Discovering the Catholic Church's Eastern Rite

October 1997By Patrick Madrid

Patrick Madrid is Editor-in-Chief of Envoy, a new journal of Catholic apologetics and evangelization. You can visit its Web site at http://www.envoymagazine.com..

My wife and I recently invited a young Catholic couple to attend our parish church one Sunday. Afterward, over coffee and donuts in the social hall, the wife leaned over and asked me in a stage whisper, "This is a Catholic church, right?"

Her question is typical of Roman Rite Catholics who attend their first Eastern Rite liturgy. It's the question I asked myself the first time I witnessed the exotically beautiful ritual. What Western Catholics call the Mass, Eastern Catholics call the Divine Liturgy. There's no ontological difference between the two. Both are the same thing: making present Christ's redemptive sacrifice on Calvary. Externally, however, there are many differences.

The typical Eastern Rite Divine Liturgy is long, about an hour and a half. The church interior is covered with icons of biblical scenes and the Fathers and Doctors of the early Church. The Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, and angels -- that "cloud of witnesses" who surround us, as spoken of in Hebrews 12:1 -- are depicted in a profusion of color. The sanctuary is separated from the body of the church by an iconostasis, each panel formed by a life-size icon of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels, and saints. The altar is small and square, with an ornate tabernacle placed at the back center. The entire Liturgy is sung, with the hymns and antiphons alternating among priest, deacon, and congregation. The robust singing impressed and attracted me when I attended my first Liturgy. The people, led by a cantor, participated in prayer with gusto. The hymns are beautiful and theologically rich. The prayers, hymns, and actions are a vivid reflection of the early Church liturgy (the same is true, of course, of the Traditional Latin Mass). Then there is the heavy use of incense, bells, processions, bowing, and the custom of everyone making the sign of the cross every time the words "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" are uttered.

All of these elements of the Divine Liturgy express the deepest sentiments and aspirations of the soul, and dispose the mind toward heaven. Most Roman Rite Catholics find it foreign and odd at first, but the oddness quickly fades as the Liturgy becomes familiar, and soon they revel in the signs and symbols. They drink in the ancient splendor of the Eastern Rite, an oasis of dignified worship (often in English) amidst the arid banality of many Roman Rite parishes. Their thirst for transcendent, aesthetically beautiful worship is slaked.

The Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church include the Antiochene, Chaldean, Armenian, Alexandrian, and Byzantine Rites, and the various "sub-Rites" contained within these groupings. Each of these Rites is in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. They are fully Catholic, though they preserve (fiercely, at times) the cultural heritage from which they sprang.

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Well said. Most people really are yearning for reverence and awe and majesty and a sense of the sacred. And you can still find all that in a lot of parishes--until it's time to sing. What was said here really struck a chord with me:

"The second answer is that I want to praise God in meaningful, reverent song. And I am moved by the liturgical prayers that flow from the heart of the ancient Eastern Church. I want my heart's deepest aspirations and urgent longings to soar heavenward."

We have a great little parish with many pious folks, a solid little priest from the Phillipines, a diligent deacon, and lots of Latin. But the songs are downright painful--many of them unabashedly Protestant.

This has got to change.

M. L. Hearing
Posted by: mlhearing
March 09, 2009 08:21 PM EDT
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