History of the Byzantine Catholic Rite

The first question about Catholics rites often is: why are there different rites (rituals) within the Catholic Church?

Perhaps, a better question is: how did it come about that the Roman or Latin Rite has become so dominant, practiced by over 95% of Catholics? The answers to these questions are interesting and go back to the very early history of the Catholic Church

Summary: In the early church, liturgical practices were not uniform throughout Catholicism. There were several rites (rituals) based on local customs and traditions. Uniformity grew over the centuries, as the Latin, or Roman, Rite became more consolidated due to both the strength of the Papacy and power and reach of Roman Catholic countries like Spain and France.

Discussion: Until around the year 600, there were five major archbishops known as patriarchs who lead five patriarchates (a large diocese) within the Catholic Church. The patriarchs resided in the large cities around the Mediterranean Sea – Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Rome (the patriarch in Rome later became the pope).

All of five patriarchates were theologically united as church councils had defined Christian beliefs in the form of a creed. We still recite this creed today, it begins, “I believe in one God the Father almighty…” Those adhering to the creed referred to themselves as orthodox (in Greek – “true believing”) Christians. Common liturgical practices in the patriarchates differed, however. These differences were in such areas as the prayers said, vestments used, church nomenclature, and even architectural style but, importantly, not in dogma.

After 600 AD, Moslem Arab armies conquered large parts of the Middle East and North Africa and these areas became Moslem. This effectively reduced the influence of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Today, only relatively small pockets of faithful practicing the rites used under those patriarchs exist.

However, the two remaining Patriarchates in Rome and Constantinople thrived and spread Christianity far and wide. Western, Northern, and Central Europe were converted by Latin or Roman Rite missionaries. The missionaries to Eastern Europe were from the Byzantine Empire, with its capitol Constantinople, where learned persons, including clergy, were culturally Greek.

Tensions, both political and dogmatic, surfaced between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Patriarch of Rome (the pope). Sadly, in the year 1054, a schism (split), developed between the two churches. In spite of efforts by well-meaning churchmen to heal the rift over time, the churches are still in schism. Over time, the church based in Rome became known as the Catholic Church. Those owing allegiance to the Patriarch of Constantinople still call themselves Orthodox Christians.

The matter was further complicated in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Moslem Turks. This left only one influential original Patriarch, the pope in Rome. In the 1590’s, left without an effective patriarch, many diocese in Eastern Europe affirmed allegiance to Rome. Indeed, some diocese had never gone into schism after 1054 and had kept cordial ties with Rome over the centuries. These dioceses continued to practice the Byzantine Rite as they had for centuries.

In the meantime, Roman Catholicism, using the Latin Rite, grew enormously partly due to powerful Catholic countries like Spain and France increasing their influence around the world.

A related question often asked is: why is the Ukrainian Church sometimes called “Greek” Catholic? Where does “Byzantine” come from?

The history of this nomenclature is also interesting. Maybe you already have a clue from the explanation above?

In the 300’s AD, the Roman Empire split into the Western and Eastern Empires. The eastern Roman Empire made its capitol in the city of Byzantium, which the Emperor Constantine renamed Constantinople (called Istanbul, Turkey, at present).

As noted above, the language of learned people, including clergy, in the Eastern Roman Empire was Greek, not Latin as in the Western Roman Empire with its capitol, Rome.

In the 900’s AD Greek-culture missionaries set forth from what came to be called the Byzantine Empire to convert Eastern Europe. Thus, the churches that they founded can be referred to as “Byzantine” or “Greek” Catholic.

Traditional Byzantine Rite Seasonal Greetings

For most of the year the greeting is “Slava Isusu Khrystu” (“Glory to Jesus Christ”).
The response is “Slava na viky” (“Glory forever”);

Starting on Christmas Day, it is traditional to say “Khrystos rozhdayet’sya” (“Christ is born”) and to respond “Slavite Yoho” (“Glorify Him”). This greeting is continued for 40 days, until February 2.

At Easter one says “Khrystos voskres” (“Christ is risen!”) and responds “Voistynu voskres” (“He is truly risen”). This is used until the Feast of Ascension which is 40 days after Easter.