It’s easy to think that the “Roman” in “Roman Catholic” refers to our communion with the Holy Father and the Apostolic See of Rome. But, in fact, the “Roman” refers to our form of worship, i.e., we worship according to what is known as the Roman (or Western or Latin) Rite. In other words, for most Catholics, the liturgy we celebrate – while undergoing many alterations and adaptations, in particular, in the first Christian millennium – comes from the form of worship of the Church in Rome. Now, even in the West there are some ancient Catholic Rites that, in pockets, have survived and are celebrated. For example, one can watch a Mozarabic Rite Mass from Toledo, Spain, or an Ambrosian Rite Mass from Milan, Italy. But, again, the majority of Catholics worship according to the Roman Rite and, hence, are Roman Catholic.
However, there are approximately 18 million Catholics around the world that do not worship according to the Roman Rite. The vast majority of these Catholics are generally known as Eastern Rite Catholics, i.e., Catholics who worship according to their own ancient liturgical traditions, and there are 23 such churches in full communion with the Holy Father and the Apostolic See of Rome. For example, the single largest group of Eastern Rite Catholics are members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Though they worship in their native Ukrainian or Slavonic (i.e., the more ancient language from which languages like Ukrainian and Russian derive), they worship according the Byzantine Rite; hence the addition of the word Greek after Ukrainian. Though these communities can be found throughout the world, there are several Churches on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea, in modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. There are approximately 3.5 million members of the Maronite Catholic Church, who worship in Arabic according to the West Syriac Rite (i.e., the ancient language from which Arabic derives). Also from this region is the Melkite Catholic Church, which has approximately 1.5 million members world-wide. They worship in Greek – though, in the U.S., English is officially permitted – according to the Byzantine Rite. Again, all of these churches are Catholic and in full communion with the Holy Father. They are Catholic, but not Roman.
The reason I wanted to highlight Catholic liturgical diversity in my post this month is because this past Tuesday, Melkite Patriarch Youseff Absi announced that next year the Melkite Catholic Church will celebrate the 300th anniversary of its communion with the Church of Rome. The estrangement between Catholic and Melkite Christians dates back to the schism between Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Christians which had been growing since about the 10th century. However, beginning in about the 17th century, Catholic missionaries began to foster the healing and unity between these Churches. This culminated in the 1724 affirmation of communion with the Church of Rome by Melkite Patriarch Cyril VI. Of particular interest to those of us here in Boston, is that the home of the Melkite Catholic eparchy (i.e., the Eastern Rite Catholic version of a diocese) is right here. The See of the entire Melkite Catholic Church in the United States is none other than Newton, Massachusetts; although, technically, I believe Annunciation Cathedral is in West Roxbury.
Pope St. John Paul II frequently called for prayer and dialogue between Western and Eastern Christians in order to heal the schism between them. “[T]he Church must breathe with her two lungs!” (Ut Unum Sint 54). The presence of Eastern Rite Catholics, however, reminds us that this process has already begun. May Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be fulfilled: :[T]hat they may be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (Jn 17:21).