West Meets East: Ever Wonder Why We Use the Term "Roman" Catholic? It's Because There Are 22 Other Catholic Churches

By Gragnani, Vincent | U.S. Catholic, February 2005 | Go to article overview

West Meets East: Ever Wonder Why We Use the Term "Roman" Catholic? It's Because There Are 22 Other Catholic Churches


Gragnani, Vincent, U.S. Catholic


Father Hugo Soutus chants the Sunday liturgy with his back to the congregation. His sons assist him at the altar while his wife and daughter sing in the choir.

In 1994, shortly after becoming pastor at a Phoenix parish, he did away with eucharistic adoration. He removed the Stations of the Cross from the church walls and replaced them with icons and began administering First Communion and Confirmation as a part of the baptismal rite.

Soutus is not Orthodox, nor a Catholic in schism. He is a Ukrainian Greek Catholic who takes seriously Pope John Paul II's directive to recover the traditions of his church.

Contrary to what most Catholics think, the Catholic Church is more than the Roman Catholic Church--it is a communion of 23 churches, each equal in dignity. The Roman--or Latin--tradition is the predominant Western tradition, but in the East a variety of traditions thrive.

Several breaks over the first millennium of Christianity--culminating in the great schism of 1054--split the church into East and West, Orthodox and Catholic. But from the 15th to the 19th centuries portions of Orthodox churches have sought and been granted full communion with Rome. The Holy See urged them to keep their traditions and disciplines, which is why many Eastern Catholic liturgies resemble Orthodox liturgies. Most Eastern Catholic churches have an Orthodox counterpart.

The churches in full communion with the Holy See have a variety of practices but are one in faith, all recognizing the pope as their leader. Worldwide, the largest Eastern church is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church with 4.3 million members, a tiny percentage of the world's 1 billion Catholics. Other Eastern Catholic communities with the largest numbers in the United States include the Syro-Malabar, Chaldean, Maronite, and Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic churches.

Because Eastern Catholics are such a small minority compared to Catholics of the Latin tradition, many have never heard of the Eastern Catholic churches. When they do, they often confuse the Eastern Catholic churches with the Orthodox churches.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 apostolic letter Orientale Lumen, said Catholics of the Latin tradition "must also be fully acquainted with this treasure," that is, the traditions of the East. He also said that the Eastern Catholic churches' union with Rome must not imply a diminished awareness of their authenticity and originality.

"The Second Vatican Council has urged them to rediscover their full identity because they have the 'right and duty to govern themselves according to their own special disciplines. For these are guaranteed by ancient tradition and seem to be better suited to the customs of their faithful and to the good of their souls,'" the pope wrote.

A married clergy is one of these disciplines, to the surprise of many Latin-rite Catholics. Married men serve as priests in the Eastern Catholic churches, though you won't find many in the United States. In 1929, at the urging of U.S. Latin bishops who didn't want their flock to be "confused," the Holy See issued a decree prohibiting married priests from serving communities outside the churches' homelands, including all of North America.

Today, however, the status of that decree is questionable, possibly superseded by the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, and many Eastern Catholic churches now have a small number of married priests in ministry in the United States.

According to this code, most Eastern Catholic churches elect their leaders--patriarchs, major archbishops, or metropolitans. The pope confirms the elections and oversees the churches via the Vatican's Congregation for the Eastern Churches.

Ancient rites

Differences between East and West are perhaps most significant in their liturgies. Roman Catholics who enter an Eastern Catholic church are generally struck by the reverence, mystery, and community. …

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