For this month’s edition of that of the torch considering the many different liturgical rites in the Catholic faith, I am happy to write about my own church: the Melkite Catholic Church. The Melkite Church is one of the Eastern Catholic churches which celebrates the Byzantine rite using the divine liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, one of the first fathers of the Church.
The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches of 1990 allows various rites to exist. Rites are the “liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary heritage of a distinct people, through which its own way of living the faith manifested in each Church sui iuris. “The practice of the Byzantine rite in the Melkite Church reflects the fact that we are a ‘voice for the East in the Western Church’.
We are all Catholics. Even though we are different churches and practice different liturgical rites, all Catholics believe in the same central principles and dogmas of the Church. The different churches and rites are various manifestations and expressions of the same beliefs, all rooted in the multiple communities and historical and spiritual cultures throughout Christian history. A useful way to think about different churches and beliefs as Catholics is “if I believe it, you believe it”.
Melkite history begins in Antioch, where Saint Peter established a Christian community before traveling to Rome to install the Church as the seat of the Roman Empire. Saint Paul also began his apostolate in Antioch, as did Saint John Chrysystom, the author of our Divine Liturgy, which is the Eastern Catholic name for the Mass. This makes the Melkite community one of the oldest continuous Catholic churches in the history of our Faith.
The term melkite comes from the Aramaic word melek, meaning “king”. Tradition has it that at the Council of Chalcedon, the Byzantine emperor Marcian accepted the teaching established there. All those who agreed with him (all non-Aryan Christians) were called “king’s men” or Melkites. In a sense, as long as all Catholics accept the Chalcedonian doctrine, we are all Melkites!
The Crusades were a point of friction between the Melkite Church and Rome, as the Crusaders did not recognize Eastern liturgical practices and installed Western church leaders or, in some cases, even plundered Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches. . The Melkite Church, despite these frustrations, maintained relations with Rome.
In 1709, Patriarch Cyril V officially recognized the Roman Catholic Church as the head of the Church, which caused a rift in the Melkite community. In 1724, some Melkites broke up, forming the Antioch Orthodox Church. Since then, the Melkite Church has led the way as a representative of Eastern customs and traditions in the Western Church.
The spirituality of the Melkite Church is Eastern: focusing on healing, recreation, and theosis (becoming like God). We tend to focus on the idea of mystery within the Catholic faith; one could mark this as a contrast to the western intellectual tradition which has a long history of seeking answers about the nature of God, the Trinity and the Real Presence, among others.
There are some interesting differences in practice between the Melkite Church and the Roman Church. Our priests are allowed to marry, as was common practice among the early priests of the Church. We not only baptize our children, but also celebrate the sacraments of First Communion and Confirmation at the same time. At each liturgy, the priest and the deacons go around the church twice, once with the Gospel and once with the Eucharist.
When performing the sign of the cross, instead of moving the open palm from left to right saying “Holy Spirit”, we bring together the thumb, index and middle fingers, representing the Holy Trinity, and place the ring finger and little finger together, with the tips placed in the center, representing the dual nature of Christ as fully human and fully divine. Instead of going from left to right, we start from the right recognizing that Christ is “enthroned at the right hand of the Father.” The West goes from left to right to recognize that Christ descended into hell before he rose from the dead.
The above case shows that both ways are right, and both convey Truth and Beauty about God. The differences reflect the different paths that lead to Christ and celebrate the rich heritage of union with Rome, while maintaining practices consistent with our traditions. Finally, the Melkite Church acts as a bridge between East and West, in the hope that the two traditions will come into closer relationship and communion. Alleluia!