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Patriarch: Father and Head

A discussion on the history and role of the patriarch in the Orthodox Church.

The world’s Catholic bishops, assembled in ecumenical council, fell into hushed silence as the bearded, blackrobed hierarch, striking in his ebony-veiled stove-pipe hat in a sea of white mitres and copes, approached the podium to speak. Suddenly the two observers representing the Russian Orthodox Church rose to their feet and removed their own headgear as Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh addressed the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. Later, when interviewed by the press, Archpriest Vitaly Borovi explained “We listen to the words of a Patriarch with the same reverence as that due to the Holy Gospels – by standing with heads uncovered.”

What is the title which engenders such awe? What role and function in the life of the church do the bearers of such an august title play? Whence did it arise? Why is the role of Patriarch barely known among Latin rite Catholics? To answer these questions we must travel back in time to the infancy of the Church and in place back to its cradle.

It is likely that the apostles, following Christ’s saying that He had come first to the lost sheep of Israel, exercized their ministry among the Jewish colonies spread throughout the Roman Empire. Then, as now, Jews tend to congregate in big cities. In fact, the early church was so identified with urban centers that the word paganus meaning country-dweller became synonymous with non-Christian. Once established in the principal cities, the church began to spread outward over the country-side. The daughter-churches created by the great centers always looked to these centers for direction and support as to “mother-churches.” A mother church was called the mother metropolis or mother city. In time, five of these metropolitan Sees enjoyed special prestige and honor because of their civil importance and because they were associated with the direct activity of the Apostles, especially St. Peter. These five sees were called the pentarchy or five-fold centers of rule. Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were the five Patriarchal Sees of the early church.

If the Metropolitan Sees were named mother churches, the patriarchal title means “father rule.” St. Peter’s ministry had begun in Jerusalem and continued in Antioch. It spread to Alexandria through the preaching of St. Peter’s writing St. Mark and, by tradition, to Constantinople through the apostolate of Mark’s brother, St. Andrew. The patriarchs of two of the primatial churches were called by the special name Pope or Papa: Rome and Alexandria. To this day the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria is called “Pope.” This explains why Eastern Christians always refer to the Pope as the Pope of Rome in order to distinguish him from his brother patriarch, the Pope of Alexandria!

In time the unity of the churches was broken and the four Eastern patriarchs found themselves separated from the one Western patriarch, the Pope of Rome. When various missionary efforts resulted in the restoration of communion between groups of Eastern Christians and the Roman See, it was only logical for the Patriarchal structure of these churches to resurface within the context of Catholic unity.

Today, there are three Catholic Patriarchs of Antioch: The Melkite-Greek-Catholic, the Maronite and the Syrian. The Melkite Patriarch is also the Patriarch of Alexandria and Jerusalem for the Greek (Byzantine) Catholics. In addition there is the Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon and the Armenian Catholic Patriarch.

Vatican II recognizes the Patriarch as Father and Head of the Church over which he presides with his synod of bishops. As supreme aribtrator in liturgical and discipline matters, the Patriarch serves as a unifying force for his flock which is scattered over the world.

The Patriarchate of the West was for so long separated from its sister churches in the East, Western Catholics began to blur the distinction between the two roles of Pope and Patriarch.

The Pope of Rome is the Patriarch of the West. Whenever the Holy Father acts to reform the Latin-rite liturgy or the discipline of fasting and abstinence or marriage laws he is acting in virtue of his Patriarchal authority over the Western or Latin-rite Church. These functions are discharged by the Eastern Catholic Patriarch with their synods for their own churches.

Since Vatican II had decreed the full revitalization of the Patriarchal office in the Eastern Catholic Churches according to the experience of the Undivided Church of the first millenium we can expect these venerable churches of the pentarchy to continue to flourish to the extent that “they take pains to return to their ancestral traditions.”

Father Romanos is a frequent contributor on matters liturgical.

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