The Melkite rite

When I was in college, it was not easy for priests of the Roman rite to obtain permission to function liturgically in any other rite — except in the case of Benedictines.

Such permission had to come from Rome, and the Vatican much more readily allowed Benedictine priests to celebrate the liturgy in the Eastern rites because Benedictines are considered the traditional guardians of the liturgy.

Permitting Benedictine priests of the Roman rite to follow the Eastern rite on occasion was a way to protect the great liturgical treasure of the Eastern Church.

When I was a student at St. Bernard College in Alabama, five monks of the Benedictine abbey that ran the college received Vatican permission to celebrate the liturgy in the Melkite rite. Practically speaking, it enabled them to assist in nearby Melkite parishes. It also charged them with the responsibility of learning the Melkite liturgy and doing it right.

They took a rarely used small meeting room in the monastery and rather artfully transformed it into a Melkite church. They scheduled a Melkite Divine Liturgy, as Mass is called, for every Sunday morning. To do it right, they organized a choir and servers. Somehow, I made both lists. I learned to serve the Melkite Divine Liturgy, and I learned to sing the hymns and responses.

For three years of college, I attended the Divine Liturgy in that little Melkite church every single Sunday. Beyond that lovely setting, admittedly somewhat exotic for me given my thoroughly Roman rite background, Catholics in this country and across the world were quite wound up, trying to adapt to the changes in the Roman rite being put into effect by Pope Paul VI at the behest of the Second Vatican Council.

Priests and laity alike, and not just a few, not only disapproved the switch from Latin to English, but they outright resented it.

It was as if the Apostle Peter had used a facsimile of a missal printed in 1960 when he presided at first century A.D. celebrations of the Eucharist! Not uncommonly, Roman rite priests refused ever to concelebrate.

Being a student of Benedictines, and admiring both their devotion to, and precision in, the Latin worship of the Church, I had a sense of the attachment so many Catholics felt for the old. Some of my relatives felt it strongly. After all, the Latin liturgy had nourished great saints, and my own ancestors, for many long centuries.

Still, being each weekend at the Melkite liturgy at the abbey made me think. Melkite Communion was under both forms, and it always had been. The liturgy was celebrated in English. There was no unbroken history of a set liturgical language. The five monks often concelebrated, nothing unusual in the Melkite rite.

Yet, the Melkite Eucharist was completely Catholic. We prayed each time for the pope. The Melkite bishops were responsible to him.

The Melkite rite is very, very old. Its origins reach back to the earliest days of Christianity. Were politics, and the fortunes of war, different a millennium ago, we American Catholics might be worshipping according to it or another of the Eastern rituals.

That college student experience gave me a perspective precisely when Catholics were trying, indeed struggling, to accept liturgical change in the Church. The Roman rite, and its Latin expression, are among the most magnificent testaments by humans to the greatness of God in history. It has evolved and evolved. It is not the only way, however, that faithful Catholics over the years have worshipped.

I wish all Catholics of the Roman rite could have been with me those Sunday mornings now many years ago.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.