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Byzantine Basics

“By This All Will Know That You Are My Disciples ~ If You Love One Another”

John 13: 35

Pre-100th Liturgy 045 - EDITChrist the Teacher

The Diversity of the Catholic Church

We are Byzantine Catholics of the Eastern Tradition of the Catholic Church.  We are the “other lung” of the Catholic Church. Saint John Paul II described us in this way to bring awareness to the diversity of the Catholic Church. The Catholic church is made up of different rites and traditions.  It includes various types of Eastern Catholics along with the faithful who follow the Latin Rite tradition.

All traditions in communion with the Pope (Bishop) of Rome are united in one Catholic Church, the Universal Catholic Church.


The Eastern Tradition and Origins

The central worship service in all Catholic and Orthodox Churches is the Eucharist.  This is the mystical and sacramental celebration established by Jesus at the Last Supper wherein bread and wine are transformed into the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ.  In Eastern Christian tradition, the term “Divine Liturgy” is used instead of the term “Mass”, the term common to the Latin tradition to describe this worship. 

A frequent comment heard from people experiencing a Divine Liturgy for the first time is how unexpectedly reverent and mystical the experience is.   There is surprise to many also to learn that this “other” form of worship is indeed Catholic, even though it differs in expression from what most think of as Catholic, that is mistakenly that all Catholic form of worship is the same.  While the expression of worship may differ, the Eastern and Latin rite churches share the common focus and framework of the liturgy – the apostolic inheritance of  the Eucharistic celebration known respectively as the Divine Liturgy or Mass.

The apostles and disciples of Christ evangelized the gospel to different parts of the world.  As Byzantine Catholics, our early Christian roots were formed in the eastern portion of the Roman empire, that of Constantinople, with its Greek dominant culture and language.  Greek was one of original languages of the early church, including Scripture.    Over time, Christianity spread to distant regions, with the branches in the east retaining Greek influences, and the branches in the west retaining and spreading Latin influences.

Byzantine Catholics of all ethnic and historical origins, therefore, share the early church foundations uniting all Eastern Christians and all Catholics.  Jesus Christ’s prayer remains that all be one, and for this we pray also in seeking the unity of all Christians affirming the belief in God, one in the Holy Trinity.


For those New and Not-so-New
attending a Byzantine Catholic Church service:

What will I experience?    The Divine Liturgy (ie., in the Latin rite, “Mass”), and all of our services, are a harmony of singing praise to God that is a continuous dialogue of prayer from the priest, deacons and the parishioners.   In the Divine Liturgy, there is an elevated sense of reverence, respect, and dignity to all that is taking place.   The only prayer that is recited and not sung in a Divine Liturgy is “The Prayer Before Holy Communion“.  Otherwise, every part of our Liturgy is sung or chanted.   A cantor will lead the faithful.  We worship in prayer.   Our prayer is our singing.  Therefore, singing is our offering of our prayers in worship .

How will I know what to do?   Like any new experience, many things will feel different.  Find a place to sit where you will be comfortable and can see a view of the icon screen and altar.  To get the most out of your first visit, observe, watch and listen.  During a first visit, do not spend time trying to find the correct page or text in the pew books.   Instead, simply experience all that you will be seeing, hearing, smelling (incense) and enjoying.

How should I enter the church?   If you are a new visitor, proceed to a pew of your choice.  You can make the sign of the cross and / or bow slighly before entering the pew.   Byzantine Catholics never genuflect.  Bowing towards the altar is the respectful alternative.  After entering the pew, you can either kneel to say prayers before Liturgy, or if comfortable stand in place in your pew to pray.  You will observe people doing either, which is acceptable in our local custom.  The correct church “etiquette” for actively practicing Byzantine Catholics on entering the church is to walk up the center aisle, approach the small table (called a tetrapod), bow slightly while making the sign of the cross, and venerate the icon on the tetrapod.   Then stay in place to make two more signs of the cross, and proceed to a pew.

Note: Etiquette for venerating icons is to kiss any area on the icon other than the face area.  Kissing the border is also acceptable.   Children at an early age can be taught and helped to venerate icons and know this is a way we honor and respect what or who is depicted in the icon.   For more about the use of icons, click on the word “Icons” on the main menu.

Can I receive Holy Communion?  If you are an active Catholic in good standing, as in any other Catholic church, you may receive Holy Communion at our Liturgies.    Holy Communion is received in both species.  It is the real Presence of God in the form of bread and wine.  In the Byzantine church, this is in the form of small cubes of bread placed in a chalice with wine and a small amount of water.   You can always remain in your seat if you wish to observe.  Perhaps you may wish to receive Communion on another visit.  If you stay in your seat, allow others to get to the center aisle, you remain seated and then stand up with the entire congregation as the last few communicants approach to receive.  Remember, standing is a posture showing respect and honor.

I’m afraid to receive Holy Communion from a common chalice.    Byzantine Catholics are so accustomed to receiving this way from the time they were children that very little thought or fear is given to this practice as being different.   No one drinks from the chalice or touches the spoon the priest uses to distribute Holy Communion.  The priest uses a small spoon to skillfully drop a particle of the Blessed Sacrament into the communicant’s mouth.   If new to receiving this way,  carefully take the little cloth draped under the chalice and hold it under your chin with both hands.  Do not pull on it.  Then, just open your mouth very wide as if at the dentist.  Never extend your tongue.  Otherwise the priest may quietly instruct you.   There is no risk in receiving Holy Communion this way, much less than drinking from a common chalice.

Immediately after receiving Holy Communion, release the cloth and step back.  Do not say Amen or make the sign of the cross in front of the priest.   You may proceed to the left or right space away from the priest and make the sign of the cross in front of the icon screen.  Proceed to your seat where you should say a prayer of thanksgiving while standing.   You can remain standing if you wish while others receive or sit if you feel a need and if the line of communicants is exceedingly long.

I see the priest giving Communion to infants and toddlers!  How can this be happening? Is that against the rules of the Church?   If you research early church history, you will learn and find that when infants were baptized, they received all 3 Sacraments of Initiation at the same time:  Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist.  It was only much later in the history of the Catholic Church of the Latin Rite that these Sacraments were “separated”, with Confirmation and First Eucharist being reserved until children were older.  The idea for this separation of sacraments in the Latin rite developed during the Renaissance era with influences from the intellectual and rational philosophies of the period.   In Byzantine and Orthodox traditions, the practice never changed from the original form because of a different focus, with less need to explain everything that is mystery and preserving an appreciation of the “awesome mysteries” of our faith in the Sacraments.   In the Eastern and Byzantine view, if anyone is worthy of receiving the initial Sacraments, it surely is an innocent infant or young child as Jesus welcomed the children as being pure in heart.  We do not withhold from them the graces God makes available to all his “children”.   Children in Byzantine churches do still have catechetical instruction at a young age provided by a parish catechist.  And the children do take part in a formal ceremony of “First Penance” and Eucharist at an age similar to the Latin Rite.

Why is everyone standing when I’m used to kneeling during the consecration?   This is the normal practice in the Byzantine Catholic Church during the consecration of the holy gifts and also in the Orthodox tradition.   We are standing with our Resurrected and Glorified Lord and this is our proper liturgical sign of being united with Christ as one body.    There is no disrespect in standing.   Kneeling is considered penitential.  We only kneel at certain services during Lent, such as during our Liturgies of the Presanctified Gifts.

Do I sit or do I stand?

There are a few unwritten rules on when to sit or stand.   While any of the books for a liturgy or service may specify when to sit or stand, it is actually proper to observe and use the correct posture based on what is taking place in “real time”.  In other words, watch what is happening and react accordingly.   What is in the book may be out of “sync” with what the priest or deacon is doing sometimes.  You need to adjust to what is happening in the moment.

Incensing:  Regardless of what section of a book the cantor is on with the singing, when you see the deacon or priest begin to incense the people or church, you should stand.   You can return to sitting after the incensing ends if that what a liturgy book instructs.    In any greeting with incense, such as at the start of Liturgy, respond to the priest  with a slight bow.  You do not need to make the sign of the cross.

Litanies:  Sit at the beginning of all litanies that include singing “Lord have mercy”

Blessings by the priest:  When the priest turns to bless the congregation with his hand, cross, chalice, gospel book –  please rise to stand for the blessing if not already standing.  There are a few exceptions that may occur, such as during Lenten services.

Why isn’t there an organ, piano, guitar or other musical instrument in use?  When we sing we are using the purest form of what God gave us for the purpose of offering our praise to him.  And while not all of us are talented singers, like a loving Father, God accepts us as we are and loves us in our effort, no matter how imperfect or elegant.  God values our effort and willingness to try more than our fear of what others may think.  God wants us to express our faith in public and in community, and singing is the one of most expressive forms we can offer God of our prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.  Unless there is a physical reason, we should aim to participate in this way.  Our ancestors did not have the means to do more than use their own voices in worship, and like the poor widow’s offering, God values all we have to offer.  

Entering into worship with our voices is among the greatest gifts we can personally give to God.  Singing IS our active worship.  We are engaged when we participate in this way.  What is important is that in singing, we are united with each other, the priest, the communion of saints, heavenly hosts, and with God in the timeless mystery of the offering and sacrifice of Christ in the Holy Eucharist,

Why is everyone making the sign of the cross so much?   We bless ourselves with the sign of the cross very frequently during Liturgy and every time we sing “Glory be…” or whenever the Holy Trinity is named.  We bless ourselves every time the priest faces the people and offers a blessing.  Making the sign of the cross this often is a wonderful practice to try !  It means we are paying attention and participating ! But actually, it is an affirmation of our faith made visible through our prayer-filled and active involvement in our liturgies.  Don’t worry you may be making the sign left to right, instead of right to left as done in the Byzantine church.   If you research the history of this, you will be surprised that right to left is actually the original form.   It doesn’t matter which form you use.   What matters is that making the cross is meaningful.

Why is everyone going up to the priest after Liturgy to get blessed with oil?  Am I allowed to do this?   If you attend a Sunday or Saturday Vigil Liturgy following a Holy Day (Feast Day), you are most welcome to go forward with the parishioners for a blessing.   This is special!   The priest will bless you with sacramental blessed oil on your forehead and will greet you with a traditional greeting.  You might not know what to say.   Listen to the others nearby for a clue or just accept the blessing in silence.  Next you will proceed to a server holding 2 baskets, one with tiny cubes of blessed bread and one for an offering.   This is not Holy Communion.  Take one or two pieces and consume the bread before leaving church.  The bread is blessed so try not drop any crumbs!   This festal bread is a symbol of Christ as the Living Bread of Life.   We consume this bread with faith and express our trust in Christ.  The oil placed on your forehead is also blessed and a beautiful fragrance has been added by the priest.   Enjoy this special blessing !

We hope this is helpful in alleviating any hesitation you may have in trying a new experience of attending one of our Byzantine Liturgies or services.  We welcome all visitors and encourage you to introduce yourself and ask further questions.   Be sure to join us during Lent at one of our Sunday Vesper Services.  The service is an opportunity to experience Byzantine chant style in a setting where visitors from many parishes join together.   CLICK HERE for more information.

Traditional Greetings said during Liturgical Seasons:

  • “Christ is Among Us”         Response: “He is and always will be”  (General)
  • “Christ is Risen”                Response: “Indeed He is risen!”  (Easter)
  • “Christ is Born!”                 Response:  “Glorify Him”   (Christmas)

“Glory to Jesus Christ!”    “Glory to Him forever!”