How much do you know about the Eastern Catholic Churches?
By Br. Samaha John
Brother Samaha tries in this article to help us to understand that outside of our particular vision of the Church her and there, that there are other very important realities of the Church of the ORIGIN that we perhaps do not know about.
In 1992 we marked the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII. In the four sessions of Vatican II the major concerns of the Church and society were reviewed. Before the Council was concluded in 1965 the council Fathers with Pope Paul VI had promulgated sixteen statements which present fundamental teachings of the Church to the contemporary world. One of those conciliar documents is the Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum) signed into official approval on November 21, 1964. This statement deals with a subject little known and poorly understood. This document is a primary effort to shed light on a part of the Universal Church generally shrouded with unfamiliarity. What is said of the Eastern Catholic Churches mutatis mutandis applies to all Eastern Christian Churches. In fact this document is of a piece with the Decree on Ecumenism (Redintegratio Unitatis). The value of the Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches is unquestionable. However it is unfortunate that this document on a topic which needs and deserves so much attention today has received the least consideration of all sixteen Vatican II statements. Evidence indicates that it has received the least attention of all in study and in print. Seldom does one find it cited or commented upon. Some think it is the document most weakly implemented. Current circumstances in the life of the Church worldwide draws attention anew to the Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches. The following precis attempts to focus attention on the identity and mission of the Eastern Catholic Churches. This precis is a concise summary of the essential points of concern expressed in verbatim excerpts from the document. The intent of the summary is to promote clearer understanding of the Eastern Catholic Churches and to encourage deeper appreciation of them. May it renew and refresh our grasp of the mind of the Church.
DECREE ON THE EASTERN CATHOLIC CHURCHES
(Orintalium Ecclesiarum) Second Vatican Council November 21, 1964
The Universal Church Values the Eastern Christian Churches
The Catholic Church values highly the institutions of the Eastern Churches, their ordering of Christian life. For in those Churches, which are distinguished by their venerable antiquity, there is clearly evident the tradition which has come from the Apostles through the Fathers and which is part of the divinely revealed, undivided heritage of the Universal Church. (#1)
The Particular Churches
The holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments, and the same government. They combine into different groups, which are held together by their hierarchy, and so form particular Churches or rites, Between those Churches there is such a wonderful bond of union that this variety in the Universal Church, so far from diminishing its unity, rather serves to emphasize it. For the Catholic Church wishes the traditions of each particular Church or rite to remain whole and entire, and it likewise wishes to adapt its own way of life to the needs of different times and places. (#2)
Understand and Appreciate the Eastern Churches
Provision must be made therefore everywhere in the world to protect and advance all these individual Churches. For this purpose, each should organize its own parishes and hierarchy, where the spiritual good of the faithful requires it. Prelates of the various individual Churches who have jurisdiction in the same territory should meet at regular intervals for consultation, and thus foster unity of action and strive together to meet their common tasks, so as better to further the good of religion and to safeguard more effectively the discipline of their clergy. All clerics and those who are to receive sacred orders should be well instructed concerning rites and particularly in practical rules in their catchetical formation. Finally, each and every Catholic, as also the baptized members of any non-Catholic church or community who come to the fullness of Catholic communion, must retain each one's own rite wherever one is, and follow it to the best of one's ability. (#4)
Preserve the Heritage of the Eastern Churches
History, tradition, and very many ecclesiastical institutions give clear evidence of the great debt owed to the Eastern Churches by the Church Universal. Therefore the holy Council not merely praises and appreciates as is due this ecclesiatical and spiritual heritage, but also insists on viewing it as the heritage of the whole Church of Christ. For that reason this Council solemnly declares that the Churches of the East like those of the West have the right and duty to govern themselves according to their own special disciplines. For these are guaranteed by ancient tradition, and seem to be better suited to the customs of their faithful and to the good of their souls. (#5) All members of the Eastern Churches should be firmly convinced that they can and ought always preserve their own legitimate liturgical rites and ways of life, and that changes are to be introduced only to forward their own organic development. They themselves are to carry out all these prescriptions with the greatest fidelity. They are to aim always at a more perfect knowledge and practice of their rites, and if they have fallen away due to circumstances of time or persons, they are to strive to return to their ancestral traditions. Those who by reason of their office or apotolic ministry have frequent dealings with the Eastern Churches or their faithful should be instructed as their office demands in theoretical and practical knowledge of the rites, discipline, doctrine, history, and character of the members of the Eastern Churches. It is recommended strongly to religious orders and associations of the Latin (Roman) rite, which are working in Eastern countries or among Eastern faithful, that they should set up, so far as is possible, houses or even provinces of the Eastern rites to make their apostolic work more effective.(#6)
The Eastern Patriarchs
The patriarchate as an institution has existed in the Church from earliest times, and was already recognized by the first ecumenical councils. By the term "Eastern patriarch" is meant the bishop who has jurisdiction over all the bishops, metropolitans not excepted, clergy and people of his own territory or rite , according to the rules of canon law and without prejudice to the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. (#7) Following the most ancient tradition of the Church, special honor is to be given to the patriarchs of the Eastern Churches, since each is set over his patriarchate as father and head. Therefore this holy Council enacts that their rights and privileges be restored in accordance decrees of the ecumenical councils. These rights and privileges are those which existed in the time of union between East and West, although they must be adapted to present-day conditions. The patriarchs with their synods are the highest authority for all business of the patriarchate, not excepting the right of setting up new eparchies (dioceses) and appointing bishops of their own rite within the patriarchal territory, without prejudice to the inalienable right of the Roman Pontiff to intervene in any particular case.(#9)
Eastern Worship Rites
The faithful are obliged to take part in the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feast days or, according to the regulations or custom of their own Rite, in the celebration of the Divine Office. To enable the faithful to fulfill more easily this obligation, it is laid down that the time for fulfilling this precept extends from Vespers of the vigil to the end of the Sunday or feast day. The faithful are strongly recommended to receive the Sacred Eucharist on these days, and to do so even more frequently, even every day. (#15)
Relations with separated Churches
The Eastern Churches in communion with the Apostolic See of Rome have the special duty of fostering the unity of all Christians, in particular of Eastern Christians, according to the principles laid down in the decree of this holy Council, "On Ecumenism," by prayer above all, by their example, by their scrupulous fidelity to the ancient traditions of the East, by better knowledge of each other, by working together, and by a brotherly attitude toward persons and things. (#24) Nothing more should be demanded of separated Eastern Christians who come to Catholic unity under the influence of the Holy Spirit than what the simple profession of the Catholic faith requires. And since a valid priesthood has been preserved among them, Eastern clerics who come to Catholic unity may exercise their own orders, in accordance with the regulations laid down by the competent authority. (#25)
In view of the principles just noted, Eastern Christians who are separated in good faith from the Catholic Church, if they are rightly disposed and make such request of their own accord, may be given the Sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist , and the anointing of the Sick. Moreover, Catholics may also ask those same sacraments from non-Catholic ministers in whose church there are valid sacraments, as often as necessity or true spiritual benefit recommends such action, and access to a Catholic priest is physically morally impossible. (#27) Further, given the same principles, a common sharing in sacred functions, things, and places, in permitted for a just cause between Catholics and their separated Eastern brethren.(#28)
Pray for Reunion and Christian Unity
In the meantime, however, all Christians, Eastern and Western, are strongly urged to pray to God daily with fervor and constancy in order that, by the help of God's most holy Mother, all may be one. They should pray also that the fullness of the strength and consolation of the Holy Spirit the Paraclete may be given those may Christians, whatever church they belong to, who for their courageous profession of the name of Christ endure suffering and privation. "Let us all love one another with brotherly affection, outdoing one another in showing honor"(Rom 12:10). (#30)