What differentiates the liturgies of the Eastern Catholic churches from the Latin Church? What accounts for such differences? And why do those differences matter? 

Recently, Our Sunday Visitor put those questions to two of America’s foremost experts on Eastern-rite Catholicism: Paulist Father Ron Roberson, author of “The Eastern Christian Churches” (Pontifical Oriental Institute, $19.95) and associate director of the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Father Mark Morozowich, a Byzantine priest and assistant professor of liturgical studies at The Catholic University of America.  

Here’s what they had to say. 

Our Sunday Visitor: What accounts for such a multiplicity of liturgical rites within the Catholic Church? 

Father Mark Morozowich: The answer to that question goes back to the very beginnings of the Church. The Church was founded in Jerusalem by apostles who didn’t have a liturgical book. Jesus didn’t hand out missals and say, “Here’s what you do.” He celebrated the Last Supper and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” So the first Christians gathered together to commemorate Jesus’ death through the reading of the Scriptures and the celebration of the Eucharist. Likewise, they drew on known prayer patterns in their worship. For example, just as the Jews prayed at fixed periods of time during the day, so, too, did the Christians pray at fixed periods of time. That pattern has become today’s Liturgy of the Hours. Paul and the other early missionaries took these basic beliefs and practices and spread them throughout the lands. Centers of Christianity sprang up — Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome — and started influencing how the Christian community and its liturgical life grew and developed in different cities and regions.  

OSV: So you had similar, but not the same, liturgies being celebrated in different parts of Christendom? 

Father Morozowich: Exactly. And because of the persecution of the Church, these communities were reluctant to write many things down. Liturgy was transmitted primarily through oral tradition. Only later, when greater freedoms were given to the Church under Constantine, do we start to find more liturgical sources. Then, within little more than a century, the Church begins to fraction, to splinter. The Nestorians, the Jacobites, the Monophysites and, eventually, the break between Constantinople and Rome — all these controversies pulled the Church apart. 

OSV: When and how did that splintering reverse itself? 

Father Ron Roberson: For the first 500 years or so after the split between Rome and Constantinople, there were virtually no Catholics who were not of the Latin tradition. With only a couple of exceptions, the Eastern churches were not in communion with Rome. After the Council of Trent, however, some communities were brought into the Church. This has continued through the centuries, sometimes through missionary activity, but sometimes simply because groups within the separated churches, for their own reasons, asked to be received.  

OSV: So, as portions of the separated churches have been received back into communion with Rome, they’ve brought with them their own liturgical rites and traditions? 

Father Roberson: Yes. Again, these traditions developed many centuries ago. A great many are Orthodox in their lineage, but they are just as authentic as the Latin-rite traditions of the West. In fact, many of them predate the Latin traditions. It’s important for Western Catholics to understand that there never was a time in the Church when everything was uniform. There has always been diversity in the ways Christians worship. The different liturgical, canonical and theological traditions of the various churches are seen as complementary to one another. No one tradition possesses the fullness of the faith or expresses the faith better.  

OSV: What are some of the primary ways that liturgical rites of the Eastern churches differ from those of the Latin Church? 

Father Morozowich: In terms of the basic structure, they’re very similar. Like the Roman rite, they have an entrance procession, the Liturgy of the Word, the Presentation of the Gifts, the Eucharistic Liturgy, distribution of Communion, and concluding rituals. It’s in the details that you find the differences. For example, the Eastern liturgies are all chanted. There is no silence. Likewise, in the Byzantine churches, you have commingling of the species at Communion. The Most Precious Body and Most Pure Blood are given together via spoon. Also, in the Byzantine tradition we use leavened bread, risen bread, as a sign that Christ is alive and resurrected. In many of the Eastern churches, the typical stance for the faithful on Sundays follows the instruction of the Council of Nicaea, that the faithful are to stand in reverence on the Day of Resurrection. Similarly, the priest and people all face the same direction during portions of the liturgy. That underlines that we are all part of one community praying to God. Another important difference is that when we recite the creed, we don’t use the filioque clause. In other words, we say the Spirit proceeded “from the Father.” We don’t add, “and the Son.”

OSV: What about in terms of the sacraments? 

Father Morozowich: The sacraments are the same, but in many of the Eastern churches the sacraments of initiation are celebrated together. Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist can be received at the same time at any age. There’s no requirement or discipline that the newly initiated must wait until the age of reason. There are other small differences as well, such as in the marriage rituals. In the Byzantine Church there is a crowning tradition. The couple is given a crown that has been devised either of laurel leaves or metal as a sign of their victory over concupiscence.  

OSV: How are the liturgical rites of East and West complementary to each other? 

Father Roberson: In some ways it’s a question of emphasis. The West generally emphasizes simplicity. There aren’t too many frills in the liturgy. In the East, the liturgy is marked more by a sense of mystery and awe, with more use of candles, incense and chant. Each in its own way sheds light on something that is beyond our conception.  

OSV: How different are the various rites in the Eastern Church? What major differences separate one liturgical family from another? 

Father Morozowich: Again, most are simple differences within the liturgy. The structures are all the same in terms of development. The prayers are often different. The musical traditions vary, as does the sacred art. 

OSV: How have the Eastern and Western churches influenced one another? 

Father Morozowich: In common parlance, icons are only thought of as Byzantine, but when we look at certain Romanesque churches, we see many frescos on the wall that reflect the iconographic understanding of sacred art and its normative place within church architecture. Likewise, especially in the wake of Vatican II, the Eastern churches have followed the Western Church’s lead in such practices as frequency of Communion, emphasizing the importance of liturgical studies, and also emphasizing the importance of scriptural preaching.  

OSV: At times, however, the Western Church’s influence of the Eastern churches hasn’t been as respectful as it should have been, correct? 

Father Morozowich: Yes, this has been referred to as Latinization, a process by where liturgical traditions and practices of the Latin Church were forced on the Eastern churches. These were practices such as monstrances or bells ringing that were not in keeping with each liturgy’s organic development. Also, in some places, the Latin Church forced Eastern churches to split apart the sacraments of initiation, most commonly delaying the reception of the Eucharist until the age of reason. The Vatican has since made clear that the Eastern churches should not do this, that they should return to the proper oriental tradition. Likewise, the Second Vatican Council’s decree for Eastern churches specifically asked them to renew their liturgical life in keeping with their own particular patrimony.  

OSV: Why is that recovery so important? 

Father Morozowich: When we look at liturgies, we can see that liturgy is rather like a language. And just as a particular language has certain uses of articles, so, too, do liturgies have certain symbol systems. If we want to be attentive to the flow and intricate development of the liturgy, we need to make sure that the symbolic system has not been tampered with. 

OSV: What do the rich variety of liturgical rites tell us about our Catholic faith? 

Father Morozowich: When we think of the word Catholic, we can see that it really means universal. The variety of liturgical rites is a sign of the universality of the Church. It’s a realization of its commitment to ecumenism. Likewise, even though some of these churches are very small, a minority within the whole, they are a sharp witness to the diversity of Christian tradition and a reminder of our history. Assyrians and Chaldean Catholics are few in number now, but at one time the Church in Persia was far greater than the Church in the Roman Empire. These churches are reminders of the variety of people that have worshipped God in different places and different ways. Finally, it helps to challenge a monolithic understanding of the faith. Sometimes people fall into the habit of thinking of liturgy as something that was given to us by Christ at the Last Supper and stayed the same until Vatican II. That’s not true. Changes have gone on and will continue to go on through the centuries.

Read main In Focus article "The richness of Catholic rites" here