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THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE EASTERN RITES
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.
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:
Past Breaches Of Unity
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
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
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]
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
"... 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."