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Apr 2, 2019

The Other 23 Catholic Churches: Part 6, the Byzantine Rite

Nicholas LaBanca

This is the sixth part in the series on the Eastern Catholic Churches. In this part we will talk about the Byzantine Rite.

For the other parts in the series, click on the following links: Part 1: The Other 23 Catholic Churches and Why They Exist, Part 2: The Armenian Rite, Part 3: The Alexandrian Rite, Part 4: The East Syrian Rite, Part 5: The West Syrian Rite.

Every Holy Thursday growing up, my family would go down to Ukrainian Village in Chicago. My maternal grandmother, my Busia, was Ukrainian, and we would have to stop by several delis to get all of the sausage, ham, and other foods necessary to make the big Easter dinner that was being planned.

Sometimes she’d purchase another dozen eggs in order to make pysanka, which are Ukrainian Easter eggs. The smell of the deli always made me hungry, anticipating that big Easter feast which would follow the Great Fast. But I also looked forward to my olfactory senses experiencing an even more pleasant aroma.

After we dropped off the food in the car, we would walk over to the grand St. Nicholas Cathedral. The Divine Liturgy, which Ukrainian Catholics call the Holy Sacrifice, was taking place inside. The incense permeated the church, with the smoke wafting up towards the roof. My young eyes then see the beautiful paintings throughout the building, and eventually rest on the beautiful iconostasis which separated the nave from the sanctuary. As St. Vladimir of Kiev’s men said to him the first time they visited a Byzantine Church, “I did not know whether we were in Heaven or on Earth.”

A Spiritual Closeness

Although I am a Latin Catholic by baptism, I am so glad that I had the opportunity to grow up with “both lungs” of the Catholic Church, East and West. In this final part of the series on Eastern Catholic Churches, we will be taking a look at the Byzantine Rite. The particular Churches that worship according to the Byzantine Rite are numerous, and it is these Churches that we will look into today. As we have seen previously, Byzantine Catholics have been no stranger to persecutions either. Many of these persecutions took place within living memory.

Pope St. John Paul II, who was Polish, had a great love for Catholics of the Byzantine tradition, and recounts the tenacity of Ukrainian Catholics in particular:

“The Union of Brest opened a new page in the history of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. Today that Church wishes to sing with joy a hymn of thanksgiving and praise to the One who, once more, has brought it back from death to life, and it wishes to set forth with renewed enthusiasm on the path marked out by the Second Vatican Council.

“As the Bishop of Rome, I too wish to unite myself to the Catholics of the Byzantine tradition in those lands. For many years, during my pastoral ministry in Poland, I sensed a physical as well as a spiritual closeness with that Church … ”

By diving into the rich history of the Byzantine Catholic tradition, we also should sense this “spiritual closeness” with our brothers and sisters.

The Largest Eastern Catholic Church

The particular Churches that utilize the Byzantine Rite number fourteen, with a full list found in the first part of this series. Since delving into the history of each particular Church would be well outside the scope of this article, we will take a broad look into how Byzantine Christians first reunited with Rome, and Rome with them, before turning our focus to the beautiful liturgical traditions of the Byzantine Rite.

When most people first encounter Eastern Catholicism, it’s typically through the Byzantine tradition. In the United States and Canada alone, there are several eparchies (or dioceses) throughout the continent for Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Romanian, Melkite, and Slovak Catholics, with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) being the largest of all the Eastern Catholics Churches, boasting nearly 4.5 million faithful worldwide. This means that there are plenty of opportunities for the faithful of other rites to visit those that worship according to the Byzantine Rite, and what a joyful experience awaits!

As we turn back the pages of history, we see that Latin and Byzantine Christians were united for virtually the entire first millennium of Christianity. Many Byzantine Christians owe a great deal of gratitude to two saints from the ninth century, Saints Cyril and Methodius, who had brought the Byzantine Rite to many Slavic people with their apostolic and missionary zeal.

Saints Cyril and Methodius

Saints Cyril and Methodius were no strangers to Rome. Pope St. Nicholas I called them there in 867 after he had heard of their exemplary missionary work. In fact, Pope St. Nicholas’ successor, Adrian II, ordained Methodius. The two saintly brothers are responsible for creating the Glagolitic alphabet (the oldest known Slavic alphabet). With this new alphabet, they translated the Bible, the Divine Office, and other liturgical texts into the language of the Slavic people to whom they were ministering.

Saints Olga and Vladimir also were largely responsible for bringing Christianity to the various Eastern Slavic tribes during their reigns as regent and Grand Prince of Kiev, respectfully. Around the year 987, St. Vladimir (at the time, a pagan) sent various emissaries to study the various monotheistic religions in neighboring countries. When St. Vladimir’s envoy returned from a Divine Liturgy at the famed Hagia Sophia, they marveled at the majesty of the Divine Liturgy, reporting that “there is not upon earth such sight or beauty.”

The following year, St. Vladimir was baptized and soon afterwards, the residents of his city were baptized in the Dnieper River. Byzantine Catholics often refer to Saints Olga, Vladimir, Cyril, and Methodius as “Equal-to-the-Apostles.” However, despite all this great joy at the conversion of many souls, the next century would see one of the most unfortunate divisions in all of Christian history.

Schism and Reunion

In 1054, what many people call the East-West (or Great) Schism occurred. The Latin Church and Constantinopolitan Church mutually excommunicated each other. At the time, people didn’t think much of this. There had at times been disagreements between both the Western and Eastern Churches, and they eventually maintained unity. This time proved to be different.

Disagreements revolving around the papacy, the use of unleavened or leavened bread in the Eucharist, and the Filioque (the Latin addition to the Nicene Creed which describes the double procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son), among other issues, kept the Eastern and Western lungs of the Church from remaining in full communion. Eastern and Western Catholics made attempts at reunion at the Second Council of Lyons in 1272, and at the Council of Florence in 1439. However, they did not see lasting reunion until the end of the sixteenth century with the Union of Brest. The Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, “Christ Our Pascha”, explains more in depth:

“The communion of Churches has been clouded by the sin of ecclesial divisions … An example of overcoming  such ecclesial division was the communion of Churches achieved at the Council of Florence—and subsequently, on the basis of the Florentine tradition, at the Union of Brest:

“‘Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice” [Ps 95[96]:11], for the wall that divided the western and the eastern church has been removed, peace and harmony have returned, since the corner-stone, Christ, who made both one [see Eph 2:20; 2:14], has joined both sides with a very strong bond of love and peace … ’

“In 1596, through the Union of Brest, the Kyivan Metropolitanate, faithful to her ancient traditions, reconfirmed her communion with the Church of Rome.”

(COP 306, 307)

St. Josephat

It was through the help of holy people, like St. Josaphat Kuntsevych, which brought much needed reconciliation between the two lungs of the Church. The Union of Brest saw both the Ukrainian and Belarusian Catholic Churches resume full communion with Rome, and Rome with them. For a helpful chart detailing reunion dates of the other particular Churches, you can refer to the link here. Those hostile to reunion martyred St. Josaphat. He is commemorated on the general calendars of both the Byzantine and Latin Rite on November 12. 

Sharers in the Heritage

Over time, other communities also worked for full communion between East and West. They saw the Protestant Reformation as an impetus for reunion. After all, the Protestant reformers were hostile not only to Catholics, but the Orthodox as well. What began with the Council of Florence found permanence with the Union of Brest, as well as with the Union of Užhorod on April 24, 1646. Here we see full communion resuming for the Slovak, Hungarian and Ruthenian Catholic Churches. St. John Paul II gave a concise history of the events leading to this in his Apostolic Letter on the 350th anniversary of the 1646 reunion:

“The joyful occasion of the 350th anniversary of the Union of Užhorod constitutes an important moment in the history of a Church which by that act reestablished full union with the Bishop of Rome.

“While the Union of Užhorod came about as a result of the deliberations of the Council of Florence, it is certainly not out of place to highlight its close spiritual connection with the background of the mission of the Apostles of the Slavs, Cyril and Methodius, whose preaching extended from Greater Moravia to the Carpathian Mountains. Rightly therefore the faithful of the Churches linked to the Union of Užhorod are proud to be sharers in the heritage of Cyril and Methodius.”

Modern Byzantine History

As I mentioned above, the persecution of Byzantine Catholics was widespread. Much of it occurred during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. World War II exacerbated the situation of many Byzantine Catholics, particularly the Ukrainians and Ruthenians. A suppression of the Catholic Faith would continue for years. Josef Stalin of Soviet Russia decided that the Soviets had to quash the burgeoning Ukrainian independent movement. He mandated the entire Ukrainian Catholic Church be wiped out.

He liquidated and forcibly handed over all Church lands to the Russian Orthodox. In the spring of 1945, the Soviets arrested all Ukrainian Catholic bishops and sent them to the Gulag. At this point, the Church went largely underground. Bishops secretly ordained priests when possible. My own family can attest to this. In the 1980’s, a bishop in Ukraine secretly ordained my cousin Rev. Theodore Wroblicky as a subdeacon. My Busia would often tell me the story of how the bishop had to carry out Fr. Wroblicky’s ordination under cover of night. They drew all shades in the house they were in so that no one was aware of what was transpiring. “Christ Our Pascha” attests to this:

“Many faithful continued to witness to their faith in the underground Church, gathering for divine services in private homes. They received the Holy Mysteries secretly, and listened to broadcasts of the Divine Liturgy on Vatican Radio. The Communist authorities constantly persecuted the underground Church …  This heroic period of martyrdom lasted from 1946 to 1989. Among the confessors of the faith who experienced imprisonment and exile in the twentieth century were the heads of the UGCC, the Venerable Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944) and Patriarch Josyf Slipyj (1892-1984).”

(COP 325)

Despite persecutions like this, the Church continued to grow. The Byzantine Catholic faithful reside now not only in places like Ukraine and Romania, but all over the world, especially in North America. Let’s take a look at what one might expect when visiting a Byzantine Catholic parish.

Liturgy and Sacraments

The typical liturgy one will see when visiting a parish of the Byzantine tradition is the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. But if one were to visit during the Lenten season, one would experience either the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great (which is very similar to that of St. John Chrysostom’s) or the Liturgy of the Presanctified. Unlike the Latin Rite, the Byzantine Rite does not traditionally offer the Holy Sacrifice every day. During Lent, the Holy Sacrifice only takes place on Sundays and special holy days, such as the Annunciation. Latin Catholics experience their own Presanctified Liturgy once a year on Good Friday. In the Byzantine Rite, this Liturgy of the Presanctified traditionally takes place every Wednesday and Friday of Lent.

Like many of the other Eastern Catholic Churches, the Byzantine liturgical tradition also confers all three sacraments of initiation on infants at the same time. Therefore, it’s not uncommon to see very young children receiving the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy. The way that Holy Communion is distributed is also different from the way that both Latin Catholics and other Eastern Catholics receive.

For the laity, Communion is always given on the tongue and via intinction. However, the Byzantine Rite uses leavened bread in the confection of the Eucharist. Small pieces of the Host, usually sliced in very small cubes, are placed into the chalice with the Precious Blood. Then, each communicant comes forward receiving both the Body and Blood of our Lord through a small liturgical spoon.

Calendar and Traditions

Concerning the liturgical year, this begins on September 1. Byzantine Catholics call the biggest celebrations the Twelve Great Feasts. Of those twelve feasts, several are Holy Days of Obligation, and these may slightly differ in each particular Church. The remaining Great Feasts all represent an important moment in the life of Our Lord or Our Lady, such as the Transfiguration or the Nativity of the Mother of God. But returning to the Lenten season, we see similarities, and differences, between its celebration in the Latin and Byzantine rites. Fr. Wroblicky explains:

“The 40 day Great Fast of Lent … begins on the Monday of the week in which Ash Wednesday falls and ends at Lazarus Saturday, which celebrates the resurrection of Lazarus on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. The week from Palm Sunday to Easter, which the Latin Church refers to as Holy Week, is not part of the Great Fast or Lent in the Byzantine Churches. This week bears the ancient name of Passion Week among the Byzantines.”

Another difference is that whereas Latin Catholics venerate the wood of the Cross on Good Friday, Byzantine Catholics venerate the burial shroud of Christ, much in the same way icons are venerated. Just as statues are prayed before in Latin Rite parishes, so too are icons in the Byzantine tradition.

“An icon is written (painted) in prayer and for prayer. To recognize and understand an icon one needs to contemplate it prayerfully.”

(COP 592)

It’s All Complementary

Much more, of course, could be said on not just the Byzantine tradition, but all the liturgical traditions of the Catholic Church. As this is only an introduction, I sincerely hope that this series has piqued your curiosity in exploring the full breadth of the Catholic Church. Thankfully, many of you will not have to travel very far to find one of these welcoming parishes. This is why I love our Catholic Faith. We are truly one in our Lord Jesus. Just as male and female are different, we are from the same human family, and the sexes complement each other. It’s much the same with our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters. And it’s that complementarity that makes up the fullness of our beautiful Catholic Faith!


You May Also Like:

The Other 23 Catholic Churches and Why They Exist

The Eastern Catholic Churches: Part 2, the Armenian Rite

The Eastern Catholic Churches: Part 3, the Alexandrian Rite

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

The Other 23 Catholic Churches: Part 5, West 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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