Please note that the answers provided to common questions about Byzantine Catholicism offered here are intended to be general answers. They are not intended to be exhaustive in content nor are they intended to be ‘heavy theology’. If you need an official response to a question, please contact your local parish or eparchy (diocese).
Frequently Asked Questions
How can you be Catholic? There doesn’t seem to be any similarity between your worship and the Roman Catholic one.
Be assured that we are Catholic… Eastern Catholic. Roman is not the only type of Catholic in history; nor are Roman rituals the only type that are followed. There are five main branches (the “pentarchy”) of the original Church of Christianity: Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople and Alexandria. As Melkites, we are descendants of the Church of Antioch “where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians” (see Acts 25:11). Each Church of the pentarchy developed its own historical, valid and legitimate manner of theology and spirituality and lives it to this day. We are still one with each other. Unity does not require uniformity.
Do you have Sacraments?
Yes, we believe in the seven Holy Mysteries (our terminology for the Sacraments) that were historically given by Christ Himself: Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation in the Western Church), Eucharist, Confession, Holy Orders, Marriage and Anointing (see the Holy Scriptures). They are all administered according to the ritual of the Byzantine tradition.
Are you under the Pope?
That term today is an archaic one, not even used by theologians. Properly speaking we are in communion with the Pope of Rome but, at the same time, we also have our own Patriarch (chief Bishop and head of our Church) and Synod of Bishops. The title of the head of the Melkite Church is “His Beatitude, the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and Jerusalem”. Both Rome and the Melkite Catholic Church recognize each other as valid and Apostolic Churches. (see above)
What is a Patriarch?
Originally, it was one of the Holy Apostles who founded a community of believers. He was the one who preached and ministered to that community. The term is made up of two roots: father and leader. In the course of time, the title was attached to that person and was recognized as the founder of that particular community: James of Jerusalem, Peter, first of Antioch and later of Rome, Andrew of Constantinople and Mark of Alexandria. Therefore, in the early Church, these were the five original Patriarchs, one for each of the Churches that were part of the pentarchy. Their successors to this day are those who are the legitimate elected spiritual fathers and leaders of the five original Churches along with others who preached and founded other communities.
Do you worship Mary and saints?
No, we do not worship them but rather venerate or give high devotion and special respect to them. Traditionally and theologically, worship is reserved only for God. There is only one God. At the same time, right from the recorded and oral tradition of the early Christian Community, special devotions developed for the Holy Virgin because she was the Mother of God and for the ones who bonded themselves so close to Christ that their lives reflected a holiness. Further, sometimes, miracles were attributed to the those who lived holy lives.
What does “Melkite” mean?
It is the name that was given to all those who accepted the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). There was a controversy regarding the two natures of Jesus: divine and human. Arius, a priest of the Church was beginning to teach that Jesus was not the Son of God, hence not divine but just a perfect man. Some bishops, clergy and lay people began to accept this new belief. The Fathers of that Council, both Eastern and Western, after much deliberation, reiterated the teaching of the Holy Apostles and the early Christian Community that Jesus was indeed divine and human. Because the king, Marcian, who also attended the Council, agreed with this Council declaration, the ones who followed him in assent were called “Melkites” (the king’s men or loyalists) from the old Syriac word for king: “melko”.
Why do you call yourselves “Greek Catholics”? Are you Greek?
We are not Greek in nationality but we are called Greek Catholics because we follow and live the tradition of the Church of Constantinople. Because of history and the influence of the Byzantine Church of Constantinople, our liturgical rituals or expressions of worship are attuned to those rather than to the Roman Catholic tradition.
What does “apostolic” mean?
It means that we can trace ourselves in a historic and recorded line of succession back to the Holy Apostles.
What language do you use in church?
It depends on the local community and how it is comprised. In this Parish, the majority of the services are in Arabic and English. In many hymns Greek is also utilized. Anyone can follow the Divine Liturgy from the Service Books. Any Arabic or Greek is written in transliterated phonetics for all to easily follow along and join in with the chanting of responses.
Why do have your back to the people when you have a service? Shouldn’t you be facing them?
This depends on one’s perspective. The most ancient rubric for the priest is to face the East, where light comes from. In other words, we face God, Who is Light. We are praying to Him, not to the people. We are supposed to be leading the people in prayer, praise, glory, thanksgiving to Him. This is why the Priest and Deacon in the Eastern Churches face the Altar. The Melkite & other Byzantine Churches were under no obligation to follow the changes made by the Roman Church after Vatican II to turn around and face the people during the service. The Eastern Churches have their own legitimate traditions.
How can I learn about more the Melkite Church?
There are several ways: the internet, books in our library, attending the liturgical services of the parish, speaking with the Priest of the community, etc.
Does one have to be Middle Eastern to belong to the Parish or even attend the worship services?
Not at all! Historically, the Parish was founded by a Middle Eastern Priest for the local Melkite community, but it has always welcomed everyone to be part of the Parish. Today, it is comprised of a good blend of those who have Near Eastern (the more proper term) heritage and those from other backgrounds. The entire Melkite Church worldwide historically began in the Near East but has always tended to be inclusive rather than exclusive. All are warmly welcomed to come and see and perhaps become part of our community.
How can I join the Parish?
I am not Catholic. Can I partake of Communion?
Technically, you shouldn’t approach the chalice unless you believe that It is really the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ that you are receiving. Rather than being symbolic, this is the faith of Catholics and Orthodox Christians regarding Holy Communion or Eucharist.
Can I come up in the Communion line to receive a blessing only?
The line for Holy Communion or Eucharist is precisely for that…to receive. For a blessing only, it would be more proper for you to wait until the Liturgy is over and come up in the line when people venerate the Cross, an Icon or a Relic. That is where blessings are properly given in conjunction with the Liturgy. Sometimes, young children of other traditions, who, because of age or practices, have not received Holy Communion yet, also approach and are given a blessing only. This is simply a matter of provisional practicality because the child comes up with the parent. This is not the recommended or encouraged practice for others. (see receiving a blessing)
Do Melkites have rules and regulations that they need to obey?
As any valid and apostolic Christian body of worshippers, our traditions have been historically developed and practiced. We do not view rules and regulations as obligations of law (“we have to do them”) but rather obligations of love (“we ought and want to do them”).
Do Melkites fast or abstain from eating before receiving Holy Communion?
Ideally, we are supposed to. The traditional fasting period is from midnight on Saturday until the reception of the Eucharist. Water is always permitted. If physically & medically able, all should make the effort to maintain this as their respect for the receiving of the Body and Blood of Christ.
What is a “spiritual father”?
This term applies to several positions: 1) a man, who is the ordained and appointed spiritual leader of a local Christian community, 2) a man who is an ordained priest or deacon or professed monk of the Church, 3) a deeply religious layperson…all who have been recognized to offer sound spiritual guidance, advice & direction to those who come to them. All Christians ideally should have their own personal spiritual father to assist them in life’s journey on the way to the Kingdom. The relationship between a spiritual father and his spiritual children is one of importance, closeness, privacy and confidentiality. The calling of one a “one’s father or one’s children” alludes to this close and sacred relationship. Note: there has been and is the reality also of “spiritual mothers” who offer the same type of Christian wisdom to others.
In the Roman Catholic Church, Non-Catholics are instructed to cross their arms over their chest. The Roman priest knows this to be a signal that just a blessing is being requested. Is this the same in the Melkite Church?
If you approach with your arms crossed, in the Byzantine and Melkite Churches, that is the proper and more ancient manner to receive Holy Communion for Catholics and Orthodox. It is the personal recognition of the Holy Species that we are receiving and we cross our arms in submission to the King of all. (see above)
Can a Melkite Priest be married?
Yes, along with the acceptance of being celibate, it is the other choice in the ministry of our Church. If a man chooses to be married and apply to study for the Diaconate or Priesthood in the Melkite Church, he needs to be married before he is ordained.
What is the “Theotokos”?
This term is made up of two Greek words (Theos = God and tokos = bearer). The term was given by the early Fathers of the Christian Church of the East to Mary, who was chosen by God to bear His Son.
What is an “icon”?
In Greek, the word “eikon” means image or reflection. Hence, in church usage, it applies to being an image, reflection or representation of someone. It is called “theology in color” because, in artistic form, it reveals a deeper belief associated with the person or event portrayed. Therefore, in proper terminology, an icon is written not painted. It is the iconographer’s gift of the Christian Church’s faith to a reality held. Before any attempt to develop an icon, the person ought to fast and pray. It is not his/her personal work but that of the Holy Spirit. He/she will be guided by the Holy Spirit. It will be eventually blessed with the holy oils to set it apart from any other art form. One will see icons throughout any Eastern church. In the future, the icon can and will be venerated (not worshipped!) in a church, chapel, home or office. This is a valid and traditional practice as has been declared by the Council of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
Do you have Stations of the Cross?
In a proper Byzantine or Melkite church, this is not a historical tradition of ours. Icons are the more accepted form of religious art in our churches.
Do you pray the rosary?
Technically, the Eastern Churches do not have the rosary as an original aspect of their spirituality. As with other Western practices, it came into several Eastern Churches or Eastern Christian habits by way of Western missionaries and/or mingling with other Christians. A similar custom, more proper to our tradition, is the “prayer rope”. It is comprised of several cloth or other material beads on which the “Jesus Prayer” (“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) is said and repeated as a mantra of deep meditation. Usually, this is done in front of an icon of Christ but can also be recited anywhere.
Do you have Bishops?
Our current Bishop is Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim, position at the Saint Sauveur Cathedral, Montreal, QC.
What is an “Eparch”?
This is the terminology used for the head or chief Bishop of a Diocese.
What is an “Archimandrite”?
This is a title of recognition and honor given to a celibate Priest by the Patriarch or Eparch. It can be given for several reasons deemed by the Church authorities. At his elevation to this rank, he is given the headdress consisting of an Eastern clerical hat with a monastic veil. He also is given the right to wear a pectoral cross.
What is a “Deacon”?
This is the first recognized rank of Holy Orders in the Christian Church from the records of Scripture. Originally, chosen by the Apostles to assist with the poor, the widows and the needy, the modern function is that of assisting the Bishop or Priest at liturgical functions. He also may be given a special responsibility in the Eparchy or local church such as religious education, care of the needy, recording and accounting, etc.
What is the “Holy Place”?
This is the area behind the Iconostasis. It is also called the “sanctuary”. It is where the Altar is positioned and where the liturgical services take place. It represents heaven, the dwelling place of God and source of blessings and the goal of all Christians. Ideally, if one has no function in the service, he should not enter the Holy Place.
What is the “Iconostasis”?
This is the screen of icons that joins the Holy Place to the rest of the church. It holds the icons of Christ, His Holy Mother and the Saints. It does not separate but rather offers a gateway to the heavenly dwelling place of the Holy One.
Why should I believe in God? And please don’t quote the Bible at me!
Consider this question: Why is there something rather than nothing?
The Big Bang, you say? Well, OK, that’s a “how” type of answer and not a “why” type of answer, but let’s discuss it. There was nothing. Then there was a Big Bang. Then there was something? How did nothing turn into something? Why? How did this “Big Bang” happen? Why? How do you get life from non-life? Why is there something rather than nothing?
How do you answer these questions?
Reason and logic will get you to two possible conclusions. Science might someday explain some of the ‘how’ but not the ‘why’. Either the existence of the universe and all that is in it (including man) is an accident (and it all means nothing) or there was a Designer and He has a plan.
So in the end you have to make a decision of faith. You can put your faith in nothing as the cause of life or you can put your faith in a Designer-God as the cause of life.
What is the difference between “Eastern Catholics”, “Greek Catholics” and “Byzantine Catholics”, and “Melkite Catholic”?
“Eastern Catholic” refers to the autonomous, self-governing Catholic Churches that have their roots in the Christian East. They are equal to Roman Catholics and are in full communion with the Holy Father, the Pope. Saint John Paul II taught in Orientale Lumen that the “ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church”. Eastern Catholics include all those Eastern Christians (both Byzantine and non-Byzantine). Examples of non-Byzantine Eastern Catholic include Maronite Catholics and Chaldean Catholics.
“Greek Catholic” and “Byzantine Catholic” are used interchangeably. “Greek Catholic” was originally applied to those Orthodox Christians in both central and eastern Europe and the Middle East who retained their Orthodox liturgy and theology but who restored full communion with Rome, which was lost in the centuries after A.D. 1054. The term “Greek” referred to the liturgy and theology of these Churches and the term “Catholic” signified their full communion with Rome. In the middle twentieth century (especially in the United States) it was thought that the term was confusing as it suggested Greek ethnicity. So the term “Byzantine Catholic” came into use, with the term “Byzantine” intended to be a non-ethnic counterpart of “Roman”.
“Melkite Catholics” are those Greek or Byzantine Catholic Churches that have their origins in the Middle East. “Melkite” is from the Syriac word “malka” (“King”). It was originally a pejorative term for all Middle-Eastern Christians who accepted the teachings of the Council of Calcedon (A.D. 451) and the Byzantine Emperor. Over time it was retained only by Eastern Catholics. Eastern Orthodox do not use the term. Melkites trace their history to the first century AD, to the early Christians of Antioch (in present day Turkey).
Greek/Byzantine Catholics are further divided into subgroups: Melkite, Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Romanian, Greek, Bulgarian, Serbians, Slovak, Hungarian, Belarusians, and Russians. All use the Byzantine Liturgy, or an abbreviated form of it.
What are the Fasting requirements during Great Lent?
The Church places before us both the ideal and minimum requirements for our Lenten journey:
The Ideal Fast
The Holy Canons specify the following from sundown on Forgiveness Sunday (Cheesefare Sunday) to Pascha (Easter Sunday):
– Abstinence from meat (including poultry), meat products, dairy, dairy products, fish, olive oil, and wine.
– No Abstinence from shellfish, fruit, vegetables, and vegetable products.
During the Great Fast Christians regulate both the amount of food they eat and the number of times they eat each day. In other words, no food should be eaten between meals and at mealtime only a small portion of food should be eaten.
On Saturdays and Sundays during the Great Fast the quantity and number of times food is eaten is not restricted and both olive oil and wine may be taken.
The Minimum Fast
While the minimum Fast differs slightly between Churches of the Greek and Slav traditions, the minimum Fast is generally the following, from sundown on Forgiveness Sunday (Cheesefare Sunday) to Pascha (Easter Sunday):
– Abstinence from meat (including poultry), meat products, dairy, dairy products, and wine on the first day of the Great Fast, Holy and Great Friday (Good Friday), and on Holy Saturday.
– Abstinence from meat and meat products and a limiting of food on all Wednesdays and Fridays of the Holy Forty Days Fast.
Individuals who, for various health reasons, are directed by their medical advisors not to fast are fully exempt from the Fast.
Reommendation: If you are new to fasting, start with the minimum fast. Then each year give up something additional, until you find a fast that is challenging but not impossible. And don’t forget: fasting is to be done together with prayer and almsgiving (good works).
As always, check with your pastor. He is the individual who knows you and can best direct you.
Do Byzantine Catholics pray the Rosary? Do Byzantine Catholics have the “Hail Mary“?
The Roman Catholic devotion of praying the Rosary is not generally a part of the Byzantine prayer life, although some individual Byzatines pray it. This is not because Byzantines in any way reject the Rosary. It’s a wonderful method of prayer. We don’t generally use it because we have our own repetitive prayer traditions. Asking a Byzantine why he does not pray the Rosary is sort of like asking a Greek why he doesn’t speak Latin at the dinner table. The Greek has his own devotions. He can appreciate the devotions of the Latins, but he simply chooses to keep the ones he grew up with that have been handed down over the centuries.
So, what is an example of a Byzantine Equivalent? The “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!“). The “Jesus Prayer” is part of the hesychastic prayer tradition that originated in Byzantine monasticism but which is also very popular among laymen. Typically this prayer is prayed with the use of a prayer rope, consisting of 100 or 150 knots.
Here is the text of the Byzantine “Hail Mary“: “Rejoice, O Virgin Mother of God! Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have borne Christ the Savior, the deliverer of our souls“.
It should be noted that the Roman Catholic version of this prayer was adapted from the older Byzantine version. Both have their roots in Luke 1:28 and 1:48.
Why do we sing “Eternal Memory” at funerals?
At the end of a funeral the priest intones: “In blessed repose, grant, O Lord, eternal rest to Your servant, (Name), and may his (her) memory be eternal.” The people then respond with the hymn: “Eternal Memory!” (Church Slavonic: Вечная память, Vičnaja Pamjat’, Greek: Αἰωνία ἡ μνήμη, Eonia i Mnimi)
“Eternal Memory” is a prayer, a petition offered to the Lord that He remember the person who has died. Our memory is not eternal. But the Lord’s memory is eternal. If He remembers the person who has died, then that person exists eternally in heaven. This is our prayer for those who have finished this earthly race.
Why do Byzantine Catholics give Communion to babies?
Infant Communion was the custom in the universal Church – both East and West – from the time of the Apostles. The foundation for this custom can be found in Scripture, especially in John 6:52 (“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”) and Matthew 19:14 (“Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’”). The Church Fathers were universally supportive of this custom. Saint Augustine taught: “They are infants, but they receive His sacraments. They are infants, but they share in His table, in order to have life in themselves.” (Works, V5, S 174.7).
The Western Church (Roman Catholic) also kept this custom until the beginning of the 13th century.
After the various Byzantine Catholics (Greek Catholics) re-established communion with Rome in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries the practice of communing infants was mostly dropped and replaced with the Roman custom of delaying first Communion until the age of reason. But at Vatican II the teaching given in “Orientalium Ecclesiarum” urged Eastern Catholic towards a general return to their more ancient disciplines, of which Infant Communion was one. Today, almost all Eastern Catholic Churches have restored Infant Communion.
How is Holy Communion given to infants?
In the Byzantine Churches, the Eucharist is given as soon as possible after Baptism and Chrismation (Confirmation). Typically the infant is Baptized and Chrismated just prior to the start of the Divine Liturgy and then receives Eucharist during the Divine Liturgy. The priest administers the Eucharist with a spoon, giving the infant a small amount of the comingled consecrated Body and Blood. The child then continues to receive on a regular basis, with amount increasing as the child grows and is able to partake it.
Infants and young children are exempt from the requirements to fast and go to confession until they reach the age of reason (typically between 8-10 years of age).
The priest at the Byzantine Catholic Church near me is married and has young children. How is this possible? I thought all Catholic priests were celibate? How long has this been going on?
The Church – both East and West – has ordained married men from the beginning. Remember that the Apostle Peter was married.
In the Christian East, this custom continued without interruption and is normative today. The exception is in the Americans and Australia, where Eastern Catholics were prohibited form ordaining married men from 1929 until the late 1990s (the full history is too lengthy to detail here). The Roman Catholic bishops of this era were unfamiliar with a married clergy and were scandalized by it. They requested – and won – a prohibition of the ordination of married in the Eastern Catholic Churches. Since Vatican II, however, there has been a general return to the more ancient practice.
The Christian West (Roman Catholic) also had married priests, even as it held that priests living in ‘perpetual continence’ was the better way. It was not until the Middle Ages, at a Synod held in Rome in 1074 when Pope Gregory VII mandated clerical celibacy. This was later legislated into canon law at the Second Lateran Council in 1139.
Isn’t celibacy for priests the better way?
In 1 Corinthians 7:8 the Apostle Paul urges the unmarried and widows to “remain single“. But this advice is not just for those who are ordained to the priesthood – it is given to everyone. A bit later in that same chapter (v 17), however, the Apostle further teaches that “each person (should) lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” The Church recognizes that a man can be called to serve his wife in the role of husband and the Church in the role of priest.
So, can a priest who is single get married?
No. A married man can be ordained to the priesthood, but once ordained to the deaconate or higher a single man may not then take a wife.