When we hear the words ‘The Catholic Church’, it is commonly misunderstood that this refers to the Western branch of the Church alone. The Western branch of the Church is what many understand to be known as the Roman Catholic Church. This is the largest branch of the Catholic Church that is headed by the Patriarch of the West alone, that being the Pope, and worships in accordance with the Roman Rite. I know what you are asking yourself, ‘What is the Roman Rite?’
To understand the Roman Rite, let us first examine the definition of the word rite. The Oxford Dictionary defines the word rite as “A religious or other solemn ceremony or act.” In other words, this is a specific way of celebrating a worship service. This means that Roman Catholics celebrate their liturgical service the same way that the Church of Rome does. The Roman Church identifies this liturgical service as Mass, coming from the Latin phrase “ite Missa est”, meaning “You are dismissed.” This word was adopted by the Church of Rome as a code name to refer to their worship service since the 3rd century after they were persecuted by the Pagans of Rome.
While the Roman Church does makeup of the majority of Catholics, what if I told you that the Catholic Church is made up of 23 more Churches that happen to worship in a different style? The word Catholic comes from the Greek word Katholikos, meaning universal. This explains why the Church is not only Roman, but also Maronite, Ukrainian, Melkite, Coptic, and many more. These are known as the Eastern branch of the Catholic Church. While all of these Churches profess the same faith and are all in communion with the Pope of Rome, these Eastern Churches worship in accordance with the apostolic rites given to them. These rites are known as the Byzantine, Alexandrian (Egyptian), Antiochian (Syrian), and Armenian. These are the rites that were given to each individual church after their nations were evangelized by the Apostles and the Early Church Fathers, such as Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Cyril of Alexandria, and many more.
Even though the Roman is the most commonly celebrated rite, the Byzantine rite is the liturgy that is the secondly most celebrated. This rite has developed from the Antiochian/Syrian rite of Saint James the apostle after the Greek bishop of Caesarea, Saint Basil the Great, made reforms to the liturgy celebrated in his area. There are 14 Eastern Catholic Churches that worship according to this ancient rite. These are the Albanian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Czech, Croatian, Greek, Hungarian, Italo – Albanian, Melkite, Romanian, Russian, Ruthenian, Slovak, and Ukrainian.
If you have ever come across a church building that has a mushroom shaped dome with a three bar cross on top, you have most likely seen a Byzantine Catholic Church. These Byzantine Rite Churches are known to have second dimensional images rather than statues like those that can be found in the Roman Church. These second dimensional images are known as icons.
While the Roman Church traditionally has an altar rail to separate the congregation from the altar, the Byzantine Church has a wall known as the “Iconostasis” that has the icons displayed upon it.
Considering that it is commonly argued that the Armenian rite is an older version of the Byzantine Rite, this rite is independent. Within the Catholic communion, it is celebrated by the Armenian Church alone. However, the Armenian Apostolic Church uses this rite even though they have been in schism with Rome since the 4th century. This liturgy was compiled by Saint Gregory the Illuminator, both founder and patron saint of the Armenian patriarchate in the 4th century.
Similar to the Roman and Byzantine Church, there is a separation of the congregation from the altar. This separation is done by a curtain.
After the Byzantine and Armenian Rite, the Antiochian Rite is the third most celebrated Eastern rite. According to Apostolic Tradition and historical research, this rite has derived in Jerusalem by Saint James the Apostle. Divided into two categories known as East and West Syrian, this rite is used by the Lebanese Church of the Maronites, the Syriac Catholic Church, Chaldean, Syro Malabar, and Syro Malankara Church of India. Considering that this is one of the most ancient liturgies of the Catholic Church, the liturgy is originally celebrated in the ancient sematic language of Aramaic.
Last but not least, the Alexandrian Rite of Egypt. This liturgy is attributed to Saint Mark the Evangelist since he has evangelized to the inhabitants of Egypt. This liturgy is mainly celebrated in Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Because of its use of Greek for some of the rite’s prayers, it is evident that it was later influenced by the Byzantine Rite of Constantinople. Even though Rome and Antioch were the centers of early Christianity, the Church of Alexandria has also played an important role. This is because of the fact that Alexandria, located in North Africa, had a large Jewish population. This explains why the sematic language of Ge’ez is used by the Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches alike. In addition, the three Churches that celebrate this liturgy within the Catholic Church are the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Church.
Pope Benedict XV has stated in his encyclical, Dei providentis, on May 11, 1917 the following: “The Church of Jesus Christ is neither Latin nor Greek nor Slav, but Catholic; accordingly she makes no difference between her children and Greeks, Slavs, and members of all other nations are equal in the eyes of the Apostolic See.”
Even though this was always the position of the infallible magisterium, this explains why there is diversity when it comes to the ancient rites of the Catholic Church. Just like we need many different ingredients in order to complete a dish, so is there a need for different cultures within the Church in order to complete the fullness of Catholicity.