When Catholics consider what distinguishes our Faith from Protestant and Evangelical denominations, we naturally think of the Mass. Catholics attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Other Christians do not.
As we regard other Catholic attributes, we look to the sacramental life of the Church, as well as to our use of sacramentals. We notice various prayers unique to Catholics, as well as our veneration of the crucifix and other sacred images.
Catholic: One, Holy, Apostolic
Many things set Catholics apart from Christian denominations. And yet, even within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, we recognize a beautiful, rich, and diverse history of liturgical tradition.
This Catholic diversity is mainly found in six particular liturgical rites comprising twenty-three distinct Catholic churches.
That’s right! There are twenty-three unique sui iuris churches within our one Catholic Church!
Lexicon: Rites and Churches
Before we explore the history and unique expressions of these different rites, let’s define a few terms. Specifically the difference between rite and church:.
A rite consists of “the diverse liturgical traditions in which the one catholic and apostolic faith has come to be expressed and celebrated in various cultures and lands” (Catechism Glossary).
A church is “a group of Christian faithful united by a hierarchy according to the norm of law which the supreme authority of the Church expressly or tacitly recognizes” (Canon 27).
Thus, we conclude that a rite reflects ritual traditions and customs, while a church comprises the people within those traditions.
Churches in Full Communion
Within the Catholic Church, all twenty-three rites are in full communion with one another, meaning they are not in schism, or separated, like Orthodox or Protestant denominations. You may attend any of these Catholic liturgies and participate in the Holy Eucharist and other Sacraments. While liturgical traditions may look differently among these Catholic rites, based on their location and language, they retain a similar structure with readings from Scripture and the Consecration of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
In addition, all of these churches submit to all Catholic doctrines and dogmas defined by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.
Lastly, all churches recognize the primacy of the Pope, who is the patriarch over all the various rites within the Catholic Church.
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From the Beginning
All of these churches started in one place: the Upper Room on Pentecost. The Blessed Mother and the Apostles were assembled there, and they received the Holy Spirit. On that day, the Apostles began to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus Christ:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. // Matthew 28:19-20
They went out and preached the Gospel to various nations. As the Gospel took root in different lands, followers of Jesus “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
Because each Apostle went to a different nation, the liturgical traditions that began to take shape looked slightly distinct. Yes, there was a “diversity in unity, a Church of churches,” as Byzantine Catholic Deacon Daniel Dozier describes.
History of Schism
However, these churches did not maintain unity. All of them—with the exception of two churches—split from the Roman Rite at some point in history.
For example, communion between the Alexandrian and Antiochene Rites and the Latin and Byzantine Rites broke in 451. However, the Latin and Byzantine Churches did not excommunicate from one another until the Great Schism of 1054. The Armenian Church split from the Roman Rite in 1054 as well.
It took several failed attempts throughout the centuries before these churches finally returned to full communion with one another. Because the schism lasted so long, many Eastern churches have an Orthodox counterpart that is still not in full communion with the Catholic Church.
Eastern and Western Churches
One way to differentiate the various rites and churches is geographically.
The Latin (or Roman) Rite—with which most of you, dear readers, are familiar—is the largest rite within the Church. It is also the only Western Church.
The rest of the various rites are geographically from the East.
In 1894, Pope Leo XIII wrote about the importance of the Eastern Churches within our Catholic heritage:
The Churches of the East are worthy of the glory and reverence that they hold throughout the whole of Christendom in virtue of those extremely ancient, singular memorials that they have bequeathed to us. 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. They swiftly gave forth their yield: there flowered in first blush the glories of preaching the True Faith to the nations, of martyrdom, and of holiness. They gave us the first joys of the fruits of salvation …
There are several noteworthy similarities among Eastern Churches that distinguish them from the Latin Rite.
In most Eastern rites, infants receive all three Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation) at the same time.
All Eastern rites receive the Holy Eucharist on the tongue, never in the hand. Within some rites, the priest dips the Host into the Precious Blood and then places it on the communicant’s tongue, which is called intinction.
Eastern Catholics, in general, fast more strictly than Western Catholics. They have more fasting seasons than Lent. During these fasting periods, they not only abstain from meat but also fish, eggs and dairy products, wine, and oil (noting a few days of exception).
Many Eastern Catholics use a prayer rope or beads, called a chotki, instead of a Rosary. It is customary to use the chotki to pray a simple prayer called The Jesus Prayer.
Persecution of Eastern Catholics
Sadly, another similarity among Eastern Catholics is their experience of persecution for the Faith.
Tertullian once said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” And Eastern Catholics have heroically lived out that old maxim.
Throughout history, Eastern Catholics have endured centuries of hatred and cruelty because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Many have been willing to die for the Lord, and these churches never perished.
For Roman Catholics, our concept of religious persecution can seem removed. We read stories of Saints who died for the Faith, but there are very few modern-day examples of religious persecution. For Eastern Catholics, however, this persecution has lasted even to the present day.
Exploring Each Catholic Rite
As we have mentioned, each of the six rites possess ancient roots, going all the way back to the Apostles. For all Catholic rites, liturgy is very important and is considered a type of catechism, central to forming disciples. In the Latin Rite, we say, “lex orandi, lex credendi,” meaning “the way we worship is what we believe.”
Deacon Dozier says that “an entrance into the liturgy is an entrance into the kingdom.”
So, even though there are liturgical distinctions among the Catholic rites, together, they create a beautiful mosaic of shared faith.
Again, the Latin (or Roman) Rite is the largest rite and the only Western Church. It is expressed within three liturgies: Tridentine (Traditional Latin Mass), Novus Ordo (post-Vatican II Mass said in the vernacular), and Anglican Use.
Under the Roman Catholic Church, there are other liturgical rites that date from before the mid-1500s:
- Mozarabic Rite (Spain)
- Ambrosian Rite (Italy)
- Bragan Rite (Portugal)
- Liturgies of the Dominican, Carmelite, and Carthusian orders
When most people think of Eastern Catholicism, they think of the Byzantine tradition. It comprises of fourteen unique churches:
- Albanian Catholic Church
- Belarusian Catholic Church
- Bulgarian Greek Catholic Church
- Byzantine Church of Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro
- Greek Byzantine Catholic Church
- Hungarian Greek Catholic Church
- Italo-Albanian Catholic Church (never split)
- Macedonian Catholic Church
- Melkite Greek Catholic Church
- Romanian Catholic Church
- Russian Catholic Church
- Ruthenian Catholic Church
- Slovak Catholic Church
- Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
Byzantine Liturgical Traditions
Byzantine divine liturgies were written by fourth-century Saints John Chrysostom and Basil the Great.
The Byzantine Rite uses leavened (instead of unleavened) bread for the Eucharist, and small pieces of the Host are placed into the chalice with the Precious Blood. Then, the laity receive the Body and Blood of Christ utilizing a small liturgical spoon.
Another distinction between Latin and Byzantine Catholics revolves around veneration. While Latin Catholics venerate the wood of the Cross on Good Friday, Byzantine Catholics venerate Christ’s burial shroud. In addition, Latin Catholics tend to venerate statues, while icons are venerated in the Byzantine tradition.
The Alexandrian Rite consists of two subgroups: Coptic and Ge’ez rites. Within these subgroups are three churches:
- Coptic Catholic Church
- Eritrean Catholic Church
- Ethiopian Catholic Church
The Coptic Catholic Church traces its lineage back to Saint Mark the Evangelist, while Ethiopians claim that Saints Matthew and Bartholomew spread Christianity to their area.
Alexandrian Liturgical Traditions
The main distinction between the Coptic and Ge’ez rites is language. The Coptic Catholic Church uses Coptic and occasionally Arabic, while the Eritrean and Ethiopian Catholic Churches use Ge’ez.
One unique attribute to the Alexandrian Rite is when the liturgical year begins. Instead of Advent, it begins in late September with the Feast of the Cross. This feast commemorates Saint Helen’s finding of the True Cross.
Antiochene Rite (West Syria)
The ancient rite that blooms from West Syria, or Antioch, includes three churches:
- Maronite Catholic Church
- Syriac Catholic Church
- Syro-Malankara Catholic Church
Antiochene Catholics trace their foundation to Saint Peter, who was Bishop of Antioch before he was Bishop of Rome. Therefore, patriarchs of the Maronite (which never split from Rome) and Syriac Churches are considered successors of Saint Peter, similar to bishops in the Latin Rite.
Antiochene Liturgical Traditions
All three of these churches use the West Syrian Rite in their liturgies. What differentiates them is language:
- Maronite Catholic Church: Aramaic or Arabic
- Syriac Catholic Church: Aramaic and Syriac
- Syro-Malankara Catholic Church: Syriac, Malayalam, or English
The Mass, or liturgy, is called the Holy Qurbana, which translates to “holy sacrifice.” It is rich in symbolism, as well as symbolic gestures and language.
The only church within the Armenian Rite is the Armenian Catholic Church. It dates back to the fourth century, when Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as their state religion.
Armenian Liturgical Traditions
The Armenian Catholic Church uses the liturgy of Saint Gregory the Illuminator. He lived in the fourth century and first composed the Divine Liturgy (what Latin Catholics refer to as the Mass) in Syriac.
Similar to the Byzantines, when Armenians have an excess of bread that is not consecrated during the Divine Liturgy, this “blessed bread” (or antidoron) is given to the people after as a sign of fellowship.
Within the liturgical calendar, there are slightly different seasons. For example, the season equivalent to Advent is called Aratchavorats, which begins on the Feast of Christ the King and lasts six to eight weeks.
Chaldean Rite (East Syria)
The Chaldean Rite traces its origins back to Saint Thomas the Apostle, and they are endearingly called “Saint Thomas Christians.” Within this rite are two churches:
- Chaldean Catholic Church
- Syro-Malabar Catholic Church
While Chaldean Catholics have made their home in North America, they originally hail from India, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries.
Chaldean Liturgical Traditions
What sets the Chaldean Catholic churches apart is a red curtain that shrouds the sanctuary. Its significance traces back to the Jewish tradition of the Holy of Holies being separated by a veil, which was only accessed by the High Priest. The Chaldean curtain is similar to the iconostasis (screen of icons) in the Byzantine Rite and the communion rail in the Latin Rite.
All Eastern Churches refer to the Eucharistic Prayer as the anaphora, and the Chaldean Rite uses the oldest ones in the Catholic Church (Liturgy of Mar Addai and Mar Mari), which date back to the third century. The vernacular language is typically used in the anaphora, but Aramaic—the language of Jesus Christ—is also used.
Within the Chaldean liturgical calendar, there are nine seasons. They do not have Ordinary Time. However, they have Advent and the Great Fast (Lent). They honor the Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle as a Holy Day of Obligation.
Just a Glimpse
This article only offers a glimpse into the six rites within the Catholic Church. However, it demonstrates the depth, richness, and beauty of our universal Church. The Catholic Church incorporates many unique cultures, traditions, and customs, and yet it is fully united in dogma and doctrine.
The Catholic Church holds in high esteem the institutions, liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and the established standards of the Christian life of the Eastern Churches, for in them, distinguished as they are for their venerable antiquity, there remains conspicuous the tradition that has been handed down from the Apostles through the Fathers … // Pope Paul VI
To Learn More
If this aspect of Church history peaks your interest, continue exploring the various rites of the Catholic Church:
- Attend a Traditional Latin Mass.
- Visit an Eastern Rite Catholic Church in your area.
- Study a helpful chart to see how the rites and churches relate to each other.
- Listen to a podcast that gives a brief history of Eastern Catholic Churches, plus a beautiful lesson in Marian spirituality.
- Consider purchasing an icon for your home.
- Pray The Jesus Prayer.
Let us know your rite, and which one you would like to learn more about!