Editor’s Note: CNS staffer Mark Pattison traveled to the Holy Land in September as part of a study tour sponsored by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and funded in part by the Catholic Communication Campaign. We will highlight his trip as the Vatican prepares for the Oct. 10-24 Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.
If you go to the Holy Land and talk to Christians in the region, you will be apt to hear a lot of talk about “Greek” Catholics.
Greek is the term that people in the region use to identify Eastern Catholics. In my recent visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Greek Catholics were usually Melkite Catholics, although in other parts of the Middle East, Chaldeans or Maronites might predominate. Eastern Catholics constitute a majority of Christians in the Holy Land. Melkite is just one of 22 Eastern rites in communion with Rome. More on that later.
The term “Eastern Catholic churches” is used for Catholic churches with origins in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa that have their own distinctive liturgical and legal systems and are identified by the national or ethnic character of their region of orgin. The term “Greek Catholic” is used colloquially in the Middle East to differentiate between these Catholics and “Greek Orthodox,” who constitute a majority of Christians in the Holy Land.
After the Great Schism of 1054 separating the Catholic Church and the Orthodox, the Orthodox generally organized their church around national identity. That holds true today. In addition to Greek Orthodox, you may see Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, and a number of other Orthodox churches, each one with its own institutional autonomy.
If you were go to an Orthodox liturgy and witness its “Greek Catholic” counterpart, you would be hard pressed to find any significant differences in worship. The principal difference is outside the church building; Eastern Catholics profess their loyalty to the bishop of Rome, the pope, but the Orthodox do not do so.
One difference that does exist is the date of major feasts. Often, major feasts are several days, if not weeks, apart from each other. Leaders in each tradition have often pointed to this as a sorrowful source a scandal to Christians everywhere.
Roman Catholics, for instance, celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25. The Orthodox do not celebrate this feast until Jan. 7. However, many Eastern Catholics observe the feast of Theophany, when God in human form made himself manifest to other humans; this is a holy day of obligation in the Eastern Catholic calendar.
Easter has proven problematic as well. There are a few times when both Catholic and Orthodox celebrate Easter on the same day. But when it is not celebrated jointly, the Orthodox Easter is almost always later than the Catholic Easter.
Efforts have been made at arriving at a common date for Easter, but they have yet to bear fruit. An even stickier situation has been to set a fixed date for Easter.
In the Palestinian territories, the general agreement in place made is that Christians celebrate Christmas on the Catholic date of Dec. 25, but Easter on the Orthodox date — for 2011 on April 24, same as for Latin-rite Catholics.
And, now for those Eastern churches in communion with the see of Peter. There are five families or groupings for the 22 Eastern churches. They are:
Alexandrian: Coptic and Ethiopian churches.
Antiochene: Syro-Malankara, Syrian and Maronite churches.
Armenian: Armenian church.
Byzantine (often used in North America as a synonym for “Eastern”): Albanian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Greek, Hungarian, Italo-Albanian, Melkite, Romanian, Russian, American Ruthenian, Slovak, Ukrainian and Yugoslav churches.
Chaldean: Chaldean and Syro-Malabar churches.