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Byzantine Basics

The Diversity of the Catholic Church

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“Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.”  Deacon intones prayer in front of the icon of the Mother of God.


There are different rites and churches within the Catholic Church.  

All who are in communion with the Pope (Bishop) of Rome form the Catholic Church; that is, the Universal Catholic Church.

Saint John Paul II had a special affinity for the diversity of the Catholic Church.  He spoke of two lungs of the Church, East and West.  The West representing the Latin (rite) Catholic Church and the East comprising different churches collectively referred to as Eastern Catholic Churches.   The entire Catholic Church is like a family tree in many ways, but one united by a common historical heritage, a common faith and the same valid Sacraments.   All of the various Churches in the Catholic Church are commissioned to maintain the richness of their own expressions of faith and theology to the benefit of all.   Each follows one of the six different rites or liturgical forms.¹   In addition, among the Eastern Catholic Churches are 23 different particular or sui iuris Churches with their own cultural traditions and heritage formed from their geographical and historical roots.  Sui iuris means autonomous or self-governing, yet these churches, as Catholic Churches are in communion with each other and with the Pope of Rome.


A Shared History of Apostolic Roots

033118 St Michael Church, Pittston

How did this diversity come about? And why is it necessary?

The apostles and disciples of Christ evangelized the gospel to different parts of the world.  They preached the same message of Christ, but to people of many varied cultures and languages.  Christianity was diverse from its very beginning.  In the eastern portion of the Roman empire, Greek was the dominant culture and language.   Whereas in the western portion, Latin became established.   

Christianity flourished in the cultural hubs of the Mediterranean.  These centers of faith were areas where communities of believers in Jesus Christ grew in number and churches were formed.  The main centers of Christianity at the time were:  Rome, Antioch (Syria), Jerusalem, and Alexandria.  From these communities, the message of the Gospel dispersed to more distant lands.  The Gospel was not limited to a few, but intended to be announced to all people.

Christian, Catholic and orthodox from the beginning

As Christianity spread, the language and culture of the various geographical regions influenced liturgical expressions wherever churches were established.  While these influences led to differences in expression, the core elements  – the structure of liturgy, the primacy of apostolic succession, and  adherence to essential teachings established through the major Church Councils were a common bond of the universality of the Church.  The Catholic Church preserves this expansive diversity, as One Holy and Apostolic Church, the Church established by Jesus Christ. 

Finally, it should be noted that Eastern Orthodox churches, those not united with the Catholic Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) do share much in common with the Catholic Church.  Eastern Orthodox churches have a common history with the Catholic Church, in having apostolic roots and an unbroken apostolic succession of Holy Orders and the Sacraments of the Church.  This means that Eastern Orthodox churches have the same valid Sacraments.  In addition, Eastern rite Catholic Churches often share parallel liturgical and cultural expressions (practices) representative of the geographical roots of their Orthodox brothers and sisters in Christ.


A Common Belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

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The sum and summit of the Catholic Church and what unites its believers is the Eucharist.  This is the mystery of the Holy Sacrifice given to the Church by Jesus at the Last Supper wherein bread and wine are transformed, consecrated, into His Real Presence  — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist.  The Eucharist is what unites the faithful and the entire community of saints — past, present and future — to the Living Body of Jesus Christ.  Our Life in Christ is the Eucharist.  And Jesus definitively states in Holy Scripture, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”  (Gospel of John, Chapter 6, verse 53).  In the Words of Jesus, we find he was not referring to this Living Body, the Eucharist, merely as a symbol or metaphor.  God does not expect us to comprehend something that the limits of our minds cannot, but rather to believe in faith.  This is why Eastern Catholics refer to all of the Sacraments of the Church as “Mysteries”.

The belief in the Real Presence is what distinguishes Catholics and Eastern Orthodox faithful from other forms of Christian worship.   It is also why apostolic succession plays such an important role.

In Eastern Christian tradition, the term “Divine Liturgy” or simply “Liturgy” is used instead of the term “Mass”.   The word liturgy comes from Greek for public service or work.

Eastern and Latin churches share the same basic structure of  liturgy.  In Eastern churches there are three sequences in each Divine Liturgy:  The Liturgy of Preparation or Offering (Proskomedia), Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of Sacrifice or Eucharist.

St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church, Pittston, is an Eastern Catholic Church of the Byzantine rite, with Carpatho-Rusyn (Ruthenian) traditions. Use the search box on the home page to find more on the history of our Carpatho-Rusyn heritage.

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

What will I experience?

The Divine Liturgy and all Byzantine Catholic services are a dialogue of prayer, from the priest, deacons and parishioners in the form of hymns or chant.   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 leads the faithful in singing.   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, you can simply proceed to a pew.  You may make the sign of the cross and / or bow slighly before entering the pew.   Byzantine Catholics do not genuflect.  Bowing is the norm instead.  After entering the pew, you may either kneel to say your prayers before Liturgy, or if comfortable stand in place to pray.  You will observe people doing either, which is acceptable in our parish custom.  The proper church “etiquette” for Byzantine Catholics, though, 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.

We venerate icons by kissing the icon *** (see footnote).  It is fine to kiss any part of the icon but not really polite to kiss the face.   Children at an early age can be taught this, and may be lifted up by a parent 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 a practicing Catholic who in not in a state of mortal sin, as in any other Catholic church, you may receive Holy Communion in a Byzantine Catholic church.    Holy Communion is received in both species.  It is the real Presence of God.  In the Byzantine church, Holy Communion is in the form of small cubes of bread placed in a chalice with wine and a small amount of water.

If you do not wish to receive Communion that is perfectly acceptable.  Remain seated until all going to Communion have received, and then stand up when the entire congregation stands.  Remember, standing is a posture showing respect and honor in Eastern churches.

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. *** (see footnote)

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.  Do not extend your tongue.  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.   Move to a space  away from the priest.  You may follow what others do in making the sign of the cross in front of the icon screen.  Go 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?

The order of the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist) has been followed and retained in Eastern Churches from earliest times.   In our Byzantine Catholic church, infants are baptized, then immediately following are “chrismated” receiving the seal of the Holy Spirit, followed by receiving a small amount of Holy Communion.   The priest performs all 3 Sacraments in this order.  It was only much later in the history of the Catholic Church of the Western or Latin rite that these Sacraments were “separated”, with First Eucharist and then Confirmation being reserved until children were older for various reasons.    In Eastern churches however, since infants have already partaken of Holy Communion following their Baptism and Christmation, they continue to receive Holy Communion without interruption regardless of age.

In Byzantine and Orthodox traditions, the practice never changed from the original form in preserving a view of the “awesome mysteries” of our faith and in the power and spiritual graces these Sacraments bestow.   In addition, 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 also participate in traditional catechetical instruction.   This formation continues along with a formal ceremony of “First Penance” with Holy Communion at an age similar to Latin Rite practices.

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.  During Lent (called the Great Fast), a more pronounced form of deeply spiritual bowing or type of kneeling, called a prostration, is the traditional form practiced in the Eastern churches.

Do I sit or do I stand?

When new, it’s best to follow what others do.  While the books for a service may indicate when to sit/stand, the guiding principle is observe, to stand or sit based on what is taking place in “real time”.  Even seasoned Byzantine Catholics may sometimes mix up when to sit/stand.  It is a matter of adjusting to what is happening in the moment.

Incensing the People and the ChurchIncensing:  The deacon or priest will often incense the people or church at different times.   The proper posture is to always stand during any incensing.   You can return to sitting after the incensing ends.  Again, just follow the lead of others present.  In blessings with incense, such as at the start of Liturgy, everyone should make a slight bow or sign of the cross.   Whenever a deacon is present, the deacon will usually incense the church, congregation, and icons during different parts of the Liturgy.   The incensing of the congregation present for liturgies is to remind all who are baptised they are created in the image of Christ and are temples of the Holy Spirit.  Through the graces we receive in the Sacraments of the Church we are in the process of growing closer to God in holiness (Theosis).

Litanies:  Litanies are a series of chanted prayer petitions.   The congregation usually sits during these prayers that often carry a response of “Lord have mercy”.

Blessings by the priest:  When the priest turns to bless the congregation with his hand, cross, chalice, gospel book –  the posture is to stand.  There are a few exceptions that may occur, such as during Lenten services when kneeling is allowed.

Why isn’t there an organ, piano, guitar or other musical instrument in use?

In Byzantine churches, singing is our form of prayer.  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 humility and willingness to try more than our fear of what others may think.  Unless there is a physical reason, we should make every attempt to participate in this way.  Our ancestors did not have the means other than use of their own voices to 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.  We are engaged when we participate in this way.  In singing, we are united with each other as a parish family, along with the priest, the communion of saints, heavenly hosts, and with God in the timeless mystery of our offering of praise and in the 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.  The sign of the cross is a physical demonstration of our personal belief in the salvation promised to us by Jesus in his death on a cross and in his resurrection.  Each time we make the sign of the cross we acknowledge the mystery of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  It is no small action to actively participate in this way during the Divine Liturgy.  We bless ourselves in response to every time the priest faces us and offers blessings that we graciously receive.  Making the sign of the cross this often is a wonderful practice to try !  It means we are paying attention and not passive! But actually, it is a personal expression of 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.   What matters is that making the cross is meaningful.

Why is everyone in line approaching the priest after Liturgy to get blessed ?  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.  

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!” 

¹The following list shows the six rites of the Catholic Church.

Latin (Western) Catholic Church:
Latin rite

Eastern Catholic Churches:
Armenian rite
Alexandrian rite
Byzantine rite
East Syrian or Chaldean rite
West Syrian or Antiochene rite

*** (Footnote) *** 

At this time, Byzantine Catholic churches — specifically St. Michael the Archangel, Pittston, and St. Nicholas of Myra, Swoyersville, Pennsylania — continue to follow precautions as a common sense response in keeping with COVID / infection prevention practices. 

For Holy Communion:  Individual wooden spoons are used for each recipient and all of the “used” spoons are burned.  This is the Church’s acceptable method of disposal.  

For Veneration of icons:  Kissing them is not permitted and not encouraged.  Faithful can simply bow and make the sign of the cross instead. 

There is no indication of when or if these new practices will be lifted in the near future.