Eastern Catholic Churches

[This article was published by the author and his father in an encyclopedia edited by George Kurian, The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, January 18, 2012.]

Eastern Catholics are those Christians who are in full communion with the Bishop of Rome, and worship according to one of the five ancient liturgical Traditions (Rites) of the Christian East: the Alexandrian, East Syrian, West Syrian, Byzantine, and Armenian Traditions. This entry is focused on the historical development and current status of the twenty-two Eastern Catholic Churches.

The one Catholic Church is comprised of over 1.1 billion members distributed among twenty-three “particular Churches or rites,” also known as “autonomous ritual Churches” or “Churches sui iuris” (lit., “of their own law”). The vast majority belong to the Latin (Western) Rite Church. The twenty-two Eastern Catholic Churches have about 16.5 million adherents combined. They are governed by the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (1990), together with their own “particular laws.”

The four ancient, Eastern patriarchal sees of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople (Byzantium), together with the Western patriarchate of Rome, were recognized by the earliest ecumenical councils as having a special dignity and influence.  The Roman Patriarch held the undisputed primacy of honor, as the “first among equals.” A characteristic of the Catholic Church is its belief in a universal, as well as local, jurisdiction exercised over the entire Church by the Pope as the successor of Peter.

The beginnings of division between eastern and western Christians were rooted in linguistic, liturgical, disciplinary, theological, and cultural differences (for which, consult the “See Also” entries, below). After the fall of Rome in 476, the Greek-speaking half of the Roman Empire (Byzantium) was cut off from the Latin-speaking west, yet continued to rule the Levant for another millennium until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The effect was a Christian culture that developed independently from the Western (Latin, Roman) Church.  The Orthodox Churches have held ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the majority of Christians in the Levant and in Eastern Europe since the Great Schism of 1054.  The schism was deepened by the unauthorized sacking of Constantinople in 1204.

Attempts at reuniting Orthodox Churches with the Catholic Church were made at the Councils of Lyons (1274) and Florence (1438) with only limited temporary successes.  Nevertheless, due largely to the presence of Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries in the Middle East and Europe, a number of eastern Christians resumed communion with the Bishop of Rome in the past millennium. 

Those Eastern Catholics who have left the Eastern Orthodox Church (under the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople) are commonly referred to as “Byzantine Catholics” in America and “Greek Catholics” in Europe.  “Oriental Catholic” refers to any Eastern Catholic generally, or to those that come from one of the six Oriental Orthodox Churches that, historically, rejected the 451 Council of Chalcedon.  “Uniate” is another name for Eastern Christians who left Orthodoxy and united themselves to Rome, but this name has become derogatory.

The West Syrian, Byzantine, and Armenian Traditions/Rites all trace back to one Antiochian Tradition which developed from the early Christian liturgies at Antioch, i.e. the Eighth Book of the Apostolic Constitutions and the liturgy of St James the Apostle, bishop of Jerusalem.

From the Alexandrian Tradition
The Liturgy of St Mark, the rite of Alexandria, was developed in Coptic monasteries by the 4th century from the liturgies of Sts Mark, Cyril, Gregory Nazianzen, and Basil.

The Coptic Catholic Church has origins in the Council of Florence, but a Catholic community was not founded until Franciscans and Jesuits began missionary activity in Egypt during the 17th century.  In 1741 the Coptic Catholics gained their first bishop when the Coptic bishop of Jerusalem became Catholic.  The Patriarchate “of Alexandria of the Copts” was re-established by Pope Leo XIII in 1895.  Members: 161,327 in Egypt Liturgical languages: Coptic, Arabic (all member statistics herein are taken from the Annuario Pontificio 2007, and include only the major population centers). 

The Ethiopian Catholic Church comes from the Abyssinian Orthodox Church.  The entire Christian community of Ethiopia had a short-lived union with Rome when their Emperor became Catholic through contact with a Portuguese Jesuit missionary in 1622.  Italian Franciscans established a few missions in the 1890’s and 1930’s.  The current Ethiopian-rite Catholic Church dates from 1951 when Orthodox priests cared for Latin Rite communities whose priests had been expelled following World War II.  A metropolitan see was established for these communities at Addis Ababa in 1961.  Members: 222,861 in Ethiopia, Eritrea. Liturgical language: Ge’ez (Semitic).

From the East Syrian Tradition (Assyrian Church of the East)
The Assyrian Church, geographically centered in Mesopotamia, celebrates a liturgy derived from a lost ancient Persian rite and the independently developed Syriac liturgy of Edessa.  This Church formally split off from Rome in the 5th century following the teachings of Nestorius.  The Assyrian Church sent missionaries to India and the Far East.  In India they mixed with the Thomas Christians who, according to ancient tradition, were founded by the Apostle Thomas.

The Chaldean Catholic Church.   Beginning in the mid-15th century to the present, the Assyrian patriarchal throne of Babylon (moved to Baghdad in 766) has been passed down within a single family.  A number of Assyrian bishops refused to accept the boy patriarch appointed in 1552, and elected their own candidate, a monk, sending him to Rome where he was ordained Patriarch “of the Chaldeans” by Julius III in 1553.  The Catholic patriarchate moved to Mosul in 1830 and back to Baghdad in 1950.  The Chaldean Church has recently experienced persecution by Al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq.  Members: 418,194 in the Middle East, USA, Australia.  Liturgical languages: Syriac (Aramaic), Arabic.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, centered on the Malabar Coast of India, is made up of Thomas Christians who came into contact with Portuguese colonists in 1498. The 1599 Synod of Diamper (Udayamperur) convened by the Latin Archbishop of Goa brought an end to the connection between Thomas Christians and the East Syrian Church which had come to India in the 4th century.  Some of these Thomas Christians united themselves to the West Syrian Orthodox Church (Jacobites) in 1653 because of latinizations imposed on them, but many stayed within the Catholic Church after Carmelite missionaries helped to settle the disputes in 1662.  By 1896, the Carmelite bishops had all been replaced by native Indian bishops who triggered unprecedented growth within their Church.  Members: 3,902,089 in India, North America.  Liturgical languages: Syriac, Malayalam.

From the West Syrian Tradition
The West Syrian Tradition still celebrates the Divine Liturgy of St James (the Syriac rite of Antioch), which in India is mixed with the liturgical tradition of the Thomas Christians. 

The Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon has always been in communion with Rome.  This union was formally confirmed during the Crusades in 1182. The Maronites are named after St. Maron, who founded a monastery near Antioch in the late 4th century.  Members: 3,105,278 in the Middle East, the Americas, Australia.  Liturgical languages: Syriac, Arabic.

The Syrian Catholic Church.  There have been good relations between Orthodox and Catholics in Syria since the Crusades.  A “Catholic party” was started among the laity of Aleppo in 1626 by Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries.  In 1782 the Orthodox Holy Synod elected Metropolitan Michael Jarweh of Aleppo as Patriarch of Antioch after which he declared himself Catholic.  This Catholic line of Antiochian Patriarchs has remained unbroken since that time.  Members: 131,692 in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, diaspora.  Liturgical languages: Syriac, Arabic.

The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church of the Kerala State, India came into existence in 1930 when four Malankara Orthodox bishops who were opposed to the jurisdiction of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch and desiring to preserve their own oriental rite of St Thomas, united with Rome.  They have many schools, including the St Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute in Kottayam where Orthodox and Catholics study the liturgy and patrimony of the Thomas tradition.  Members: 412,640 in India, North America.  Liturgical languages: Syriac, Malayalam.

From the Byzantine or Constantinopolitan Tradition
All Byzantine Christians celebrate the Divine Liturgies of St Basil (Caesarea) and of St John Chrysostom (Constantinople) developed in the 4th-5th centuries.  Byzantine Catholic Churches have their counterparts in the Eastern Orthodox Churches related to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.  They include all of the European-based Eastern Churches and the Arab Melkites.  During the twentieth century, most communist governments in the former Soviet Republics and eastern block countries confiscated Catholic churches and turned them over to the Orthodox.  Some of these churches are slowly being returned, but this history continues to complicate ecumenical relations between Orthodox and Catholics.

The Melkite Catholic Church grew out of the Byzantine Orthodox patriarchal sees of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria.  It has its origin in the 1724 Patriarchal schism of Antioch, when, of two elected candidates for the empty throne, the Ecumenical Patriarch ordained one and the Roman Pontiff recognized the other.  Today, Orthodox and Catholics are working to heal this schism.  Pending union between these two Churches, the Melkite Patriarch and bishops have professed they would step down and reintegrate themselves into the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. Members: 1,346,635 in the Middle East, Europe, Australia, the Americas.  Liturgical languages: Syriac, Koine Greek, Arabic, English.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church.  In 1596 the Metropolitan of Kiev signed the Union of Brest with the Pope, in Rome.  He hoped this would unite Catholics and Orthodox against the growing influence of Protestants in Ukraine.  Eastern Ukrainian Cossacks saw this union as a move toward polonization (Ukraine was then under Polish rule) and resisted it violently.  When Orthodox Russia re-conquered Ukraine, Tsar Nicholas I abolished Catholicism in 1839.  Ukrainian Catholics were also forbidden to worship under the Soviet régime and their churches were given to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1946.  All of its bishops and faithful priests (c. 1,400) were arrested and sent to labor camps.  But under Soviet President Michael Gorbachev, millions of Ukrainian Catholics were allowed to emerge from the underground.  Members: 4,223,425 in Ukraine, Poland, USA, Canada, Australia, Western Europe, and Brazil.  Liturgical languages: Ukrainian, Church Slavonic, English.

The Ruthenian Catholic Church of the Rusyns (a people from the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine and eastern Slovakia, Maramures in northern Romania, and the diocese of Hajdúdorog in northern Hungry) was established under the 1646 Union of Užhorod and the 1664 Union of Mukačevo, making this formally Orthodox region almost entirely Catholic. Many Ruthenian Catholics immigrated to North America around 1900.  But about two-thirds of these left the Catholic Church and became Orthodox in 1929, when the Latin Catholic bishops in America imposed celibacy on Eastern Catholic clergy.  Ruthenian Catholics have been celebrating the liturgy in English for several decades and sometimes refer to themselves as the “Byzantine Catholic Church in America”.  Members: 594,465 in Ukraine, Czech Republic, and USA.  Liturgical languages: Church Slavonic, English.

The Romanian Catholic Church is related closely to the Greek tradition.  The Romanians are ethnically “Roman” (ancient province of Dacia established A.D. 106) and have been praying the Byzantine (Greek) liturgy in Romanian since 1568. In 1687 the province of Transylvania came under the rule of the Habsburg Austrian Emperor Leopold I.  The emperor encouraged all Orthodox Christians in his empire to become Greek Catholic.  Jesuits worked among the Orthodox clergy and in 1698 the Orthodox Metropolitan Atanasie of Transylvania requested union with Rome.  Members: 763,083 in Romania and USA.  Liturgical language: Romanian.

The Greek Catholic Church was founded in Constantinople in 1856 by a Latin priest.  Eventually this community immigrated to Greece where, as of 2007, it is served by one bishop and eight priests in the city of Athens.  Members: 2,300 in Athens and 25 in Istanbul.  Liturgical languages: Koine and Modern Greek.

The first Orthodox Christians to become Greek Catholics in former Yugoslavia were Serbs living in Hungarian Croatia in 1611.  The formation of a Yugoslavian state after World War I brought together five different ethnic groups under the Catholic diocese of Križevci, Croatia:  Serbs, Ruthenian and Ukrainian immigrants, Slavic Macedonians who had become Catholic in the 19th century, and a few Romanian Catholics in Banat.  Members: 55,691 in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia.  Liturgical languages: Church Slavonic, Ukrainian, Romanian, Macedonian.

 The Bulgarian Catholic Church united itself to Rome in 1861 in order to obtain ecclesial independence from Ottoman-ruled Greece, who had stripped them of their own Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate.  However, all but a few Byzantine Catholics in Macedonia and Thrace rejoined the Bulgarian Exarchate in 1870 when the Ecumenical Patriarch reestablished it under Russian influence.  Members: 10,107 in Bulgaria.  Liturgical language: Church Slavonic.

The Slovak Catholic Church is historically related to the Ruthenians and the Union of Užhorod.  These Christians are those Byzantine Catholics from the diocese of Prešov, Slovakia which include a number of ethnic Rusyns who have largely become assimilated into Slovak culture.  Members: 243,335 in Slovakia, Canada.  Liturgical languages: Church Slavonic and Slovak.

The Hungarian Catholic Church was founded by Orthodox immigrants to Hungary (Serbs, Ruthenians, Slovaks, and Greeks) who became Catholic.  In 1795 the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was translated into Hungarian, but not approved for use by ecclesiastical authorities until after 1940.  Members: 290,000 in Hungary.  Liturgical languages: Greek, Church Slavonic, Hungarian.

The Italo-Albanian Catholic Church is located in Southern Italy and Sicily.  Because these were Greek colonies, they fell under the jurisdiction of Constantinople until early 11th century.  After struggling for spiritual survival under Norman rule for several centuries, their liturgical culture was revitalized by the immigration of Orthodox Albanians fleeing Turkish persecution in the 15th century.  In 1742 Pope Benedict XIV improved their situation by defending the equality of the Byzantine Rite with that of the Latin Rite in the papal bull, Etsi Pastoralis.  Members: 63,240 in Italy, Sicily.  Liturgical languages: Greek, Italo-Albanian.

There are four Eastern Catholic communities without hierarchies.  Three Russian Catholic parishes in Russia, and a number in the diaspora (mostly Europe and the Americas) have historical ties to a Catholic community in Russia which began in the mid-1890’s. The Russicum is their world-renowned college in Rome (Liturgical language: Church Slavonic, English). About twenty-five Belarusan Greek Catholic parishes in post-communist Belarus trace their origins to the Union of Brest (Liturgical language: Belarusan).  In 1905 a small number of Georgian Catholics that had been celebrating the Armenian Rite returned to their native Byzantine Rite. The Albanian Byzantine Catholic Church began as a mission along the coast of Epirus (1628-1765).  A second founding was in 1900 by an Albanian Orthodox priest, but this was suppressed by the atheist state in 1967. They once again have an Apostolic Administration of Southern Albania, numbering about 3,500, including a majority of Latin Rite and a small percent of Byzantine Catholics (Liturgical language: Albanian).

From the Armenian Tradition
The Armenian liturgy was developed between the 5th-7th centuries and includes traces of the Syriac, Jerusalem, and Byzantine traditions.

The Armenian Catholic Church.  This pre-Chalcedonian church resumed communion with Rome during the 12th century Crusades, and again at the Council of Florence.  They received their first “Patriarch of Cilicia” from Pope Benedict XIV in 1742. The Patriarch now resides in Beirut, Lebanon.  Armenian Catholics suffered greatly from the Ottoman Empire’s genocidal massacres of Armenians during World War I and from religious suppression under Soviet Communism, but they have revitalized since Armenia gained independence in 1991.  Members: 375,182 in Armenia, Georgia, the Middle East, diaspora.  Liturgical language: Classical Armenian.

Orthodox-Catholic dialogue

In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I lifted the mutual excommunications imposed on each other’s predecessors in 1054, giving new impetus to ecumenical dialogue.  The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church now meets on a regular basis.  “Uniatism” has been mutually rejected as a model for achieving unity, being replaced by an ecclesiology of “sister-churches” seeking understanding and new models for reunion. Continuing this work, Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I met at the Phanar in 2006 to express a mutual desire for the re-establishment of full communion,

John Paul II worked tirelessly with Christians worldwide in hopes that they would once again “breathe with both lungs: east and west.” The Vatican II document, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, urges Eastern Catholics to “promote the unity of all Christians, especially Eastern Christians, by prayer, the example of their lives, religious fidelity to the ancient Eastern traditions, a greater knowledge of each other, collaboration, and a brotherly regard for objects and feelings” (par. No. 24).

Today, the biggest stumbling block to full unity between Orthodox and Catholics is not doctrinal or liturgical, but the understanding of papal ministry within the Church, i.e. the definitions of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction.