Eastern Churches

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The term Eastern Churches refers to the Churches that developed in the eastern half of the roman empire along with those communities that were founded in dependence upon them, even though the dependent Churches were found outside of the boundaries of the empire.

diocletian in 293 divided the Roman Empire into four prefectures: Gaul, Italy, Illyricum, and the Orient. Upon the death of Theodosius I (395) the empire was divided into two halves that in practice were separate and independent (see byzantine empire). The eastern half of the empire was made up of the Prefectures of Illyricum and the Orient, which were subdivided into smaller administrative units called dioceses. Illyricum contained the Dioceses of Dacia and Macedonia while the Prefecture of the Orient contained the Dioceses of Thrace, Asia, Pontus, the Orient, and Egypt, with the corresponding capitals, Sardica, Sirmium, Heraclea, Ephesus, Caesarea of Cappadocia, Antioch, and Alexandria. These chief centers of civil administration became the leading ecclesiastical centers as well. Illyricum was divided into an eastern and western portion by an arbitrary decision of Theodosius; the boundary line separating the eastern and western halves of the empire ran along the Sava, Drina, and Zeta Rivers down to the city of Budva and to the Adriatic Sea. All lands west of the line belonged ecclesiastically to the Latin or Western Church, while all lands to the east belonged to the respective Eastern Churches.


All Eastern Churches evolved from the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch, and the two Churches of Persia and Armenia, respectively, which developed outside the Roman Empire. Five characteristic families of liturgical rites developed within these five ecclesiastical jurisdictions: the Alexandrian, Antiochene (or West Syrian), Byzantine, East Syrian, and Armenian.

The Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. Byzantium had been a suffragan see of the metropolitan of Heraclea in Thrace. After it was transformed into Constantinople, the New Rome, its civil importance made it the ecclesiastical center first in importance after old Rome. Canon 3 of the ecumenical Council of Constantinople (381) attributed to it a primacy of honor after the ancient See of Rome; and canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon (451) recognized an equivalence between its civil and ecclesiastical powers, granting to the See of Constantinople jurisdiction over all the dioceses of Thrace, Asia, and Pontus (see constantinople, ecumenical patriarchate of; constantinople). Alexandria was the most ancient patriarchate. Geographical and political factors favored Alexandria as the obvious civil and ecclesiastical center for all of Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis. The Council of Nicaea I (325) recognized the preeminence of Alexandria. (see alexandria, patri archate of; alexandria.) Antioch enjoyed a lesser civil and ecclesiastical significance but exerted its authority over the Diocese of the Orient. Canon 6 of the Council of Nicaea I (325) speaks of the privileges of the See of Antioch, and canon 2 of the Council of Constantinople (381) confirms its position after that of Rome, Constantinople, and Alexandria. (see antioch, patriarchate of; antioch.) Jerusalem became the last of the ancient Eastern patriarchates when it was recognized as a patriarchate by the Council of Chalcedon (45l), thus taking from the jurisdiction of Antioch all of Palestine and the peninsula of Sinai (see jerusalem, patriarchate of).

All the daughter Churches that depended upon the three great Eastern Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch embraced the liturgical rite and came under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of their mother Churches.

Churches of Persia and Armenia. The fourth of the original Churches emerged in Persia. Christianity reached this region by the 2d century, if not the end of the 1st, from Edessa in Syria. The ecclesiastical center of the Persian Church was the great city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Because of its location beyond the eastern borders of the Roman Empire, the Church became known as the Assyrian Church of the East. The bishop of this see (c. 400) obtained the primacy over all of Persia, taking the title of catholicos instead of patriarch. The Christian religion was always that of the minority, and the hostile relations between the Persians and the Byzantine emperors made contacts with the Churches within the Byzantine Empire both difficult and dangerous. Under the circumstances and especially because of severe persecutions, the Persian bishops declared themselves an autonomous Church. The Persian Church is the source of the East Syrian liturgical rite, which has preserved a significant amount of archaisms because of its relative isolation from the other churches (see east syrian liturgy).

According to tradition St. Bartholomew was the Apostle of Armenia. The Armenian Church was established toward the end of the 3d century from the Church of Caesarea of Cappadocia. St. Gregory the Illuminator converted King tiridates iii of Armenia along with the mass of the population (290295). Christianity became the national religion, and in the 5th century the national language was used in the Armenian liturgy (see armenian christianity; armenian liturgy).


The separate development of the Eastern Churches is due primarily to the divisions caused by doctrinal and political disputes. The presentation here is, for the most part, necessarily chronological.

Assyrian Church of the East (Persia). The Assyrian Church of the East exhibited a vigorous missionary expansion that sent missionaries as far as Mongolia and China, as well as in southern India. In this period of expansion from the 6th to the 11th centuries there were 27 metropolitan sees and more than 200 dioceses. Successive waves of persecutions by Muslim conquerors had reduced the size of this Church. Today, the Assyrian Christians are located principally in Iraq with scattered members in Syria, Iran, and South India (see assyrian church of the east).

Syrian Jacobite Church of Antioch. The Syrian Monophysites are called Jacobites after Jacob Baradai (d.578), who, during the persecutions waged by Justinian I against Monophysitism, secretly consecrated 27 bishops and some 2,000 priests. The Syrian Jacobite patriarch claims the ancient see of the Patriarchate of Antioch as his legitimate see and resides in Damascus.

Armenian Church. The Armenians are divided into several jurisdictions. The main center of honor and authority is the Catholicate of Etchmiadzin in the Republic of Armenia, U.S.S.R. The Catholicate of Cilicia (Sis) has its present center in Antelias, Lebanon, and is on an equal rank, and in communion with Etchmiadzin.

Coptic Church. The modern Copts of Egypt trace their ancestry to the Egyptian Christians who rejected the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (see coptic chris-tianity). After the Council of Chalcedon (451), those who remained faithful to the byzantine emperor and the teachings of the Chalcedon were originally known as Melkites, while those who rejected Chalcedon formed themselves into the Coptic Oriental Orthodox Church. Both the Melkites and the Copts made use of the liturgical rite of the see of Alexandria. But gradually the Melkites adopted the Byzantine ecclesiastical and liturgical usages, while the original Alexandrian liturgical rite evolved into the present-day Coptic liturgical rite, but with traces of the Greek language and Byzantine usages.

Ethiopian Church. Tradition narrates that in the 5th century there arrived in Ethiopia nine monks from Syria. They founded monasteries and translated the New Testament into Ge'ez, a Semitic language then spoken, but now used only for liturgical services. The Ethiopian Church was under the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria until 1948, when it obtained the privilege of appointing a native Ethiopian as abuna or head bishop, who in reality rules the Church. In 1959 the Ethiopian Church was declared a patriarchate completely independent of Alexandria, which retained only the honor of precedence.

Orthodox Churches. The Orthodox Church developed over the centuries as a result of a great diversity of factors, chief among them were the differences of theological and spiritual emphasis and political, cultural, and social variations coupled with a fundamentally different ecclesiology, at least in the development and exercise of the organ of jurisdictional authority. The various Orthodox Churches are covered in detail in articles dealing with the countries in which they have a dominant or major place.

Eastern Catholic Churches. After the gradual estrangement between Constantinople and Rome that became permanent from the 11th century onwards, there existed much tension and conflict between the Christian East and West. In 1181 the Maronites were reconciled with Rome, and the Armenians in Syria in 1198, but in general the arrogance of the Latin Crusaders deepened antagonism between the Orthodox and Catholics, owing principally to the plundering by Crusaders of Orthodox churches and shrines, especially those of Constantinople. The capture of Constantinople in 1204 and the establishment of the Latin Empire of Constantinople created a lasting hostility and bitterness. Two large-scale efforts to heal the separation were made, but unsuccessfully, at the Councils of lyons (1274) and florence (1439). Decrees of reunion were signed, only to be shortly afterward repudiated by the great majority of the Orthodox clergy and people. When the Turks sacked Constantinople in 1453, the center of Orthodox unity was destroyed. Twenty years later the union signed at Florence had been repudiated by all parties involved; and Western and Eastern Christians settled into two large and distinct bodies with little effort made thereafter at effecting mutual communion.

Zealous missionary activities among the peoples of the Near East and Slav countries by Catholic religious orders, especially Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Capuchins, under the aegis of the Congregation for the propagation of the faith bore fruit in the rise of the Catholic church that retained their Eastern ecclesial and liturgical rites and customs. When such groups became large enough, Rome set up a hierarchyeven at times a Catholic patriarchatecorresponding to their Eastern counterparts. The Brest-Litovsk Union of 1595 was the first large-scale formation of Eastern Catholics. By this union Ukrainians and White Russians living in what was then part of the kingdom of Poland and Lithuania were reconciled with Rome and formed the nucleus of the Ukrainian Eastern Catholic Church of today.

Assyrian Christians or Chaldeans, began a slow process of reconciliation with Rome beginning in 1552, when Patriarch John Sulaqa (d. 1555) made a profession of the Catholic faith. He was martyred for his action, but a more lasting union was effected in 1681 in the city of Diarbekir. Rome made Bishop Joseph the Catholic patriarch, but the situation became complicated when, in 1778, the other Assyrian patriarch became Catholic, thus providing two Chaldean Catholic patriarchs. From 1834 there has been only one Chaldean Catholic patriarch. In 1663 the Catholic Patriarchate of Syria was established, and in 1729, that of the Melkite Catholics. The Armenian Catholic Patriarchate was set up in Sis, Cilicia, in 1742, while that of the Coptic Catholics was erected in Cairo in 1895. Smaller groups of Eastern Catholic Churches were established among the Romanians, Yugoslavs, Ruthenians, Bulgars, and Greeks. In 1930, through the zeal of Mar ivanios, thousands of Indian Syrian Jacobite Christians formed the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Eastern Christians in North America. Eastern Christianity made an entrance into North America when Russian Orthodox missionaries first evangelized Alaska in 1794. But the Eastern Christians first came in large numbers as immigrants from Europe and Asia in the second half of the 19th century. The majority of Eastern Christians in North America are Byzantine Christians.

In the U.S. the Byzantine Catholic Slovaks, Hungarians and Croatians were grouped under the jurisdiction of the Ruthenian Eastern Catholic bishops, while in Canada the Slovaks, Hungarians, Croatians, and White Russians are under the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Eastern Catholic bishops.

History of Eastern Catholics in the U.S. Eastern Catholic Churches in the U.S. comprises 11 different ethnic groups representing eight different liturgical rites. The majority of the Eastern Catholics in the U.S. are Byzantine Slavic ethnic groups. A mass immigration of Slavs from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, who called themselves Ruthenians or Pod-Carpathian Ruthenians, and others from Galicia, who preferred to call themselves Ukrainians, began in 1880. The first Byzantine-Slav Catholic priest arrived in the U.S. (1884), Ivan Volansky, founded the first Eastern Catholic parish in Shenandoah, PA, in the same year. Other Eastern Catholic priests left their native lands to take care of their displaced brethren. Numerous priests of the two European Ruthenian Dioceses of Mukachevo and Presov and of the Ukrainian province of Galicia founded parishes, mostly in the coal-mining areas of Pennsylvania. In 1907 there were 152 parishes and 43 missions. To avoid misunderstanding among the majority of Catholics in the U.S., who were of the Latin rite, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith specified that only celibate or widowed priests were to be sent to America. However, with the increase in immigration, married priests also were sent.

Ruthenian and Ukrainian Problems and Their Solution. The lack of their own hierarchy in the beginning, with the necessity of submission to the local Latin bishops, caused great discontent among these Slavic Catholics. The Russian Orthodox had moved their episcopal see from San Francisco to New York in 1905, to be nearer to this source of Orthodox recruitment. Father Alexis toth, embittered by the treatment that he had received from Latin bishops, became Orthodox and spent the rest of his life forming Orthodox parishes from Catholic Slav groups. This movement toward the Russian Orthodox jurisdiction spread rapidly on the East coast, so that an estimated 200 Catholic Eastern parishes with nearly 225,000 faithful became Russian Orthodox. By the mid-20th century, this number had increased to at least 400,000, forming about 60 percent or more of Slavic Christian population in the U.S.

The Holy See, alarmed at the high rate of defections among these Eastern Catholic immigrants, appointed in 1907, Soter Ortynsky as the first Byzantine Catholic bishop, resident in Philadelphia. Unfortunately he did not have his own proper jurisdiction, being dependent upon the local Latin bishops in whose dioceses his parishes were found. This jurisdiction was given him in 1913, but all his problems were not solved. Many of the people under him were of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while Bishop Soter was from Galicia.

This problem of nationalism plagued all groups of Eastern Catholics, but especially the Slavs, until in 1924 each group received its own bishop. Constantine Bohachevsky was appointed bishop for the Ukrainians and resided at Philadelphia, while Basil Takach was appointed bishop of Pittsburgh for the Ruthenians, Slovaks, Croatians, and Hungarians. In 1928, at the request of the U.S. hierarchy of Latin bishops, the Holy Office issued a decree that only unmarried men could be ordained to the priesthood. This, along with the problem of church elders holding church property in their own corporate name rather than in the name of the local Latin Ordinary, caused thousands of Ukrainian and Ruthenian Catholics to come under the jurisdiction of an already existing Orthodox hierarchy or to form their own independent national Church. Other sources of defection from the Eastern Catholic Churches were the lack of Eastern Catholic priests, intermarriage with Latin Catholics, and the desire to be considered more "American" by forsaking European traditions.

Vatican II resulted in a renaissance and renewed confidence for Eastern Catholic Churches in the U.S. The decree, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, facilitated the retrieval of ancient ecclesial and liturgical usages, as well as stemming the pressure to Latinize the churches.

Bibliography: General works. w. f. adeney, The Greek and Eastern Churches (New York 1908). d. attwater, The Christian Churches of the East, 2 v. (rev. ed. Milwaukee 196162). f. e. brightman, Liturgies Eastern and Western, v.1 (Oxford 1896). l.m. duchesne, The Churches Separated from Rome, tr. a. h. mathew (London 1907). a. fortescue, The Lesser Eastern Churches (London 1913); The Uniate Eastern Churches, ed. g. d. smith (New York 1923). m. gordillo, Compendium theologiae orientalis (3d ed. Rome 1950); Theologia orientalium cum latinorum comparata [Orientalia Christiana Analecta (Rome 1935) 158;1960]. f. heiler, Urkirche und Ostkirche (Munich 1937). r. janin, Les Églises orientales et les rites orientaux (Paris 1955). m. jugie, Theologia dogmatica Christianorum ab Ecclesia Catholica dissidentium, 5 v. (Paris 192635). i. h. dalmais, Eastern Liturgies, tr. d. attwater (New York 1960). b. j. kidd, The Churches of Eastern Christendom (London 1927). a. king, The Rites of Eastern Christendom, 2 v. (London 1950). n. ladomerszky, Theologia orientalis (Rome 1953). v. lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London 1957). h. musset, Histoire du christianisme spécialement en Orient, 3 v. (Harissa 194849). f. j. mcgarrigle et al., The Eastern Branches of the Catholic Church (New York 1938). p. rondot, Les Chrétiens d'Orient (Paris 1955). n. zernov, Eastern Christendom (New York 1961). The Nestorian Church. g. p. badger, The Nestorians and Their Rituals, 2 v. (London 1852). l. e. browne, The Eclipse of Christianity in Asia (Cambridge, England 1933). h. c. luke, Mosul and Its Minorities (London 1925). a. j. maclean and w. h. browne, The Catholics of the East and His People (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge ; London 1892). e. tisserant, Eastern Christianity in India, tr. e. r. hambye (Westminster, Md. 1957); Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 11.1:157323. a. r. vine, The Nestorian Churches (London 1937). w. a. wigram, An Introduction to the History of the Assyrian Church (New York 1910). The Monophysite Churches. e. r. hardy, Christian Egypt (New York 1952). j. maspero, Histoire des patriarches d'Alexandrie (Paris 1923). w.a. wigram, The Separation of the Monophysites (London 1923). j. b. coulbeaux, Histoire politique et religieuse de l'Abyssinie, 3v. (Paris 1929). j. doresse, Ethiopia, tr. e. coult (New York 1959). d. l. o'leary, The Ethiopian Church (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge ; London 1936). h. lammens, La Syrie: Précis historique, 2 v. (Beirut 1921). Christianity in Travancore (Trivandrum 1901). t. e. dowling, The Armenian Church (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge ; London 1910), repr. 1955). m. ormanian, The Church of Armenia, ed. t. poladian, tr. g. m. gregory (2d ed. London 1955). h. f. tournebize, Histoire politique et religieuse de l'Arménie (Paris 1910). Statistics on the Eastern Christians. Oriente Cattolico (Vatican City 1962). World Christian Handbook, ed. h. w. coxhill and k. grubb (London 1962). f. s. mead, Handbook of Denominations in the United States (2d rev. ed. Nashville 1961). Parishes and Clergy of the Orthodox and Other Eastern Churches in North America, Together with the Parishes and Clergy of the Polish National Catholic Church (Buffalo 1962).

[g. a. maloney/eds.]

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Eastern Churches

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Eastern Churches