ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Melkites Today

The growth of the ancient and beloved Melkite Church in our own land is a source of joy and thanksgiving to all Catholics who are mindful of their glorious traditions, their sufferings for Christ’s name, and their attachment to St. Peter’s Roman see.

The Melkites are that branch of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch which has been in communion with the Holy See of Rome since 1724. Their country of origin is Greater Syria (today Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine) and Egypt. They follow the same Byzantine rite as their fellow Ukrainian, Ruthenian and Romanian Catholics and are the only Catholics of this rite with their own Patriarch and Holy Synod. There are approximately one million Melkites in the Middle East and other parts of the World, notably in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. They are the “Arab Catholics” of the Holy Land, where they have three dioceses (Jerusalem, Galilee and Amman). The Melkite form of church government is identical with that of an autocephalous (self ruling) Orthodox Church; all its bishops are elected by the Holy Synod, which meets annually and is composed of His Beatitude, Patriarch Maximos V (Hakim) and all the bishops. This Synod can be compared in a sense to both the Roman Curia and the College of Cardinals in the western Church. The Patriarch is the direct successor of St. Peter the Apostle who was the first Bishop of Antioch, and Melkites are descendants of those same faithful who “were first named Christians.” (Acts XI, 26). The name, Melkite, was coined derisively in the same way Catholics in the west were called Papists. It came into use after the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451; they were the only Christians in the Middle East who upheld the doctrine of two natures in Christ as did the Eastern “Melko,” or Emperor.

Melkites are found today in organized parishes and missions as well as in smaller, scattered communities in all our fifty States. They started coming to the United States in numbers at the end of the 19th Century as refugees from Turkish tyranny and oppression. The great majority settled in industrial towns in Massachusetts, New York and Michigan. The first parish in the western hemisphere was St. Joseph in Lawrence, Massachusetts, established in 1896. Since then, new churches have been built from as far north as Manchester, New Hampshire, south to Miami, Florida and west to Los Angeles, Until the establishment of Melkite Apostolic Exarchate (diocese) of the United States in 1966, all Melkite parishes were under the jurisdiction of the local Latin rite Bishop. In that year, Archimandrite Justin Najmy, a Basilian monk and pastor, was named the first Exarch (bishop). Two years after his consecration, he died of a heart attack. Controversy over naming a successor persisted for over a year in a jurisdictional dispute over designation of his successor. This controversy was resolved by the nomination of the present Exarch, Archbishop Joseph Tawil.

The present head of the Melkite Church, Patriarch Maximos V, was elected and proclaimed by the Holy Synod on November 22, 1967, after which he communicated the news of his election to the Pope of Rome with the request to be received into communion. His full title is Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem and All the East. Since the Egyptian government continues the ancient Turkish practice of recognizing the Patriarch as a civil ruler of his people, His Beatitude was confirmed as chief of the Melkites in Egypt by President Nasser after his election. Patriarch Maximos has official residences in Damascus, Jerusalem and Alexandria, as well as a permanent office in AinTraz, Lebanon, where he is surrounded by his “permanent Synod.” The Holy Synod works with the Patriarch in administration of the Church, and oversees establishment of dioceses and the election of bishops.

The Second Vatican Council clearly stated in its Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches, “All members of the Eastern Churches should know and preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life.” These were heartening words to the Melkites, who had endured many attempts, both within and without, to introduce latinizations into their liturgy, theology and way of life over the centuries since reunion with Rome. Such practices as “first Holy Communion” and “funeral Masses” have been abolished in those places where they were adopted in the absence of a Melkite bishop. The three “Sacraments of Initiation,” Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist, are administered by the priest to the infant at the same ceremony. Only Orthodox textbooks are used in religion classes and only Orthodox theology is taught in the Melkite seminary. It is the normal procedure in the Middle East for the Melkites to ordain married men to the priesthood, as has been the custom for centuries. Only monks and the bishops are celibate. However, the ordination of married men to the priesthood is still prohibited in North America. Similarly, the Melkite rite here is also prohibited by Rome from granting divorces with permission to remarry.

The present Melkite Apostolic Exarch in the U.S.A., Archbishop Joseph Tawil, has held this office since his installation in his cathedral on March 15, 1970. Since arrival in Boston, he has established one new parish and six new missions and initiated the only permanent diaconate in any American Oriental diocese. There are now six permanent deacons functioning in Melkite parishes and five men enrolled in the 1974 program. His far-flung diocese is administered from his Boston headquarters and includes 26 parishes, seven missions, four monasteries, 43 priests, eight deacons, four Brothers, six nuns, and six seminarians, serving over 20,000 faithful in organized parishes and another 50,000 who do not live near a Melkite church. Under his leadership parish councils have been set up in every parish and the only nationwide diocesan pastoral council in the U.S. was established in 1971. In addition to being a member of the Holy Synod of Antioch, Archbishop Tawil is also a voting member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Father King is Chancellor of the Melkite Apostolic Exarchate of the United States.

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