Media coverage of the recent tragic bombing of the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad and the Middle Eastern Synod last month has reminded many Catholics that the term “Catholic” extends beyond the Roman and Latin Rite to which we belong. Some have even asked of Eastern Rite churches: “Are they really Catholic?”
The answer is a resounding yes, although their histories are very different than those of the Roman Rite. There are some 20 Eastern Rite churches, that have their own hierarchy and their own canon law, but all are in communion with the Pope. With the exception of the Maronites and elements of the Italo-Albanian Byzantine Catholic Church, the roots of Eastern Rite churches are in Orthodox or Oriental churches that separated from Rome. Parts of those separated churches later were reunited with Rome and compose the Eastern Rite Catholic churches.
Division among Christians began early with the first separations occurring as a result of the Council of Ephesus in 431 a.d., and others after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. In 1054 the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church occurred. Those churches that resulted from the earlier divisions are generally referred to as Oriental churches and those from the Great Schism as Orthodox churches. About half of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches find their roots in the Oriental Churches and the others in the Orthodox Churches. All are sometimes referred to as “uniate,” meaning that they are in union with the Pope.
While the liturgies of the Eastern Rites are very different from the Roman Rite, the essential Eucharistic celebration remains the same. All adhere to the same teaching or magisterium, but the hierarchical structures vary. Most Eastern Rite Churches are found in the Middle Eastern countries and are minority churches in predominately Muslim countries. Some are under siege, others enjoy greater religious freedom.
Many have congregations in America, including in the Diocese of Dallas where we have Eastern Rite communities from both the Orthodox and Oriental traditions.
Yes, they are really Catholic with a capital C , but they also demonstrate how the church is catholic with a small c.
To learn more about our Eastern Rite Catholic churches visit the Catholic Near East Welfare Association website at www.cnewa.com.