Life in Christ – The Catholic Eastern churches

Father Patrick Dolan
Father Patrick Dolan

Diversity isn’t just language but can also be one of style. Just because someone may not worship just like we remember from growing up does not mean they are not just as real and true a Catholic as we are. Just as there are many cultures within the “Latin” background, so there are even more amongst Catholics around the world.

Recently we celebrated the feast of the Holy Cross, Sept. 14, which the Eastern Catholic Churches consider the positive side of Good Friday. These Eastern Catholic churches are parallel to our Roman Catholic Church because in the first few centuries of the early Church, the Gospel was spread in all directions—and explained a bit differently in the different cultures.

The apostle St. Thomas went to India; St. Peter and St. Paul went to Rome; some went to Ethiopia (Africa); others went to Asia Minor. Matthew’s Gospel was primarily aimed at the Jews (and thus to the mid-eastern, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian people); Mark’s was to the Romans (who were down to earth road and aqueduct builders), and Luke wrote to the Greeks (who were more elegant philosophers).

The style of worship (the way the Mass was said or the style of music or vestments) was likewise different in each culture. Originally there were many “western” styles of the Mass in England, France, Italy and Spain, but Charlemagne unified his empire by imposing the Roman/Latin Rite liturgy in the entire Western Church in the late eighth and early ninth centuries A.D.

All the Catholic (and even the Orthodox) churches recognize the same seven Sacraments and have the same major parts to the Mass, even though the Eastern churches put some of the parts of the Mass in a different order.  For example, in some the exchange of peace is toward the beginning of the Mass and their penitential rite is just prior to Communion.

In the last 25 years, there has even been the development of a new Rite for Africans – the Zairian Rite, for which the liturgies include African dancing. But all these Rites are Catholic and recognize the pope. We can attend Mass and receive communion in all of them.  The Eastern Churches have a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit in the Mass, and their vestments are often more elaborate and formal looking than our Western-style (simple) ones.

Also, in the Eastern Catholic churches, married men can be ordained not only deacons but even priests — even though in both the Eastern and Western Rites only unmarried men are ordained bishops. Unlike in the U.S., there is no movement pushing for women priests in the Eastern Churches; and those churches have been comfortable with married priests for centuries.

The Eastern “Orthodox” Churches, however, broke with the Roman Catholic Church in the eleventh century. They do not answer to our pope, even though their celebrations look very much like those of the Eastern Catholic Churches.  For a good chart on the Eastern Catholic Churches, both in the world and in the U.S., visit

Father Patrick Dolan is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville


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