9 Surprising Facts about Byzantine Catholicism

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The Eastern Catholic churches are often mysterious and confusing. Rarely discussed by Roman Catholics for much of their existence, Byzantine Catholics carry on a rich spiritual heritage that some of us may find surprising. Yet this enigmatic group is the other “lung” of the Church: truly Catholic and full of beautiful tradition.

1. Their liturgy was written by a saint

Or at least part of it is attributed to one. The Eucharistic prayer or anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is said to have been written by the golden-mouthed saint over 1600 years ago! The liturgy seen in Byzantine Catholic churches each Sunday is ancient. And in most places, it has been translated to the language of the congregation.

2. They get married wearing crowns

If you attend a Byzantine marriage you would find the bride and groom dressed for the day (naturally) but with one strange accessory: crowns. The crowns worn during a marriage ceremony in the Byzantine rite symbolize the crowns of martyrdom as the couple each give themselves to God and one another.

3. Even infants may receive the Eucharist

As part of Eastern tradition, the Sacraments of Initiation are administered at the same time. This means a little baby is not just baptized but also receives Confirmation (or being “Chrismated”, as the Byzantines say) and receives Communion. Traditionally, there is no First Communion ceremony at a later date. Giving the newly ba-Byzantine Catholics follow the early Christians in giving Communion along with baptism and Confirmation all together. Babies continue to receive Communion each Sunday alongside the rest of their family.

4. They fast four times a year

Byzantine Catholics follow a rich liturgical calendar that includes four fasting seasons each year. These occur before the major feasts of Easter, Christmas, the Feast of St. Peter and Paul, and the Dormition of the Mother of God. Each fasting season can be different from the others in length and specific guidelines. Traditionally the Great Fast or Lent included abstinence from meat, dairy, oil, and wine on most days of the fast for example.

5. Their churches are modeled on the Jewish Temple

The temple in Jerusalem was divided into distinct parts that have corresponding areas in a Byzantine church. Perhaps the most obvious connection is between the Holy of Holies and the Byzantine altar. Like the Holy of Holies, entrance to a Byzantine altar is restricted. While only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, generally only a clergy or server can enter behind the screen of icons to the altar. This screen called the iconostasis has a set of doors in the middle through which only a vested priest (or a deacon accompanying him) can pass. Two side doors are used by servers and others.

6. There are a lot of Eastern churches

Eastern Catholics are not just one homologous mass. In fact, their are five separate eastern rites and a total of twenty-three self-governing churches within those rites. The Byzantine Rite has the most with fourteen separate churches including Ruthenian Catholic church and the Ukrainian Catholic church. Each church has its own heritage and traditions as well as their own parishes and hierarchy. The five eastern rites and the Latin Rite together make up the universal Catholic Church.

7. They call all professed nuns “mother”

In the West, generally only superiors in women’s religious communities are known as “mother” hence mother superior. But in the East, all fully professed women religious have this title. It emphasizes the role each nun has to be a spiritual mother and provides a counterpoint for the spiritual fatherhood of priests.

8. Icons are a Key Part of Their Churches

Byzantine Catholicism is often associated with iconography. This traditional form of religious art is often equated to the statues or stained glass seen in many traditional Latin parishes. However, the placement of icons on the iconastasis carries on a purposeful tradition. While some Latin parishes have a “Mary’s Side” and a “Joseph’s Side”, all Byzantine parishes have an icon of Jesus on the right and one of Mary on the left.

9. They have their own Canon Law

The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches was published in 1990. Like the Code used in the Latin Church, it contains norms for ecclesial life. However, the Code for the East pertain exclusively to those who are canonically part of an Eastern Catholic church. These include prescriptions for celebrating the Sacraments (or Holy Mysteries as they are called in the East) and church governance. This allows for the differences we see between the traditions of East and West.

Featured image: Icon of Christ at Hagia Sophia. Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

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