The Other Catholics: Part II - Churches of the Byzantine Rite
by Kevin R. Yurkus
Continued from: A Short Guide to the Eastern Catholic Churches
The Byzantine liturgical tradition is a highly stylized form of the Antiochian Rite developed for the Imperial Church based in Constantinople (Byzantium). After the Latin Rite, it is the most widely used rite in the world. At the Council of Chalcedon, the dioceses of Thrace, Pontus, and Asia were absorbed in order to legitimize Constantinople as the see of St. Andrew, the brother of Peter. Currently, there are 16 Eastern Orthodox Churches and 15 Catholic Churches that use the Byzantine Rite.
10. The Patriarchal Melkite Catholic Church
Founded as the Antiochian see of Peter, it was here that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. The term “Melkite” comes from the Syriac word for king and was originally used to refer to those within the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem who accepted the Council of Chalcedon.
With Jesuit, Capuchin, and Carmelite missionary activity in the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Antioch in the mid-17th century, the Antiochian Church became polarized, with the pro-Catholic party centered in Damascus and the anti-Catholic party in Aleppo.
The pro-Catholic party elected a patriarch in 1724 who was recognized by Pope Benedict XIII. In response, Constantinople excommunicated the Catholic patriarch and appointed a Greek as the Orthodox patriarch of Antioch.
While the Ottoman Empire was very hostile to the Catholic Melkites, the Church continued to grow because the Orthodox patriarch of Antioch was entirely subordinate to the Turks. On a positive note, in 1995, the Antiochian Orthodox and Melkite Catholic Churches agreed to work toward healing the 1724 schism.
11. The Italo-Albanian Catholic Church
From the earliest periods of Christianity, southern Italy and Sicily had strong connections with Greece and followed the Byzantine tradition. Despite this fact, as part of the Latin patriarchate, the Italo-Albanian Church has always been in union with Rome. Large numbers of Orthodox Albanians fled to this region when their country was conquered by Muslims and—interestingly enough—in 1553, the Italo-Albanian metropolitan archbishop was confirmed by the patriarch of Constantinople, with papal authorization. Thus, the Italo-Albanians have never formally broken communion with the Orthodox Church.
12. The Ukrainian Catholic Church
The Ukrainians first received the Christian faith by way of Constantinople. Metropolitan Isidore of Kiev attended the Council of Florence and agreed to union between the Catholics and Orthodox, but the union was ultimately rejected.
In 1569, Jesuits began working for a local union between Catholics and Orthodox as a way of reducing Protestant influence. The Orthodox, for their part, favored such a union to preserve their Byzantine traditions at a time when the Polish Latin Rite Church was expanding.
A synod of Orthodox bishops at Brest in 1595 proclaimed a reunion between Rome and the metropolitan of Kiev. After similar moves in Przemysl in 1692 and Lviv in 1700, two-thirds of Ukraine had become Catholic. But as Orthodox Russia expanded its control into Ukraine, Catholicism was gradually suppressed. In 1839, Tsar Nicholas I abolished the union in all regions under Russian rule, but the Ukrainian Catholic Church thrived in areas under Austrian control. Later, the Soviet Union forced the Ukrainian Catholic Church into the Russian Orthodox Church.
With the fall of the USSR, Ukrainian Catholics emerged from the catacombs, but they’ve not yet recovered all of their stolen property. Lubomyr Cardinal Husar is popularly given the title of Ukrainian Catholic patriarch, but this title hasn’t been approved by Rome due to sensitive relations with the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox.
13. The Ruthenian Catholic Church
Nearly all Trans-Carpathian Ruthenian or Rusyn Orthodox formally united with Rome in 1646. Rusyn ethnic identity remains closely tied to the Byzantine Catholic Church. As a result, they were viciously persecuted and forced into the Russian Orthodox Church by Imperial Russia. Later, the Soviets attempted to wipe out all Rusyn national identity by declaring them to be either Orthodox, Russian, or Ukrainian.
14. The Byzantine Catholic Church USA (Rusyn - Ruthenian - Slovak)
Many Ruthenian or Rusyn Catholics immigrated to North America. In 1891 and again in 1929, almost all returned to the Orthodox after experiencing strained relations with the Latin hierarchy and their imposition of clerical celibacy. Those who remained with the Catholic Church make up the Byzantine Catholic Church USA Metropolitate.
In 1999 William Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore apologized on behalf of the American Latin hierarchy for the inexcusable actions of Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, and others responsible for driving so many into what is now the Orthodox Church of America.
15. The Romanian Catholic Church
The apostle Andrew was chosen to carry the gospel to Scythia in what is now Romania. This Byzantine Church is notable in that it exists within a predominantly Latin culture (Romanian is a romance language directly descended from the language of Roman soldiers and settlers).
Romanian delegates attended the Council of Constance in 1414 and signed the decree of union at the Council of Florence. Unfortunately, in 1744 there was a popular movement back to Orthodoxy following violations of religious and civil rights that had been guaranteed by the union with Rome.
Under communism, the Church was suppressed and merged into the Romanian Orthodox Church. In 1989 three secretly ordained Catholic bishops emerged. Since then, there has been considerable tension with the Orthodox over the return of Romanian Catholic Church property.
16. The Greek Catholic Church in Greece
The Greek Orthodox Church is virulently opposed to the existence of this small Church. Indeed, the situation is such that it’s illegal for Byzantine Catholic priests to dress like Orthodox clergy in Greece. The few Greek Catholics here are served by celibate priests who have transferred from the Latin Church.
17. The Greek Catholic Church in former Yugoslavia
In 1611 a Byzantine vicar, subordinate to the Latin bishops, was appointed for Serbian Orthodox who fled from the Muslim Turks. In 1777, Rome created an independent eparchy for all Byzantines in Croatia under Austrian rule. Approximately 50 percent of this Church is ethnically Rusyn.
18. The Bulgarian Catholic Church
Bulgaria was often in dispute between Rome and Constantinople, but it fell under the jurisdiction of Constantinople in 870 at the Eighth Ecumenical Council. Wanting independence from Constantinople, the Bulgarians negotiated a union with Rome in 1861, but most eventually returned to the Orthodox. This was the only Byzantine Catholic Church not officially suppressed under communism—perhaps because Pope John XXIII was once a papal emissary to Bulgaria.
19. The Slovak Catholic Church
In 1646 the Union of Uzhorod was accepted in what is now eastern Slovakia. After communism fell, most of the confiscated ecclesial property was returned to the Catholic Church. In America, Slovaks are not distinguished from Ruthenians or Rusyns.
20. The Hungarian Catholic Church
A Greek monk named Hierothus from Constantinople was consecrated the first bishop of Hungary around 950. As the cracks of schism grew between Latins and Greeks, the Byzantine Rite Hungarians remained in communion with a Serbian Orthodox metropolitan. But after a number of union agreements, most of the Orthodox became Byzantine Catholic.
In the 18th century, a group of Hungarian Protestants decided to become Catholic but chose to enter the Byzantine Catholic Church instead of the Latin Church. While Greek had been the liturgical language, in 1900 Pope Leo XIII approved the use of Hungarian.
21. The Russian Catholic Church
Membership: 20 parishes worldwide
In its conversion from paganism, Russia accepted Byzantine Christianity while still in full communion with Rome in 988. The institutional Russian Catholic Church began in the 19th century as the result of a movement involving Vladimir Soloviev and Rev. Nicholas Tolstoy. They believed the schism between Greeks and Latins never created any official break between Russia and Rome.
In 1908 Pope Pius X appointed an apostolic exarchate. The decree from the Vatican Secretariat of State read: “Therefore His Holiness commands the aforementioned to observe the laws of the Byzantine Rite faithfully and in all their integrity, without any admixture from the Latin Rite or any other Rite; he must also see that his subjects, clergy and all other Catholics, do the same.”
Under communism the greater part of the Russian Catholic clergy and faithful—together with Georgian Catholics, Armenian Catholics, and Latin Catholics—were put to death along with thousands of Orthodox, Protestants, and Jews in the mass executions of the gulags.
22. The Belarusian Catholic Church
The Belarusian Catholic Church began in the Union of Brest in 1596 and became the state religion, but it was later suppressed by Imperial Russia and again by the Soviet Union. Strongly associated with Belarusian nationalism, it has no organized hierarchy.
23. The Albanian Catholic Church
The apostle Paul preached in Illyricum and Titus preached in Dalmatia, both of which are found in modern-day Albania. The first bishop was Kaisarios, one of the 70 apostles. Sadly, most Albanians became Muslim during the Turkish conquest.
Both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches were suppressed in 1967 when Albania was declared an atheist state; religious buildings were closed, and no services of any kind were permitted.
24. The Georgian Catholic Church
The Georgian Church began in 337 and used the Syriac Rite of St. James. When the neighboring Armenians rejected the Council of Chalcedon, the Georgians accepted the conciliar decrees and adopted the Byzantine Rite.
Theatine and Capuchin missionaries worked for reunion in Georgia, but under Imperial Russia in 1845, Catholics were not allowed to use the Byzantine Rite. Many Catholics adopted the Armenian Rite until the institution of religious liberty in 1905, which allowed them to return to the Byzantine Rite. In 1937 the Georgian Catholic exarch was executed by the Soviets.
At present, the Georgian Catholic Church has no organized hierarchy.
Outreach from Rome to the Eastern Orthodox has increased in the past 30 years. Pope John Paul II worked tirelessly to reach out to Eastern Christians—his own mother, in fact, was an Eastern Catholic. And it appears that Benedict XVI will continue this effort. The day after his inauguration, he received representatives of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches and has since stated that one of his primary goals is to address the difficulties that continue between Catholics and Orthodox.
It remains a deep and abiding tragedy that Orthodoxy and Catholicism—sister Churches in the Apostolic Faith—remain at odds. Any semblance of official reunion will take time; many Orthodox Churches still struggle to discover their own identity after generations of control by tsars, kings, sultans, nationalism, communism, and the new emergence of evangelicalism and renewed Islamic militancy. In the hope of that reconciliation, the Eastern Catholic Churches can act as a bridge—a mediator between East and West. In them, the Eastern traditions are both preserved and united with the West. In spite of a difficult past, they’re a sign of great hope and a pattern for how Eastern practice might coexist—without corruption or confusion—with the Latin Church and the universal office of the papacy. As we have seen, maintaining this balance requires great care.
Genuine apostolic tradition is preserved in the Eastern Catholic Churches. Insofar as some have drifted toward Latin practices, they’ve abandoned the unique traditions passed on to them by their founding apostles. This is a tragedy for all Catholics. Unity, again, is not uniformity. The Catholic Church is universal, and in its God-ordained diversity, there is great strength.
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