ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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One and Many Churches

The evolution and history of the Eastern churches, Catholic and Orthodox.

When introduced, Eastern Catholics are often given the litmus test: “Are you under the pope?” This question is asked because most people identify the Catholic Church with the Latin (Roman) Catholic Church. It comes as a shock to many to learn that the Catholic Church is actually a communion of 22 churches, the largest of which is the Latin Church. The remaining are defined as Eastern churches – all of which are Catholic and in full communion with one another. With the exception of the Italo-Albanian and Maronite churches, these Eastern Catholic churches share rites and disciplines with an Orthodox counterpart, with whom they share an imperfect communion.

The evolution of the Eastern churches – Catholic and Orthodox – is complex and somewhat confusing. Relations among them are similar to relationships among extended families – they argue, lose contact, make up and argue some more.

But why are there so many? Some would offer the explanation that the multiplicity of Eastern churches is the result of disputes and divisions. This explanation is only partially correct. Some churches are indeed the result of disputes that have unfortunately taken place.

History, however, reveals that while the Universal Church has always sought unity of faith in the one Lord, it was never “one” from the perspective of liturgy, discipline or government. The Gospel was taken from Jerusalem to various nations and peoples, where it took root and flourished, giving rise to a diverse number of churches that were for some time all in full communion with each other.

Christianity in the Roman Empire. Christianity developed in the context of one of history’s greatest governmental structures, the Roman Empire, a commonwealth encompassing territory today controlled by approximately 40 nations. Despite the Romans’ persecution, the empire provided Christians with a superstructure, that is, the necessary communication, transportation and commercial systems in which to function. The cities of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were important centers of commerce and government. As such, they attracted the apostles and evolved into important centers for Christian evangelization.

With the passage of time, the Christian communities that matured in these cities took pride in their apostolic foundations. Rome and Antioch identified themselves with St. Peter, who traveled and preached in both of these cities. And the Christians of Alexandria took pride in the tradition that St. Mark brought the Christian message to them. Secular and church leaders in Constantinople, after its establishment as the imperial capital in the fourth century, discovered the tomb of St. Andrew who, according to tradition, traveled through Asia Minor and the area around the Black Sea. Eventually, Constantinople would overshadow all the other important Eastern Christian centers, rivaling even Rome. Constantinople is wont to remind Rome that Andrew was the elder brother of Peter.

The fourth century was the turning point for the still undivided Church. In 313, Emperor Constantine the Great extended toleration to the empire’s Christians. And in recognition of the faith’s preeminence in the Roman world, the Emperor commissioned the construction of churches and shrines throughout the empire. In an even more significant move, Constantine moved the seat of the imperial government from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium, which he christened New Rome (later called Constantinople). There, next to the imperial palace, Constantine constructed the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia. No longer were Christians obliged to hide from persecutors in the catacombs. Instead, Christians were able to profess their faith publicly and to establish centers of worship and administration.

Another emperor, Theodosius, formally divided the Roman Empire in 395, creating two separate entities with Rome as the capital of the western portion and Constantinople as the center of the eastern half of the empire. This division made an indelible mark on the Church; when disputes surfaced, they occurred along geographic, linguistic and political lines. The term “Eastern Church” designates all those churches that originated in the Eastern Roman (called “Byzantine” after the fifth century) Empire.

Centers of Evangelization. Jerusalem is a city revered as holy by the followers of three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Despite the fact that Jerusalem was the site of numerous key events in religious history, the city was isolated and landlocked, making it insignificant in the cultural, commercial and governmental spheres. Tragic events resulted in an even further decline. The Romans sacked and destroyed much of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In 135, they razed the entire city and rebuilt it according to their standard urban plan. By the fourth century, Jerusalem had ceased to be a major Christian center. Subjected to the Church of Antioch, Jerusalem was only a place of monuments and memories.

It is fortunate that the fate of Christianity was not bound to the fate of Jerusalem. After Pentecost, the followers of Jesus soon dispersed and established Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire. Some even traveled beyond its eastern boundaries, traveling into Armenia, India and the lands of the Persian Empire.

When the followers of Jesus took the Gospel to the non-Jewish world, the new religion was naturally perceived as a novelty. Since its followers were usually found in the urban centers, it was regarded as a religion of the city. Association with urban society brought with it great cultural and economic benefits. After Christianity was recognized by the state, it soon received the largess of the imperial court. Adapting the court’s rituals, Christians created elaborate forms of worship and constructed magnificent churches and monasteries. Imperial money and wealthy benefactors also enabled church leaders to establish libraries, schools and charitable institutions.

There was, however, a negative side to this urban identity. The rural population mistrusted this urban development and its sophistication. They were so reluctant to accept the new religion that the Latin word for countryside, pagus, eventually came to mean nonbelievers, hence the term “pagan.”

Divergent cultural, linguistic and political interests sparked conflicts even after the rural population had embraced Christianity. Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch were Greek in language and culture; the inhabitants of these cities identified with the interests of the imperial government. The inhabitants of the rural regions surrounding Alexandria and Antioch were not Greek, but Coptic and Semitic in language and culture. The politicians in Constantinople were held in suspicion, their politics decried as a drain on the provinces.

The doctrinal disputes that surfaced in the fifth century – Nestorianism and Monophysitism – rather than being primarily theological disputes, were expressions of the cultural, economic, linguistic, philosophic and political tensions of the times. Today, these issues have been clarified between the churches that embraced them and the Church of Rome.

Antioch was the capital of Roman Syria and the guardian of the trade routes to Asia. St. Peter established a Christian community at Antioch, where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” (Acts 11:26) St. Paul, called the apostle to the Gentiles for his preaching to non-Jews, also used this city as his base. Many of the Eastern churches trace their origins to Antioch, now an insignificant town in Turkey. In addition to the regions immediately surrounding Antioch (modern Lebanon, Syria and southern Turkey), the churches of Persia, India, Mongolia and China all found their origins in the evangelization efforts of the Antiochenes.

Alexandria, the breadbasket of the empire and its second city after Rome, was founded in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great. The city exerted an influence over northeastern Africa, modern Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia, in a manner similar to that of Antioch in the Middle East.

Straddling the continents of Europe and Asia, the imperial city of Constantinople attained a prestige that overshadowed the entire East. The churches of the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Russia trace their origins to Constantinople.

Heresies and Schisms. By the fourth century, the Gospel had taken root throughout the Roman Empire, expanding even beyond its borders. The unity of the Church, however, did not last.

Competing positions regarding the nature and person of Jesus and the role of the Virgin Mary – expressions of the cultural, philosophical, theological and political attitudes of the Alexandrian and Antiochene churches – soon gave rise to divisions. One interpretation, known as Nestorianism, was held by a few Antiochene theologians who, led by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, were condemned by the church fathers gathered in council in the city of Ephesus in 431.

Politically and culturally severed from the Church of the Western and Eastern Roman empires, the Church of Persia embraced Nestorius and developed a distinct Christology and ecclesial identity.

Twenty years later, near the imperial palace in Constantinople, in the city of Chalcedon, the church fathers gathered in council to discuss the theological position, defined as Monophysitism, that some believed exaggerated the divine nature of Christ to the detriment of his human nature.

Weary of Constantinople’s efforts to impose its will on the local church, the non-Greek-speaking rural populations near Alexandria and Antioch, as well as the Church of Armenia, refused to adhere to the council’s condemnation of the heresy and broke from the churches of Rome and Constantinople. Distinct churches were created in Armenia and in the rural areas near Alexandria and Antioch. Those Christians who remained in full communion with the Universal Church in the lands of the Eastern Roman Empire were recognized as Melkites, or royalists, from the Syriac word for king, malek.

These divisions all took place within the East. By the middle of the 11th century, however, a dispute developed along the East-West frontier. Since Theodosius divided the Roman Empire, the peoples inhabiting these lands had become culturally, linguistically and politically estranged. Rome identified with Latin culture and language. Constantinople embraced Greek culture and language.

Conflicts surfaced. In 1054 the churches of Rome and Constantinople severed relations. Eventually the Greek-speaking churches of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem also severed ties with Rome. These Eastern Christians identified themselves as “Orthodox,” while those in the West called themselves “Catholics” (both terms may be aptly applied to both churches).

With the exception of the Italo-Albanian Church in southern Italy and the Maronite Church of Mt. Lebanon, Catholicism disappeared from the East.

Partial Reunions. The councils of Lyons (1274) and Ferrara-Florence (1439) attempted to heal the rift between the Roman and Eastern churches. Agreements with individual church leaders and patriarchs – often made under economic and political duress – were reached but seldom embraced by the people.

The dedication, erudition and wealth of Catholic missionaries in the East – who were filled with zeal following the 16th century Council of Trent – impressed the Orthodox. Eventually small pockets of Eastern Catholic communities were founded. The Church of Rome was now at a crossroads. For more than 500 years, to be Catholic was to be “Latin” Catholic.

The authorities in Rome were confronted with the issue of whether the new converts needed to become Latin in order to be Catholic. It was decided that they could become Catholic and still retain their Eastern traditions. Later several Eastern Catholic dioceses and patriarchates, corresponding in part to existing Orthodox patriarchates, were established. There are now 21 Eastern Catholic churches, all in communion with the Church of Rome.

A Tradition of Division. The history of Christianity has seen expansion and division. In general, the Universal Church is divided between East and West. Eastern Christianity itself is divided into the Assyrian Church of the East, the Oriental (or pre-Chalcedonian) Orthodox churches, the Orthodox churches and the Eastern Catholic churches.

Christ’s plea for unity echoes this unfortunate situation. Perhaps the greatest tragedy was that for centuries the Christian world had become comfortable with the arrangement. Until the birth of the ecumenical movement, which seeks the unity of Christians, the division of the Universal Church had been an accepted fact.

The Catholic Church can take pride in the accomplishments that have been made in this quest for unity. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Catholics are the “new kids on the block” with regard to ecumenism. At first the Catholic Church mistrusted any such effort:

“There is only one way in which the unity of Christians may be fostered,” wrote Pope Pius XI in 1928, “and that is by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it; for from that one true Church they have in the past unhappily fallen away.”

On 30 May 1995, Pope John Paul II exemplified the evolution of Catholic thought when he issued a new call for Christian unity in his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint”:

“The commitment to ecumenism must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer, which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s disciples, inspired by love, by the power of the truth and by a sincere desire for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, are called to reexamine together their painful past and the hurt that the past regrettably continues to provoke even today.”

Dialogues of Charity and Truth. With Vatican II came a refined understanding of “church” that included not only the Catholic Church, but all who professed the name of Christ. It was with this new understanding of church that the Catholic Church embarked on a quest for unity. The journey was to be undertaken on two paths: a dialogue of charity and a dialogue of truth.

The dialogue of truth is the interchange that takes place between theologians as they attempt to clarify and reconcile the doctrinal differences that have arisen during the past 1500 years. This dialogue of truth, however, must be preceded by and based upon a dialogue of charity, which is simply a reversal of the process of alienation that has occurred for centuries.

CNEWA, in its efforts to support all the Eastern churches, Catholic and Orthodox, is intimately involved in this dialogue of charity.

Like any healing process, the quest for unity is painfully slow and difficult to measure. It is a journey marred by setbacks and disappointments. We are, nevertheless, confident that the Lord who has begun the good work will see it through to completion (Phil. 1:6). Success in the dialogue of charity does not take the form of a signed agreement between church leaders. Rather the dialogue of charity achieves its goal when Eastern Christians live in a renewed atmosphere of love and trust.

Maronite Chorbishop John D. Faris is CNEWA’s Assistant Secretary General.

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