In this post, I share how I often introduce the concept of Eastern Christians to fellow Roman Catholics who have never heard of them or who have only the vaguest concept of the Orthodox as Christians who are somehow different from us. So I’m assuming almost no prior knowledge of the topic.
I begin with the concept of different liturgical rites: When the Apostles spread out from Jerusalem, they went in different directions. In different places where they established the Church, the practice of the faith took shape a little differently. The sacraments used different words; prayers and music took on different styles. Vastly to oversimplify the history of how we got to where we are today, we can think of the apostles as having planted the seeds of six different major liturgical families – each in a different region or city to which an apostle went.
• St. Peter went to Rome – and is considered the first Bishop of Rome, the first Pope. The Roman Rite, which most Roman Catholics use today, developed in and around the local church founded by St. Peter.
• St. Andrew went to the region that became Constantinople (then called Byzantium; today, Istanbul), as well as north of there. From Constantinople, much of Eastern Europe and some churches of the Middle East received the Byzantine Rite (though at different times much of the Byzantine Rite also came to Constantinople from Jerusalem). St. Andrew is often considered the first bishop of Constantinople.
• St. Mark – the evangelist, not one of the Twelve, but closely associated with St. Peter – went to Alexandria, Egypt and became the city’s first bishop. Although the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria practices the Byzantine Rite, the vast majority of Christians in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea practice the Alexandrian Rite. This rite is divided into two traditions: the Coptic Rite in Egypt and the Ge’ez Rite in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
• The fourth major liturgical family is the West Syriac Rite, practiced mostly in Syria, Lebanon, southeastern Turkey, and among some Christians of India. It’s less easily linked to a particular bishop who founded a local church. But because the West Syriac Rite makes prominent use of an anaphora (similar to what Roman Catholics call a Eucharistic Prayer) attributed to St. James the Just – the first Bishop of Jerusalem, one of the Twelve, but not St. James the son of Zebedee – it is convenient for sketching a big picture to link this liturgical family with St. James the Just. This liturgical family is also divided into two traditions: the Syriac Rite in Syria, southeastern Turkey, and some Christians in India and the Maronite Rite in Lebanon – both traditions are associated with the See of Antioch.
• St. Thomas went to Iraq and then to southern India. In these places, and until the 14th century throughout much of Asia, developed the East Syriac Rite. It is practiced in Iraq and southern India today.
• St. Jude Thaddeus, as well as St. Bartholomew, went to Armenia and, according to tradition, became the nation’s first bishop and second bishop, respectively. Today, most Armenians practice the Armenian Rite.
Though it might seem silly, the following point is worth making: It is not easy, and probably not helpful, to claim that any one of these liturgical families is best. Rather, it is beautiful that the Church prays in diverse ways and that these diverse traditions of prayer bear witness to the original evangelical activities of the Church.
When one speaks of Eastern Christians, one generally refers to Christians who practice one of the Eastern Rites – Byzantine, Alexandrian, West Syriac, East Syriac, or Armenian – whether they are found in the lands where these rites originally developed or anywhere else to which they have migrated. To understand abstractly who the Eastern Christians are, however, is not yet to understand who the Eastern Churches are. We will begin to examine the latter in the next post.
Ben Martin is VP for Investment Operations at Atlantic Merchant Capital Investors and VP for Evangelization at Caritas in Veritate International. He lives in Tampa, FL with his wife Amelja and their sons Peter and James.