The other week I resumed a former “hobby” of mine. When I was living back in London I would often go and visit Eastern Rite Catholic churches…
A “Rite” in this context generally refers to a group within the wider Catholic Church which is associated with a particular liturgical tradition. The main Rite with which most people will be familiar is the “Latin Rite”. This is what is followed in most Catholic churches in Western Europe and the United States. However, what most people don’t know is that there are six other Rites in the Catholic Church. The Catechism in paragraph #1203 lists these other Rites as Byzantine, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite and Chaldean. The majority of married Catholic priests (yes, you heard me right) will be found in these Eastern Rite Catholic churches where the discipline of celibacy is not exercised in the same way.
I love visiting Eastern Rite churches – I get to explore an unfamiliar liturgy, but unlike when I visit Protestant churches, I also am able to receive communion because the churches which I visit are in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. So far, I have participated in Maronite and Byzantine (Melkite & Ukrainian) liturgies.
Liturgy: Rites never done me wrong
Any Catholic familiar with the Latin Rite visiting an Eastern Rite church should be able to recognise the broad shape of the liturgy. There will be a Liturgy of the Word as well as a Liturgy of the Eucharist, as they would expect. Many of the prayers will sound familiar as well as common features and sacramentals such as candles, vestments, servers and incense.
However, there are also marked differences between the Latin Rite liturgy and Eastern Rite liturgies, and that’s the exciting bit! It’s fascinating to explore another Rite’s liturgy, trying to work out what it expresses about that community’s faith, how it teaches the congregation and what it says about how they experience God.
For example, in the Melkite congregation I visited, “blessed” bread was given out as people exited the church. After Mass at the Maronite church I visited, they brought out the thurible and had a short liturgy praying for the dead. In the Ukrainian church I visited virtually the entire liturgy was sung. I also noticed that, rather than blessing themselves with holy water, they drank it!
So anyway, back to my weekend. I went and visited the nearby Holy Angels Byzantine Catholic church. The church itself is amazing:
As you can see the building looks quite different from a Latin Rite church and the inside is simply breathtaking (please see the slide show with audio).
It was a really lovely celebration of the Eucharist and I think probably my favourite Eastern Rite church to date. I arrived very early so I had plenty of time to explore the inside of the church before other people started turning up.
Confessing to Jesus
One of the other advantages to turning up early was that I got to witness the Sacrament of Confession before Mass.
This was the first time I had seen Confession in the Eastern Rite. The symbolism was truly beautiful.
The person seeking to confess his sins came up and stood in front of the huge icon of Jesus which was part of the iconostasis. The priest then came up and stood to his side and listened as the penitent confessed his sins. The man then lent over, the priest placed his stole on the man’s head and then said the words of absolution.
I was struck by what a wonderful expression of the Sacrament this was. It showed that the penitent was truly confessing his sins to Christ and Christ was simply using the priest as an instrument, a channel of His Grace. Absolutely beautiful. I’m rather tempted to go back one week and experience this for myself first hand.
The rest of the liturgy was just as beautiful. It was a little tricky to follow along in the missal but I just about managed it. There were many similarities with other Eastern Rite churches I’ve visited – the church was thoroughly incensed at the beginning of Mass, much of the liturgy was intoned, and there was a big procession around the church prior to the intoning of the Gospel.
One surprising aspect was that there wasn’t an Old Testament reading – simply one of Paul’s letters and a Gospel reading. I asked someone afterwards about this omission and they said that this is quite common, except during certain liturgical seasons. This was probably the only thing I didn’t like.
The preaching was superb – Fr. Robert is certainly a gifted speaker. It was recently the Feast of the Assumption and, like our brethren in the Orthodox Church (Russian Orthodox etc.), he referred to Mary as the “Theotokos” (“God Bearer”) and the Assumption as her “Dormition”.
Cup of Blessing
Like the Ukrainian church I visited, Holy Angles distributes communion via “intinction“. There are no lay ministers of Holy Communion so a single line forms before the priest who holds a single chalice containing both the Body and the Blood. As each member of the congregation comes forward the priest feeds the communicants with a spoon in the same way a father would feed his toddler (but without the aeroplane noises). I fast becoming a fan of this style of communion.
There were quite a few other differences I noticed, but I won’t mention them now. I’m sure I’ll be visiting Holy Angels again soon and write more then, but not until I’ve visited the Chaldean Rite church in El Cajon!