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The Popes and the Eastern Rites

by Allen Maloof


Allen Maloof gives us short, biographical sketches of the Popes and their relationships with the Eastern rites.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, October 1963

It is sometimes wrongly thought that the pope, as the Bishop of Rome and Patriarch of the West (using the Latin rite), has little concern for the Eastern rites. However, the Universal Pontiff looks after the world, and the East with its rites is an important part of that world. Pontifical words and actions, for the most part, illustrate the great concern the popes have for these venerable rites.

The Early Popes And The Primitive Church

Many of the popes themselves came from the Near East. This is understandable when we consider that the Mediterranean basin formed an historical nucleus imbued with Greek and Syrian culture, especially in Sicily and parts of Italy and Spain. Greek was used in Rome in most of the liturgical documents of the second and third centuries. The early theological controversies required popes familiar with the East, from a political as well as from a religious point of view. In fact, at the time of these reigning pontiffs, the Patriarchate of the West embraced many Eastern Bishoprics in Sicily and Greece.

The Greek popes were: Cletus (91), Telesphorus (139), Hyginus (142), Eleutherius (192), Anterus (235), Sixtus II (258), Eusebius (310), Zosimus (418), Theodore I (649), Agatho (681), Leo II (683), John VI (705), John VII (707), and Zacharias (752).

The Syrian popes were: Evaristus (107), Anicetus (168), John V (687), Serguis I (701), Sisinnius (708), Constantine I (715), and Gregory III (732). I shall give brief biographical sketches of the Eastern popes among these who distinguished themselves in the government of the universal Church.

St. Anicetus (155-166) was an inhabitant of Hims, Syria and most likely was martyred under Marcus Aurelius. He is particularly noted for his efforts against the heresies of Valentine and Marcion. It was during his pontificate that St. Polycarp, the great Bishop of Smyrna, came to Rome in connection with the controversy about the date of Easter. His relics are kept now in the chapel of the Pontifical Spanish Institute and are venerated publicly with great ceremony on his annual feast day, April 17th.

John V (685-686), before his election, was the representative of the pope at Constantinople. He was a peacemaker and obtained tax exemption for the Roman domains of Sicily and Calabria from the Emperor of Constantinople.

Sergius I (687-701) came from a Syrian family, which had settled at Palermo, Sicily. Leo II appointed him the titular priest of the Church of St. Suzanna (he was responsible for its restoration). He championed the prerogatives of St. Peter against the Byzantine emperor Justinian II. As pope, he encouraged missionary work in France, England and Ireland. (He baptized the King of Wessex— Caedwalla.) He introduced into the Latin Liturgy, the prayer "Agnus Dei" at the moment of the breaking of the bread; he also solemnized the celebration of the four principal feasts of the Blessed Virgin: The Nativity, the Purification, the Annunciation, and the Dormition.

John VII (705-707) was a patron of the arts, responsible for the early mosaics of St. Peter's Basilica and the frescoes at St. Mary Antiqua, the finest extant examples of the art of his time.

Constantine I (708-715) was a champion of papal rights against the tyranny of the Byzantine emperors and against the Monothelite heresy, which taught that there was only one will in Christ. He was the first to wear the Tiara of Eastern origin. Most likely the lozenge shaped Greek "Epigonation" was adopted at this time. The pope alone among Western bishops wears it.

Gregory III (731-741) was a Benedictine of Syrian origin. He was noted for his linguistic abilities and his subtle sense of humor. A great missionary pope, he organized the religious structure of Germany under St. Boniface as Metropolitan. In 732, he condemned the Iconoclastic heresy and proclaimed his veneration for the holy images and relics by building a beautiful oratory, dedicated to all the saints, at Rome. It was he who obtained the political sovereignty of Rome (with himself as temporal ruler) from Pepin the Short. This sovereignty existed until 1870.

Zacharias (741-752) was last but not least of the great Eastern popes. He was a mild, meek man of great diplomacy and administration. An accomplished linguist, he translated into Greek the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great. He was also a peacemaker with the emperor and furthered the work of St. Boniface in the final conversion of Germany.

Papal Relations With The East

In 862, Pope Nicholas I (858-867) wrote to Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, assuring him that there was no objection to a variety of rites. Pope Leo IX (1048-1054) in his troubles with Michael Caerularius (after the final schism of 1053) affirmed: "Since both in and outside Rome many monasteries and churches of the Greeks are found, none of them has been disturbed or hindered in the tradition of their fathers, or their customs; but rather they are advised and encouraged to keep them."

Popes Honorius III (1216-1227), Nicholas III (1277-1280), Leo X (1513-1521), and Clement VII (1523-1524) wrote in the same sense. Gregory XIII (1572-1585) founded the Greek college in Rome in 1576. Benedict XIV (1740-1758) in his encyclical Demandatum coelitus along with his other two encyclicals Etsi pastoralis and Allatae sunt insisted on maintaining the purity of the rites.

Modern Popes And The Eastern Rites

Pope Leo XIII in his Apostolic letter, Orientalium dignitas, published on November 30, 1894, declared:

The maintenance in being of the Eastern rites is of more importance than might be imagined. The august antiquity, which lends dignity to these various rites is an adornment of the whole church and a witness to the divine unity of the Catholic faith. Perhaps nothing, in fact, better proves the note of Catholicity in the Church of God than the singular homage paid by these ceremonies which vary in form, which are celebrated in languages venerable by their antiquity, and which are still further hallowed by the use that has been made of them by the Apostles and Fathers of the Church.

The fifteenth centenary of one of the great Eastern doctors, St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 407-1907), was the occasion for a solemn pontifical Mass in the Byzantine rite, which took place at the Vatican on February 12, 1908, under the presidency of Pope Pius X. In his letter promulgating this celebration the Sovereign Pontiff wrote on July 22, 1907: "May the Easterns separated from Us see and understand in what great and profound regard We hold all the rites alike."

Pope Benedict XV asserted in the encyclical, Dei providentis, May 11, 1917: "The Church of Jesus Christ is neither Latin nor Greek nor Slav, but Catholic; accordingly she makes no difference between her children and Greeks, Latins, Slavs and members of all other nations are equal in the eyes of the Apostolic See."

Pope Pius XI, November 12, 1923, in his encyclical Ecclesiam Dei, published on the occasion of the third centenary of St. Josephat, glorious martyr for Catholic unity, says: "Then we shall see all peoples, brought together in this manner, in possession of the same rights, whatever may be their race, language or liturgy. The Roman Church has always scrupulously respected and maintained the various rites, and has at all times insisted on their preservation."

Pope Pius XI, called the Pope of the Orient, in his encyclical Rerum orientalium issued on September 8, 1928, requested Bishops and Religious superiors to give every facility in all colleges and seminaries for the study of Eastern questions, and in particular of Eastern rites. Here are his words:

By turning the minds and hearts of the students towards doctrines and rites not a little profit is to be expected for the Church—profit not only to the advantage of the Orientals but also for the Western clergy themselves. The latter will, in fact, obtain a more adequate knowledge of Catholic theology and of Latin theological disciplines, while conceiving a more ardent love for the true Bride of Christ, whose enchanting comeliness, and unity in the diversity of the various rites, will shine forth more clearly in their eyes.

Pope Pius XII took a keen and abiding interest in the Ruthenian people. On May 21, 1939, at his direction, a solemn Triduum begun in Rome was concluded in the Vatican Basilica with services according to their own rite. This was in celebration of the 950th anniversary of the baptism of St. Vladimir, the great Ruthenian ruler.

Each and every nation of Oriental rite must have its own rightful freedom in all that is bound up with its own history and its own genius and character, saving always the truth and integrity of the doctrine of Jesus Christ. ... They will never be forced to abandon their own legitimate rites or to exchange their own venerable or traditional customs for Latin rites and customs. All these are to be held in equal esteem and honour, for they adorn the common Mother Church with a royal garment of many colors. Indeed this variety of rites and customs, preserving inviolate what is most ancient and most valuable in each, presents no obstacle to a true and genuine unity. Orientalis ecclesiae— April 9,1944.

Pope Benedict XV, after long and careful consultation, established the Sacred Congregation Pro Ecclesia Orientali in 1917. According to its new constitution, the Supreme Pontiff himself became its Prefect, pointing out the great importance the Holy See attaches to this body. He also augmented its authority to co-ordinate and to direct the affairs of Eastern Catholics, concentrating in it the powers of all the other Sacred Congregations except, that of the Holy Office.

In 1938, Pope Pius XI clarified its territorial authority, giving it exclusive power over all Catholics of any rite (including the Latin rite) in the following countries: Egypt and Sinai, Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia, Southern Albania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and the Dodecanese, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Transjordan, and Turkey. Beyond these countries it has jurisdiction over all dioceses, parishes, missions and persons of Eastern rites anywhere in the world. Problems of an inter-ritual nature (e.g., change of rite) are also subject to this congregation.

In 1917, Pope Benedict XV likewise established an institute for higher Eastern studies. Its three- year curriculum embraces the fields of Comparative Theology, Eastern Canon Law, Liturgy, History, Archaeology, Language, Literature, and Ethnology. Orthodox students are encouraged to take courses. In 1922, its direction was given to the Jesuits and together with the Pontifical Biblical Institute it constitutes the Pontifical Gregorian University. Its library is one of the finest in the world. It publishes two scientific periodicals: Orientalia Christiana Periodica, a quarterly, and Orientalia Christiana Analecta, an annual reserved for longer studies. It is the wish of the popes that there should be students in every diocese specializing in Eastern matters. Such experts could teach in Catholic institutions or otherwise be active in the ever-widening field of reunion.

Pope John XXIII in the course of his long service as a representative of the Holy See in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece became well acquainted with Catholics and Orthodox of the Eastern rites and their problems. His knowledge in this domain was personal and first hand.

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, named Apostolic Visitor to the Catholic communities of Bulgaria (40,000 of the Latin rite and 4,000 of the Byzantine Rite), arrived in Sofia on April 25th, 1925. Eighty-five per cent of the Christians in the country belonged to the Orthodox faith. Immediately he adapted himself to the culture of the country, learning what he could of its history, customs, traditions, and even its language. He studied the Cyrillic alphabet and Slavic tongue and by 1927 was able to deliver part of his Christmas sermon in Bulgarian. It was during his stay that he distinguished himself by his charitable work during an economic crisis. His gentleness and kindness did much to strengthen the position of the Catholic Church in the midst of an Orthodox society.

Named Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece in 1934, Archbishop Roncalli deepened his understanding of the Eastern rites of these countries and his love for their people. The study of the Christian East and the cause of the schism were his most constant preoccupations for nearly twenty years. In the winter of 1942, as a result of war conditions, famine devastated Greece. It is estimated that 300,000 died of malnutrition and disease in 16 months, with 1,000 succumbing daily in Athens alone. Archbishop Roncalli assumed charge of the relief work sponsored by the Holy See. He visited hospitals, prisons, concentration camps, military centers, organizing and assisting all those in need. He helped to place prisoners of war and distributed food and medical supplies where needed. This work of charity won the hearts of the Greek people. The Catholic Archbishop was even able to take part, standing beside the Orthodox Archbishop, in the ceremony marking the end of World War II in 1945.

In the Second Vatican Council, Pope John especially appealed to unity and the Eastern Churches. He evoked the memory of Cardinal Bessarion, the champion of unity at the Council of Florence (1439). He put the council under the patronage and protection of the great doctors of the Church: St. Gregory Nazianzan, St. John Chrysostom (whose relics are kept at St. Peter's in Rome), and St. Gregory the Great. Many problems, new and old, dealing with Catholics and Orthodox of the Eastern rites should be discussed and settled at this council.

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