Do you know differences between Roman, Byzantine Catholic Churches?

When most people think of the “Catholic Church,” they are thinking of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the Catholic Church is in fact very diversified. It is a little known fact that there are many Catholic Churches in union with the Bishop of Rome, commonly referred to as the pope.

There are six principle — or main — rites used in the Catholic Church: Alexandrian, Armenian, Byzantine, East Syrian, Latin and West Syrian. Each rite has its own prayers, rituals or ways of celebrating the sacraments as well as its own vestments, church art and architecture, music, etc. Each rite also has its own theological emphasis or way of explaining the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic faith.

Within the Catholic Church, there are 21 self-governing or “sui juris”

churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church, the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church (my church), the Maronite Catholic Church and the Romanian Greek Catholic Church (the one to which the monks at Holy Resurrection Monastery belong).


An icon of St. Nicholas of Myra hangs in the Byzantine Catholic church bearing his name in Anchorage, Alaska. (CNS photo | Patricia Coll Freeman, The Anchor )

Each of these Catholic churches uses one of the rites listed above. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church uses the Roman rite, the Armenian Catholic Church uses the Armenian rite, the Chaldean Catholic Church uses the East Syrian rite, the Ethiopian Catholic Church uses the Alexandrian rite, the Romanian Greek Catholic Church uses the Byzantine rite, etc.

All of these churches are headed by a patriarch, major archbishop, or metropolitan — and all are in union with the Bishop of Rome (pope). We all share the same Catholic faith. We all experience or live it out in different ways. Members of these Catholic churches can attend and are encouraged to receive the sacraments in the other Catholic churches. There is total inter-communion between us.

As you know, the Roman Catholic Church operates under the Code of Canon Law. However, the Eastern Catholic Churches operate under the Code of Canons of the Eastern Church promulgated by the pope in 1990 and some, if not all, of the individual Eastern Catholic churches have their own particular set of church law, as well. Thus, in some of these Eastern Catholic churches, married men can be ordained to the priesthood because they are under a different set of church laws.

In the Byzantine Catholic Church, the seven sacraments are administered in ways that are different than in the Roman Catholic Church. For instance, baptism is conferred by immersion rather than the sprinkling of water. All three sacraments of initiation — baptism, confirmation (called Chrismation in the Byzantine Rite), and holy Eucharist — are administered at the same time. Thus, infants or adults receive all three sacraments when they are brought into the church. The sacrament of reconciliation usually is administered in front of the “iconostasis” — or icon screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave of the church — instead of using a confessional box or room. The sacrament of the sick is administered not only when someone is gravely ill, but also to the entire congregation at the end of Divine Liturgy (Byzantine Catholic Mass) various Sundays throughout the year. Those of you who saw the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” witnessed how the sacrament of marriage is celebrated in the Byzantine rite. There is a crowning ceremony and a sharing of the common cup. In fact, the priest, not the couple themselves as in the Roman rite, actually confers the sacrament. Holy orders is conferred by a bishop in a manner similar to the Roman rite. However, married men can be ordained to the diaconate and priesthood in the Byzantine rite. Bishops are selected from the celibate clergy.

One of the biggest differences most Roman Catholics would see between the Roman rite and Byzantine rite is the way the Mass — or as it is called in the Byzantine rite, Divine Liturgy, — is celebrated. The whole liturgy is sung or chanted with a continuous back and forth between the priest and the congregation. The priest wears different vestments and uses different-looking religious articles or vessels during the celebration of the liturgy. For most of the liturgy, the priest leads the congregation in worship by facing east — or with his back to the people. However, there is much more movement of the priest between the sanctuary and the nave of the church than in the Roman rite. Also, there are very few parts of the liturgy in which the congregation does not have an active part.

The prayers of the Byzantine liturgy, with the exception of the Creed (said without the Filioque) and Our Father, are different than in the Roman rite. There are more litanies throughout the liturgy and many more signs of the cross. The two main liturgies used, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the Liturgy of St. Basil, are approximately 1,600 years old. The bread consecrated into the body of Christ is leavened bread instead of unleavened bread. This symbolizes that Christ is the leaven in our lives. The priest distributes the precious body and blood of our Lord that have been mixed together in the chalice by use of a spoon instead of placing an unleavened host in the hand or on the tongue as in the Roman rite.

In general, there is a strong feeling of the sacred at a Byzantine rite liturgy. This is brought out through the architecture of the church building, the art used in the liturgical setting (icons), multiple candles, incense, actions of the priest and people during the liturgy, as well as the prayers sung throughout the whole liturgy by the priest and people. In fact, some have said that it appears like heaven on earth. As Catholics, we are truly blessed to belong to the universal church established by Christ which recognizes, respects and encourages various ways of expressing the one true faith.

Bound is director of the diocesan Department of Education.