The Importance of Eastern Catholic Churches

After the formal schism in 1054 between the Western Church centered in Rome, and the Eastern Church centered in Constantinople, due to the brewing tensions over cultural, political, and theological differences, relations between the two have shifted back and forth for the near millennia that has passed since. During this span of time, some of the Eastern Churches reunified with Rome, whereas others (like the Italo-Albanian and Maronite rites) never left, with all keeping their sacred traditions. The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines why there is such a great deal of diversity in the Church:

“From the beginning, this one Church has been marked by great diversity which comes from both the variety of God’s gifts and the diversity of those who receive them.  Within the unity of the People of God, a multiplicity of peoples and cultures is gathered together.  Among the Church’s members, there are different gifts, offices, conditions, and ways of life. “Holding a rightful place in the communion of the Church there are also particular Churches that retain their own traditions.”  The great richness of such diversity is not opposed to the Church’s unity. Yet sin and the burden of its consequences constantly threaten the gift of unity. And so the Apostle has to exhort Christians to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (814).

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches, titled Orientalium Ecclesiarum, states the following:

“All of the members of the Eastern Rite should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life, and that these may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement.  All these, then, must be observed by the members of the Eastern rites themselves. Besides, they should attain to an ever greater knowledge and a more exact use of them, and, if in their regard they have fallen short owing to contingencies of times and persons, they should take steps to return to their ancestral traditions”.

As the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, it is not simply just the Latin Church and its affiliated rites; the Church is composed of six traditions, containing twenty-four autonomous churches; although in union with Rome, they still preserve their traditions, instead of becoming latinized and part of the [Western] Latin Church. These rites originated from the ancient holy sees of Alexandria, Antioch, Armenia, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome.

These ancient sees were and still are the bastions of Christianity, with Antioch being the place where the followers of Christ started first being referred to as ‘Christians’ (Acts of the Apostles 11), and later would be the place where the Early Christian Church would also be referred to as the ‘Catholic Church’, by Saint Ignatius of Antioch in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans (107 AD). From these places, Christianity spread into the far reaches of the Roman Empire, with the Faith reaching into the vast expanses of Western and Eastern Europe, and parts of both India and Africa. All of these cultures were introduced to Christianity, bringing out the greater fulfillment of the cultures themselves in Christ. As more and more people joined Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church grew, as each established traditions that gave honor, praise, and worship to God, each grounded in their own cultures.

With a better understanding of how large the Catholic Church truly is, and how diverse it is, we must acknowledge that there is no “right” or “wrong” tradition or rite in the Church. Despite our differences, our brethren have as much a right to their traditions as we do in the Latin rite. Without the Eastern Churches, we are but a piece of the Mystical Body, as the same goes for the East if we were to be absent. Saint Pope John Paul II once said that, “The Church needs to learn to breathe again with its two lungs – its Eastern one and its Western one”. Understanding that together we are indeed catholic [universal], shows to us the glorious nature of Christ’s eternal covenant. No longer is salvation only available to the Jewish kahal, but is now opened to the Gentiles; from the ancient Jews, God made manifest His divine love and mercy to all of mankind.

November 12th is the feast day of Saint Josaphat Kunsevich of Polotsk, who was an Eastern Catholic bishop, martyred on the 12th of November in 1623. Saint Josaphat, and all other martyrs, exemplify the gospel verse from John 16:2, in which those who persecute and kill Christians who believe that by doing so they bring worship to God, or in other cases, from the motivation of demonic influences. Other Eastern Catholic martyrs include Blessed Leonid Feodorov, Vasyl Velychkovsky, and Theodore Romzha, to name a few. All sought to bring the Eastern Orthodox Church back into union with Rome, while also preserving the cultural traditions of Eastern Christendom. Even though they were persecuted and eventually martyred by different forces in history, they are united together in their perseverance against division of the Church.

The Church faces persecution at every point in human history, varying in the authorities that sponsor such hatred for Christians and the Church. More often than not, it often arises from sectarianism amongst Catholic and Orthodox Christians, to whom blame belongs to both. Few people truly see beyond these lines, like the above-mentioned individuals, who saw the necessity to heal the schism between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, being that we are part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and we should never bar ourselves from seeking the reunion of all Christians, as well as the conversion of all souls.

Let us pray for our Eastern brethren, so that we may one day see the East and West reunited in perfect communion, offering up our prayers of intercession for great Eastern Saints like Cyril, Methodius, and Josaphat, as well as Our Blessed Mother, the Theotokos.

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