You might have heard that there are various rites within the Catholic Church, but you might not be sure what exactly that means. In order to more fully understand the origin and celebration of these rites, we asked an active member of our Blessed is She community, Jen, a Byzantine Catholic, to break it down for us. We hope that this Catholic rite Q&A gives you clarity and appreciation for the beautiful diversity of our Faith!
A Look at the Different Rites in the Catholic Church
What is a rite within the Catholic Church, and why are there different rites?
When the Apostles began to spread out to share the Gospel, the way that Christianity developed in each geographical place was influenced by many different factors, including the culture and history of the people becoming Christian. God works through our humanity to build the Church, and that resulted in a wealth of diversity! All of these peoples received the same Faith from the Apostles, but they each have their own spirituality, approach to theology, and liturgy, which led to the development of unique rites.
A rite is sort of like a family of churches within the family of the whole Catholic Church. In the early Church, there were five sees based in the most significant cities in the ancient world, each with apostolic origin:
- Jerusalem was the starting point of them all, followed by
- Rome, and
- Constantinople, which was a slightly later addition that grew out of Antioch.
The five sees saw further development into more than one distinct rite. Throughout history, the number has fluctuated.
The See of Rome also used to have multiple rites, in fact, some of which are still in limited use.
Today, there are a total of 24 self-governing sui juris churches that make up the Catholic Church as a whole. These churches fall into the six different rites:
- Latin, or Roman Rite
- West Syriac (Maronite and Syro-Malankar)
- East Syriac (Chaldean and Syro-Malabar)
- Alexandrian (Coptic and Ethiopian).
The Byzantine, Armenian, and Syriac rites all grew out of the See of Antioch.
The most common Byzantine Catholic churches in the United States are Byzantine Ruthenian, Melkite (Byzantines originating from the Middle East), Ukrainian, and Romanian. There are a few Russian Catholic and Italo-Albanian parishes or missions.
So are all Eastern Catholic rites in line with the Magisterium and in communion with Rome?
All Eastern Catholic churches are in communion with the Apostolic See of Rome, and as such also the Pope as he is the Bishop of Rome. The Bishop of Rome is understood as having a certain primacy as first among equals, like the eldest among brothers. Each bishop, however is the primary guardian of the faithful in his church.
I’m Roman Catholic. Can I attend the liturgy of an Eastern Catholic rite on Sundays to fulfill my obligation? What should I know before I visit?
Absolutely! You can always attend any Catholic church of any rite. And you are always welcome to receive the Eucharist in any Catholic Church as long as you are properly disposed.
You can also go to Confession to the priest there if you like. In the Byzantine rite, the priest usually hears confessions standing in front of an Icon of Christ. He will also use a different prayer of absolution. It’s a very beautiful experience!
Receiving the Eucharist in an Eastern Rite
One thing to be aware of when visiting a for Divine Liturgy is that we use leavened bread for the Eucharist. This symbolizes that the Lord is alive and has risen. The yeast is likened to the soul. It is alive, and because Christ is risen, the East has always seen leavened bread as fitting for the Eucharist.
In the majority of Eastern churches the Eucharist is dipped into the chalice, and then given to the faithful from a spoon. Others, like the Melkite Church, will use intinction, where the priest will dip the Eucharist in the chalice and then place it in the mouth of the communicant. The priest might ask your name as you come up, as he says a short prayer that usually includes your name. Otherwise he will say “the handmaiden of God.”
You can just go and see what the practice is and follow suit. But if you would feel more comfortable, you can let the priest or someone know ahead of time that you want to receive Communion and aren’t sure what to expect. They’ll be happy to show you!
How can I tell the difference between an Eastern Catholic church and an Eastern Orthodox church?
Ideally, just the name on the door! It is important to remember that the various particular churches developed their diversity long before they split, and they all came back into communion at different points in history, in different circumstances. Their theology, spirituality, and traditions were not meant to change.
However, all of the Eastern churches have experienced some Latinization—the adoption of traditions of the West. Often, unfortunately, at the expense of their own traditions. An Eastern Catholic church (in line with the Pope and the Magisterium) is likely to have more Latinizations than an Eastern Orthodox church (not Catholic/submissive to the Pope).
Beauty in Diversity
The Church has emphasized the importance of all the churches diversity being restored and protected so that it can as Pope St. John Paul II said, “breathe with both lungs again.”
In Orientalem Ecclesiarum the Second Vatican Council declared that:
History, tradition, and numerous ecclesiastical institutions manifest luminously how much the universal Church is indebted to the Eastern Churches. All Eastern rite members should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their lawful liturgical rites and their established way of life, and that these should not be altered except by way of an appropriate and organic development. Easterners themselves should honor all these things with the greatest fidelity. Besides, they should acquire an ever greater knowledge and a more exact use of them. If they have improperly fallen away from them because of circumstances of time or personage, let them take pains to return to their ancestral ways.
This is a slow process though, and you may see instances of it to varying degrees it still. But we recognize that it is important to move closer to our identity. Not because anything is wrong with the Latin customs that have been adopted in and of themselves, but because the Church does not want us to lose our diversity.
In a well-known speech at the second Vatican Council, the Patriarch of the Melkite Catholic Church at the time, Patriarch Maximos IV, spoke of the mission of Eastern Catholics:
to ensure that Catholicism remains open to every culture, every spirit, and every form of organization compatible with the unity of faith and love. At the same time, by our example, we must enable the Orthodox Church to recognize that a union with the great Church of the West, with the See of Peter, can be achieved without being compelled to give up Orthodoxy or any of the spiritual treasures of the apostolic and patristic East, which is opened toward the future no less to the past.
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The Byzantine Catholic Rite
What is the history behind the Byzantine Catholic rite, and what are the hallmarks of the Byzantine tradition? How is the Divine Liturgy different from the Mass?
The Byzantine Rite is a family of churches that grew out of the See of Constantinople, which grew out of the ancient see of Antioch.
Collectively, we are sometimes called “Greek Catholics” as opposed to “Roman Catholics.” But we’re not necessarily ethnically Greek, just like Roman Catholics aren’t necessarily Italian.
The Divine Liturgy
We all primarily celebrate the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as our form of worship. Prayer is very communal in the Byzantine churches, even outside of Divine Liturgy. Prayer in the home is influenced a great deal by the festal cycle and often adapted from Morning and Evening Prayer of the Divine Office.
The basic structure of the Divine Liturgy is very similar to the Mass. The first half consists of the proclamation of Scripture, followed by the celebration of the Eucharist. There will be lots of incense!
The Divine Liturgy is entirely sung, and we go through a cycle of eight tones, to help everyone in the congregation to participate in singing. There are variations from one church: the eight tones in a Melkite church sounds different than a Ukrainian Catholic Church. Translations vary, and sometimes we commemorate different Saints. But for the most part, the calendars and lectionary are the same and the Divine Liturgy is fundamentally the same in any church of the Byzantine rite.
The altar is hidden by an iconostasis, or a wall of some sort, covered with icons of especially important Saints, and an icon of Christ and the Theotokos. The doors, traditionally adorned with the icon of the Annunciation, open throughout the Liturgy, signifying that Heaven is being opened for us.
Postures have different meanings from one rite to another. In the Byzantine rite, we typically worship standing. There are specific times that call for kneeling and prostration, which has a more penitential character. But not on Sunday, which is a day of rejoicing in the Resurrection. Rather than genuflection, we make what is called a metany, or a deep bow, signifying conversion, when approaching the altar or icons.
What are the differences in the celebration of the Sacraments in Byzantine and Roman traditions?
The Sacraments (often called Mysteries in the East) of initiation—Baptism, Chrismation (or Confirmation), and Eucharist—are received all together in the East. The idea that the Eucharist or Chrismation should be postponed until the Sacraments were understood never developed in the East. We recognize that we can never fully understand them. The sacraments, in fact, are what form our understanding of the grace of God. Holy Communion and the grace of Chrismation nurture the divine life placed in us at Baptism and understanding follows from that.
There are also married priests in the Byzantine Rite. Priestly celibacy is a discipline, not a doctrine. St. Peter himself was married! The Church, both East and West, has ordained married men to the diaconate and the priesthood at different points from the earliest days, although a man may not later marry after being ordained.
For many centuries, however, bishops have always been chosen from among celibate clergy, normally monastics. The families of priests add a wonderful element to community life of a parish, lending stability both to the community and in the priest’s life. He brings his experience of natural fatherhood and being a husband to being a spiritual father and understanding to the experiences of the laity. There is an important place for both in the Church!
Do Roman and Byzantine Catholics venerate the same Saints? What about the liturgical calendar?
We recognize and venerate the same Saints, but our liturgical calendars often focus on Saints of special significance to our own tradition.
We have our own titles and devotions to the Mother of God, for example.
Sometimes we commemorate the same Saints but on different days, and sometimes feasts differ in their significance. For example, the feast of Theophany, or Epiphany, is of even more importance to our festal cycle than Christmas (although we love Christmas, too!) In the East, Theophany emphasizes the Baptism of the Lord more, whereas in the West the adoration of the Magi is more prominent. Although the feast does commemorate both events, the emphasis is just different.
How can I find an Eastern Catholic church near me? Where can I learn more about the Byzantine rite and other Catholic rites?
I would start by just searching on Google for “Eastern Catholic Church near me” and see what pops up! You can also search for a specific tradition by looking up Melkite Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, Ukrainian Catholic, Chaldean, Maronite, etc. The types of Eastern Catholic churches near you will vary quite a bit depending on the part of the country you’re in.
And although you can’t receive communion there, don’t be afraid to visit an Orthodox non-Catholic church if you’d like to learn more about it if you don’t have an Eastern Catholic Church nearby.
The best way to learn about any church, regardless of rite, is to participate in the liturgy. Then, build a relationship with the community.
What we pray teaches us what we believe.
Are you an Eastern Catholic? What’s your experience like? Are you a Roman Catholic with some follow-up questions about Eastern rites? Feel free to ask in the comments?Byzantine Catholic Liturgy + Tradition #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Written by Jen Rego.