trace their origin to a group of disciples of the hermit St. Maron and their founding of a great monastery midway between Aleppo and Antioch. They were fervent supporters of the Chalcedonian definition of “two natures of Christ,” and in 532, a synod in Constantinople made the monastery of Bet Maroun the head of the entire monastic community in northern Syria.

The Maronites suffered brutal persecution at the hands of the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox, while the Muslim Arab rulers of Syria punished all contacts with the Byzantines. When the Byzantine see of Antioch fell vacant, the Maronites proclaimed their own bishop as “Patriarch of Antioch and all the East.” Unfortunately, hostile relations with the Arabs and rival Christians drove the Maronites to the isolated and remote mountains of Lebanon.

In 1099, the Crusaders received a warm welcome from the Maronites, and their patriarch attended the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, receiving formal Latin acceptance as the head of the Maronite Church.

With the founding of the Maronite College in Rome in 1584, the Church became quite Latinized. With the encouragement of Vatican II, the Maronite Church revised its missal to return to many of the traditions and customs that had been lost. Since then, the patriarch has ordered all the clergy to wear the original Syriac vestments and has instituted several other Syriac reforms.

6. The Patriarchal Chaldean Catholic Church


Rite: East Syrian
Membership: 382,637

The Assyrian or Chaldean Church was established in Edessa in the first century. After the area was conquered by the Persians, the Church organized itself around a Catholic patriarch in the Persian royal capital at Seleucia-Ctesiphon. While Christians were persecuted by the pagan Roman Empire, they were welcomed into the Persian Empire.

This Church was represented at the Council of Nicea but not at later ecumenical councils—once the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, the Persian Christians needed to avoid suspicion as Roman collaborators. The Chaldeans always favored the Antiochian school of Christology and welcomed the influx of Nestorian Christians, who were both condemned by the third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus and expelled by Emperor Zeno. Unofficially, they accepted the Council of Chalcedon as a vindication of Antiochian theology.

The Church was a very active missionary force and expanded into India, Tibet, China, Mongolia, and perhaps even Korea and the Philippines. This activity continued even after its Mesopotamian homeland was conquered by the Muslim Arabs. Indeed, it was nearly annihilated by the Mongol invasions of Tamerlane.

In the 13th century, due to Dominican and Franciscan activity in the region, there were several individual conversions of bishops and a few brief flirtations with reunification. Unfortunately, nothing lasting came about. However, in 1551, after one prominent family dominated the Chaldean Church and elected a twelve-year-old as patriarch, a group of concerned bishops elected their own patriarch and sent him to Rome to arrange a union with the Catholic Church. Their overtures were accepted by Pope Julius III in 1553, creating the Chaldean Catholic Church now centered in Baghdad.

Relations with the Assyrian Orthodox Church have also improved. In 1994, the Orthodox Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV and Pope John Paul II signed a common Christological Declaration. Two years later, Mar Dinkha IV and Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Raphael I Bidawid signed a joint patriarchal statement that committed the two Churches to full reintegration, drafting a common catechism and setting up a joint seminary. At this stage, the Assyrians wish to retain their freedom and self-governance while the Chaldean Catholics affirm the necessity of maintaining full communion with Rome.

7. The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church


Rite: East Syrian
Membership: 3,752,434

The first Christians in India were evangelized by the apostle Thomas in what is now the state of Kerala. For most of their history, they were in communion with the Chaldean-Assyrian Church.

Indian Christians first encountered the Portuguese in 1498, when they warmly received the representatives of the Church of Rome, whose special status they continued to acknowledge despite long isolation.

Sadly, the Portuguese didn’t initially accept the legitimacy of the Malabar Church, and in 1599, Latinizations were imposed—appointments of Portuguese bishops, changes in the liturgy, Roman vestments, clerical celibacy, and the Inquisition. In 1653, after years of bitterness and tension, most Indian Christians severed their union with Rome. Alarmed, Pope Alexander VII sent Carmelites to India to repair the situation, and most of the Christians eventually returned to full communion with the Catholic Church.

In 1934, Pope Pius XI initiated a process of liturgical reform to restore the historic Syriac nature of the Latinized Syro-Malabar Church. Unfortunately, tension with the Latin Church remains over the establishment of Syro-Malabar jurisdictions in other parts of India where Latin dioceses already exist.

8. The Patriarchal Syrian Catholic Church


Rite: West Syrian
Membership: 123,376

Antioch was one of the ancient centers of Christianity, ranking third in primacy after Rome and Alexandria. When the Council of Chalcedon’s teachings were rejected by large numbers in the rural areas of his jurisdiction, Jacob Baradai, the bishop of Edessa, ordained several bishops to carry on the Faith of those who had parted from the council. This Church, labeled “Jacobite,” continued to use the Antiochian West Syrian Rite when urban Antioch adopted the Byzantine Rite.

With the conquest by the Persians, the Syrian Church was free to develop along lines parallel to that of the Assyrian Church with 103 dioceses extending into India, Afghanistan, Turkistan, and Xinjiang, China. Like their rival Assyrian Church, most churches and monasteries were destroyed by the Mongol invasions.

Syrian Orthodox bishops warmly received the Crusaders and discussed union with Rome. But while they attended the Council of Florence and agreed to union, nothing materialized. Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries were very successful, however, and many Syrians were received into communion with Rome. When the patriarchate fell vacant in 1662, the Catholic party was able to elect one of its own as patriarch. Despite this small victory, the Ottoman Empire favored the Syrian Orthodox and forced the Syrian Catholics underground.

Provoking yet another schism, the Syrian Orthodox Holy Synod elected Metropolitan Michael Jarweh of Aleppo as patriarch in 1782. Shortly after he was enthroned, though, he shocked the faithful by declaring himself a Catholic.

9. The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church

Rite: West Syrian
Membership: 404,052

This Church was founded by the East Syrian–Rite Syro-Malabar Christians that rejected the Portuguese Latinizations. As a group, they were not welcomed back into their former Chaldean-Assyrian Church. In 1665 the non-Chalcedonian Syrian Orthodox agreed to send them a bishop on the condition that they agree to accept non-Chalcedonian Christology and follow the West Syrian Rite instead of the East Syrian Rite. In the 18th century, there were four formal attempts to reconcile the Catholic and Malankara Orthodox Syrian Churches, all of which failed. In 1926, five bishops who were opposed to the jurisdiction of the Syrian Orthodox patriarch in India opened negotiations with Rome. They had asked only that their liturgy be preserved and that the bishops be allowed to retain their dioceses. In response, Rome only required that the bishops make a profession of faith. This instigated a movement of faithful into the new Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.


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