About Our Church
What is the Melkite Greek Catholic Church?
Many people are surprised to learn that the Catholic Church is not a single church. It is more properly understood as being a family of various churches that are in communion with one another, united by a common faith. The largest and best known member of this family is the Roman Catholic Church. But there are many smaller sister churches that are equally Catholic and have their own ancient traditions, disciplines, and spirituality. The Melkite Church is such a church, and follows the liturgical and spiritual traditions of the Byzantine East. Her identity as a “Greek Catholic Church” is not connected with the ethnic background of her members, but is instead a description of her traditions and worship.
The Melkites are Catholics of the Middle East and they have a proud history. They were often glorious in defense of the faith and at the same time were frequently persecuted because of it. The story of the Melkite Church goes back a long way - to the very dawn of Christian history. The Melkite Church is part of the Apostolic Church of Antioch, first founded by St. Peter himself, and now spread throughout the world. The City of Antioch, located near the modern Turkish-Syrian border, was the first Gentile city to receive the Gospel. Melkites are proud to lay claim to being the most ancient of all the Gentile churches and love to quote from the Acts of the Apostles that “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11: 26). The present leader of the Melkite Catholic Church is the Patriarch of Antioch, Gregory III Laham.
1. What is meant by the term “Eastern Churches?”
These churches are the ecclesiastical communities that originated in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. They are recognized for their distinct and characteristic style of Christian living and their theological expression of the one faith through prayer, customs, traditions and liturgical ceremonies.
2. How many Eastern Churches are there in the Catholic Church?
The Roman Catholic Church has numerous sister churches in the east. Among them are the Ukrainians, Carpatho-Russians, Hungarians, Croatians, Slovaks, Maronites, Romanians, Armenians, Russians, Chaldeans, Byelorussians, and of course, the Melkites. These churches follow various liturgical and spiritual disciplines. The six main liturgical traditions in the Catholic Church are: the Alexandrian, the Antiochene, the Armenian, the Chaldean, the Byzantine, and the Roman. The Melkite Church follows the Byzantine tradition.
3. Which is the most commonly used eastern liturgical tradition?
The Byzantine tradition, which is followed by the Albanians, Bulgarians, Byelorussians, Carpatho-Russians, Georgians, Greeks, Hungarians, Italo-Greeks, Jugoslavs, Rumanians, Russians, Slovaks, and Ukrainians in addition to the Melkites of the Near East.
4. Why is so little generally known about the Eastern Catholic Churches?
It would seem that the Eastern Catholic Churches are the best kept secret in Catholicism. For many centuries there was little contact between East and West and the Eastern churches remained isolated in the region where they originated. More recently, because of immigration and the relative ease of travel, these churches have begun to take root here in the West. The recent popes have been outspoken in their support for the Eastern Churches, and in their recognition of the contribution of the these churches to Christendom.
5. Is the Melkite Church truly “Catholic?”
It is the faith of the Church that identifies it as a Catholic Church, not the rituals or the spiritual life. The Melkite Church is a fully Catholic Church in every respect. Along with all the other Catholic Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, it shares the same sacraments, the same faith, and is under the jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome. The rituals and spirituality, however, are drawn from the ancient tradition of the Byzantine East. These spiritual practices are virtually identical to Eastern Orthodox Churches, which are ancient apostolic Churches that are not in full communion with Rome.
The Melkites in America have their own diocese and their own bishop who is appointed by the Holy Father. He is the spiritual father to all the Melkites in the United States.
6. What does the interior of a Byzantine Church look like?
A Byzantine church is divided into three parts: The first is the sanctuary where the Holy Table stands. Here the priests lead us in offering the Divine Liturgy. The sanctuary is separated from the rest of the church by the iconostasis or icon screen. The second part is the nave, containing the seats for the congregation. Between the nave and the sanctuary stands the solea, an open area, sometimes raised, where marriages and other services are held. Finally there is the narthex, or church entrance, where the baptistry is usually located. This serves as a reminder that it is through baptism that we enter Christ's Church.
7. What is the meaning of the iconostasis?
The Holy Altar is separated from the rest of the church to remind us that the fullness of God's reign is not yet with us. We are separated from God's throne (the Holy Table) in the church-building because in reality we are still separated from the full glory of God. Yet, through Christ's coming, men are not separated from God Himself as they were before; through Christ we are mystically united to Him. This new relationship is shown by placing icons of Christ and the main figures of our salvation-history (Mary, the apostles and prophets) not only as a sign of our separation from God, but also as a reminder that it is here that the Kingdom of Heaven meets the earth at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
8. Describe the sanctuary in a Byzantine Church.
In the center stands the Holy Table or altar, away from the wall and often topped by a canopy. On it Christ is enthroned in the Gospel Book and in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is often kept in a small tabernacle on the Holy Altar, or in a metal dove hanging from the canopy as symbol of the Holy Spirit present in the Church. To the left of the Holy Table is another, smaller table where the priest prepares the bread and wine for the Liturgy. Behind the altar may stand the bishop's throne and seats for the other clergy.
9. Are statues found in a Byzantine Church?
In proper Byzantine churches statues are not found for this reason: statues and even natural looking pictures are meant to look as life-like as possible. According to the perspective of Byzantine spirituality, such realistic art can distract us from the reality that liturgical art wants us to see, that is, the holiness in the person represented or the meaning of the event depicted. These things are best expressed in the icon.
10. What is an icon?
An icon is a painting, very different from other kinds of pictures. Usually the figures are elongated, made almost abstract and set in a symbolic or non-realistic setting, all to focus attention on the spiritual reality being suggested. Often icons are symbolic pictures of an idea, or a title of Christ or the Virgin. The icon attempts to convey the unique peace of the divine life through its unique style.
11. Should we genuflect on entering a Byzantine Church?
No, the genuflection is of purely Latin origin. Instead, we make a “metany” by bowing and making the sign of the cross as our sign of reverence.
12. How should the sign of the cross be made?
It is made by holding the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand together and with them making the sign of the cross from the forehead to the breast, to the right shoulder and then the left shoulder. The three fingers are held together as an act of faith in the Trinity, while the two remaining fingers remind us of the two natures of Christ. This way of blessing oneself is very ancient and was in use in the west until the middle ages.
13. When does one kneel at the Byzantine Liturgy?
Kneeling or lowering oneself to the earth is considered a sign of repentance in the Eastern tradition. We do not usually kneel during the Liturgy when we "put aside all earthly cares" to celebrate the joyful triumph of the Risen Christ. This is especially true on Sundays and during Eastertide as these times are particularly dedicated to Christ's resurrection. Kneeling is often practiced during the services of Lent or Holy Week.
14. What are the great feasts of the Byzantine liturgical year?
Besides Easter (by far the greatest), the following are especially kept: Conception of the Mother of God (Dec. 9), the birth of the Mother of God (Sept. 8), the Presentation of the Mother of God in the Temple (Nov.21), the Annunciation (Mar.26), the birth of Christ (Dec.25), the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple (Feb.2), The Baptism of the Lord, (Theophany - Jan. 6), His Transfiguration (Aug. 6), The Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept.14), Ascension Thursday, Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), and the Dormition or Falling Asleep of Mary (Aug.15).
15. What are the laws of fast and abstinence in the Byzantine rite?
In the Melkite Church fasting means to abstain from all foods from midnight until noon, while abstinence means to abstain from meat for the entire day. It is custom to keep the fast on (a) the eves of Christmas and Theophany, (b) daily (Monday through Friday) during Lent, (c) all of Holy Week. It is also the tradition to abstain from all meat and dairy products throughout Lent and Holy Week. On Wednesdays and Fridays it is the practice to abstain from meat except for the weeks after Christmas, after Pentecost and the days of Eastertide.
The Church also recommends fasting from midnight before receiving Holy Communion. It must be immediately added, however, that the Eastern Churches do not view fasting in legal terms. In practice, in our modern culture, this discipline is adapted by individuals according to conscience and situations. All who wish to follow the Church’s plan for fasting are encouraged to keep these days, but there are no laws concerning them.
16. What is the Eucharistic Celebration called in the Byzantine Church?
It is referred to as “The Divine Liturgy”. The word “Liturgy” derives from Greek words meaning “the work of the people.” The Christian Liturgy is Divine because Christ Himself is the one who acts in it. The word “Mass,” so familiar to Americans, seems to come from the Latin words “ite missa est" (“it is ended”), said by the priest when he dismissed the congregation.
17. What are the different forms of Liturgies in the Byzantine Church?
There are three Liturgies, each connected with the name of a saint. The Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is offered on the Sundays of Lent, Holy Thursday, Holy Saturday, the eves of Christmas and Theophany, and on January 1st (his feast). The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is used during the rest of the year. During Lent, the Liturgy of St. Gregory of Rome is often celebrated. This is not a true Liturgy, but a service of prayer during which the Eucharist, already consecrated, is distributed. It is also called the Liturgy of the Presanctified Species.
18. Describe the altar bread used in the Liturgy.
A round loaf, similar to table bread is used. The altar bread is stamped with the Greek logo IC XC NIKA (Jesus Christ conquers). The priest cuts this loaf into small pieces before the Liturgy and places them on the diskos or paten.
19. What part does the congregation play in the Liturgy?
The people join the priest in offering the sacrifice of Christ to the Father. They are not onlookers, but real sharers in the priesthood of Christ through their confirmation. For this reason all should join in the prayers and hymns of the Liturgy whenever they have the chance to do so.
20. What are the principal parts of the Byzantine Liturgy?
There are four: (1) The preparation of the gifts, done privately at the left side table before the Liturgy begins; (2) The Office of the Antiphons (from the litany to the little entrance), a series of prayers and hymns glorifying God and asking for his mercy. This section is at times replaced by Vespers, as during Holy Week; (3) The service of the Word, (from "Holy God" to the Great Entrance), the first appearance of Christ in the Liturgy as Holy Scripture is read and proclaimed; and (4) The Eucharistic Service (from the Great Entrance to the end), the gifts are brought to the altar, consecrated and distributed.
21. What is the Little Entrance?
The first procession in the Liturgy is called the Little Entrance. It heralds Christ's first manifestation to us in the Liturgy. The priest or deacon walks through the church carrying the elaborately decorated Gospel Book while we sing the Beatitudes or a hymn glorifying the Incarnation of Christ. The Little Entrance reminds us of the earthly ministry of Christ and that He truly comes into our midst through His word in Scripture.
22. What is the Great Entrance?
The second procession in the Liturgy is called the Great Entrance and it is conducted with more solemnity. It marks the beginning of the Eucharist proper. The priest and deacon carry the bread and wine to the altar while we sing the Cherubic Hymn. It is through these gifts of bread and wine that Christ dwells among us through the Holy Sacrament.
23. What is the Ceremony of Peace?
Before the creed, the priest or deacon exhorts us to "love one another so that with one mind" we may profess our faith and witness Christ's coming. This call to mutual love is reminiscent of Christ's command: "If you are going to present your gift at the altar and you remember that anyone has something against you: leave your gift before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother. Then return and offer your gift." The concelebrating clergy exchange an embrace here as a sign of the mutual love that should fill us all at this time.
24. How is Communion given in the Melkite Church?
The people approach, arms crossed over the breast, and stand before the priest or deacon who dips a piece of the Precious Body into the chalice of the Precious Blood. He then places the moistened particle into the communicant's mouth. In other Byzantine Churches a spoon is used to give the sacrament.
25. What is "antidoron"?
It is the remainder of the loaf which had not been consecrated that is often given out at the end of the Liturgy. It was originally intended as a blessing for those unable to receive Holy Communion. Blessed bread, stamped with an icon of the feast, is often given out on holy-days. Also bread may be blessed and distributed in memory of the dead.
26. Describe the Christening ceremony in the Byzantine Church.
Christening, or initiation into the Christian life, is actually the conferring of three sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation (known as Confirmation in the West), and the reception of the Holy Eucharist. In the Byzantine churches they are given at the same time to show that one is not living a complete Christian life unless he has received the Holy Spirit (Confirmation) and is a sharer in his Eucharistic feast (Holy Communion).
27. How is baptism conferred in a Byzantine Church?
The candidate is undressed (a symbol that he is "putting off the old man" as St. Paul says), immersed, or "buried" in the water (a symbol that he has died to sin), is taken from the water (a symbol of his resurrection with Christ to new life) and is clothed with the baptismal robe (a sign that he has "put on Christ").
28. How is confirmation conferred in the Byzantine Church?
Immediately after baptism the new Christian is anointed on several parts of his body with a fragrant oil called Holy Chrism, as prophets, priest, and kings were anointed in days of old. This sacrament perfects our Christian life with the gift of the Holy Spirit, making us sharers in Christ's priesthood and workers for God's reign.
29. How did the different Byzantine and Latin confirmation customs arise?
In the early Church, the three sacraments of initiation were always given together - once or twice a year - by the bishop. When the number of christenings - especially of children- increased, another practice had to be found. In the Eastern Churches, all three continued to be given together, either by a bishop or a priest to remind the people that Christian initiation would not be complete without Confirmation and the Eucharist. In the west the bishops preferred to complete each christening themselves, so they allowed the priest to baptize, but not to confirm. Until this century in the Latin rite, communion could not be received until confirmation had been given.
30. How can Holy Communion be given to a newly baptized infant?
Holy Communion is easily given by the priest who places a few drops of the Precious Blood of the Lord into the mouth of the infant. Holy Communion is given by the Church to all her baptized members out of recognition that one is not living the complete Christian life unless he is a frequent sharer in the divine life through the Eucharist.
31. How are confessions heard in the Byzantine Church?
Confession may be heard in any secluded part of the church, usually before a cross or an icon of Christ to remind us by whose power our sins are forgiven. At the time of absolution the priest places the two ends of his stole, the sign of Christ's priesthood, on the penitent's head and recites the prayer of absolution.
32. Describe the marriage ceremony.
The marriage ceremony has two parts. The first is the ceremony of betrothal. At this time the couple promise themselves to one another and the rings are exchanged. The second part is the Church's blessing of the marriage. The couple is crowned with floral wreaths or crowns of gold. They join in a procession around the marriage altar, set up in the middle of the church, and they share a common cup of wine.
33. What is the meaning of the crowning?
The crowns signify several things. One is that the Christian family, led by the husband and wife, is a unit in God's kingdom and should live under his reign. Another is that this couple will attain the heavenly crowns by living their married life in a Christian manner.
34. What is the meaning of the procession?
The procession reminds the couple that from now on they will walk through life together, with the joys of eternal life as their goal.
35. What is the meaning of the common cup?
This reminds the couple that, throughout their married life, they will share all things in common, both the good and the bad.
36. What is a deacon?
The diaconate is the first grade of the sacrament of Holy Orders. A deacon is an ordained member of the clergy who assists the priest in the ministry to the people and in the celebration of the divine services. He also may help in the administration of the parish.
37. Is it true that some Melkite priests are married?
Yes. In most Eastern Churches married men are ordained as deacons or priests. This is not a recent innovation. The ancient and continued tradition from Apostolic times provided for the ordination of married men. However, no deacon or priest may marry after ordination. Religious and bishops are never married.
38. Describe the ceremony of Anointing the Sick.
Prayers and hymns are offered for the sick person's recovery. Following readings New Testament, the priest anoints the sick person with oil on several parts of the body, praying that the Lord raise him up so that he may offer thanksgiving by his good deeds. At the end of the ceremony the priest lays the open Gospel Book on the sick person’s head, praying that he may be healed in soul as well as in body.
39. Why is Mary called “Theotokos”?
“Theotokos” is a Greek word meaning “God-bearer.” It is a title that is commonly translated into English as “the Mother of God.”. In the year 431, the Fathers of the Council of Ephesus faced a growing dispute about the nature of Christ. The Council reaffirmed that Jesus Christ is truly God and that while he is also truly man, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is truly Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God. Mary is Theotokos since motherhood is a relation between persons, not simply natures: she is the Mother of Jesus, God incarnate, not the mother of the divine nature or of the eternal Godhead.
40. Why is devotion to Mary so prominent in the life of the Church?
Because of Mary’s unique role and unique relationship with her Divine Son, she has a special place of honor in the Church. The Church is awed by the mystery that her womb contained the uncontainable God, and the hymns of the Church proclaim Mary to be “higher in honor than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.”
On August 15 we celebrate the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of Mary, affirming the faith of the Church from the time of the Apostles: That Mary, at the end of her life, was assumed body and soul into heaven. She thus has become the first member of the Church to be raised by God, and in God’s time, we will follow after her.