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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.