The question often arises in the life of a Melkite Catholic, “who are you?” I have never heard a good, concise, complete explanation of who or what the Melkite Church is. It is often difficult to explain who we are without a geography and history lesson, without a summary of 2,000 years of Church History. The best way for a person to really discover who or what the Melkite Church is would be to visit one, spend time with the community, speak with the parish priest, read some of the books and literature available, experience the Divine Liturgy (the Mass) for oneself, pray the prayers of the saints and fathers of the East, read the writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Gregory Palamas, and St. John of Damascus. Overtime, this would give a person a deep sense of what it means to be Melkite, of who the Melkites are, but for now, the following is a history lesson, a geography lesson, and an attempt to give someone a context. I want to give this context so that if you happen to stumble into a Melkite Liturgy, or another of the Byzantine Liturgies, you may be able to make some sense of the complete otherness.
The Heart of the Byzantine Tradition: The Divine Liturgy
The Byzantine Churches within Catholicism make up a family of different Churches who share much of the same form of worship, theology and spirituality. There are a number of Orthodox Churches, particularly the Greek and Russian and their variations (Serbian, Antiochian, etc.), that also worship according to the Byzantine Tradition. There are two main Divine Liturgies: one is attributed to St. John Chrysostom, and the other to Saint Basil the Great, both of the 4th century. As the Roman form of worship spread throughout Western Europe from the city of Rome, so too the Byzantine form of worship spread throughout much of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, from Constantinople.
The Liturgy shares the same skeletal structure of the Roman Mass: Epistle, Gospel, Petitions, words of Institution, invocation of the Holy Spirit, and the Our Father. But through centuries of development in the Byzantine Empire, the skin and flesh appears much differently. Icons, or religious images, may cover the walls and ceiling, directly overhead may be a large image of our Lord looking down upon the faithful, while other icons separate the altar from the congregation. Typically, Byzantine churches don’t use musical instruments, but rather the entire Divine Liturgy is chanted and sung by the priests, deacons, cantors and congregation. An abundance of sights, smells, and sounds lift the worshipper up to a mystical experience of God. Written description cannot do justice to a real life experience of the Divine Liturgy; in a paraphrase of St. Philip, it is better to “come and see.”
The History of the Melkites: From the Middle East to America
Within the Byzantine family of Churches is an Eastern Catholic community called the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. In a sense, and in the minds of many of the faithful, the Melkite Church understands herself as an orthodox church in communion with Rome, and a bridge between East and West, Catholic and Orthodox. Until the 18th century, Melkite Greek Catholics were members of the larger Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch throughout the territory known today as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan, known then as ‘Greater Syria’. In the Middle East, under the Ottoman Empire, our Church was officially Orthodox, and not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. By the 16th and 17th century came Jesuit missionaries who preached and provided support for Orthodox Christians in Syria, and over time, within the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, arose a catholic party and an orthodox party, which culminated in the election of two Patriarchs: one leading many of the bishops, clergy and faithful to union with Rome, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, and the other remaining in communion with the other Orthodox Churches, the Antiochian Orthodox Church.
The Melkite Church has established itself in the United States and has become one of the many strands in the colorful tapestry of religion in America. The immigration of Melkites to the United States from the Middle East began in the late 19th and early 20th century. Syrians generally established themselves in many of America’s major cities. Oftentimes, without established parishes and priests of their own, the Syrian communities would be ministered to by either an Orthodox or Catholic travelling priest for baptisms, confessions, marriages, etc., regardless of the jurisdictions that the faithful belonged to. Over time, the Orthodox established their own communities in many cities, likewise the Maronites (another Eastern Catholic Church of Middle Eastern roots) and finally the Melkites. The Melkites established their first parish in the US in 1910 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and over the next couple of decades followed communities in New York, throughout New England, Ohio, Michigan, California and many others. Today there are 45 parishes and missions spread throughout the United States.
Parishes in the US are often communities made up of faithful from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Some are new immigrants, with their children, coming from countries like Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt; many are second, third and fourth generation Americans of Middle Eastern descent; others are from non-Middle Eastern backgrounds and have married into the churches; and finally, there are many Melkites from non-Middle Eastern backgrounds that one way or another have found a home in the Melkite liturgy, spirituality and culture. The persecution of Christians and general instability in countries like Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine, is causing a large number of Melkites, and other Christians, to flee the Middle East and seek refuge in Western nations like the United States. Something similar happened in the 1980’s during the civil war in Lebanon, when a wave of Catholic immigrants found a safe home in the US. The Melkite Church today is, as it was then, finding ways to support and minister to her diverse communities.
Unity in Essentials, Diversity in Freedom
Imagine the Roman Catholic Church and Melkite Catholic Church as two bodies of the same nature, for example, human; then imagine that the Dogma, Liturgy, Sacraments, Scripture, and Tradition with a big “T” are the skeleton; both have the same general structure: in the essentials both Churches are very similar. The language used to express theology, doctrine and Dogma, the sight and sound of the Liturgy, the form of the Sacraments, and the disciplines through which we carry out the Tradition handed on to us; these are very different, like all of the traits that make two people different in appearance. Of course, there is some variation from person to person, church to church, diocese to diocese, of how Melkites understand themselves: some lean toward a particularly Orthodox self-understanding, while others lean toward an embrace of Latin influences. Deciphering flesh from skeleton, what is an internal influence from an external, what is an authentic organic growth from an abuse, is not always easy, or black and white.
Both East and West, Roman and Melkite, share the same body of Church Fathers, though there is often an emphasis in the West on the Latin Fathers, and in the East on the Greek Fathers. This emphasis is due to differences in language, culture, theology, and spirituality, but not because one is thought to be inherently better than the other. Because of these differences, aside from the most ancient of feast days (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Ascension, Assumption, etc.), the lectionary and calendar of saints looks very different between the Roman and Byzantine Churches. There is also recognition by the Melkite Church of the primacy of the Pope similar to that which can be found throughout the early Dogmatic and Patristic sources of the first millennium; in today’s case the relationship is more developed. Despite many non-essential differences, common ground is most clearly seen in the first thousand years of Christianity before the Great Schism between the East and the West.
The tension between uniform custom and variation has been present all along in the Church. Responding to Januarius who had been upset by the different church customs he encountered in his travels, St. Augustine spoke well of the rich variety in the universal church: in regard to the particular customs “that vary according to place and region…all such things are a matter of freedom…for whatever is not contrary to the faith or to good morals ought to be considered as indifferent” (Beginning to Read the Fathers by Boniface Ramsey, 8-9). From the beginning through the centuries of Church development, differences have arisen from region to region, sometimes in isolation, oftentimes in mutual inspiration. In the United States, the whole variety of ancient and venerable Christian customs can be seen in one major city, where countless immigrants, bringing their vast, native, cultural heritage, have come to live together in one land. Not long ago in the Old World, one would have had to travel across nations and continents to see even a fraction of the same variety in Christian customs and traditions.
image: Bishop Nicholas Samra, Melkite Bishop of the Eparchy of Newton, MA via Julianhayda / Wikimedia Commons