Thursday, May 27, 2010

E Pluribus Unum

Not all Catholics are Roman Catholics. Some are Ambrosian, some are Maronite, others are Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, Armenian, Chaldean or Greek Byzantine. They are all in communion with the pope (they accept his juridical primacy), but their liturgies, their traditions, and their codes of law differ in many ways from those of Rome.

These non-Roman Catholic rites are generally described as Eastern Catholic Churches. They are not to be confused with the Orthodox Churches (aka Eastern Orthodox) who separated from the Roman Church in the 11th century and continue to reject the primacy of the pope.

Some of the Eastern Catholic Churches were part of the schism between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Catholics in the 11th century, but later re-united with Rome.

While the Eastern Catholics, like the Roman Catholics, are full members of the Catholic Church, they differ in many ways from their Roman counterparts. They ordain married men to be priests. They employ different prayers, actions and vestments in celebrating the Lord's Supper. They preserve many of the customs of the East, such as veneration of icons, dance, eastern languages.

Bishops and priests of the Eastern rite celebrated their styles of liturgy during sessions of the Second Vatican Council in order to demonstrate and validate the variety of rites used in the Catholic Church. It is said that some Roman rite bishops were shocked when they attended an Ethiopian liturgy. When the Ethiopian rite bishop removed his mitre (the bishop's hat), he had the hosts (the bread to be consecrated) on his head --it was the Ethiopian way of bring the bread to the altar.

While most Eastern Catholics live in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, some can be found in Italy, especially the Milanese rite Catholics in Milan, or in Egypt, especially the Coptic rite Catholics.

There are Eastern Catholic parishes and dioceses in the United States as well. Most of these congregations came from the immigrations from Eastern Europe in the 19th century and from the Middle East in the 20th century. The Ruthenian Byzantine Catholics, for example, are organized in the diocese or eparchy headquartered in Parma, Ohio,

All Catholics, especially those of the Latin rite, were reminded by the bishops at Vatican II, that "The Catholic Church values highly the institutions of the eastern Churches, their liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and ordering of Christian life" (see the Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, #1).

Further, the bishops confirmed that "these churches (both Eastern and Western) are of equal rank, so that none of them is superior to the others because of its rite" (#3).

Periodically we need to remind ourselves that the umbrella of the Catholic Church is a large one. There are, of course, essential elements (such as teachings, sacraments, authority) in the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church that must be protected and handed on. At the same time there is room for a variety of practices, customs, languages, and theologies in the one, true Church.

Sometimes we in the Roman Church ought to acknowledge "the great debt owed to the Eastern Churches by the Church Universal" (#5). Sometimes it is good for us to recall that Jesus came to save the whole world, the people of every nation. Sometimes it is helpful to remember that the Catholicism we enjoy in the west began in the east, that our culture, philosophy, and science are not the only way to embrace the Gospel.


  1. Fr. Norm,
    Not only do you inspire our souls, but you edify our minds. Always great reading. Thanks!
    Ken K

  2. Ken,

    Your kindness to me is appreciated, but your service and example to God's people at large deserves a reward only heaven can give!