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Intro to Eastern Rite Catholicism
Monday, January 12, 2009

Initiation Rituals and Membership

Reception of the Rites of Initiation constitutes membership in the Church. The Rites of Initiation are Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation. All three sacraments are given at birth. The Catechumens, those professing a formal desire to enter the Church, are considered specially bound to the Church and receive her protection, guidance, and prayers.

In the United States, there are approximately 472,000 Eastern Rite Catholics.


The Catholic Church is composed of Western Rite Churches (most notably, the Roman Catholic Church, rooted in Rome) and Eastern Rite Churches, which is derived from one of five other ancient Christian traditions. These traditions (Constantinopolitan) are the Byzantine, Alexandrian, Antiochene, Armenian, and Chaldean (East Syrian) Rites. The Roman Catholic Church is also referred to as the Latin Rite or Roman Rite Church.

There are approximately twenty-two autonomous Eastern Rite Churches, originating from the five Eastern traditions, which are in union with the Roman Catholic Church meaning that they recognize the authority of the pope. There are other autonomous churches from the five Eastern traditions which are not in union with Rome, often referred to as Orthodox Christian churches. The Orthodox Churches are to Eastern Rite Catholics what Protestants are to Western Rite Catholics.

The Christian faith which originated in Jerusalem spread to Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome. Each of these churches expressed one faith, but maintained different liturgies, laws, and theological expressions. Most of the Eastern Churches at one time separated from Rome. One separation was called the Great Schism of 1054. A partial reunification occurred in subsequent years forming the Eastern Rite Churches of today.

In the United States, the following Eastern Catholic Rites are found: Antiochene Rite (Maronites), Byzantine Rite (Ukrainians, Ruthenians, Greek Melkites, Romanians, and Belarussians), and the Armenian Rite. Members of other rites fall under the local Roman Catholic bishop. Another Eastern Catholic Rite is the Syro-Malabar Rite from India.

In addition to Eastern Catholic Rites, there are several Western Catholic Rites as well. They are the Ambrosian (Mirian), Mozarabic (Toledo), Lyonnais, and Braga. Members of these rites follow the Latin or Roman Rite when they are away from the area in which they practice.



Icons are of great significance for the Eastern Rite Catholic. The purpose of icons is to create reverence in worship and the icons serve as an existential link between the worshiper and God. Icons have been called prayers, hymns, and sermons in form and color. They are the visual Gospel. As St. Basil said, “What the word transmits through the ear, the painting silently shows through the image, and by these two means, mutually accompanying one another...we receive knowledge of one and the same thing.”

The icon is a link between the human and divine. It provides a space for the mystical encounter between the person before it and God. It becomes a place for an appearance of Christ, the Theotokos, or the Saints provided one stands before the icon with the right disposition of heart and mind. It creates a place of prayer. An icon participates in the event it depicts and is almost a recreation of the event existentially for the believer.

The icon offers an external human expression of the holy transfigured state, of a body filled with the Holy Spirit. By omitting everything irrelevant to the spiritual figure, the figure becomes stylized, spiritualized, not unrealistic but supra-realistic. The icon figure is thereby set aside from all other forms of art. As S. Bulgakov said, “By the blessing of the icon of Christ, a mystical meeting of the faithful and Christ is made possible.”

Byzantine iconography, for example, refers to the distinct tradition and style embodied in Orthodox religious images painted during the Byzantine Empire which lasted from the 5th century to the fall of its capital, Constantinople, in the year 1453.

See the Introduction to Roman Catholicism for an explanation of other theological points.