Church of the Transfiguration - Kizhi, RussiaThroughout the Council as one looked down the grandiose nave of St. Peter's Basilica, he would have had to notice interspersed among the mitered heads of Western bishops, the crowns and veiled headdresses of their brother Eastern prelates. This mixture of different cultures and the exchange of ideas personified in the heads of so many different bishops, helped "open the window" and let in breezes from all over the world; creating, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a healthy atmosphere for discussion.

A rite is a cultural mode of expressing one's faith liturgically. It is based on customs conditioned by history, geography, and tradition. A rite varies with the national background of a people. One could compare the various rites to a display of gems. Each jewel reflects the same light as the one next to it; however, because of its different cut, pigmentation, mineral composition, and angle of display, it does so in a different way. Thus the one same Catholic faith may be reflected, expressed by many various rites — illustrating the Church's rich diversity. Because of the different background of each rite rooted in custom, there are differences in ecclesiastical law, in liturgical and devotional practices.

We appreciate the meaning of the word "rite" when we distinguish between what is essential and general in religion and what is accidental and local. Dogma is essential. All Catholics believe exactly the same articles of faith; no matter what rite they belong to. The essential elements of the public worship of the Church, in the Sacrifice of the Mass and the administration of the sacraments, are the same in all Catholic rites. It is in the amplification and the usage connected with them that they have evolved differently to meet local needs.

The Apostles distribute breadThe Apostles, sent and authorized by Christ Himself, preached the Gospel in many different lands. Guided by the Holy Spirit, these simple men became practical psychologists in the missionary domain, adapting themselves to whomever they preached. The way in which they administered the sacraments varied with time, place and language. "They were all things to all men," fitting themselves into the temperament of city after city.

After all the Apostles had died, the organization and the public worship of the Church was in the process of development. Rite, as an expression of faith and morals, was traditional and often oral. Many of the prayers surrounding the essential elements of the sacraments were extemporized by officiating bishops and priests. The bishop, a successor of the Apostles, presided over the unit of Church organization, i.e., the local Church, later called diocese. These larger cities had a radiating influence and were able to impose their form of worship on all the surrounding local churches. Their missionaries transmitted their liturgical practices to other regions.

By this time Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, Rome in Italy and Constantinople in Asia Minor (its former name was Byzantium) were prominent Christian centers. The first three, having been founded by Apostles, were considered as Apostolic and "chief seats" of Christendom. Rome, the seat of St. Peter, we know by history and tradition, was the head Church; the bishop of Rome had authority over all other bishops, since he was the successor of St. Peter, the head Apostle. The other three bishops (later called Patriarchs) in turn ruled other bishops of less important cities. Thus we have the beginning of Metropolitans or Archbishops. These bishops ruled huge territories. Their cities gave their names to the chief rites of Christian liturgies, which, with their subdivisions, are in use today, each with its own language, customs and canon law.

The Catholic Church possesses today five major rites with their various branches:

1. The Syrian Rite of Antioch: Evolved at Jerusalem and Antioch and spread through Syria and India. (A branch of this rite, which spread through Persia and Southern India was modified and became known as the Chaldean or Persian Rite. Another branch of this rite, which spread through Lebanon was modified by Latin influence during the Crusades and became known as the Maronite Rite.)

Language: SYRIAC, Arabic, and Malayalam.

2. The Coptic (Egyptian) Rite of Alexandria: Evolved at Alexandria and spread through Egypt and Ethiopia.

Language: COPTIC, Geez, and Arabic.

3. The Byzantine (Greek) Rite of Constantinople: Evolved at Caesarea in Cappadocia and at Constantinople and spread through the Near East, Russia and the Balkans.

Language: GREEK, Slavonic, and the vernacular.

4. The Armenian Rite of Cilicia: Evolved at Caesarea in Cappadocia and spread through Armenia and Cilicia.

Language: Classical ARMENIAN.

5. The Latin Rite of Rome: Evolved at Rome and finally unified and spread throughout Europe and the Americas.

Language: LATIN, with parts in the vernacular.

Past Breaches Of Unity [top]

Council of EphesusDuring the evolution of Christianity, its unity was attacked by separating tendencies. Especially after the founding of the Christian Greek Empire (313 A.D.), trouble began when the pagan persecution of the Christians ceased. Unfortunately, the Emperors of this empire, in their politics and administration from their capitol at Constantinople, lorded over their many different national Christianized groups. One of the wrong means that some of these groups used to obtain their national independence was by religious dissension — which reached its height in the fourth and fifth centuries over controversies concerning the Person and the Natures of Our Blessed Lord, Jesus Christ.

The Christians in Persia followed the wrong teaching of the misguided Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople: that there were two distinct persons in Christ and that Mary was the mother of the man, Jesus Christ, but not the mother of God, Jesus Christ. (The Catholic teaching was and is that the Blessed Virgin is the mother of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man and the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.) These Persian Christians formed the Chaldean Nestorian Church, using the Syrian Rite as obtained from Antioch through Edessa in Syria. This group had considerable influence and missionary activity in parts of India and China. The error was condemned at the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.).

The Christians in Egypt, Armenia and parts of Syria were likewise looking for an excuse to separate themselves economically, politically and religiously from Constantinople. They found it in the wrong teaching of Dioscoros, Patriarch of Alexandria, who claimed that Christ, having but one divine nature, could not have a genuine humanity; these extremists confused the philosophical term "nature" with "person." (The Catholic teaching was and is that in the one person of Jesus Christ there are two natures: the Divine and the human — mysteriously united in the same personality. He is true God and true Man.) Egyptian missionaries carried this error, Monophysitism, into Ethiopia; Syrians brought it as far as India around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It too was condemned by an Ecumenical Council, that of Chalcedon (451 A.D.).

Today in practice, most of these separated Christians believe the Catholic doctrine concerning the person of Christ and His two natures. The discussion today is mostly an affair of terminology used at the early councils.

However, even between the two centers, Rome and Constantinople, (they both holding the true or Orthodox Faith) overbearing rulers, even ambitious bishops, material and political interests and jealousies led to their separation or schism which was sealed by 1054 A.D. (The mutual excommunications at that time have since been officially abrogated by the two churches during the Fourth Session of Vatican II.) Modern Catholic historians today, in analyzing the problem, cannot put the entire blame on either side.

The Greeks (calling themselves true or Orthodox) converted Russia and the Balkans and eventually drew them into the schism' at least in the practice of church government and affairs.

Efforts At Reunion [top]

Pope John Paul and PatriarchHowever, again in all this dissension, there were groups despite the opposing forces of the Ottoman empire, who held the spark of Christian unity and the true Catholic nature of the visible organization of the Church as Christ wanted it; and always turned with longing eyes to a visible head in the bishop of Rome (always the last judge of appeal in all major difficulties before the schism). From the thirteenth century on, these groups consisting of Greeks, Slavs, Armenians, Syrians, Copts, Indians, and Ethiopians rejoined themselves gradually to the universal Church.

With the immigration of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century about two-and-a-half million Catholics of the Oriental Rites made America their home and are contributing to the American culture which is now in the process of formation. Most of these Catholics belong to the Byzantine or Greek Rite; other large groups are those belonging to the Maronite Rite and the Armenian Rite. All now have their own bishops here except the Chaldeans and Armenians.

The progress of reunion movements and Rome's insisting that all these people adhere to their religious culture, traditions, and rite, has necessitated the forming of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Church, which takes care of all relations between Oriental Catholics and Rome. A new Secretariate for the Promotion of Christian Unity has also been established in Rome precisely to further and coordinate all these efforts toward reunion.

As a result of the historical evolution described above each rite is represented today by a Catholic group and a corresponding non-Catholic group. The two are often parallel to each other in tradition and liturgical practice.

The Various Rites Illustrate The Church’s Catholicity [top]

CongregationThe public worship of the Church in allowing men of different racial, geographical, and linguistic backgrounds to express their faith in different rites, appealing to all men and cultures, proves her Catholicity; to quote the words of Pope Leo XIII:

"... Perhaps nothing, in fact better proves the note of Catholicity in the Church of God." The first proposition in the Decree on the Eastern Churches stresses: "The Eastern Churches bear living witness to the Apostolic Tradition and undivided heritage of the Universal Church." The second proposition goes on to reaffirm: "They all make up the Mystical Body of Christ organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government … such that the variety within the Church in no way harms its unity; rather it manifests it." The third proposition continues: "They are consequently of equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite and they enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, also in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world." The fourth proposition advocates that these rites be protected and advanced; that all the faithful know about these rites; that: "each and every Catholic, as also the baptized of every non-Catholic church or denomination who enters into the fullness of the Catholic communion, must retain his own rite, must cherish it and observe it; wherever he may be."


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