Melkite Greek Catholic Church
MELKITE GREEK CATHOLIC CHURCH
The Melkite Church is one of the 22 autonomous Catholic churches (ecclesiae sui juris ) with its own patriarch. Its origin goes back to the traditions of the Church of Antioch, today Antakia in Turkey. The term "Melkite" comprises a Syriac root with a Greek ending that means "kingly." Mālkâ is Syriac for king (Arabic malik ). The word is used in all the Semitic languages for the Roman emperor, like the Greek basileus. By adding the Greek ending ites we have the form melkites, a term equivalent to basilikos. It should be noted that the third radical of the Semitic root is kaf : there is no guttural. Therefore the correct form of the word is Melkite, rather than the latinized form "Melchite."
The term Melkite was originally used to refer to those Christians within the ancient Patriarchal Churches of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem who accepted the Christological Creed professed by the Byzantine emperor after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Today, however, the term more often refers to Byzantine Catholics associated with those three patriarchal churches.
In the seventh century, the Byzantine empire was threatened by the Persians. Emperor Heraclius realized that he could not possibly withstand the Persians so long as he had factions feuding with each other within his empire, namely the Orthodox and the so-called Monophysites. As a compromise, he promoted the doctrine known as Monothelitism, a heresy that maintained that in Jesus Christ there was one divine energy and one will. This only served to create further division in the Antiochene Church that was already weakened by internal dissensions. In 637 Antioch fell to the Muslims as Islam was beginning its spread throughout the Middle East. Then in 969, Antioch was recovered by the Byzantines only to be conquered not too long afterwards by the Turks.
In 1098 the Crusaders came and took control of Antioch, replacing the Orthodox hierarchy with a Latin hierarchy. In 1154 the Byzantines reconquered Antioch, and the emperor restored the patriarch to his see. Hostility, however, made it virtually impossible for the patriarchs to reside in the city, so many of them governed from Constantinople. This situation caused the Melkite Church of Antioch to undergo heavy Byzantine influence. In time the ancient Syriac liturgical rite was replaced by the liturgical rite of Constantinople. By the end of the twelfth
century, the adoption of the Byzantine liturgical rite became definitive, largely as a result of the influence of Patriarch Theodore IV (Balsamon) who headed the Church of Antioch from 1189 to 1195. When the Mameluks came to power in 1268, they recognized the Antiochian hierarchs but would not let them return to the city of Antioch. So the focus of the Antiochene patriarchate shifted from Antioch to Damascus. To this day Damascus in Syria remains the patriarchate center of the Melkite Church.
During the centuries of tumult in Antioch, there were several patriarchs who professed communion with the bishop of Rome despite the antagonism that had developed between the Old Rome and the New Rome (Constantinople). According to one estimate, between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries there were perhaps as many as 25 patriarchs of Antioch in communion with Rome. However, there was never a stable, enduring union between the Church of Antioch and the Church of Rome.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the European powers, namely Great Britain and France, entered the scene of the Middle East. The French attained a strong diplomatic and economic influence in the region. It was this influence which eventually led to the formation of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
Latin missionaries began their activity in the Patriarchate of Antioch in the mid-seventeenth century. While there were some receptions into the Latin Church, the missionaries were primarily concerned with forming a pro-Catholic party within the patriarchate itself. By the early eighteenth century, the Antiochene Church was split by internal dissension, with the pro-Catholic party centered in Damascus and the anti-Catholic party in its rival city, Aleppo.
Patriarch Athanasius III (Dabbas), who died on Aug. 5, 1724, had designated a Cypriot monk named Sylvester as his successor. Sylvester had the support of the Aleppo party and the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Jerusalem. On Sept. 20, 1724, the Damascus party pre-empted the Aleppo faction by electing its pro-Catholic candidate as patriarch, who took the name Cyril VI (Tanas). A week later, the Patriarch of Constantinople responded by ordaining Sylvester as a rival patriarch. The Ottoman Sultan recognized Sylvester and expelled Cyril, who was exiled to Sidon, Lebanon. On Aug. 13, 1729, Pope Benedict XIII formally recognized Cyril's election as Patriarch of Antioch. The Catholic wing of the Antiochene Patriarchate became known as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. In recognition of the growing diaspora of Melkite Catholics in Egypt and Palestine, Pope Gregory XVI bestowed the additional titles of Patriarch of Alex andria and Jerusalem on the the Melkite Catholic Patriarch ad personam.
Conditions improved for the fledging Melkite Church when the Ottoman Sultan extended civil guarantees to all Melkites on Oct. 31, 1837, and formally recognized Patriarch Maximos III (Mazloum) as the leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, completely independent of any other ecclesiastical community in the Ottoman empire. This improved state of affairs resulted in the Melkite patriarchate's return to Damascus, Syria from Sidon, Lebanon, where it had been since 1724. This was followed by a period of expansion and growth, fueled by the popular perception of the Melkite Church as a focus of Arab resistance against the Turks.
The figure of Maximos III (Mazloum) towers over the Melkite Church of this period. His leadership gained his church respect and admiration; his educational reforms provided the Melkites with the most learned clergy of the Middle East. He also bequeathed to his church a sense of independence from the Roman Curia, vigorously resisting the Roman Curia's attempts to interfere in Melkite internal affairs. The Melkite Church owes him a great debt for setting a pattern which struck a balance between Eastern and Western traditions and separated the essentials from the accidental in both.
The 19th century witnessed much tension between the Melkite Church and the See of Rome. Many Melkites felt that their unique Byzantine identity, traditions and customs were being overwhelmed by the Latin tradition. This tension manifested itself publicly at the First Vatican Council (1868–70) when Melkite Patriarch Gregory II (Youssef) left Rome before the vote on the constitution Pastor Aeternus, which defined papal primacy and infallibility. Under intense pressure from Pope Pius IX, Gregory II reluctantly assented to the document on Feb. 8, 1872 only upon the addition of the qualifier, "… all rights and privileges of the patriarchs being respected."
The Melkite Church played a significant role at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). The Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV (Sayegh) condemned the latinization of the Eastern Catholic Churches in forceful terms, and urged a greater receptivity to Eastern Christian traditions, especially in ecclesiology. The cause to which Maximos IV (Sayegh) devoted his life was the unity between Christians of the East and Christians of the West. For him, the celebration of Vatican II was the culmination of his life and patriarchal leadership.
Since the early 1990s, the Melkite Church and its orthodox counterpart, the Antiochene Orthodox Church have engaged in closer rapprochement. A bilateral commission was set up in 1995 to explore avenues of healing the 1724 schism. As relations improved, the Antiochene patriarch invited the Melkite Patriarch Maximos V (Hakim) to address a meeting of the Antiochene Synod in 1996. Since that date, the Melkite Synod has supported the idea of an eventual reintegration into the Orthodox Church of Antioch in the event of a reconciliation between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
The Melkite Church continues to witness great growth in the Middle East and the diaspora. The majority of her faithful live in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Egypt and neighboring countries. Significant emigration has resulted in flourishing Melkite communities in the U.S., Europe and Australia. Besides the three Patriarchal Sees of Damascus, Cairo and Jerusalem, there are four eparchial sees in Syria: Aleppo, Hauran, Homs, and Lattakiah; seven in Lebanon: Baalbeck, Beirut, Marjeyoun, Sidon, Tripoli, Tyre, and Zahleh; and one respectively in Haifa, Palestine; in Sao Paulo, Brasil; in Newton, United States; in Montreal, Canada; in Sydney, Australia; in Mexico City, Mexico; and in Caracas, Venezuela. There are Melkite communities present in Iraq, Kwait, Italy, Belgium, Argentina, France, and Great Britain.
Bibliography: Almanach de l'Eglise Grecque Melkite Catholique (Beirut 1997). c. charon, History of the Melkite Patriarchates, 4 v. (Fairfax 1998–2000). s. descy, The Melkite Church: An Historical and Ecclesiological Approach (Boston 1993). i. dick, Les Melkites (Turnhout 1994). maximos iv (sayegh), The Melkite Greek Catholic Church at the Council: Interventions and Remarks of the Melkite Hierarchs at the Second Vatican Council (French ed. 1967; English ed. Boston). e. skaff, The Place of the Patriarchs of Antioch in Church Unity (Boston 1994). e. zoghby, We Are All Schismatics (Boston 1996).
[g. d. gallaro]