Many people think of the Catholic Church as a monolithic structure with a clear leadership and traditions. People also mistakenly refer to the whole as the Roman Catholic Church. But this is not quite accurate.
The Catholic Church actually comprises twenty-two particular Churches in full communion with one another. There are twenty-one Eastern Catholic Churches, and one Latin Catholic Church (i.e., the Church of Rome). Each of these particular Churches is self-governing (the term in Latin is sui iuris, “of their own law”), even while being in communion with the Church of Rome.
Each of these particular Churches is self-governing (sui iuris) because they have their own hierarchy. In other words, what makes a particular Church self-governing (sui iuris) is that each particular Church has its own leaders which govern all the faithful Christians belonging to that particular Church. These hierarchs (whether Patriarchs, Major Archbishops, Metropolitans, Bishops, or otherwise) are in communion with one another, and with the Church of Rome. The correct term is to be in communion with Rome, and not “under the Pope” (as many people will mistakenly say).
Eastern Catholics are the minority in terms of the number of Catholics worldwide. However, they are the vast majority in terms of diversity within the Catholic Church (twenty-one to one!). Eastern Catholics are distinct from the Latin Church in that they have four distinguishing characteristics. They have their own (1) theology, (2) spirituality, (3) canon law, and (4) liturgy. In other words, the Eastern Churches have their own theological way of understand the mysteries of God, their own spirituality and devotional practices, their own laws and customs, and their own styles of liturgy. This is what distinguishes them from the Latin Church.
People mistakenly refer to the Eastern Catholic Churches as ‘Eastern Rite Roman Catholics’, or simply as ‘The Eastern Rite,’ as if there is only one. There are many rites within the Catholic Church, and what makes an Eastern Church is more than simply its liturgical rite. An Eastern Church also has its own theology, spirituality, and canon law. Even the term ‘The Eastern Church’ is wrong, since there are more than one Eastern Churches.
Almost all Eastern Catholic Churches have counterparts in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. In fact, those with counterparts all came from their mother Orthodox Churches throughout the past four hundred years or so. Therefore, many Eastern Catholics choose to identify themselves as ‘Orthodox Christians in communion with Rome,’ since Eastern Catholics are meant to be an example of how to be fully Eastern, and yet fully in communion with Rome.
Eastern Catholic Churches are traditionally found in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and India. However, nowadays we can find Eastern Churches throughout the world, speaking a multitude of languages, and serving a vast array of people.
ALL of the particular Catholic Churches share
“equal dignity, so that none of them is superior to the others as regards rite, and they enjoy the same rights and are under the same obligations, also in respect of preaching the Gospel to the whole world (cf. Mark 16:15)…”
(Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches).
The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches. According to recent statistics (Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Annuario Pontificio 2011), it is comprised of 4,360,335 members… or 26% of all Eastern Catholics.
This particular Eastern Church traces its immediate origin to the Kyivan (or Kievan) tradition, and its wider origin to the Constantinopolitan (Greek, or Byzantine) tradition.
Kyiv is the capitol of modern Ukraine, and the ancient capital of Kievan Rus, and so our Church takes its name ‘Ukrainian.’ In 988, Kievan Rus accepted Christian baptism under the leadership of St. Vladimir (Volodymyr) the Great. Therefore, our Church is one of the descendants of the Church of Kiev (now Kyiv), since many Slavic Churches trace their origins to Kievan Rus. It has even be called the Kyivan (Kievan) Catholic Church.
As one of the Eastern Churches stemming from the Greek Christian missionaries (especially Ss. Cyril and Methodius, the great patrons and evangelizers of the Slavs), our Church takes the name ‘Greek’ or ‘Byzantine.’ Up until the middle of the second millennium, the Metropolitans of Kiev answered directly to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Therefore, our Church is Greek or Byzantine in origin and life.
In the middle of the second millennium, the Orthodox Christians in those lands found themselves under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. They were oppressed by the Catholic majority, considered second-class and having very few rights. In 1595/96, mostly for political reasons, some hierarchs of the Kievan Metropolia signed the Union of Brest. This, in effect, broke their communion with Constantinople and united them to Rome.
This, not mentioning many other historical factors, is the origin of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
‘Orthodox’ comes from the Greek language, and simply means ‘right worship’ or ‘correct worship’ (and, by extension, ‘correct faith’ or ‘correct belief’). It is opposed to ‘heterodox,’ which refers to incorrect beliefs that are not in accord with the orthodox faith. Another word for this is ‘heresy:’ one falls into heresy or heterodoxy when one does not willingly adhere to Christian truths.
‘Catholic’ also comes from the Greek language, and means ‘of, or belonging to, the whole.’ It emphasizes the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ exists at all times, and in all places, throughout the whole world. All the Christian Churches that profess an orthodox faith belong to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.
In the early Church, these two terms were interchangeable. An orthodox Christian belonged to the Catholic Church; a member of the Catholic Church professed the Orthodox faith. It was only after the ‘Great Schism’ that these terms took on exclusive status to refer to the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) Churches. However, both terms are still used by both lungs of the Church.
For example, Eastern Orthodox Christians still refer to themselves as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Latin (Western) Catholic Church, in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer), will also pray for ‘omnibus orthodoxis atque catholicae et apostolicae fidei cultoribus’ (literally, ‘for all the orthodox and worshippers according to the catholic and apostolic faith’). This is no accident – it shows how close the two lungs of Christ’s Church actually are to each other, and how they have the same roots in Christ’s foundation.
We are, therefore, both orthodox and catholic. We profess the orthodox faith of the Holy Trinity – taught by Jesus Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and proclaimed by the Church Councils. We are catholic because we belong to the same Church founded by Christ, which exists in all times and places. Nonetheless, because those terms have become exclusive, it is often more helpful for Greek Catholics to use the term ‘Catholic’ when referring to themselves. We pray for the day when both ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Catholic’ lungs of the Church will be united, so that the terms might become interchangeable once again.
The term ‘Greek Catholic’ was originally coined by Empress Maria Theresa of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to designate those Catholics who followed the ‘Greek’ or ‘Byzantine’ tradition and liturgy. It had nothing to do with Greek ethnicity, just as ‘Roman Catholics’ don’t have to come from Rome! The Church of Kyiv united with Rome, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, is one of the Eastern Churches belonging to the ‘Greek’ or ‘Byzantine’ family of Churches. The faithful of the Byzantine, or Greek, Churches in communion with Rome are collectively referred to as ‘Greek Catholics’ (especially in their countries of origin, e.g. Ukraine).
Can I, a Latin (Roman) Catholic, attend the Divine Liturgy in a Greek Catholic parish, and still fulfill my Sunday obligation?
According to the Code of Canon Law (1983) for Latin Catholics,
“A person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass” (Can. 1248 §1).
Therefore, attending a Greek Catholic parish certainly fulfills your obligation. You may receive the sacraments with us, since we are in communion with one another. You are very welcome to pray and celebrate with us!
In the Latin (Western) Church, we mostly use the vernacular in worship, but we have Latin as a sacred language.
The Greek, or Byzantine, tradition has always adopted the local or vernacular language. In fact, it was one of our characteristic traits. When Saints Cyril and Methodius evangelized the Slavic peoples (in what is now Central and Eastern Europe), a script was invented so that people could have access to the sacred texts and liturgies in their own languages. This is the origin of Glagolithic and Slavonic, which was adopted by the Slavic Churches (even some of the Latin rite). In contrast, Latin Catholic missionaries from Western Europe were insistent on Latin exclusively in worship.
Over time, Byzantine Christians in Slavic countries became very accustomed to worshiping in Church Slavonic. Thus, Slavonic became a sort of ‘sacred language,’ much like Latin had been in the West. Nonetheless, there have always been efforts to render the liturgies into the vernacular languages, as had been the legacy of Ss. Cyril and Methodius.
Our Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has no ‘sacred language,’ but worships according to the language of its faithful. In Ukraine, this is mostly Ukrainian (although some still worship in Church Slavonic, and some of its faithful are from Russian-speaking territories). Outside Ukraine, it depends on the country. The presence of many immigrants from Ukraine means that some parishes (especially in larger cities) use both Ukrainian and English, to minister to all of its people. Therefore, our parishes offer liturgies in both (or even several) languages – or at least bi-lingual liturgies – so that all might be able to worship God in their tongue.
The word ‘Mass’ is proper to the LATIN tradition, because it is derived from the Latin word missa. This word exists at the end of the Latin-rite Eucharistic Liturgy (Ite, missa est). The term missa was merely rendered into English and other languages. It became customary to use this term to refer to the entire Eucharistic Liturgy.
However, in all Christian liturgies and especially the Byzantine (Greek) tradition, the Greek word leitourgia is used. This word means ‘work of the people’ or ‘common service,’ and it expresses the fact that we gather – as the Church, the Body of Christ – to offer our common worship to God the Father, in the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
All common prayers of the Church are ‘liturgies,’ but the Eucharistic Liturgy is distinguished by the name ‘Divine Liturgy’ (in Greek, Theia Leitourgia; in Ukrainian, Bozhestvenna Liturhiya). Other Eastern Christian traditions have their own names for the Eucharistic Liturgy. But ‘Divine Liturgy’ (or simply ‘Liturgy’) is the proper term for Byzantine (Greek) Christians to use when speaking of the Eucharist.
Music is a very important part of worship in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. If we read the Holy Scriptures, it becomes very obvious. We can offer one very important example. The Psalms, often called the ‘School of Prayer’ because they give us a template for how to pray, were designed to be sung. Other than the psalms, the Old Testament and New Testament are full of canticles and songs.
People throughout the ages have been seeking the fullest and most complete way of worshiping God. And music is the most complete and expressive way in which we can worship God. It often takes everything we have, and music goes beyond all the words we can conjure up. The Byzantine liturgy seeks to offer the fullest experience of the heavenly liturgy possible.
We do not use instruments because of our focus on the heavenly liturgy. We take the Book of Revelation as our cue. The angelic choirs worship God continually, and our voices are joined with theirs in an unending hymn of praise. Even in our Liturgy, we declare that we “sing the thrice-holy hymn” because we are the ones “who mystically represent the Cherubim” on earth.
The angelic voice is mirrored by the human voice. And this is done through the human voice alone, since music is the most perfect vocal prayer we can make as humans. Of course, this is harmonized and accentuated by our good and charitable deeds. But the whole of our lives begins and ends with our vocal, liturgical worship of God.
Think of it in the following way: Byzantine liturgy is all about fullness. It is also about being icons of the heavenly realm. For us, music is the way we can be ‘more full’ in our worship. Our voices are the way in which we image the voices of the angels who continually stand before the throne of God, singing His eternal praises. This is why Byzantine (Greek) Christians are so musical!
I visited a Byzantine Church, and there were no statues. They just had icons and mosaics. These images appeared very unrealistic, even slightly ugly. What is the significance of icons?
Statues have never been a part of Byzantine Christian liturgical worship. Not because statues were completely unknown in the Byzantine world, but because the icon came to be the most perfect artistic way of depicting Christ and the saints. And this is no accident.
In fact, the Byzantine tradition developed a whole theology out of icons. Sometimes every color, every angle, every shape, every line, every expression on their faces – just about anything and everything – in an icon can have deep theological meaning. On the contrary, statues in the Latin West have always been considered as ‘reminders’ of the holy person, without much theological meaning in and of themselves.
Because icons have an entire theology behind them, the way we paint (or ‘write’) an icon depends heavily on orthodox theology. Icons are written according to specific rules, or ‘canons,’ to make sure that the same orthodox Christian truths are communicated to new generations. Icons are theology in color, and so they must follow a certain standard.
Icons often seem unrealistic to us, as opposed to the three-dimensional statues of the Latin Church. But we should not assume that this is only because the Byzantine tradition is all about murky mysticism. Byzantine Christianity is most concerned about realism… but true, spiritual realism. In other words, icons are meant to depict Christ or the saint according to the heavenly reality in which he or she is already living.
Lastly, icons are considered ‘windows into heaven.’ As such, they have sacramental meaning to the worshipping assembly. They are not just objects of devotion, that arouse good feelings and pious sentiments within us. They remind us of where we are all going, of our heavenly destination, and of our vocation to be saints of God.