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The Eastern Rite Church (Part I)

by Fr. William Saunders


The first of a three part historical survey of the development of the Eastern Rites.

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Arlington Catholic Herald

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Most Rev. Paul S. Loverde, March 9, 2000

As are many Latin Rite Catholics, I am a bit ignorant about the Eastern Rite Church. What is the differences between the rites? Can Latin Rite Catholics fulfill their Sunday obligation by attending an Eastern Rite Mass? Can Latin Rite Catholics receive Holy Communion in an Eastern Rite Catholic Mass? Is the Eastern Rite Catholic Church the same as the Orthodox church? — A reader in Herndon

The Eastern Rite Catholics are part of the Roman Catholic Church, not the Orthodox Church. While the majority of Roman Catholics belong to the Latin Rite, the Eastern Rites provide a special dimension to our Catholic heritage and spirituality. The Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches emphasized, "The Catholic Church values highly the institutions of the Eastern Churches, their liturgical rites, Ecclesiastical traditions and their ordering of Christian life. For in those churches, which are distinguished by their venerable antiquity, there is clearly evident the tradition which has come from the Apostles through the Fathers and which is part of the divinely revealed, undivided heritage of the Universal Church" (No. 1).

To appreciate the Eastern Churches and their rites, we must first quickly survey early Church history. At the Ascension, Jesus commanded the apostles, "Full authority has been given to me both in heaven and on earth; go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name 'of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.' Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world" (Mt 28:18-20). After Pentecost, the apostles, filled with the gifts of Holy Spirit, carried the gospel message throughout the world to unknown lands and foreign peoples. Tradition holds that the different Apostles journeyed as far as Spain in the West and India in the East. From the foundation they laid, the Church continued to spread despite persecution by the Roman Empire.

Keep in mind also that the Roman Empire at that time encompassed most of western Europe, parts of eastern Europe, Asia Minor, Palestine, and northern Africa. While the Romans were severe conquerors, they did respect and tolerate the culture and customs of their subjects to insure peace. To govern this vast expanse more efficiently, Emperor Diocletian (ruling between 285-305) divided the empire in the year 292 into two main portions: Rome and Byzantium, with four prefectures. When Emperor Constantine gained control, he legalized Christianity in 312 with the promulgation of the Edict of Milan, and then in 330 established the city of Constantinople as the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. From this time on, the Empire was really seen as two halves — the West and the East. The eastern half was highly influenced by Hellenistic culture introduced by Alexander the Great in the fourth century before our Lord. Eventually, Constantine would make Constantinople his home and base of government, and this city would be called, "New Rome."

Within this framework, the Church grew. Dominant centers of Christianity eventually developed: Jerusalem, the "birthplace" for Christianity; Rome, the Diocese of St. Peter and the "home base" of the Church; Antioch, in Asia Minor where Christians were first called "Christians"; Alexandria, Egypt; and Constantinople, present day Istanbul, Turkey. Each of these communities professed the same belief and were united together as one Church. As the bishops of these dominant centers appointed and ordained other bishops to lead the growing Church, the hierarchy was mindful of the authority of the Holy Father, the Successor of St. Peter.

Especially when comparing the West with East, differences in culture and language impacted upon the expression of the faith even though essential elements remained the same. For example, Baptism always involved the invocation of the Holy Trinity and the pouring of or immersion in water; yet, other particular prayers or liturgical customs were introduced in different areas. For Mass, the West used unleavened bread while leavened bread became more of the norm for the East. Moreover, Mass was called "The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass" or simply "Mass" in the West and "Divine Liturgy" or simply "Liturgy" in the East. In the West, the faithful genuflected before the Blessed Sacrament, while in the East bowing became customary. In the East, the sacraments of Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation were administered together, whereas in the West, these sacraments eventually were eventually separated and were administered to an individual as he matured. Another difference in religious culture was the usage of statues in the West as visible reminders to inspire devotion to the Lord, the Blessed Mother, or the saints whereas the veneration of icons evolved in the East. While these different traditions developed and remain to this day, the reflect the beautiful depth of Roman Catholicism.

Fr. Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

For the second and third part of this series see: Eastern Rites: The Patriarch: March 16, 2000 and The Eastern Rites Today: March 23, 2000.

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