The richness of Catholic rites

Greater understanding of why we say and do what we say and do. 

That’s what the U.S. bishops hope the next few months will bring. As the Church in America and the rest of the English-speaking world prepares for the new translation of the Roman Missal — the translation we’ll start hearing Nov. 27 — the bishops want Catholics to acquire more than simple knowledge of what we’ll say during the liturgy. They also want us to acquire a fuller understanding of why we’ll say it. They want us to appreciate the depths of meaning and history behind the smallest of gestures and the plainest of words. 

Before we can do that, however, we have to take a step back and see the words we pray at Mass in context, as part of a larger tradition of Christian worship, a tradition that is as rich and diverse as the Body of Christ itself.  

To worship according to the Roman Missal is, in fact, just one of the many ways Catholics worship. There isn’t just one rite in the Catholic Church. There is a multiplicity of rites, equally valid, equally beautiful, equally true. Together, these varied forms of the sacred liturgy bear witness to the universality of the Catholic faith. They remind us of the richness of our beliefs. They also remind us that what we believe may be reasonable, but it is also a mystery, a mystery that no one formula, phrase or creed can fully express.  

The Church, as Blessed Pope John Paul II famously said, must breathe with two lungs, East and West, to truly be the witness Christ calls it to be. Accordingly, as part of Our Sunday Visitor’s ongoing series on the new translation of the Roman Missal, this installment shines the spotlight on the liturgical rites that won’t be changing, namely the rites of the Eastern churches.  

Although most Catholics worship according to the Roman rite, there are millions who worship according to different rites. And the more we appreciate their worship, the more we can appreciate our own.  

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Eastern Catholic Churches (sidebar)

Chaldean: Largest concentration of Chaldean Catholics is in Iraq, but they can also be found in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, France and the United States.  

Syro-Malabar: Found mainly in Kerala, India, the rite was heavily Latinized, but efforts have been made to restore it based on East Syrian sources. 

Armenian: Largest concentrations of Armenian Catholics are in Beirut, Lebanon, and Aleppo, Syria, but they can also be found in Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia. 

Coptic: Found mainly in Egypt, the Coptic Catholic Church has seven dioceses. 

Ethiopian/Eritrean: About a quarter of a million Catholics celebrate in three dioceses in Ethiopia and three in Eritrea. 

Syriac: Largely found in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The common language is Arabic, although Syriac is still spoken in a few villages in eastern Syria and northern Iraq. 

Syro-Malankara: Found primarily in Kerala, India, the Church is served by 600 priests, 130 male religious and 1,740 women religious. 

Maronite: Found in Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Egypt, Brazil, the United States, Canada and Australia, the Maronite liturgy is of West Syrian origin, but it has been influenced by the East Syrian and Latin traditions. 

Italo-Albanian: More than 60,000 faithful celebrate in two dioceses in Southern Italy. 

Melkite: Found mainly in Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, the Americas, Europe, Australia. 

Ukrainian: Church suffered suppression under Soviet rule. Found in Ukraine, Poland, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Western Europe. 

Ruthenian: Originating in extreme western Ukraine, these Catholics prefer to be called Rusyns and can be found in Ukraine, the United States and Czech Republic.  

Romanian: Greek Catholic Church in Romania suffered under communist rule, and it wasn’t until 1990 that Romanian Catholics could worship openly again. Found in Canada, the United States and Australia, in addition to Romania. 

Greek: Formation of Byzantine Catholic community began in 1829, after restrictions were removed. Their presence aroused anger of local Orthodox hierarchy, but they persisted. Located in Greece and Turkey. 

Bulgarian: Formed in the 1860s by influential Bulgarian Orthodox in Constantinople, the community suffered during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and was reorganized by the Holy See in 1926. Community later suffered under communist rule, but now may worship freely. 

Slovak: Their history is intertwined largely with the Ruthenian Catholics, and they can be found in Slovakia and Canada. 

Hungarian: Originally forced to celebrate in Greek, the Church struggled to be allowed to have their liturgies in Hungarian. By the 1940s, its churches had all begun to use Hungarian. There are now 175 Greek Catholic parishes in Hungary, served by 265 priests and 11 women religious. 

Other communities: Georgian, Albanian, Russian, Belarusian, former Yugoslavia. 

Source: Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s website (, based on “The Eastern Christian Churches – A Brief Survey (7th edition),” by Father Ronald Roberson.

Rites of the Latin Church today (Sidebar)

The diversity within the Catholic Church’s liturgical rites isn’t simply the diversity of East and West. Within the Western (or Latin) Church itself, there is still diversity. The rites of the Latin Church include: 

The Roman rite: By far the most common rite in use in the Latin Church, this is the rite according to which most Catholics in the United States, Latin America, Europe and Africa worship. There are two forms of the Roman rite: 1) The ordinary form, in which Mass is celebrated according to the Missal of Paul VI, promulgated in 1970 and revised in 1975 and 2002, and 2) The extraordinary form, in which Mass is celebrated according to the Missal of John XXIII, promulgated in 1962. Both forms trace their origins back to the worship of fourth-century Christians in Rome. 

Anglican-Use rite: The rite is celebrated, with permission of the Holy See, by some Catholic congregations that have converted with their pastor from Anglicanism. Although doctrinal corrections have been made, these congregations primarily celebrate the sacraments according to the forms of the Anglican Church. 

Ambrosian rite: The rite of the Archdiocese of Milan, Italy, is celebrated in some but not all parishes of the archdiocese. 

Mozarabic rite: This ancient rite, once celebrated across the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal), dates back to the sixth century. For more than a millennium, most Spaniards and Portuguese have worshipped according to the Roman rite, but the Mozarabic rite is still celebrated in the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Toledo and a handful of parishes on the Peninsula. 

Braga rite: Predating the 12th century, this is the rite of the Diocese of Braga in Portugal, and is still used occasionally in liturgical celebrations. 

Dominican rite: Developed in the mid-13th century to express the spirit of the order. The friars adopted the Roman rite in the late 1960s, but the rite is still in occasional use. 

Carmelite rite: Developed in the 13th century, it is celebrated in a few communities, including the Monks of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel in Wyoming. 

Carthusian rite: Formed in the 12th century, it is noted for its simplicity compared with the Roman rite. 

Understanding Eastern-Rite Catholicism (sidebar) 

Priestly celibacy 

Unlike in the Latin Church, most Eastern Catholic churches have not made celibacy mandatory for priests. Bishops in the Eastern churches, however, are bound to celibacy and therefore are most frequently chosen from among the monastic clergy, who are vowed to celibacy. Other priests within the Eastern churches choose celibacy voluntarily. A few Eastern churches, including the Syro-Malabar Church, the Ethiopian Church and the Syro-Malankara Church, have embraced mandatory priestly celibacy, with exceptions left to the discretion of the bishop. 

Daily Eucharistic celebrations 

Unlike in the Latin rite, where daily Mass is the norm, not all Eastern churches regularly have daily Eucharistic celebrations. Traditionally, it has been the decision of individual churches whether to do so. The Byzantine Church, however, has celebrated the Eucharist daily since the 11th century, particularly in its monasteries. 

Liturgical music 

In the various Eastern-rite liturgies, music forms a much more integral part of the celebration than in the Roman rite. The vast majority of the liturgy is chanted, including the proclamation of the epistle and the Gospel, and there is little to no silence in the service. This continual singing is meant to represent the continual singing of the angels in heaven. Likewise, liturgical music is almost always unaccompanied, the human voice being considered the most fitting instrument for worship. There are some exceptions, most notably the small cymbals used in some Coptic Catholic liturgies, and most recently light use of the organ in some Eastern-rite parishes in the West. 

Although the individual melodies vary from church to church, depending on their region of origin, many Eastern churches sing the same prayers. They also place a high value on tradition when it comes to liturgical music. Although composed choral music has found a place in the Eastern churches over the last several centuries, new compositions are less common than in the Western church, as is music that bears a resemblance to popular or folk music. 

Art and architecture 

The most commonly known form of Eastern Christian art is the icon, which is an integral part of Byzantine Christianity. Icons are “written” to reflect the spiritual reality of the person or persons they depict, rather than their actual physical or intellectual qualities. By emphasizing the spiritual over the physical, they reveal how the work of God has unfolded in a person’s life. The veneration of these icons through acts of reverence, as well as their pride of place in churches and homes, is a practice long approved by the Church as a whole.  

Byzantine architecture is also distinct from Western sacred architecture in the placement of an icon screen, or iconostasis, between the sanctuary and the rest of the Church. This screen, typically painted with one or more icons, represents the place where heaven and earth meet.

Read interview with Father Ron Roberson and Father Mark Morozowich here