Know your Rites

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…

What’s Rite?

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!

Entertaining Angels

So anyway, back to my weekend.  I went and visited the nearby Holy Angels Byzantine Catholic church.  The church itself is amazing:

The Exterior

The Interior

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.

Liturgy Byzantine-Style

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.

Next Time…

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!

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5 Responses to Know your Rites

  1. choy says:


    I think you confused Rites with sui juris Churches. There are 22 sui juris Churches in the Catholic Church but there are only 6 Rites. They are Roman Rite, Byzantine Rite, Western Syriac Rite, Easter Syriac/Chaldean Rite, Alexandrian Rite and Maronite.

    Also, there is no Ukrainian Rite. There is a Ukrainian Church but they are a Byzantine Rite Church.

    Rites are liturgical traditions. Sui juris Churches are self governing Churches with their own hierarchy.

  2. Mihovil Skarpa says:

    “I have participated in Melkite and Byzantine (Maronite & Ukrainian) liturgies.” – Correction: Maronite rite is a derivative of West Syrian Liturgy, while Melchite is like Ukrainian of the Byzantine Rite family.

    “in the Melkite congregation I visited, ‘blessed’ bread was given out as people exited the church.” – Correction: it is actually blessed, but not consecrated, and is called Antidoron. I have seen it distributed in the Russian, Serbian and Greek Orthodox Churches, and in the Coptic and Armenian “Monophysite” churches.

    (In the Ukrainian Church) “I also noticed that, rather than blessing themselves with holy water, they drank it! “ – I do not think it is an equivalent. What the Russian (Orthodox) and Ukrainian ( Catholics) have instead of our holy water is an icon placed on ambo in the nave of the church, which people come to kiss when they enter and leave the church. This, rather than the holy water which some take as described, is the equivalent to our holy water.

    “the priest feeds the communicants with a spoon in the same way a father would feed his toddler”. I have seen it in Russian Orthodox Church, but the Ukrainian (Catholics) are supposed to lift the head up and open the mouth wide to enable the priest to drop the Consecrated Species without touching the mouth. So, your “fan of this style of communion”, I mean: the “style” as you conceived it, might well have been a nuisance.

  3. Mihovil, you were quite right about my sentence regarding the liturgies I have attended – I got “Melkite” and “Maronite” around the wrong way. I’ve now fixed it.

    However, I think you’re scrutinizing my words rather too closely. By quoting “blessed” when referring to the bread I was only trying to highlight that it was blessed rather than consecrated, as this concept would be rather alien to most Roman Catholics – it certainly confused me the first time I experienced it.

    Also, I wasn’t trying to parallel the entrance practice of blessing oneself with Holy Water and that of drinking it, only highlighting the different use of water as, again, this would be rather foreign to those from the Roman Rite.

    I’m not quite sure what your final paragraph was getting at. Maybe you’re taking my words too literally? At the Ukrainian Church the priest fed the people with a spoon and they did as you described, dropping the Eucharist into the open mouths of the communicants.

  4. Pingback: Peace, but not as the world gives… | This Restless Pilgrim

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