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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 Roman Catholic 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

Often, people experiencing a Divine Liturgy in a Byzantine Catholic church comment how beautiful and uplifting the experience is.  Remarkably, many are surprised to learn there are different traditions within the Catholic Church itself, traditions that are different from their own experiences.  It is however, less remarkable, to see how this came about.

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, therefore, share a basic common early church history with other Eastern Christians.  And we share our common unity with all members of the Catholic Church.

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

What will I experience?    The Divine Liturgy (ie., “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.

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.

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 wide as if at the dentist.  Never extend your tongue.  Otherwise the priest will remind you not to.   There is no risk in receiving Holy Communion this way.

Immediately after receiving, release the cloth and step back.  Do not say Amen or make the sign of the cross in front of the priest.   You can proceed to the left or right space away from the priest and make the sign of the cross in front of the icon screen.  And finally 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 need to 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” out, with Confirmation and First Eucharist being reserved until children were older.  The idea was that it was necessary to understand the meaning of the Sacraments being received.  In the Latin rite, this developed with the influences of concepts developed in the Renaissance era, where value was placed on human reasoning and rational philosophies.  In the Byzantine and Orthodox traditions, the practice never was changed from the original form because the general focus in these churches is more mystical, meaning less of a focus on having to explain everything that is mystery.   In the Eastern and Byzantine view, if anyone is worthy of receiving the the initial Sacraments in this manner, it surely is an innocent infant or young child.  We do not withhold from them the graces God makes available to all his “children”.   Catechetical instruction of children begins at a young age and is provided by a parish catechist.  A formal ceremony of “First Penance” and Eucharist at the “age of reason” is also held, similar to the Latin rite Roman Catholic church.

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 incensing the people or church, you should stand.   You can return to sitting after the incensing ends.    Respond to the priest incensing the congregation with a slight bow.  You do not 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 in any form, whether with his hand, cross, chalice –  please rise to stand for the blessing.  There are some exceptions.

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 meek or humble or elegant.  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.   What we “put into” our worship with our own voices is among the greatest gifts of thanksgiving we can personally express to God.  

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 fear 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!” 


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