Venerable antiquity

More than likely most Catholics in the United States consider the Catholic Church to be the Roman Catholic Church and think that what makes it ‘Catholic’ is the universality manifested in its presence throughout the world. This is a limited understanding. A fuller understanding of the meaning of ‘catholic’ would confirm the hope all of us cherish that unity among all of Christ’s disciples may someday be possible.

Most of these Eastern Churches became part of the Orthodox Church after the tragic schism in the year 1054 which resulted in the Catholic-Orthodox split. In subsequent centuries, however, parts of these Orthodox communities reunited with the Western communion. They are sui iuris (self governing) and their patriarchies are located where history has placed them. However, many have members dispersed in faraway lands and today in parts of the world it is not unusual to have Latin Rite dioceses co-exist with Eastern Catholic Churches.

In the universal Catholic Church, there are 22 rites. These differ somewhat with respect to their liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline and spiritual heritage, but all profess the same faith and submit themselves to the authority of the Bishop of Rome. One of these – by far the most populous – is the Latin or Western Rite, the Roman Catholic Church. The other 21 rites comprise the Eastern Catholic Churches which arise out of five ancient traditions: the Alexandrian, the Antiochene, the Armenian, the Byzantine, and the Chaldean (East Syrian).

There is a rough correlation between these five traditions and the original five Patriarchates that constituted Christianity in the first centuries of the Church: Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople (Byzantium), Jerusalem, and Rome, the first three being predominantly influenced by the Hellenist (Greek) culture.

It was these five Patriarchates that held the first seven ecumenical councils that defined much of Christian theology. These Churches trace their roots back to apostolic times: the Antiochene tradition to St. Peter in Antioch; the Alexandrian to St. Mark in Alexandria; the Syro-Malankara to St. Thomas in India; the Byzantine to St. Andrew in Byzantium, et cetera.

Most of these Eastern Churches became part of the Orthodox Church after the tragic schism in the year 1054 which resulted in the Catholic-Orthodox split. In subsequent centuries, however, parts of these Orthodox communities reunited with the Western communion. They are sui iuris (self governing) and their patriarchies are located where history has placed them. However, many have members dispersed in faraway lands and today in parts of the world it is not unusual to have Latin Rite dioceses co-exist with Eastern Catholic Churches.

Orientalium Ecclesiarum, one of the Decrees of the Second Vatican Council, states: (this) “Sacred Council, therefore, not only accords to this ecclesiastical and spiritual heritage the high regard which is its due and rightful praise, but also unhesitatingly looks on it as the heritage of the universal Church. For this reason it solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with its own established disciplines, since all these are praiseworthy by reason of their venerable antiquity, more harmonious with the character of their faithful and more suited to the promotion of the good of souls.”

One of the Eastern Catholic Churches, the third largest, is the Maronite Church with approximately 3,200,000 members with dioceses (eparchies) in Lebanon, Syria, the United States, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Egypt and Mexico. The Church traces its origin to the establishment of a monastery in Lebanon by Saint Maron (c. 400) and – unlike many of the Eastern Catholic Churches – has always been in communion with the Bishop of Rome. The current Patriarch, who resides in Lebanon, is His Beatitude Mar Nasrallah Cardinal Sfeir. (Patriarchs of the Eastern Catholic Churches are assigned the rank of cardinal). In certain parts of the world the Maronites allow clerical marriage. The words of the consecration of the Mass are said in Aramaic, the language Christ spoke.

There are two Maronite eparchies in the United States. One is the Eparchy of St. Maron, (www.stmaron.org) which is situated in Brooklyn. Founded by Pope Paul VI in order to take care of the needs of the Maronite faithful who had migrated to the United States, its territory consists of 16 states and includes 40 parishes, a seminary, 40 active priests, 31 deacons, communities of monks and nuns and approximately 30,000 faithful. Bishop Gregory Mansour is its Eparch. The vibrancy of this Eparchy is surely an inspiration to other Eastern Catholic Eparchies in America.

As important, though, is the example it provides to the diversity and fraternity within the communion of the universal Catholic Church. Indeed, the history of the Maronite Church’s long and distinguished relationship with the Western Church confirms the belief that variety within the Church in no way harms its unity but rather manifests it.

Knowing this, do we dare hope that as the Kingdom advances there is among all Christian churches an organic growth toward unity where diversity is celebrated rather than censured? Isn’t it evident that what we share in this increasingly secularized world is of much greater significance than that which separates us? Will the unity come in millennia? Centuries? Perhaps decades?

Please follow and like us:

2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Dana, for this important essay!

    I find myself these days referring not to “The Catholic Church,” and much less so to “The Roman Catholic Church,” but rather to “The Catholic Communion” — made up of these 22 de jure Catholic Churches.

    In Pax Romana, we are blessed to have members from many of these 22 Catholic Churches, while the strongest one in our movement is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

    One of the members of our Board of Directors, Roma Hayda, is herself the direct descendant of an unbroken line of Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests going back hundreds of year!

    Best wishes,
    Joe Holland, Ph.D.
    President, Pax Roman/Cmica-usa

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Isn’t it valuable to get the larger picture and thus gain perspective. Further it places the notion of union and unity in a new dimension as well. Thank you for your clarity and scholarship.

Comments are closed.