You’re probably familiar with the Roman Catholic Church, the largest rite within the Catholic Church. But did you know that Roman (Latin) is only one of 24 rites within the Catholic Church?
In order to understand where they came from, we first need to take a look at Church history.
A (Very) Brief History of the Early Church
Jesus instructed the Apostles to “make disciples of all nations” and they went all across the world. Each culture they preached to gave them a framework of sorts of explaining the Gospel and expressing it: terminology, liturgy and worship, customs, and the like. The content of the Gospel remained the same, but the way of explaining it differed.
For example, in the West, the Eucharist is always unleavened bread but in the East, it’s frequently leavened (but not always, it depends on the Rite). The West uses the term Mass to describe Sunday while the East calls it Divine Liturgy (for the Byzantines) or Qurbono, meaning The Offering (for the Syriacs). Different name, same thing.
As Christianity spread throughout the world, five major cities emerged as centers of Christianity: Antioch (Syria), Alexandria (Egypt), and Rome originally, then Jerusalem as pilgrimages to the Holy Land grew in popularity, then finally later Constantinople as it rose to prominence in the eastern half of the Roman Empire.
The bishop of these cities was called a Patriarch and he served as a way of uniting the bishops nearby geographically and culturally. Of these five cities, all looked to the Bishop of Rome, the successor of St. Peter, for unity on a worldwide scale.
Which goes really well until the schisms start.
A Church Divided
Barbarian invasions threaten and cripple the West. Rome declines in prominence and power as Byzantium rises. Then the East deals with its own threats as Arabic invaders arrive. The Empire, and through it the Church, slowly start to pull away into East and West.
Tensions flare. Not only are there language and cultural differences, each group emphasizes different aspects of theology.
At three separate times, one set of churches decides they won’t recognize the Pope’s authority, instead viewing him as “first among equals” rather than head of the apostles. Beliefs are the same, it’s just a question of authority. The formal term for that is “schism” and the resulting churches called themselves Orthodox.
- Assyrian Church of the East, a group of Syriac (Antiochene) Christians split off after the Council of Ephesus in 431
- Oriental Orthodox Churches, mostly Coptics in Africa, split off after the Council of Constantinople in 451.
- Eastern Orthodox (probably the most well-known) split at the Great Schism in 1054, though there were rumblings and rising tensions for two centuries before that.
A divided church? Not good.
The first attempt to bring East and West back together began in 1438 with the Council of Florence. While bishops from both Orthodox and Catholic agreed on theological issues and even signed a joint declaration of faith, later bishops rejected those measures. The Muslim invasion of Constantinople and the East made things really complicated too.
Fast forward to 1596. The Union of Brest-Litovsk formally united the Ruthenian Orthodox (in Poland) with the Catholic Church, and thus the Ruthenian Catholic rite was born. The Ruthenians weren’t required to “Romanize” and lose their cultural and liturgical heritage. Instead, they kept their liturgy, their customs, their bishops, and remained self-governing; that means the Pope doesn’t run their church, only Ruthenians would appoint Ruthenian bishops.
As more and more Orthodox Churches formally united with the Catholic Church, they followed the same pattern: recognize the Pope’s authority as head of the universal church but stay self-governing and retain your liturgy and theological terms and your cultural heritage.
Not all the Orthodox in each of those groups reunited with Rome, though. Some saw that as a betrayal. So, for nearly every Orthodox church there’s an Eastern rite that corresponds to it: Russian Orthodox and Russian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic, etc. The one exception is the Maronite rite, they were never in schism and are very proud of that fact.
So short answer to where the Eastern Rites came from: when an Orthodox church reunited with Rome, a new Eastern Rite was born.
Remember the five major cities from before? Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, Jerusalem, and Constantinople? Each were major centers of Christianity provided the cultural heritage for each of the Rites. So, we can talk about “ritual families” or families of rites or even a family tree if we want.
Rome and Jerusalem are the Latin (Western) rites. You might expect Jerusalem to be Eastern but due to the Crusades, the West stationing religious orders there to protect the city, and pilgrimages, Jerusalem’s patriarch is Latin.
The Byzantine ritual family has the largest number of rites of any of them: 14. The largest three are Ruthenian, Ukrainian, and Melkite. For a full list and a history of when and where each one comes from, see the article here. Sometimes the Armenian Rite is considered Byzantine since it uses an older form of the Byzantine liturgy, but sometimes it’s considered separate.
The Antiochene ritual family covers the Middle East through India.
The Alexandrine ritual family covers Africa, and the newest Rite (the Eritrean Rite, joined in January 2015) is part of this family.
Check out Some Cool Liturgies!
Depending on where you live, there are probably some Eastern Rites near you. Ruthenian and Maronite are especially common and you’d get to see both Byzantine and Antiochene ritual families if you go to both. If you’re on the East Coast, especially New York and New Jersey, you’ll probably find even more rites near you. In the United States, 13 of the 23 Eastern Rites have a church somewhere. I’ve personally attended 11 of them and have plans for the other two: Coptic and Chaldean.
Their liturgies have the same parts as Mass but in a different order. Sometimes they’re not in English, but they usually have a book with all the prayers so you can follow along, and the parishioners there are usually very helpful when they see you’re a visitor. You’ll get to experience the liturgical diversity of the Catholic Church.