What is a “Byzantine” Catholic?

Byzantine Catholics are followers of Jesus Christ, Who came into the world and assumed our human nature by becoming a man so that He could save us from our sins by His passion, death, resurrection and ascension to Heaven. We are the witnesses to God’s saving action in human history, and the bearers of the Good News of Christ to the ends of the earth.

The “Byzantine” Catholic Church traces its foundation to the 12 Apostles of Christ who were the companions of Jesus as He walked on this earth some 2000 years ago. After the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), the Apostles began to proclaim the Gospel, first to Jerusalem, then to the Gentiles.

More than One Kind of “Catholic”?

While most Catholics only think of the Catholic Church as being comprised of the “Roman Catholic” Church, there are, in fact, almost 20 different “churches” which comprise the “Catholic” Church. The largest, and best known, of those churches is the “Roman” Catholic Church. However, the next largest church within the Catholic Church is the “Byzantine” Church.

As the Christian Church grew, each nation and culture that received the Gospel in turn influenced the growth of the Church. Even at a relatively early stage in the history of the Church, two major heritages developed and remain with us today: the Greek-speaking “Byzantine” tradition of the Christian East; and the Latin-speaking or “Roman” tradition of the Christian West.

The Church in the West had its principal center in Rome, and is known in our present-day as the Roman Catholic Church. The Church in the East grew and developed from the Churches in Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria and Constantinople. These Eastern centers shared a common language, Greek, which formed the basis for the development of the Eastern Christian tradition. The Byzantine Catholic Church shares in the inheritance of the first Greek-speaking Christian communities of the Eastern Mediterranean world, founded by the Apostles of Jesus Christ. For this reason, Byzantine Catholics were often referred to as “Greek Catholics.”

The Birth of the Byzantine Church

A landmark event in the history of the Church, and particularly the Eastern Church, was the decision in 325 by the Roman Emperor Constantine to move the Imperial capital from Rome to Byzantium, a small town on the Bosphorus strait which he renamed Constantinople (and which is presently Istanbul, Turkey). This had a dramatic impact on the Eastern Church.

The Byzantine Empire, centered on Constantinople, flourished for over 1,000 years. Naturally, the Church based in the empire’s capital city of Constantinople came to have a dominant influence in the Christian East, spreading a religious culture that had been cultivated in the Greek-speaking world – the "Byzantine" religious culture.

Byzantine Catholics in America are the spiritual descendants of the Christians who are the heirs of this Byzantine religious culture, and who therefore trace their spiritual heritage to the Great Church of Constantinople.

The spiritual heritage of the Byzantine Catholic Church is the same given to us by the Apostles and which matured in the Christian East, during the period of the Byzantine Empire. This heritage includes the doctrines, liturgical practices and underlying theology and spirituality, which came from the Christian Church of the Byzantine Empire.

Are “Byzantine” Catholics Really “Catholics”?

Yes. The Catholic Faith is shared equally by Catholics of the Western or Roman tradition, by and Catholics of the Eastern or Byzantine tradition. Both are under the protection of the Ecumenical Pontiff, the Pope of Rome, Benedict XVI.

Therefore, a Roman Catholic is free to attend Sunday Liturgy in the Byzantine Church just as a Byzantine Catholic may choose to attend Sunday Mass in the Roman Church.

The same Catholic faith is shared between both Byzantine Catholics and Roman Catholics, regardless of ethnicity or nationality.

The Seven Sacraments

Like our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we Byzantine Catholics share in seven sacraments, instituted by Christ to give grace. In the Byzantine Church, sacraments are referred to as “Holy MYSTERIES” in order to emphasize mysterious work of the Holy Spirit at work.

Baptism

The first sacrament, or Mystery, is the Mystery of Holy Baptism. Baptism is our personal participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. In the Byzantine tradition, Baptism is administered by total immersion into blessed water in order to emphasize the washing of rebirth that takes place.

Chrismation

In the Byzantine Church, Baptism is immediately followed by the second sacrament, Confirmation – which is known as “Chrismation” in the Byzantine Church. In Holy Chrismation, in which we are anointed with the Holy Chrism, bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit upon each of us individually. Chrismation is our personal participation in the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Sealed with the Holy Chrism, we are anointed as prophet, priest and king, and are given the means – the Holy Spirit Himself – needed to grow in holiness and live the Christian life; we are given individually "the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth", who will guide us throughout our lives as Christians.

Communion

The Holy Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is the sacrament of Christ’s true Body and Blood. The Byzantine Church, following the command of the Lord to ‘let the little children come to me’ (Mt 19:14), administers the Holy Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation and Eucharist to infants on the same day, so that they become full members of the Body of Christ, fully integrated into the Church, and full participants in the gift of New Life in Christ.

Confession

Through Holy Confession we admit and confess our failures and are reconciled both to Christ and His Body, the Church, and are empowered again through God’s grace to live the New Life in Christ. In Holy Confession, we repent of our sins, and receive forgiveness and absolution, and the grace to persevere in this world to live the New Life in Christ, in spite of our failures and shortcomings. It is a Byzantine tradition to confess our sins in the presence of a priest while facing an icon of Christ.

Holy Anointing

In the Byzantine Church the Sacrament of the Sick (Extreme Unction) is more commenly referred to as the Mystery of Holy Anointing with Oil, where are anointed with blessed oil for our illnesses, both bodily and spiritual. The entire Church celebrates this Mystery on Holy and Great Wednesday in anticipation of the Holy Pascha, the Feast of the Resurrection.

Marriage

In the Sacrament of Marriage, or the Mystery of Holy Matrimony, a man and a woman are called together to live as one through mutual self-giving and selfless love. In the Mystery of Holy Matrimony, the couple are crowned with the divine grace and strength to grow together in love and holiness, and live the New Life of Christ more abundantly.

Ordination

The Church, the Body of Christ, is a universal priesthood of believers. Yet among this universal priesthood, some are called to serve the Church in a particular way in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. The Mystery of Holy Orders calls men to serve the Body of Christ as deacons, priests and bishops through the laying on of hands, in which Christ Himself gives them the grace and power to perform this service in His name for the sake of His Body.

The Divine Liturgy (The Mass)

Byzantine Catholic worship joyfully celebrates the presence of the Kingdom of God on Earth in and through its divine services and liturgical life. Byzantine Catholics are witnesses to the reality of the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, and follow Christ, in and with Him, to His heavenly Kingdom in the Divine Liturgy, the principal liturgical service of the Byzantine Church.

In the Divine Liturgy, we begin worship by assembling together as the Body of Christ, and celebrating the presence of Christ among us with psalms and hymns. Standing attentively in His presence, we are taught by His Words in the Epistle and Gospel, and learn how to apply the Gospel to our lives in the sermon. We then respond to God by freely offering the sacrifice of our own lives to Him in the form of bread and wine, and, uniting our sacrifice with Christ’s own eternal sacrifice, we ascend with and in Christ to His table in His heavenly Kingdom, where He feeds us with the gift of His Body and Blood, transforming us into His Body, making us bearers of Christ and partakers in His nature, and uniting us with Him in His Kingdom. Following the Divine Liturgy, we return to the world as "witnesses to what we have seen" in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God before our eyes, and as missionaries to the world, sanctifying it with the presence of Christ.

Byzantine Catholics celebrate the Presence of God at worship and recognize this presence in all senses and forms of expression in various forms. We endeavor to experience God in sacred religious poetry and hymns, inspiring chanting styles, bright, brocaded vestments, the burning of incense, the use of candles, and the veneration of icons. The Byzantine Catholic worships God with his whole person, and recognizes the presence of God in all of his senses, bearing witness to the fact that, in Christ, there is no distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’, but that in the Kingdom of God, which is manifested in this world by the Church, all things are fulfilled in Christ to be what they were created to be – namely, a means of communion with Him

Inside a Byzantine Church

Byzantine Catholic churches are designed to manifest, or make present, in their architecture and arrangement, the presence of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The sanctuary, located behind an icon screen, manifests Heaven, the dwelling place of God. The Holy Table (or, altar) manifests the Lord’s banquet table to which all are called. On the Holy Table are placed the Book of Gospels and the Holy Gifts during the Divine Liturgy, and in the center of the table stands the tabernacle (artopohorion) containing the reserved Eucharist.

Separating the altar area (the Sanctuary) from the pew are (the Nave) is a large wooden screen called the Icon Screen, or iconostas. This represents the natural boundary between God and man – earth and Heaven. During the Divine Liturgy, however, the two center doors of the icon Screen are opened. This reminds us that during our time with God in Church there is no longer a separation between earth and heaven. God is with us and we are with God! We have been transported, even if only for an hour, into the heavenly realm – to the very presence of God!

For this reason, the Byzantine Church is adorned with images, called icons, of the saints – the inhabitants of heaven. When we attend the Divine Liturgy, we are co-celebrating with the heavenly hosts of angels and saints – and the iconography that surrounds us in the nave manifests this reality for us in a graphic way. Standing in the nave as the Church, we look forward to the sanctuary, as we, in our individual lives in this world, and collectively as the Church, look forward to the ultimate coming of the Kingdom of God.

During the Divine Liturgy, the Kingdom of God is revealed and made manifest to us, to the Church, and we approach the sanctuary to receive communion with God, and thereby to experience here and now the Kingdom of God on Earth. The design of the church building, therefore, reflects our understanding of the Church, and the central facets of our Christian faith regarding the meaning and goal of our lives.