En/Churches and Rites of Eastern Catholicism

Eastern Catholicism - I - Churches & Rites: The Concepts
Edited by: Irish Melkite
Source: Eastern Catholic Forum


There are 23 Churches sui iuris that, together, constitute the Catholic Church - 1 Western and 22 Eastern and Oriental Churches. The term sui iuris means, literally, "of their own law", or self-governing. All 23 are in communion with Rome. Obviously, the most well-known and largest is the Latin Church.

Eastern and Oriental Catholic Churches generally represent bodies of persons whose ancestors entered into communion with Rome from the Eastern or Oriental Orthodox Churches. As a consequence, there is a counterpart Eastern or Oriental Orthodox Church to every Eastern or Oriental Catholic Church except two - the Maronite Catholic Church and the Italo-Grieco-Albanian Byzantine Catholic Church. The usual reason advanced as to why these two Churches have no counterpart among the Orthodox Churches is that neither was ever separated from Rome.

Churches that utilize the Byzantine Rite should technically be termed Eastern Catholic Churches, with the remainder being referred to as Oriental Catholic Churches. This distinction mirrors the one that is made among our counterpart or Sister (Orthodox) Churches (i.e., the Churches known as Eastern Orthodox also serve their Divine Liturgy according to the Byzantine Rite; the Oriental Orthodox do not). In point of fact, however, both "Eastern Catholic" and "Oriental Catholic" are often employed as umbrella terms ("Oriental Catholic" is primarily employed by the Vatican; most others are inclined to use "Eastern Catholic") to encompass all Catholic Churches sui iuris other than the Latin or Western Church.


The 22 Eastern and Oriental Catholic Churches use six different Rites among them. The largest number of Churches (14) use the Byzantine Rite.

Originally, there were three Rites - Latin, Alexandrean, and Antiochene; the Byzantine (or Constantinoplian) Rite was added thereafter. These arose from the customs and style of worship in what were then the four most important Christian centers, other than Jerusalem.

Differences among the Rites in liturgical language, rubrics, ritual, devotionals, prayers, liturgical and clerical vesture, etc., sprang initially from the fact that uniformity of praxis was difficult to maintain over time, as the number of clergy increased, local cultures and customs began to be woven into the rituals used, and both travel and communication were hampered by geography and the limited means available to make and maintain contact between churches and clerics.

Over time, the four original Rites were modified or further developed as they were introduced into new regions. Some of these variations were so distinctive that they themselves came to be deemed as separate Rites. The Maronite and Armenian Rites, both developed in relative isolation because of geography. The result is that most authorities term the Maronite as a Rite unto itself; while a minority place it within the West Syrian Tradition of the Antiochene Rite, where it originated. As to the Armenian, it is always deemed a separate Rite, although it originated as a Byzantine Rite.

Of late, Chaldean has been added to the list of Rites, being formally cited as such in the CCEO or Eastern Code of Canon Law. Historically, Chaldean praxis had, until recently, always been classed as being of the East Syrian Tradition of the Antiochene Rite. There are two possible reasons to account for the recent recognition accorded to it as a Rite unto itself:

  • the change may relate to a unique aspect observed in the Liturgy of its counterpart Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, i.e., that there are no explicit Words of Institution in the Anaphora which they most commonly use (as was also true of the Anaphora used by the Chaldeans, prior to their entry into communion with Rome); or,
  • it may reflect a desire on Rome's part to have a Rite associated with each Patriarchate.

The Latin, Armenian, Chaldean, and Maronite Rites are each used by only a single Church sui iuris and, in each of these instances, the Church's name and that of the Rite are identical.

Church vs. Rite

For a long time, each group of Eastern Catholics was referred to by their name (usually reflective of their historical national identity or ethnic origin), followed by the word "Rite". Thus, you would hear references to someone being of the "Ukrainian Rite" or to "Melkite Rite Catholics". At the urging of the Eastern Catholic hierarchs participating in the Second Vatican Council, particularly His Beatitude Maximos IV Saigh, Patriarch of Antioch & All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem of the Greek-Melkites, of blessed memory, the Church recognized the status of the Eastern Catholic Churches as sui iuris ecclesial entities, each of which uses a particular Rite. Thus, it is a disparagement (as well as inaccurate) to substitute "Rite" for "Church" in the name of any of these bodies.

The distinction is made in Canons 27 and 28 of the Eastern Code of Canon Law:

  • Canon 27
    A group of Christian faithful united by a hierarchy according to the norm of law which the supreme authority of the Church expressly or tacitly recognizes as sui iuris is called in this Code a Church sui iuris.
  • Canon 28
    1. A Rite is the liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary patrimony, culture and circumstances of history of a distinct people, by which its own manner of living the faith is manifested, in each Church sui iuris.

Beyond the codified definition of "Rite", it should be understood to be the collected liturgical patrimony or heritage by which a group of persons conduct their religious life. It is more than just differences in language, culture, and vesture, although those are often among the most immediately obvious distinctions. It's often thought of as strictly applicable to liturgical worship service; it actually includes the totality of a people's religious expression, including their sacraments, sacramentals, prayers, music and even aspects of their religious artistic expression and ecclesial architecture.

Interestingly, in the West, persons belong to a Rite and Rites to a Church (which uses more than a single Rite). In the East, persons belong to a Church and the Church (in some instances, more than a single Church) to a Rite.

To illustrate:

  • most Western Catholics belong to the Latin Rite with smaller numbers adhering to the Ambrosian, Bragan, and Mozarabic Rites, all of which belong to the Latin Church;.
  • some Eastern Catholics belong to the Melkite Church, which (with 13 other Churches) uses the Byzantine Rite.