Today, the Catholic Church throughout the world celebrates the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, pillars of the Church. Over time, these two men, due to their great missionary activity among the gentile world, became the image of unity for the two major divisions or parts of the Catholic Church; Saint Paul of the East, and Saint Peter of the West. For Roman Catholics today, especially those living in the United States, the knowledge of the role, importance, or even the existence of the Eastern Catholic Churches is vague at best, and commonly altogether unknown. Who are these “Eastern Catholics,” and why are they different from Roman Catholics?
Christianity, as is well known, originated in the Holy Land. From the Upper Room in Jerusalem, having received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles departed to follow our Lord’s final command to his friends to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28;19). From Jerusalem the Apostles traveled north to the city of Antioch in Syria, and south to Alexandria in Egypt. From these two great cities of the ancient world, Jewish and non-Jewish hearers alike received the good news of the Resurrection. By tradition, we know that the faith spread to Antioch where “the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26). Saint Mark eventually went to Egypt to preach the good news to the Jewish exiles living there since the Babylonian invasion of the kingdom of Judah. As is related in Saint Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul worked tirelessly among the Greeks, and eventually traveled to Rome where Saint Peter had established a vibrant Christian community. With the conversion of Emperor Constantine, who chose the ancient city of Byzantium (Constantinople) as his throne city at the beginning of the fourth century, Christianity in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire gained another center for evangelization.
These five capitol cities of the ancient world—Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople—became for the young Christian Church “Patriarchal sees,” where the greatest and most influential bishops in the entire known world would reign over the kingdom of God on earth. Naturally, these “Patriarchal sees” exercised a strong influence over the cities and towns that surrounded them, and these smaller towns looked to their Patriarch as the model for expressing their faith, thus forming particular churches or families within the Catholic communion. The influence of the Patriarchs upon their respective Churches cannot be over-emphasized. Evidence of this early ecclesiological structure and its influence on the nascent Church can be witnessed today in all aspects of the Church’s life; from its varied liturgical traditions to its doctrinal formulations. Eventually, the Patriarchal see of Constantinople, due to its influential political position in the heart of the Roman Empire, claimed control even over the apostolic sees of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, and became second only to Rome in its place within the Universal Church.
Over time, certain external historical influences, such as the rise of Islam in the East and the invasion of the barbarians in the West, created a rift in the Church. The various particular churches within the “Catholic” or Universal Church became more and more estranged, and their once-united life fragmented through misunderstanding and sin. By the beginning of the second millennium, the relationship of the Patriarchal sees of Rome and Constantinople became strained to the point of breaking, and in 1054 each issued a decree of excommunication against the other. From this division, the common distinction was established between the Roman Catholic Church, representing Western Christianity, and the Orthodox Church in the East, represented by the Patriarch of Constantinople. From 1054 to the present day, many of the faithful and clergy of the Eastern Churches have realized the importance of unity with the other churches, and for its part, the Roman Church has become more and more aware of the importance of the Eastern Churches within the Catholic communion. Over time, some of the Eastern Churches, such as the Antiochian Church in Syria, have declared their desire for the unity of the churches, and union has once again been established between the Roman Church and various Eastern Churches.
With the reunion of the various apostolic churches which has occurred over the past millennium, the question of proper terminology has become important. With the above historical overview in place, let us briefly turn our attention to the question of terms and ensure that our understanding about the nature of the Church is correct.
The term “Catholic,” which means universal, is not to be used synonymously with the Roman Catholic Church. The term “Roman Catholic” identifies the Patriarchal Church of Rome, seat of the Apostle Peter, who was, and is today, the prince of the Apostles and eldest brother of the Patriarchs. Within the Catholic or Universal Church, there also exists the “Antiochian” Catholic Church (i.e. Melkite), the “Maronite” Catholic Church, the “Ukrainian” Catholic Church, as well as many others. Please do not be confused; these “other” churches within the Catholic Church, are not in any way like the many Protestant communities familiar to us today. Rather, these apostolic churches are in every way Catholic, and have a fully valid and licit sacramental life.
With the above understanding in place we can ask the question of the position of the “Orthodox” Churches in the framework considered above. From the time of the mutual excommunications issued in 1054, a common, if somewhat misleading, distinction was established between the Roman Church and the Eastern Churches. Those following the Patriarch of Constantinople took the title “Orthodox,” or “True” Church as their identifying mark, while the Roman Church retained the title “Catholic,” or universal. Please note, the “Orthodox” Churches were not a new invention in 1054, but rather the authentic representatives of the apostolic churches of the East. Thus, due to their authentic apostolic succession, the Orthodox Churches retain, even today, a valid clergy and sacramental life. It was from these “Orthodox” Churches that the Eastern Catholic Churches were born, as certain clergy and faithful of these communities realized the importance of unity within the Body of Christ and declared their desire for reunion.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that whether we are speaking of the Orthodox Churches, Eastern Catholic Churches, or the Roman Catholic Church, each church has its own particular way of life and expression of the Christian Faith. Though this variation within the Church can be surprising, and even shocking to those unfamiliar with the existence of the Eastern Churches, it is a reality which reaches back to the very earliest days of the Christian Church. As the Second Vatican Council stated, the Church “respect[s] and foster[s] the qualities and talents of the various races and nations” (SC 37). As the Church carried the good news of the Resurrection to the various nations and peoples, she always sought to take the beautiful customs and festal expressions of the people she encountered and orient them toward their true end, for the glory of almighty God. “Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy, and if possible, preserves intact” (SC 37). From this truth, we can see the reason for the different liturgical expressions within the Church, whether it be differences in liturgical vesture, hymnology, architecture, art, prayer life or theological expression and formulation. Thus, when a Roman Catholic enters an Eastern Church he will not find the Stations of the Cross, hymns will not be sung in Latin, and the Rosary will not be prayed before the Divine Liturgy. Similarly, when an Eastern Catholic or Orthodox believer enters a Roman Church he will be surprised to see the altar in full view, he will not see a plethora of sacred icons, and he will not hear the liturgical prayers proper to his particular church.
On this great feast of the Apostles Sts. Peter and Paul, let us pray for the unity of the Church, that through a greater knowledge, appreciation, and love of each other, we may realize in our day desire of Christ: that His people may be one.