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What ALL Catholics should know about Eastern Catholic Churches

by Phyllis Zagano with improvements made by Mike Humphrey

Jesus prays, at the Last Supper, in John's Gospel, that his followers might "all be one." Before his ascension, he commissioned his disciples out to preach the gospel "to the whole world" (see Mk 16:IS). But, as the Church brought the Christian faith to lands near and far, it strained to maintain common understandings among various peoples.

Early Christianity suffered from disagreements about the nature of Christ's divinity and the understanding of the Trinity. Two early Church Councils-one at Nicea in 325 and another at Constantinople in 381--set Church teaching on these crucial dogmas, which have been handed down to us in the Nicene Creed. Centuries of wear and tear resulted in the East-West schism of 1054, between what came to be known as "Catholicism" and "Orthodoxy." Centuries later, Catholicism fractured with the Reformation in 16th·-century Europe. The new terms were "Roman Catholicism" and "Protestantism." All along the way, the papacy sought to strengthen its central governing authority.

For Catholics, the branches of the Church are properly called the Latin Church and the Eastern Churches. There are two separate codes of canon law, one for the Oriental, or Eastern Churches in union with Rome and another for the Latin, or Western Church (which we usually term the Roman Catholic Church). Each of these legal codes recognizes the supreme authority of the Roman pontiff, the pope in Rome.

Today, those in full communion with Rome are rediscovering their common ancestry and better recognizing each other as more than distant relations. But while liturgical practice in the West is fairly uniform, a complex pattern of governance and liturgical practice remains in the East, bound to both history and geography.


The first large branches in the Catholic family tree appear in the fourth century. The Roman Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity, transferred his and its headquarters from Rome to the ancient city of Byzantium in the year 330. He renamed this city Constantinople. (We now know it as Istanbul, Turkey.)

There were three other important centers of the Roman Empire: Rome, Antioch in Syria, and Alexandria in Egypt. The bishops of these four great cities of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria attained greater preeminence over time, especially at the Council of Constantinople in 381, There the Bishop of Constantinople received honorary status, after the Bishop of Rome.

Rome had been the center of a vast empire, and the site of martyrdom for Sts. Peter and Paul. But the East was growing in prominence.

At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Bishops of Constantinople and of Jerusalem received territorial authority over their respective areas. Eventually, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem came to be known as patriarchates, that is, Church territories headed by a patriarch.

Coincidentally, Christianity spread beyond the Roman Empire.

Syriac-speaking Christians looked to Edessa in East Syria as their center. In four of the original patriarchates, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria - and in Edessa - we find the origins of major liturgical families of the Catholic Church, some Eastern and some Western.

Eastern Churches

The 11th·century East-West split created a complex situation. A large part of the problem was the supreme authority of Rome over other patriarchal Churches. What we know of as Orthodoxy ensued in most of the Christian East. Virtually all the Eastern Churches broke communion with Rome at some point, and present Eastern Catholic Churches are the result of efforts to restore that communion either spontaneously or because of the work of Catholic missionaries.

At present, there are 22 separate ecclesial groupings of the East that recognize the supreme authority of Rome. In some cases, parts of these communions - 21 are "Churches" - are locally administered by a Western bishop. One, the Georgian, is recognized as an ecclesial grouping, but not as a Church. Each follows the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches, and uses its own liturgical rites.

Patriarchal. The six patriarchal Eastern Catholic Churches are: Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite and Syriac. Their patriarchs, along with their synods (assemblies of bishops), enjoy superior authority in their respective churches.

Major Archepiscopal: In these, the Ukrainian, the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankar Churches, a major archbishop is essentially the same as a patriarch, although his election, unlike a patriarch's, must be approved by the Roman pontiff.

Metropolitan: The Ethiopian (or Abyssinian), the Romanian and the Ruthenian Churches are distinct in that their Metropolitan, that is, principal bishop, must request the pallium-his sign of authority-from the pope rather than by election from his Church. In these cases the local synod must provide three nominees to the pope, who makes the final choice.

Others: Nine Eastern Catholic Churches are none of the above. In law they are called "sui iuris " and are a separate category of churches. For the most they are a single diocese or eparchy: the Albanian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Italo-Albanian, Slovak, Russian, and churches of the former Yugoslavia - once called Križevci, but now including separate apostolic exafchates for Macedonia and Serbia/Montenegro. These nine do not have the highly developed hierarchical structures of the other 12. The pope grants authority to the bishop who governs these churches.

The Eastern Churches in union with Rome were once called "uniate," but this term is seen as non-complimentary since it implies an unequal status. The Eastern Churches are still mistakenly called "Eastern-rite" Churches, a reference to their various liturgical histories. They are most properly called Eastern Churches, or Eastern Catholic Churches.

Liturgical Families of the East

Eastern Catholic Churches belong to distinct liturgical families. Understanding these families helps us to understand that the differences among the Churches have mostly to do with local cultures. The distinct liturgical families relate to the three major Eastern patriarchates (Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria) and to Edessa. These in turn influenced other Churches in the Christian East, especially in Chaldea (modern-day Iran) and Armenia. Some of the Eastern Catholic Churches are reunited from the Eastern Churches that separated from Rome during the fifth century, or in 1054, or at other times in the Church's long history. (The years in parentheses note the approximate dates of reunion with Rome.)

The Antiochian liturgical family has two branches: West Syrian and East Syrian. Antioch was founded by St. Peter, and St. James is credited for its liturgy, which is celebrated in the ancient Syriac language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, as well as in local vernacular. The West Syrian Churches are the

Maronite (which claims always to have been in union with Rome), Syriac (1781), Syro-Malankarese (1930). The East Syrian, whose liturgy shows the influence of Edessa, are the Chaldean (1692), and Syro-Malabarese (16th century). The Syro-Malabarese, like the Syro-Malankarese, finds roots in the evangelization of St. Thomas in India.

The Alexandrian liturgical family includes the Coptic (1741) and the Ethiopian (1846). Its liturgy is attributed to St. Mark the Evangelist, and is variously celebrated in Coptic (Ancient Egyptian) and Arabic in Egypt and the Near East, and in Geez (Ethiopian) in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Jerusalem.

The Byzantine liturgical family, by far the largest of the liturgical traditions of the East, is related to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. As we trace the lineage of each Byzantine tradition, we find close relations among those Churches linked by geography and/or language. The oldest Byzantine or Constantinopolitan liturgies are those of the Greek (mid-19th century) and Me1kite communions. The Patriarchal Melkite Church (18th century) actually began in the Antiochian tradition, but now celebrates liturgy in Greek as well as several local vernacular languages. The Byzantine Slav liturgical family celebrates the liturgy in Old Slavonic and the local vernacular, and comprises the Belarussian (17th century), Bulgarian (1861), Hungarian (1646), the churches of the former Yugoslavia, including Krezevci (1611), Russian (1905), Ruthenian (17th century), Slovak Ukrainian ( 1595).

The sui iuris Albanian (1628) and Italo-Albanian (or Itala-Greek, which never separated), and the Metropolitan Romanian Church (1697) tend to use the vernacular despite their Greek roots.

All Byzantine Churches celebrate the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on Sundays and holy days, and the Liturgy of St. Basil during Lent.

Some scholars consider the Armenian rite, celebrated by the Patriarchal Annenian Church in classical Armenian, as its own rite. The Armenian of Cilicia converted to Catholicism at the time of the Crusades, but this did. not include the majority of Armenians located north of there, in modern eastern Turkey and the Republic of Armenian Catholics are found throughout the Middle East and in Argentina, France and the United States.

Many are unaware that there is more than one rite (i.e. the Roman rite) in the Western Church. Here is a list of five such rites, each of which is linked to a geographical area:

AMBROSIAN RITE. This ancient rite, linked to St. Ambrose (340-397), bishop of Milan, belongs to the family of Western European Latin rites. Many of these rites are extinct, including the Campano-Beneventan rite, the Aquileian rite and the Ravennan rite. While Ambrose can be called its "founder," there were many others (e.g. , Simplicianus and Eusebius) who subsequently developed the liturgy in Milan into the Ambrosian rite, today celebrated in Milan and beyond, even into parts of Switzerland.

BRAGAN RITE.The Bragan rite used in Braga, Portugal, can be traced to the eighth century. Its tangled origins include at least four roots: 1) the early Latin rite; 2) the Mozarabic rite (see below) which held sway for many years; 3) Gallican rites (i.e., from the Goths) brought by monastic reformers; and 4) the Roman rite, never completely adopted at Braga. (Pope Pius V specifically excluded the Bragan rite from the reforms of Trent.) This rite is an inculturated form of the Latin rite for Portugal, as the Ambrosian is for Milan.

MOZARABIC RITE. This sixth to 11th-century Latin rite of the Iberian Peninsula is now mostly replaced by the Roman rite, except in Toledo, Spain, and a few other places. Its complex history includes several basic influences: 1) Latin, but not exclusively Roman, 2) Gallican and 3) local. The Mozarabic rite and its replacement (twice) by the Roman rite became a symbol of nationalism, independence from Rome and local cultural development and survival.

ROMAN RITE. The Roman rite is the universally observed rite of the Latin Patriarch of the West, mandated by Second Vatican Council and approved by Pope Paul VI, and is the rite most Roman Catholics are familiar with. The most recent edition of the Missale Romanum was promulgated during the Jubilee Year, 2000.

ZAIREAN RITE. This is technically not a rite, but an "observance" within the Roman rite. Requested by the Bishops of Zaire in 1988, this African inculturation of the Roman rite includes the use of dance for all processions. It may be used wherever Zaireans gather for Mass. It is paralleled somewhat by another adaptation of the Roman rite found in India, in which dance and other gestures are permitted as legitimate growth of the Roman rite.

Western Churches

The Latin or Western Church is what we know of as the Roman Catholic Church, joined fully and wholly to the Catholic Churches and ecclesial communions of the East. We often recite four words which signify our belief in the unity of the Church -- one, holy, Catholic and apostolic -- every time we say the Nicene Creed at Sunday Mass. The words refer to our Church's unity, its sanctified and sanctifying nature, its universality and its relation to the Twelve Apostles.

Christians understand the term Church to mean a territorial assembly of the faithful. Yet the Catholic Church worldwide. Particular, or local, Churches exist in the West as archdioceses, dioceses or patriarchates, and the heads of these particular churches are called archbishops, bishops or patriarchs.

Pope Pius V, whose pontificate lasted from 1566 to 1572 imposed the liturgical rite of Rome on the Latin Church, in response to the confusion that preceded the Reformation. A few other Western rites already hundreds of years old were allowed to remain active. In succeeding centuries, a few additional rites or observances have been created or added for the Western Church (see below)

Special Use Rites:

Some rites exist not so much for geographical, but for other reasons. Here are two:

Anglican rite. This "special use" rite among Roman Catholics in the United States is the modified Anglican rite for those who come to the Roman Catholic Church yet wish to observe some of their own traditions. Pope John Paul II approved the Anglican Rite in 1980.

"Tridentine rite." There really is no Tridentine rite, despite the popular use of the term. What is called the Tridentine rite is the Roman rite as revised by Pope Pius V and the Council of Trent (Tridentine is a form of the Italian Trent) , and has been revised through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. While special permissions to observe the Roman rite in the earlier form exist, it is usually to as "the observance" or "the rites of 1962." The special permissions are intended only for those unable to live comfortably with the reform of the Roman rite directed by Pope Paul VI and mandated by the Second Vatican Council. A Vatican commission called "Ecclesia Dei" exercises authority in giving bishops permission to use this observance.

For the most part, Roman Catholics participate in liturgy, codified by the Missale Romanum, established at the Council of Trent and updated by Pope John Paul II, in response to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

One Church

The Catholic Church counts over one billion members, slightly more than half of the total number of Christians in the world, or 16 percent of the world population. Most belong to the Latin Church and worship according to the Roman rite. But there are 16 million members of Eastern Catholic Churches, of whom approximately 7,650,000 worship according to the Byzantine tradition, and 8,300,000 according to various other ancient Eastern Christian traditions, such as the Armenian, Coptic and traditions. All, East and West, belong to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Our 2006 Catholic Demographics page

I put this together for several reasons:

  • For those who are participating in the COCCFr, Close Orthodox Catholic Friend Finder. It is my hope through the information below, you will be able to look into nearby areas in order to find new Catholic friends that are, of course, loyal to the Holy See.

  • You may be in an area like mine, where the local news is bias and does not say anything positive about the Catholic Church, but knocks it every time it can. With this information, you can call the producers of your local news, radio and TV stations and say:

    "Boston has the fourth largest metropolitan population of Roman Catholics, yet you never say anything positive about the people YOU are trying to serve."


    "Grand Rapids has the third largest metropolitan population of Roman Catholics in Michigan, yet you never say anything positive about the people YOU are trying to serve."

    With prayer, maybe things will change : )

    My colleague Mary Ann has also provided me with similar information from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:


Dateline: Spring 2010 from the Catholic Answers Newsletter.

Vatican: Catholic Church Growing

The Catholic Church is growing according to the Annuario Pontificio (Pontifical Yearbook), a work that is published annually by the Vatican.

The 2010 edition was presented to Pope Benedict XVI in February.  It contains statistics on the world's Catholic population for 2008.

Number of Catholics Up

The Annuario revealed that from 2007 to 2008 the number of Catholics worldwide rose by 19 million, for a total of 1.166 billion.

That number represents 17.4 percent of the global population, up from 17.33 percent the previous year.

The Catholic population increased not just in raw numbers but also relative to the world population as a whole. In other words, The Catholic population grew faster than the non-Catholic population.

Source: 2007 Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Almanac
Primary Source: The Official Catholic Directory, 2006; figures are as of January 1, 2006.


Catholic Population: 69,135,254; increase of 1,314,421
Percentage of total US population: 23%
Number of Catholics entering the Church in 2007: 15,000
Jurisdictions: 34 Archdioceses (includes 33 metropolitan sees and the Military Archdiocese),
Dioceses: 152
Cardinals: 16
Archbishops: 36 in the US
Bishops 419.

Diocesan, in the US (and Virgin Islands), 152;
coadjutors, 1;
auxiliaries, 79;
retired, 151;
there are also 25 bishops serving outside the US as of August 11, 2006.

Priests: 42,178; decrease of 1,244
Diocesan: 28,538
Religious order priests: 13,640

Parishes: 18,992

Most Populated By State:

Number of Catholics
State Percentage of State population
1 10,906,992 California 28.8%
2 7,433,366 New York  37.6%
3 6,742,690 Texas  29.2%
4 4,865,216 Massachusetts  42.7%
5 3,867,102 Illinois  63.0%
6 3,614,694 Pennsylvania  29.4%
7 3,605,265 New Jersey  41.1%
8 2,265,450 Florida  12.7%
9 2,128,619 Ohio  18.5%
10 2,064,103 Michigan  20.5%
11 1,605,155 Wisconsin  29.0%
12 1,357,992 Connecticut  38.7%
13 1,093,533 Minnesota  21.5%
14 908,123 Arizona  15.7%
15 835,581 Missouri  14.7%
16 816,260 Louisiana - 2005 total 26.1%
17 767,349 Indiana  12.3
18 745,614 Washington State  12.0%
19 666,213 Colorado  14.7%
20 661,300 Nevada  27.7%
21 640,274 Rhode Island  59.2%
22 620,399 Virginia  8.1%
23 575,824 Washington, D.C.  21.9%
24 517,679 Maryland  16.9%
25 494,698 Iowa  17.1%
26 494,449 New Mexico  21.4%
27 441,749 Georgia  5.1%
28 432,170 Oregon  12.1%
29 406,916 Kansas  15.1%
30 387,062 Kentucky  9.7%
31 375,808 Nebraska  21.4%
32 336,738 North Carolina  3.9%
33 314,471 New Hampshire 24.0%
34 230,000 Delaware  18.3%
35 200,000 Utah  8.3%
36 193,228 Maine  15.1%
37 190,684 Tennessee  3.2%
38 160,878 Oklahoma  4.6%
39 157,450 South Carolina  3.7%
40 154,435 South Dakota  20.5%
41 153,939 Alabama  3.4%
42 148,100 Idaho  10.4%
43 145,789 North Dakota  22.2%
44 143,240 Hawaii  11.3%
45 118,000 Vermont  19.0%
46 117,942 Mississippi  4.0%
47 110,409 Montana  12.1%
48 107,524 Arkansas  3.9%
49 82,749 West Virginia  4.6%
50 55,643 Alaska  8.7%
51 49,121 Wyoming   9.7%

Highest percentage of Catholics per state population.

Ranking Percentage of Catholics per State population State
Number of Catholics
1 59.2% Rhode Island  640,274
2 42.7% Massachusetts  4,865,216
3 41.1% New Jersey  3,605,265
4 38.7% Connecticut  1,357,992
5 37.6% New York  7,433,366
6 29.9% Illinois  3,867,102
7 29.4% Pennsylvania  3,614,694
8 29.2% Texas  6,742,690
9 29.0% Wisconsin  1,605,155
10 28.8% California 10,906,992
11 27.7% Nevada  661,300
12 26.1% Louisiana - 2005 total 816,260
13 24.0% New Hampshire 314,471
14 22.2% North Dakota  145,789
15 21.9% Washington, D.C.  575,824
16 21.5% Minnesota  1,093,533
17 21.4% New Mexico  494,449
18 21.4% Nebraska  375,808
19 20.5% Michigan  2,064,103
20 20.5% South Dakota  154,435
21 19.0% Vermont  118,000
22 18.5% Ohio  2,128,619
23 18.3% Delaware  230,000
24 17.1% Iowa  494,698
25 16.9% Maryland  517,679
26 15.7% Arizona  908,123
27 15.1% Kansas  406,916
28 15.1% Maine  193,228
29 14.7% Missouri  835,581
30 14.7% Colorado  666,213
31 12.7% Florida  2,265,450
32 12.3% Indiana  767,349
33 12.1% Oregon  432,170
34 12.1% Montana  110,409
35 12.0% Washington State  745,614
36 11.3% Hawaii  143,240
37 10.4% Idaho  148,100
38 9.7% Kentucky  387,062
39 9.7% Wyoming   49,121
40 8.7% Alaska  55,643
41 8.3% Utah  200,000
42 8.1% Virginia  620,399
43 5.1% Georgia  441,749
44 4.6% Oklahoma  160,878
45 4.6% West Virginia  82,749
46 4.0% Mississippi  117,942
47 3.9% North Carolina  336,738
48 3.9% Arkansas  107,524
49 3.7% South Carolina  157,450
50 3.4% Alabama  153,939
51 3.2% Tennessee  190,684

The 176 most populated metropolitan areas, sorted by metropolitan area within state.

Number of Catholics
City/Town, State
1 4,448,763 Los Angeles California
2 1,146,960 San Bernardino California
3 1,131,464 Orange California
4 950,743 San Diego California
5 650,000 San Jose California
6 581,000 Fresno California
7 541,321 Sacramento California
8 468,718 Oakland California
9 420,397 San Francisco California
10 212,663 Stockton California
11 195,200 Monterey California
12 159,763 Santa Rosa California
1 2,542,432 New York New York 
2 1,556,575 Brooklyn New York 
3 1,431,774 Rockville Centre New York 
4 694,992 Buffalo New York 
5 400,000 Albany New York 
6 345,736 Syracuse New York 
7 341,772 Rochester New York 
8 120,085 Ogdensburg New York 
1 1,495,030 Galveston-Houston Texas 
2 955,298 Dallas Texas 
3 943,611 Brownsville Texas 
4 673,526 San Antonio Texas 
5 656,035 El Paso Texas 
6 500,000 Austin Texas 
7 450,000 Forth Worth Texas 
8 388,878 Corpus Christi Texas 
9 229,141 Laredo Texas 
10 106,797 Victoria Texas 
11 84,780 Lubbock Texas 
12 80,281 Beaumont Texas 
13 77,630 San Angelo Texas 
14 61,390 Tyler Texas 
15 40,293 Amarillo Texas 
1 1,845,846 Boston Massachusetts 
2 734,616 Springfield Massachusetts 
3 347,385 Fall River Massachusetts 
4 308,369 Worcester Massachusetts 
1 2,348,000 Chicago Illinois 
2 655,051 Joliet Illinois 
3 431,202 Rockford Illinois 
4 174,008 Peoria Illinois 
5 158,741 Springfield Illinois 
6 100,100 Belleville Illinois 
1 1,462,388 Philadelphia Pennsylvania 
2 781,811 Pittsburg Pennsylvania 
3 348,119 Scranton Pennsylvania 
4 275,129 Allentown Pennsylvania 
5 247,492 Harrisburg Pennsylvania 
6 225,575 Erie Pennsylvania 
7 170,486 Greensburg Pennsylvania 
8 103,694 Altoona-Johnstown Pennsylvania 
1 1,319,558 Newark New Jersey 
2 797,964 Trenton New Jersey 
3 603,214 Metuchen New Jersey 
4 459,118 Camden New Jersey 
5 425,411 Paterson New Jersey 
1 752,025 Miami Florida
2 415,412 St. Petersburg Florida
3 369,151 Orlando Florida
4 276,003 Palm Beach Florida
5 223,686 Venice Florida
6 162,964 St. Augustine Florida
7 65,209 Pensacola-Tallahassee Florida
1 797,898 Cleveland Ohio
2 498,493 Cincinnati Ohio
3 306,532 Toledo