Listers: as you know, the universal Catholic Church is comprised of 23 sui iuris (self-governing) ritual Churches united by their communion with each other and with the See of Rome. Though the Roman Church is the largest, the 22 Eastern Churches play a significant and necessary role in the universality of Catholicism. One of these Churches, the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church, is the ritual Church to which the author of this post belongs. Today, we will examine six historical and theological distinctives of the Melkite Church.
1. Petrine and Patriarchal
The Melkite Church is historically associated with the See of Antioch. This See, established by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 together with the Sees of Rome and Alexandria, traces its history and episcopal succession to St. Peter. Prior to journeying to Rome and establishing the bishopric there, we know that St. Peter travelled to Antioch and ordained a bishop for that city. St. Paul tells us of this trip in his epistle to the Galatians, and the mediaeval Liber Pontificalis claims that St. Peter served seven years as Antioch’s primate. Antioch was thus the first Petrine See, and to this day the Patriarchs of Antioch trace their apostolicity to the Prince of the Apostles. Antioch was also part of the original Patriarchal Pentarchy (together with Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Alexandria). Today, the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch is also titular Patriarch of Alexandria and Jerusalem.
2. First Called Christians
“So that at Antioch the disciples were first named Christians.” Thus writes the author of the Acts of the Apostles, 11:26. The Antiochean Church, already having been established by St. Peter, saw the origin of the term Christian applied to the followers of Christ. It was also here that the third Bishop of Antioch, St. Ignatios, provides us with the first written record of the term catholic used to describe the Church: “wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8).
3. The King’s Men
The origin of the word “Melkite” speaks to the steadfastness of this ancient see in maintaining the Orthodox faith. In the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the Byzantine Emperor and many of his subjects readily accepted the decrees of the Council concerning the nature of Christ. The generally-provincial Eastern Christians who opposed these decrees pejoratively referred to those city-dwelling Christians loyal to the Emperor as “King’s men,” malko in Syriac. It was from this term that the Chalcedonian Christians of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem became known as “Melkites”. When the Church of Antioch restored full communion with Rome in 1729, it retained the name “Melkite,” whereas those Antiochean Orthodox Christians who did not embrace the communion dropped the term.
4. Quddûsun Allâh!
The Melkite Church, derived as it is from the original Greek-speaking inhabitants of Antioch, spent many hundreds of years under the yoke of Islam. Unlike the Constantinopolitan Church, the Church of Antioch never really adapted much imperial ritual into its early liturgy – preferring instead to retain more Rabbinic and Syrian traditions. As Islam began to subjugate the area, Mohammad and his followers adopted many of the liturgical traditions of the Melkites, as is most notably seen in the Islamic prostrations, which are identical to those of Byzantine Christian practice. In like manner, several Islamic customs influenced the development of the Antiochean Church. Among these is the adoption of the ritual use of Arabic in the Divine Liturgy. From about the middle of the seventh century, Arabic language and culture fused with that of the Greek Melkites, further establishing the uniqueness of this Church within Byzantine Christianity. To this day, the official ritual languages of the Church are Greek and Arabic, so it is not uncommon to hear the liturgical use of the word Allah in the Divine Liturgy of the Melkites.
5. Sisters in Faith
The Melkite Church, a sui iuris patriarchal Church, is not merely a subset of the Roman Church. Indeed, it is a Church with its own history, theology, spirituality, and liturgy. The Melkite Church, being of Eastern origin, thus zealously guards her Byzantine approach to the Faith, seeing herself as a sister of the Roman Church. In times past, this defense of her heritage put some strain on the Church’s relationship with Rome. For example, at the First Vatican Council, Melkite Patriarch Gregory II Youssef refused to sign the decree of Pastor Aeternus concerning the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. When questioned by Rome on the matter, the Patriarch determined that he would only sign the decree with this caveat added: “except the rights and privileges of Eastern patriarchs,” as he knew he must protect the prerogatives of the Eastern hierarchy. Though this action won him the enmity of Pope Pius IX, the Patriarch was vindicated by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Orientalium Dignitas, as well as in his expansion of the Melkite patriarchate’s jurisdiction in the Middle East. In the century that followed, relations with Rome improved considerably. Those Melkite parishes that previously had been forcefully Latinized saw the beginning of a return to their authentic traditions, and the Church expanded into North and South America. At the Second Vatican Council, Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV spoke on behalf of the “absent members” of the Council: the Orthodox Churches. He did this with the complete approbation of Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. Maximos argued against the Latinization of the Eastern Churches, and in favour of the use of vernacular languages in all the liturgies of the Catholic Church. For his outstanding work at the Council, he was awarded with the Cardinalate. Following the Council, the Roman Church returned to the more ancient ecclesiological perspective of viewing its relationship with the Eastern Churches as one of sisters, rather than of mother and daughters.
6. Voice for Orthodoxy
As one of the oldest Sees in Christendom, the Antiochean Church has inherited a long and rich theological tradition distinct from (though complementary to) that of the Latin Churches. Because of the unfortunate events of the eleventh century, the Melkites were for a period out of communion with Rome, and as such continued to develop their ecclesial life within the Greek/Arabic tradition. When this communion was restored in the 18th century, the Melkites took great pains to ensure that their particular Byzantine theological and spiritual structures remained relatively free of Latin influences. Thanks to the efforts of the Patriarchs and Popes Benedict XIV, Leo XIII, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, the Melkite Church has come to be an outspoken voice of Eastern Orthodoxy in the midst of the Catholic communion. In 1995, through the tireless work of Archbishop Elias Zoghby, a two-point profession of faith was presented to the Melkite Synod of Bishops. Known as the “Zoghby Initiative,” it states the following:
I believe in everything which Eastern Orthodoxy teaches.
I am in communion with the Bishop of Rome, in the limits recognized as the first among the bishops by the holy fathers of the East during the first millennium, before the separation.
The initiative was put up for vote, and all but two bishops supported its application and provided their signatures. Furthermore, the initiative was embraced by Melkite Patriarch Maximos V and Orthodox Antiochean Patriarch Ignatius IV. While there is still much to be done in re-establishing full intercommunion with the Antiochean Orthodox Church, the acceptance of this initiative demonstrates the degree to which the Melkite Church intends to remain true to her Orthodox heritage. This is a gift of untold treasure for the larger Catholic Church, and one which Rome has in recent times taken great care to ensure is protected and made to flourish. The Melkite patriarchs, striving to be truly “Orthodox in communion with Rome,” hope to one day re-establish sacramental participation with the Antiochean Orthodox Church, thus creating a bridge to help restore full union between East and West. Ut unim sint.
Pray for the peace of Syria.
For more information:
Light for Life, Volumes 1-3, God With Us Publications.
Tous Schismatiques? Archbishop Elias Zoghby, Sophia Press.
American Eastern Catholics, Fred J. Saato, Paulist Press.