6 Things You Should Know about the Melkite Catholic Church

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

Pope Pius XII, Bishop of Rome and Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, Maximos IV

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.

Melkite Eparchy of Newton

St. Ignatios of Antioch Melkite Church

  • lovely post- knowledge of different rites is so important- for unity’s sake

  • No offense intended… but how can that two-point profession of Faith under number six be reconcilable with the Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Catholic Churches, including the Melkite Church?

    “Chapter I. The Roman Pontiff

    Canon 43 – The bishop of the Church of Rome, in whom resides the office (munus) given in special way by the Lord to Peter, first of the Apostles and to be transmitted to his successors, is head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the entire Church on earth; therefore, in virtue of his office (munus) he enjoys supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church which he can always freely exercise.

    Canon 44 – §1. The Roman Pontiff obtains full and supreme power in the Church by means of legitimate election accepted by him together with episcopal consecration; therefore, one who is already a bishop obtains this same power from the moment he accepts his election to the pontificate, but if the one elected lacks the episcopal character, he is to be ordained a bishop immediately.
    §2. If it should happen that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office (munus), it is required for validity that he makes the resignation freely and that it be duly manifested, but not that it be accepted by anyone.

    Canon 45 – §1. The Roman Pontiff, by virtue of his office (munus), not only has power over the entire Church but also possesses a primacy of ordinary power over all the eparchies and groupings of them by which the proper, ordinary and immediate power which bishops possess in the eparchy entrusted to their care is both strengthened and safeguarded.
    §2. The Roman Pontiff, in fulfilling the office (munus) of the supreme pastor of the Church is always united in communion with the other bishops and with the entire Church; however, he has the right, according to the needs of the Church, to determine the manner, either personal or collegial, of exercising this function.
    §3. There is neither appeal nor recourse against a sentence or decree of the Roman Pontiff.”

    That’s the essential, Catholic position in the essential legal code that governs the Eastern Catholics. How are the Melkites not rejecting their very legal code and thus communion with Pope Benedict XVI if they hold to the two-point profession..?

    • CL Davis

      The Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches is in practice more of a guide than an absolute law, as the Code does not sufficiently cover the particular distinctives of each sui iuris Church, and it was not written with the collaboration of the Eastern hierarchs. With that said, nobody is questioning the Primacy of Rome, but rather suggesting there may be other ways to exercise that primacy. From Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1987 book, Principles of Catholic Theology:

      “Certainly, no one who claims allegiance to Catholic theology can simply declare the doctrine of primacy null and void, especially not if he seeks to understand the objections and evaluates with an open mind the relative weight of what can be determined historically. Nor is it possible, on the other hand, for him to regard as the only possible form and, consequently, as binding on all Christians the form this primacy has taken in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries…Although it is not given us to halt the flight of history, to change the course of centuries, we may say, nevertheless, that what was possible for a thousand years is not impossible for Christians today. After all, Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, in the same bull in which he excommunicated the Patriarch Michael Cerularius and thus inaugurated the schism between East and West, designated the Emperor and people of Constantinople as “very Christian and orthodox”, although their concept of the Roman primacy was certainly far less different from that of Cerularius than from that, let us say, of the First Vatican Council. In other words, Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than had been formulated and was lived in the first millennium. When the Patriarch Athenagoras, on July 25, 1967, on the occasion of the Pope’s visit to Phanar, designated him as the successor of St. Peter, as the most esteemed among us, as one also presides in charity, this great Church leader was expressing the essential content of the doctrine of primacy as it was known in the first millennium. Rome need not ask for more. Reunion could take place in this context if, on the one hand, the East would cease to oppose as heretical the developments that took place in the West in the second millennium and would accept the Catholic Church as legitimate and orthodox in the form she had acquired in the course of that development, while, on the other hand, the West would recognize the Church of the East as orthodox and legitimate in the form she has always had.”

  • So many people, especially here in the US tend to forget about our Eastern brethren. I am glad that you have laid particular focus on them recently.

  • joaco

    Oremus pro unitate apostolatus!!!!

  • Elisa

    Thanks for writing this–it was informative! :)

  • Jenny

    Sorry but it doesn’t help

  • paul

    Jenny: explain how it dosen’t help

  • “Because of the unfortunate events of the eleventh century, the Melkites were for a period out of communion with Rome…”

    Could you please clarify this statement? On the melkite.org website, I think it says there never was a break in communion. Perhaps I am confused about the timeframes?

    From https://melkite.org/faith/faith-worship/the-melkites :
    “Between 960 and 1085 A.D. much of the imperial style of Constantinople became a part of the Melkite ritual. Despite the now close ties to Constantinople, the Melkite peoples never broke off relations with Rome and with the Pope.”


    “By the end of the Crusades there was an estrangement between the churches, but the Melkites never actually broke off relations with Rome.”

    Thank you for your time.

  • Bianca

    Where did you write this

  • Aaron

    The only things I would beg to differ with you on is that it was likely although not provable that St. Peter first traveled to Rome and established a community there. This is why St. James was the head of the Jerusalem Church. St. Peter would then have been evicted with the rest of the Jews from Rome in 49′ A.D. This is also the most plausible explanation for how a gentile Church came to be in Rome by the time St. Peter returned in the 60’s. Along the way as he headed back to Rome he established the Church at Antioch.

  • ted perantinides

    rome should be first among equals,not first over equals.rc teachings(infallibily,imm concp,college of cardinals,etc,etc,)must be dropped before union occurs.cannot have obe central location(rome)should be many.

  • Some one

    I just don’t know how people really think that Catholic Church is the only first church and keep in fighting the Orthodox church.

    We in Orthodox church never say anything about Catholic specially bad things, but Catholic thinks that we are wrong and always keep attacking Orthodox.

    Catholic just one word I want to tell you, we all are Christians so stop what you are doing. …

    • I’m a Melkite Christian. I’m sure reunion will take place in my lifetime. Rome loves her Sister Orthodox Churches. Both Churches no longer proselytize one another and now work as one except with the Eucharist. His Holiness Frances Pope of Rome and his holiness Bartholomew Patriarch of Constantinople are friends. If any Catholics bad mouth the Orthodox they’re not being true to the Catholic and indeed the Orthodox faith.

  • Great teaching on eastern rite catholic doctrine.

  • Alexis

    Sorry but this didnt help