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Mar 19, 2019

The Other 23 Catholic Churches: Part 5, West Syrian Rite

Nicholas LaBanca

This is the fifth part in the series on the Eastern Catholic Churches. In this part we will talk about the West Syrian Rite.

As I walked into the church devoted to Our Lady of Lebanon, smiling faces greeted me. However, all were silent as the Holy Qurbana was starting. The sun was just beginning to set that evening. It cast a beautiful light into the sanctuary as the priest was preparing for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice.

This was the first time I had been to a Maronite Catholic parish. In the pew I leafed through the missal, trying to get my bearings. One of the lasting memories of that first visit was when one of the servers surprised me by coming up to me as I sat at the edge of the pew. The priest passed on the sign of peace from to the deacon. Then the deacon passed it on to the server, and then the server to all those in the church. He placed both his hands over my mine, and then I passed on the sign of peace in a similar way to the person next to me.

After the Holy Qurbana ended, I chatted with the pastor, and he thanked me for visiting, saying “Let us meet again!” Such was my first experience with the West Syrian, or Antiochene, liturgical tradition.

Where Redemption Began

In this fifth part in the series on the Eastern Catholic Churches, we take a look at the three sui iuris (or particular) Churches which worship according to the West Syrian traditions. This includes not only the Maronite Catholic Church, but also the Syriac Catholic Church and Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. Each of these particular Churches have unique histories, but they share similar roots. Ultimately they share in having received the Faith whole and entire from the apostles. As Pope Leo XIII reminds us:

“For it was in that part of the world [the East] that the first actions for the redemption of the human race began, in accord with the all-kind plan of God.”

The Maronite Catholic Church

The first of these Churches we’ll take a look at is the Maronite Catholic Church. Then we will delve into liturgical traditions and notable saints of each Church in this rite. Along with Syriac Catholics, the Maronites trace their episcopal lineage back to St. Peter. Before becoming the Bishop of Rome, St. Peter was first the Bishop of Antioch. Therefore, the Patriarchs for both the Maronite and Syriac Catholic Churches can also say that they are successors of St. Peter. Pope St. John Paul II called to mind the close relationship between Rome and Antioch when he met with several Maronite Catholic clergy and laity in 2000:

“Today’s audience, strengthens the close bond that exists between the Sees of Rome and of Antioch, that ancient city where ‘the disciples were for the first time called Christians’ (Acts 11: 26) and where St. Peter himself lived… In these days you are having a powerful experience of this ecclesial unity, which will help you in turn to be more and more committed to evangelizing the world, since the Maronite tradition is also ‘a privileged opportunity for reviving the dynamism and missionary zeal which each of the faithful must share.’”

Origin of the Maronites

The Maronites are unique for another reason as well. They are one of only two Eastern Churches which never broke communion with Rome. Therefore, they have no direct counterpart in Orthodoxy. The Maronite Catholic Church traces its roots back to the great St. Maron in the fourth century. A contemporary and friend of St. John Chrysostom, St. Maron was a monk who followed in the ascetic footsteps of the Desert Fathers. He lived as a hermit after retiring to a mountain range outside of Antioch. Many people followed his example. After his death in 410, his followers built a monastery at Apamea, in what is now the northwestern region of Syria.

The Maronites quickly became known as defenders of orthodoxy. They held to the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, specifically on the Christological issues. The region began to destabilize over the next 150 years. As a result, many Maronites began to retreat to Lebanon to escape the persecution of the Arab Muslims. This caused them to become cut off from the rest of the Church for the next four hundred or so years. It wasn’t until 1099 when a contingent of Crusaders from the West encountered the Maronites, and rejoiced in their common faith.

In 1182, they reconfirmed their union with Rome. The first visit to Rome by a Maronite Catholic patriarch took place in 1215 during the Fourth Lateran Council. The current Maronite Patriarch of Antioch is Cardinal Bechara Boutros al-Rahi. Today, there are around 3.5 million Maronite Catholics worldwide living primarily in Lebanon, South America, and North America.

The Syriac Catholic Church

Just like the Maronite Catholics, Syriac Catholics recognize their first patriarch as St. Peter. As we’ve seen in past articles, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 was a watershed event, and the Church in Syria was no more immune to it than others. Following the schism, there were multiple attempts at reunion with Rome, some during the Crusades, and again in 1444 at the Council of Florence. These reunions were usually incomplete, ignored and resulted in mostly individual conversions. Real reunion didn’t happen until the seventeenth century when the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate became vacant in 1662. A few decades earlier, Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries began to preach in the city of Aleppo, and soon enough a pro-Catholic contingent grew in Syria which petitioned for reunion with the Catholic Church.

Unfortunately, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the government of the Ottoman Empire harassed and persecuted the Syriac Catholics. For over eighty years, the Syriac Catholic community had to go into hiding and was without a leader. Finally, toward the end of the eighteenth century, some stability came to the persecuted Catholics in Syria. The bishop of Aleppo, Ignatius Michael III Jarweh, had become Catholic, and when the Syrian Orthodox patriarch died in 1781, Jarweh was elected to succeed him. The Syriac Catholic Church finally had a patriarch again, and Pope Pius VI confirmed Jarweh’s election in 1783 when he received the pallium.

Becoming Outlaws

There were however, two bishops who opposed the election and did not want reunion with the Catholic Church. An Orthodox envoy arrived at the Ottoman palace in Istanbul before Patriarch Jarweh could, and received the approval of the Ottoman authorities, making the Syriac Catholics outlaws once again. It wasn’t until 1829, when the Ottoman government gave legal recognition to both the Armenian and Syriac Catholic Churches, that Catholics in Syria were able to worship freely.

Persecutions began again by the Ottomans during World War I, and since then many Syriac Catholics have settled in Beirut, while others still live in Syria and Iraq. Overall, there are just under 200,000 Syriac Catholics living in these countries, as well as abroad in North America and Venezuela, all under the spiritual care of Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Yonan.

The Syro-Malankara Church

The third particular Church which utilizes the West Syrian liturgical tradition follows a much different history than the Maronite and Syriac Catholics. After the Eritrean Catholic Church, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church is the latest to resume union with Rome, and Rome with them, occurring in 1930. Interestingly enough, Syro-Malankara Catholics share much of their history with the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. To get a deeper look into their history, you can see the previous article in this series.

In short, there was a lot of division that took place among Christians in India following the reunion of the Syro-Malabar Catholics. Those Christians that did not reunite with Rome became the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Over the next three centuries, several more splits happened in this line, as the Malankara Orthodox moved farther away from their Assyrian and Chaldean roots, and became more aligned with the liturgy of the Antiochenes, that is, the West Syrian Rite.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the splits had become so numerous, that it was becoming a source of scandal to many Christians in the area. One Orthodox priest had grown tired of the divisions. Geevarghese Ivanios was the Malankara Orthodox bishop of Bethany, and after serving only a few years in that post, decided to petition Rome for a full reunion. Bishop Ivanios contacted Rome in 1926, asking only that their liturgy remain intact, and that their eparchial structures remain the same.

An Era of Firsts

After some deliberation, Bishop Ivanios and his supporters came back into full communion with the Catholic Church in 1930. In 1932, Bishop Ivanios traveled to Rome to receive the pallium from Pope Pius XI, and Pope Pius XI consecrated him as the Metropolitan Archbishop of Trivandrum, the first head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

In recent years, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church has seen major growth, which has led to the creation of four new eparchies since 2002, including the new eparchy in New York, which was just established in 2016, the first eparchy for Syro-Malankara Catholics in North America. There are over 450,000 faithful in the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, located mostly in India. The current major archbishop is Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal. He was elected in 2007, and Pope Benedict XVI made him a cardinal in 2012. He is the first Syro-Malankara Catholic cardinal in history.

The West Syrian Liturgy

Although the three Churches we’ve looked at are different in many ways due to how they evolved, they all share a common bond in their liturgy in that they all use the West Syrian Rite. The Holy Sacrifice is called the Holy Qurbana (or Qurbono) in these particular Churches. Today, the languages used by each Church reflects their own distinct evolutions.

The Maronite Catholic Church’s liturgical language is Aramaic, but Maronite Catholics typically say the liturgy in Arabic in modern times, and they sometimes use the vernacular as well. The Syriac Catholic Church also uses Aramaic at times, but the liturgical language is Syriac with some allowances for the vernacular. In the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, the liturgical language is also Syriac, but they most often say the liturgy in either Malayalam or English.

As we’ve seen in both East and West, the universal Church uses several different anaphora (or Eucharistic Prayers). When it comes to the Maronite Catholic Church, they are, as one commentator points out:

“one of the richest if not the richest [of the Eastern Churches] in the number of anaphora contained in its Liturgy. There are at least seventy-two Maronite Amphorae. In the present reformed Maronite Mass, the ‘Anaphora of the twelve Apostles’ is the one used.”

A Liturgy of Symbols

Syro-Malankara Catholics also saw their liturgy develop in a unique way. As mentioned above, their roots are in the East Syrian tradition of India. Their hierarchy describes the uniqueness of the liturgy in this way:

“Ours is a liturgy rich in symbols, symbolic gestures and symbolic language. It is an ancient and apostolic liturgy. It is also the liturgy unique to an ecclesia sui iuris (autonomous Church) in the Universal Church with a long history. The liturgical and spiritual patrimony of the Malankara Catholic Church is that of the Antiochene Rite, though its celebration is uniquely Indian.”

The West Syrian Rite administers Holy Communion via intinction, and traditionally (but not always) the rite gives the sacraments of initiation together at infancy, as they describe in this overview of Syro-Malankara Catholic practice.

West Syrian Saints

As we’ve seen earlier in this series, there are many saints that have come from these particular Churches we have just detailed. Among the Maronites, the most well known by Latin Catholics would most likely be St. Charbel Makhlouf. Born in 1828, St. Charbel lived in the high mountains of Lebanon. After being ordained to the priesthood, he went back to living the monastic life, and lived as a hermit for the last twenty years of his life. The Roman Catholic Church later canonized him in 1977 and celebrates his feast day on July 24.

A Maronite Saint

A great female saint in the Maronite tradition was a pious young woman named St. Rafqa Pietra Choboq Ar-Rayès, also known as Rebecca. St. Rebecca was a Lebanese Maronite nun born in 1832 who refused the marriage arrangements prepared by her family so that she would be able to dedicate her life solely to Christ. The Church canonized her in 2001 and celebrates her feast day on March 23.

A Holy Syro-Malankara Catholic

With the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church being relatively new, most of the great saints for Syro-Malankara Catholics come from the first millennium. However, one man on the path to sainthood, is none other than the aforementioned Geevarghese Ivanios, the first head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. The Church declared him a Servant of God back in 2007, and his cause for sainthood continues to this day. As part of the canonization process, the tomb of the Servant of God Ivanios was opened in 2014 for inspection. The Church commemorates himon July 15.

A Syriac Catholic Saint

As for Syriac Catholics, many beatified and canonized saints from the Syrian region are from the first millennium A.D. as well. Probably foremost among these holy people is St. Ephrem the Syrian, a Doctor of the Church. A saint from more modern times in the Syriac Catholic Church is Blessed Flavianus Michael Malke. Born in 1858 just outside of Mardin, Turkey, he was the bishop of the Syriac Catholic Eparchy of Gazireh, and refused to flee from the city of his flock when he heard of the forthcoming persecutions at the height of the Assyrian Genocide in 1915.

The Ottoman government arrested him, along with the Chaldean Catholic bishop of the city, on August 28. The government gave them the choice to either convert to Islam or die. Both refused to convert, and they beat Bl. Michael until he became unconscious, and then beheaded him. He was beatified in Lebanon on August 29, 2015. The Church considers him the patron saint of persecuted Christians and commemorates his feast on August 29.

Don’t Be a Stranger

Our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters have given us many treasures, in both their traditions and in their saints. Many of them live in North America. As we’ve seen with the other Eastern Catholic Churches, some of these parishes just might be in your neighborhood! The eparchies in the United States have details on where many of these parishes are located. At the same time, we must also lift up our brethren in prayer, as many are still being persecuted in their native lands. As Patriarch Younan recounts:

“It is time to bring the plight of Christians and all innocent people to the international community: the U.N. Security Council, the United States of America, the European Union, as well to Russian Federation and China…Yes, my friends, the very survival of Christians in the cradle of Christianity is quite in danger!”

We can use this season of Lent to offer up prayers, fasting, and almsgivingfor our persecuted brethren. But also important is getting to know our Catholic brothers and sisters. As we profess the same faith, let us no longer be strangers to one another.


Image by djedj from Pixabay


You May Also Like:

The Other 23 Catholic Churches and Why They Exist

The Eastern Catholic Churches: Part 2, the Armenian Rite

The Other 23 Catholic Churches: Part 3, the Alexandrian Rite

The Other 23 Catholic Churches: Part 4, the East Syrian Rite


About Nicholas LaBanca

Nicholas is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.


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