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Rites of the Church: A Catholic Mosaic

On the tails of Vatican II, the Western Church is adopting practices of the Eastern Church.

In the past, many western world Catholics were astonished when they learned of the Eastern Rites. They took for granted that the Mass was celebrated in exactly the same way throughout the world. They regarded Latin as the Church’s universal language, and supposed that married men never could be lawfully ordained priests. When told otherwise, western Catholics often were puzzled, if not amazed.

Following the revolutionary changes after Vatican Council II, Roman Catholics have grown more accustomed (even within their own rite) to diversity in local Church practices. Yet, varying Church traditions, practices and disciplines still give rise to natural questions such as, “Why are there various rites? How did they come about?”

Any explanation requires a knowledge of those places and peoples among whom the faith took root and flourished. It presupposes some familiarity with 20 centuries of history which have left their mark upon the Church’s structure, and on the many forms in which our Christian heritage has been preserved.

We must also be aware of another governing factor. Every person manifests, as does every institution, two opposing tendencies: the need to affirm one’s equality and common humanity, and the no less powerful urge to display individuality and personal distinctiveness. Ancestry, environment, and experience, along with native endowments, make us different one from the other even as we remain conscious of our human oneness. This fact has a bearing on our consideration of the various Catholic rites.

In its origins the Catholic Church was eastern. Christ, the Lord, was an Oriental man. His gospel was preached first in the east. The first eight Ecumenical Councils met there, and none was convened in the west until well into the 12th century. While the west was repeatedly overrun by barbarian hordes, the Eastern Roman empire survived in undimmed splendor. The Eastern rites gave us some of our greatest martyrs. In the east monasticism began. The eastern theological tradition produced great Doctors of the Church, and a long line of illustrious Bishops. From the east missionaries went forth to evangelize Armenia, Persia, the Balkans, Russia and India, and sent the first heralds of the gospel as far as China itself.

Of the five great Patriarchates that emerged after the early persecutions, Rome – despite its primacy – was then materially the weakest, although the most widespread territorially. Rome’s Patriarchate covered most of Europe and the western portion of North Africa.

At Alexandria, the Patriarch presided over hundreds of Bishops, the numerous monasteries of the desert, and the city’s famed library and theological school.

The third Patriarch sat at Antioch where the faithful were first called Christians. Its theological schools were renowned, and the patriarchal territory extended from Asia Minor to Syria and Mesopotamia even going beyond the boundaries of the Roman empire into Persia and India.

Once Byzantium was made the Roman capital, and renamed Constantinople, its Bishop eventually became a great Patriarch second only to Rome. He ruled the Churches of the Balkans, the Greek islands, Russia, and Asia Minor.

The fifth and smallest Patriarchate was at Jerusalem where the Patriarch presided over the holy places.

Each of these five centers of Christian life developed its own liturgy for the Mass, the divine office, and the sacraments as well as its own apostolic tradition, spirituality, customs, and rules of Church government. Thus, for example, it has always been the Eastern rite practice to ordain married men to the priesthood; only monks and Bishops remain celibate. The Greek-speaking Byzantines ruled in both Church and State a people whose native tongues (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian etc.) eventually became liturgical languages.

Because early documents are very scarce, we possess little detail on precisely how the differing liturgical practices came about. By the 4th century, though, after the empire had become officially Christian, we find three principal liturgical centers in the east, at Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. In each case, the local churches followed the rite of its Patriarch. In the west historical circumstances offered a challenge to the Roman genius for order, uniformity, and centralization.

Once the Roman rite was molded it remained substantially the same, practically unchanged until our own time, gradually absorbing the other western rites. The Gallican, Mozarabic, and Ambrosian rites of the west all but disappeared. Greater variety and diversity persisted in the east until the empire finally succumbed in 1453 with the Turkish capture of Constantinople.

The great heresies of the first five centuries of our era, the invasions, and final triumph of Islam swept away the great churches of the east. Christianity survived in a secondary status as the religion of subject peoples. In time, the rule, “rite follows Patriarchate,” was strangely reversed, and Patriarchate came to follow rite. The rite became an expression not only of religion, but of national identity, and the Patriarch the civil as well as religious leader of his flock.

The Byzantine rite with the conversion of Russia and the Balkans, became the most widespread of the eastern rites. The rite of Antioch gave rise in its western form to the Syrian rite, the Maronite rite in Lebanon, and that of Malankara in India; in its eastern form to the Chaldean rite in Persia, and that of Malabar in India. The Alexandrian rite has two divisions: the Coptic and the Ethiopian. The Armenian rite emerged as a national religion from its beginning in the Church of Cappadocia in Asia Minor.

Cultural, political, and social conditions combined with difficulties of language, theology, and outlook to make inevitable the final rupture between East and West in the great schism of the 11th century. Brief reunions took place at the Ecumenical Councils of Lyons and Florence, but thereafter the separation was practically complete. Not until the late Middle Ages were any sizable segments of the eastern churches again found in communion with Rome. Only in recent years has there been any possibility for a fuller reunion of East and West.

The Vatican II Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite (Nov. 12, 1964) declared succinctly the Catholic attitude on the Eastern Rites. Pope Paul VI in his Credo of June 29, 1968, summed it up when he said, “…the rich diversity of liturgical rites, and the legitimate diversity of spiritual and theological tradition, far from hindering the Church’s unity, manifests it all the more.” In fact, one important insight of the Vatican II Council Fathers was their recognition that diversity was not a regrettable fact for which to apologize. Catholicity has never really implied uniformity.

Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics of the Roman rite have borrowed from the Eastern rites some of their valuable practices and traditions. Some examples include: the permanent diaconate, the concelebrated Mass, the synod of Bishops, congregational singing, use of the vernacular in the liturgy, along with a less rationalized theology, and less structured forms of contemplative prayer and meditation. These are just a few of the values the Eastern rites have restored to the Roman rite.

“It is the mind of the Church,” the Vatican II Fathers stated, “that each individual church or rite should retain its traditions whole and entire, and that likewise it should adopt its way of life to the different needs of time and place.”

The author, F.C. Edward, is a student of Oriental Ecclesiology who travels frequently in the Middle East. He is an authority on the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia.

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