Healing the Breach

Author: A.M. Tuttle

Eastern Rites:


By A.M. Tuttle

Following is the second in a four-part series of articles on Eastern Catholic Rites:

The division between East and West that was achieved so quickly and decisively in 1054 was not destined to heal so easily. Although there were never any real disputes over doctrine, at least in the case of the Byzantine Rite Churches, the built-up prejudices caused by the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and cultural differences resulted in literally centuries of separation.

Attempts were made by the Byzantine emperors to reunite the Eastern and Western Churches beginning in 1204 until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, according to the .

Although their efforts focused on ecclesiastical reunion, their motives were mostly political. The Byzantine emperors, who were the civil rulers in the Byzantine Church, sought papal support against the Moslems and Turks.

Their failure was almost inevitable, in part because of Pope Innocent III's view, continued by most of his successors throughout the Middle Ages, that reunification meant the absorption of the Eastern Churches into the Latin Church, or at least extensive Latinizations.

The first major attempt at reunification occurred at the Council of Lyons in 1274. A group of delegates commissioned by Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus -- not by Greek hierarchy as a whole -- accepted, without debate, terms of union laid out by Pope Gregory X.

More important was the Union of Florence. According to the , the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-c.1445) was attended by a genuinely representative Greek delegation, including Emperor John VIII and Patriarch Joseph II. Theological questions were fully debated.

The Greeks agreed to accept the Latin teaching that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son" (), but were not required by the Latin Church to add it to their creed. Another sticky point, the use of leavened or unleavened bread, was settled as well. It was decided that both were equally legitimate and each side would continue to follow its own customs. The agreement was signed by all but one of the Orthodox delegates.

Unfortunately, these two agreements were rejected by a large segment of the lower clergy as well as most of the people and had no real impact. The agreement was not forgotten, however, and was used as a basis for later reunifications.

The first successful reunification of any significance is called the Union of Brest. This 1596 agreement united the Ruthenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches of Poland.

The Polish government felt threatened by the establishment of an independent Russian Orthodox Patriarchate in 1589 and sought ways to eliminate Russian influence in the country, according to McGraw-Hill's . At the same time, the Orthodox clergy in Ruthenia (the Polish Ukraine), were engaged in efforts to reform and revive their church.

The idea of union with Rome, along the lines of the Union of Florence, quickly gained popularity among the hierarchy.

Progress was slow, however, and by the time the union was accepted at a synod at Brest in 1596, the general interest in union had faded. The union took place, but the organized opposition to it created a divided Church and much distrust.

In the agreement, Pope Clement VIII issued a decree confirming and approving the rites, customs and Julian calendar of the Ruthenian Church. It survives today as the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Some of the Eastern Churches less familiar to Americans than those in the Byzantine Rites have vastly different stories. The Maronite Church, which belongs to the Antiochene Rite, is the only Eastern Rite Church without an Orthodox counterpart. Its members take great pride in their claim that they were never schismatic. The Maronite Church is presided over by a patriarch who resides in Bkerke, Lebanon. There are 2.5 million Maronites worldwide.

Another Antiochene Church, the Syrian, evolved differently. The Council of Ephesus (431) and, to a greater degree, the Council of Chalcedon (451) caused a great rift among the Semitic population of the See of Antioch. Most rejected the Greek authority and customs and adopted monophysitism, the belief that Jesus has only one nature -- divine. With the support of the Empress Theodora, the monophysite movement grew. Its followers came to be called Jacobites.

Union was not re-established between Syrian non-Chalcedonians and Rome until the 17th Century. Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries in Aleppo, Syria, established a core community of Catholics there. One of these converts was ordained a priest by the Maronite patriarch in 1649 and was ordained a bishop in 1656. When the Jacobite patriarch died, the Catholic community managed to have their bishop installed as patriarch. When he died, there was a seven-decade reign of non-Catholic patriarchs that ended in 1782, when the Jacobites were pressured into electing a Catholic as patriarch.

One of the most recent reunifications involved the "St. Thomas Christians" in Kerala, India. This church was long in existence and in communion with the Assyrian (Nestorian) Church when Portuguese missionaries came to India in 1498.

Latinization attempts by the Portuguese caused a rift in the Malankar Church. Those that refused to submit sought to have their own bishop, but the Assyrian patriarch refused. The West Syrian patriarch agreed, although they had to adopt the Antiochene Rite. They became the Malankar Syrian Orthodox Church.

Efforts at reunion were unsuccessful until 1930. In 1926, Bishop Ivanios Panikerveetil, on behalf of several other bishops, began a dialogue to discuss possible reunion with Rome. On Sept. 20, 1930, Bishop Ivanios, two other bishops, a priest, a deacon and a layman were received into the Catholic Church, thus establishing the Malankar Catholic Church.

The initial approach to reunification taken by the Latin Rite Church has changed over the centuries. Until the 20th century, it was very restrictive.

"Intellectually, the West understood that all five Churches were of equal value. In practice, whenever they encountered Eastern Churches, whatever was different was often seen as inferior," said Maronite Chorbishop Seely Beggiani of Washington. The emphasis from the West in any discussion of unification was, "How can we get these Churches to do things the way we do?" he said.

Today, there is a great deal of acceptance of Eastern traditions on the part of the Latin Church, especially Pope John Paul II. The Vatican now encourages the Eastern Rites to remove from their liturgies "latinizations" that were added over the centuries, Chorbishop Beggiani said.

Last Good Friday, Pope John Paul even used meditations on the Stations of the Cross that were composed by the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.

Reunification, Chorbishop Beggiani said, "is not a matter of one side capitulating to the other." Each side must recognize the validity of the other's liturgy and tradition. What is necessary "is a profession of faith," which includes the issues which caused the initial break, he said.

In the case of the Byzantine Rite Churches, the significant issue was papal authority. The other Churches split from Rome over doctrinal questions; reunion meant accepting the Roman Catholic doctrine on the disputed issue.

This article appeared in the August 11, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.