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Byzantine Basics

The Diversity of the Catholic Church

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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 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

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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 was established.   The centers of early Christianity that all of the churches originated from were Rome, Antioch (Syria), Jerusalem, and Alexandria.  The message of the Gospel was not limited to a few, but rather meant to be spread to all cultures and all people.  Our Catholic faith unites us as One Body, One Church.

Christian and Catholic from the beginning

As Christianity spread to other areas, the language and culture of the geographical regions where Christianity grew influenced liturgical expressions.  While these influences led to differences in expression, the core elements  – the structure of liturgy, the primacy of apostolic succession, and the adherence to essential beliefs – were retained.   Some areas of the Christianized world held onto diversity more than others; but all were united in the Sacraments, beliefs, and doctrines established in the first centuries of the Catholic Church.  Catholics were the first Christians and today are in truth, the Church that preserves this unique diversity, as One Holy and Apostolic Church, the Church established by Jesus 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 all of its believers is the Eucharist.  This is the mystery of sacrifice established by Jesus at the Last Supper wherein bread and wine are transformed into His Real Presence.

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 our churches.  The Sacraments we receive are valid because of the unbroken chain of the Sacrament of Holy Orders (in the priesthood) from the Holy Spirit and through the apostles.

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 of 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.  It is fine to kiss any part of the icon but not really good etiquette to kiss the face.   Children at an early age can be taught and 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 fine.  Perhaps you may wish to receive on another visit.  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.

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.  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.

Do I sit or do I stand?

When new, it’s best to follow what others do.  While any 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 if that is a point where the parishioners normally would be sitting.   In blessings with incense, such as at the start of Liturgy, everyone should make a slight bow (not the sign of the cross).

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.  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.   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.   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!” 


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