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The Melkite Greek Catholic Church

Scattered throughout the Middle East (and increasingly, the Americas, Europe and Oceania), a Christian community continues to bear a nickname first coined by its adversaries more than 1,500 years ago. A Melkite (from the Syriac, malkaya, meaning “of the king”) once referred to a Christian who supported the emperor ruling from distant Constantinople, typically spoke Greek, lived in a city and accepted the theological decrees of the Council of Chalcedon (451).

Today, most Melkites are Arabic-speaking Christians who belong to a church steeped in the traditions of the Christian East and espouse full communion with the Church of Rome. These Melkite Greek Catholics, a small community within the Catholic communion of churches, boldly assert their rights, privileges, prerogatives and traditions while actively seeking unity with their Orthodox kin, from whom they have been separated since the early 18th century.

An illustrious legacy. The Melkite Greek Catholic Church shares in the heritage of the ancient Syrian city of Antioch, now a provincial city in southern Turkey. Founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul, the Church of Antioch – where the followers of Jesus Christ first earned the name “Christian” (Acts 11:26) – became the Christian hub of the eastern Mediterranean. For more than 500 years the church of this metropolis nurtured hermits (Maron, Simeon Stylites), martyrs (Babylas, Ignatius), poets (Ephrem the Syrian, Romanos the Melodist), scholars (Flavian, Theodoret of Cyr, Theophilus) and theologians (John Chrysostom, Nestorius, Theodore of Mopsuestia). And while all were passionate about their faith, few agreed with one another.

The Antiochene Church also cultivated competing schools of theology and philosophy, essentially one cosmopolitan and Greek-speaking and the other provincial and Syriac-speaking. Increasingly, theological and philosophical debates – often centered on the person and nature of Jesus – took on ethnic, linguistic and political overtones, threatening the unity of the eastern half of the Roman Empire (or Byzantium), centered in Constantinople.

To settle these disputes, the emperors called a number of councils (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon), drawing bishops and theologians from throughout the Christian East. While these councils articulated Christian thought, the methods used to implement conciliar decrees – particularly Chalcedon – divided the church. Perhaps no other community was more adversely affected than that of Antioch, which because of its commercial and political prominence exercised “patriarchal” jurisdiction over other bishops in the region (this was recognized at Nicea and reaffirmed by Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon).

Decline of Antioch. Until the Arabs wrested the city from Byzantine control in 638, the Christians of Antioch who supported Chalcedon and Constantinople – a minority labeled “Melkites” by their opponents – retained the upper hand. Buttressed by the military force of Byzantium, they imposed the decrees of Chalcedon on a population largely hostile to them. These so-called “Monophysites” (for those who opposed the council’s assertion that in Jesus were united two natures, one divine another human) had powerful patrons as well; not all emperors and their consorts supported the council.

This lack of clarity weakened the patriarchate and the Antiochene Theme (as Byzantine provinces were known), as various parties competed to elect patriarchs sympathetic to their cause or depose those who were not. After the Melkites toppled Patriarch Severus in 518, the Patriarchate of Antioch was split between rival claimants, no longer in full communion, whose followers formed the nucleus of two churches, Melkite and Syriac. Today, theologians agree this schism reflected cultural, linguistic and philosophical differences rather than any fundamental differences in faith.

Antioch’s role as an economic and political center had begun to decline long before the Arab conquest. Repeated earthquakes in the sixth century devastated the city, killing many and driving others to settle elsewhere. After the Arabs took the city, the non-Chalcedonian Syriac Christian community prospered, particularly as it spread east. Meanwhile, the Melkites, closely identified with Byzantium, lost all influence, their patriarchs exiled to Constantinople.

After more than three centuries of stability under the Arabs, war, occupation and natural disaster nearly finished Antioch. The Byzantines retook the city in 969 but lost it to the Seljuk Turks in 1085. Thirteen years later, the Crusaders slayed much of the population. In 1258, the Latin principality of Antioch fell to the Sunni Muslim Mamluks, a class of professional soldiers. And in 1517 the Ottoman Turks took Antioch.

By the 18th century, Antioch had declined to a modest Turkish town of 5,000 inhabitants, almost all of whom were Muslim. Christians, active tradesmen, had long since left. In 1034, for example, Dionysios IV, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, settled in a monastery in southeastern Asia Minor. In the late 14th century, Melkite Patriarch Ignatius II transferred the residence of the see to Damascus. Both patriarchates, though no longer centered in Antioch, remained of Antioch; both retained the name of the ancient city as the name of their respective sees.

Further schisms. In 1054, when the heads of the churches of Constantinople and Rome excommunicated each other – the definitive rupture separating what we now call the Orthodox and Catholic churches – the Melkite patriarch of Antioch, choosing no side in the dispute, tried to reconcile the two.

Eventually, however, the Antiochene Church sided with Constantinople: Soon after seizing Antioch in 1098, the Crusaders appointed a Latin patriarch, exiling the Melkite incumbent to Constantinople. It was during this period of exile in Constantinople that the indigenous Antiochene rites once utilized by the Melkites, which remain in use even today by the Western Syriac family of churches (Maronite, Syriac Catholic and Orthodox and Syro-Malankara Catholic), were replaced by the Byzantine rites of the Church of Constantinople.

Although for centuries the Melkite patriarchs of Antioch (particularly its Arabic or Syriac-speaking patriarchs) remained open to the overtures of the Church of Rome, full communion, though never formally severed, no longer existed between the two churches.

This openness encouraged a number of Catholic religious communities, particularly the Capuchins and Jesuits, to work among the Melkites throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Their opening of schools strengthened pro-Rome sentiments while the erecting of parishes hardened anti-Rome hostilities, eventually polarizing the Antiochene Patriarchate into Catholic and Orthodox parties. In 1724, the Melkite bishops of Syria (all Arabic speakers) defied the wishes of Patriarch Athanasios III who, before his death, selected as his heir the Cypriot monk Sylvester. In his stead, they elected as patriarch a noted Catholic, Cyril Tanas. Fearing schism, the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople declared Cyril’s election invalid and formally appointed Sylvester, whose appointment was confirmed by the Ottoman authorities. Cyril fled Damascus, seeking safety in the traditional refuge of the eastern Mediterranean, Mount Lebanon. Many Melkites gravitated to Cyril, however, thanks to Sylvester’s heavy-handed governance.

Pope Benedict XIII recognized Cyril’s election in 1729 and extended full communion to Cyril and his followers, an action that formalized the schism of the Melkite Church of Antioch into two bodies: the Orthodox Church of Antioch, today led by Patriarch Ignatius IV, and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, led by Patriarch Gregory III.

Development and growth. The earliest Melkite Greek Catholic communities were in the mountains of Lebanon and Syria, far from the reach of the Ottoman Turks. But the church grew as the Ottoman Empire declined, and Melkite Greek Catholics began to emigrate to Egypt and Palestine, where the Western influence was strong. The patriarchs sent priests, many of whom were educated in Rome, to build up these nascent Melkite communities. There they prospered, as many Orthodox from the patriarchates of Alexandria and Jerusalem joined the church, which some perceived as an Arab entity free of Ottoman and Greek influences. In 1838, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Maximos III extended his pastoral care to these Melkite Greek Catholics of Alexandria and Jerusalem, adding these ancient sees to his title.

Ten years later the Ottoman government recognized the Melkite Greek Catholic Church as a millet, or a legally protected religious minority, acknowledging Maximos as the head of this autonomous community. That year, the patriarchate moved from the mountains of Lebanon to Damascus, where it remains today.

Though the Melkite Greek Catholic Church grew at the expense of the Orthodox churches of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, it did not lose its identity as a church in the Byzantine tradition. Tensions between the Melkites and the Church of Rome began to surface in the mid-19th century, as Rome sought to “Catholicize” the Melkites by imposing Latin disciplines and rites. In 1871, before the fathers of Vatican I voted to endorse “Pastor Aeternus,” which defined papal infallibility and the pope’s universal jurisdiction, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory II Joseph left the Eternal City to avoid voting against the constitution. The patriarch believed the constitution would offend the patriarchs of the Orthodox Church and destroy chances of ecclesial communion. Reluctantly, Gregory and the Melkite Greek Catholic synod later assented to the decree, with the stipulation that “all rights, privileges and prerogatives of the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches [be] respected.”

He paid for his assertion: During Vatican II, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Maximos IV revealed that Pope Pius IX humiliated the patriarch, having him cast to the ground by members of the Swiss Guard and then addressing the patriarch with his foot pressed against his head. But Gregory’s defense of the Eastern Christian tradition is cited as the main influence behind the landmark apostolic letter, “Orientalium Dignitas Ecclesiarum,” issued in 1894 by Pius’s successor, Pope Leo XIII.

Patriarch Gregory is also credited with founding colleges in Beirut (1865) and Damascus (1875) and the seminary of St. Anne in Jerusalem (1882) to counter the great advances made in the Christian East by well-funded Protestant missionaries.

Ecumenism and current developments. “The ecumenical spirit grew in the 1950’s and 1960’s,” wrote Melkite Greek Catholic Bishop Nicholas Samra in these pages in 1997, thanks to the contributions of “four Melkite Greek Catholic priests, three of whom later became bishops and one a patriarch: Fathers George Hakim [later Patriarch Maximos V], Oreste Kerame, Joseph Tawil and Elias Zoghby. These men tremendously influenced the Melkites in matters ecumenical and liturgical. A revival began – the ’courage to be ourselves’ grew within the universal Catholic communion.”

In 1974, through the efforts of Archbishop Elias Zoghby of Baalbek, Lebanon, the synods of the two Antiochene patriarchates – Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox – formed a joint theological commission to work toward full communion. Unfortunately, Lebanon’s civil war ended these initiatives.

A renewed effort in 1996, again prompted by Archbishop Zoghby, breathed new life into the Church of Antioch initiative. It sought to restore the unity of the Melkite Patriarchate of Antioch (that is, the re-establishment of full communion between Melkite Greek Catholics and Antiochene Orthodox and the suppression of two individual patriarchates) even before the restoration of full communion between the Church of Rome and all Orthodox churches.

The synod of the Antiochene Orthodox Patriarchate, though sympathetic, questioned the initiative as did Roman Catholic authorities. Antiochene unity, while desired, cannot be achieved in isolation, they reasoned.

Nevertheless, the two churches, led by their patriarchs, continue to work together, seemingly functioning as one body, particularly in the Middle East. Last year, in the Damascus suburb of Doumar, both patriarchs consecrated the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, a large edifice built by members of both communities that each now share as the center of their community. Plans are already in the works for future shared facilities.

“Reconciliation must be made concerning our history, our tradition and our liturgical rites,” Patriarch Gregory III said during his opening speech to the Melkite Greek Catholic synod of bishops held last June in Lebanon. “The only means through which we can strengthen the Christian presence in the Middle East,” he continued, “is the universal call toward the Lord’s supper.”

Michael La Civita is the executive editor of ONE magazine.

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