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Religious history (1)
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(1) Rite, Language, Religion
These are three things that must always be distinguished.
A rite is a certain uniform arrangement of formulae and ceremonies used for the
Holy Eucharist, the Canonical Hours, the administration of other sacraments and
sacramentals. These offices, as far as we know, have never been performed in the
same way throughout Christendom. There have always been different rites, equally
legitimate, used in different places by Christians. Obviously each rite was originally
composed in some language.
But rite is not language; the various rites cannot be classified according
to their languages. There are many different rites in the same language; on the
other hand the same rite, remaining the same in every detail, is constantly translated.
Except those of the Armenians, Nestorians, and Abyssinians, all Eastern liturgies
were originally written in Greek. Even the exceptions are only modified derivations
from Greek originals. If, then, we take the language in which a rite was originally
composed as our test, we must describe all Eastern liturgies as Greek. Indeed,
the two great Western parent rites (of Rome
and Gaul) represent, as a matter of fact, modified developments from Greek originals
too. So we should come to the conclusion that every rite in the Church, every
historic liturgy in Christendom is a Greek Rite. If, on the other hand, we make
our test present use in the Greek language, we must separate the Byzantine Liturgy
said in Greek at Constantinople
from what is word for word the same service said in Old Slavonic at St. Petersburg.
It is clear then that language is no clue as to rite. At the head
of all Eastern liturgies, foundations of two great classes, are the Liturgies
of Alexandria and Antioch.
They are not only different rites, their difference underlies the fundamental
distinction by which we divide all others into two main groups; and both are Greek.
And the same Byzantine Liturgy is used unchanged in about fourteen different languages.
A second false criterion that must be eliminated is that of religion.
It would be convenient for classification if members of each Church used the same
rite different from that of any other Church. But this is by no means the case.
The historic origin and legal position of the various rites is a much more complicated
question. The same liturgies (but for a few modifications made by the Roman authorities
in the interest of dogma) are shared by the various schismatical Churches. Indeed,
Catholics and Schismatics often use the same books. The Orthodox Church, that
has for many centuries aimed at an ideal of uniformity in the Byzantine Rite (in
different languages), till the thirteenth century used those of Alexandria
and Antioch too. Now she
has restored the Antiochene Liturgy for certain rare occasions. Other schismatical
bodies have, it is true, each its own rite, though this rite generally contains
alternative liturgies. It will be seen then that these three points are three
quite different questions that must not be confused. In the case of any Christian
bishop or priest we may ask: what is his Church or sect, what rite does he use
and in what language? And the answers may represent all kinds of combinations.
A Catholic may use the Roman Rite in Old Slavonic, the Alexandrine Rite in Coptic,
the Byzantine in Georgian. An Orthodox priest may use the Byzantine Rite in Arabic
(2) The Essential Note of a Rite
We have seen then that neither its language nor the sect
of people who use it can be taken as essential to a rite. The real note that defines
it is the place where it was composed. All rites had their origin in some one
place or city that was an ecclesiastical centre for the country round. After the
service had been put together and used here, by a natural process of imitation
churches around began to copy the order observed in the great town. The greater
the influence of the city where the rite arose, the more widely the rite spread.
It was not a question of inherent advantages. No one thought of choosing the rite
that seemed most edifying or beautiful or suitable. People simply copied their
The rites were formed at first in the patriarchal cities: Rome,
had already given hers to Antioch.
The bishops of each patriarchate naturally thought that they could not do better
than celebrate the holy mysteries in the same way as their patriarch. We know
in the West how, long before there were any laws on the subject, every one began
to copy what was done at Rome.
It seemed safest to follow Rome
in the matter. So it was in the East with regard to their patriarchal sees. Local
customs are gradually suppressed in favour of the patriarch's way of doing things.
It was a sign of adherence to the Catholic centre - Alexandria,
Constantinople, or whichever
it might be - to agree entirely with it in rite. Lastly come laws determining
The Roman Rite is used throughout the Roman patriarchate, by the clergy
subject to the pope as their patriarch, and only by them; the Alexandrine Rite
belongs to Egypt - where
the patriarch of Alexandria
has jurisdiction; that of Antioch
to Syria; that of Constantinople
to the Byzantine territory. Such was the principle for many centuries everywhere.
But a rite in spreading out from the patriarchal city where it was composed does
not itself change. Since the invention of printing, especially, and the later
tendency to stereotype every detail of the sacred functions, each rite, wherever
used, is made to conform rigidly with its standard form as used in the central
The real distinction of rites is not by language nor by the religion
of those who may use them, but according to the places where they were composed.
The correct and scientific way of describing any rite, therefore, is always by
the name of a place. Thus we have the Roman and Gallican Rites in the West; in
the East the Rites of Alexandria,
etc. This is the really essential note of any rite, that it keeps even when translated
into other languages.
(3) What is a Greek Rite?
An obvious corollary of what has been said is that we had much better
never speak of a “Greek Rite” at all. Like the cognate expression
“Greek Church” it is a confused and unscientific term, the use of
which argues that the speaker has a mistaken conception of the subject. What is
called a Greek Rite will always be the rite of some city - Alexandria
or Constantinople, and so
on. If one wishes to emphasize the fact that the Greek language is used for it,
that statement may be added. At Athens
and Constantinople they use
the Byzantine Liturgy; it may be worth while to add that they use it in Greek,
since at St. Petersburg and
Sofia they follow exactly
the same rite in Old Slavonic.
The name Greek Rites, however, still too commonly used, applies to
the three classical Eastern uses whose original forms in Greek are still extant.
These are the parent rites of Alexandria
and Antioch and the widely
spread Byzantine Rite. The Alexandrine Liturgy, ascribed to St. Mark, is no longer
said in Greek anywhere. It is the source of the Coptic and Abyssinian Rites. Except
for the services of Egypt
and her daughter-Church of Abyssinia, the Greek Liturgy of St. James stands at
the head of all Eastern rites.
People who speak of the Greek Rite generally mean that of Constantinople.
The name is an unfortunate example of false analogy. We have all learnt in school
of Greek and Roman history, Greek and Roman classics and architecture, and we
know the Roman Rite. It is tempting to balance it with a Greek Rite, just as Homer
balances Virgil. How different the real situation is this article shows. The Byzantine
Rite, to which should always be given its own name, is the most widespread in
Christendom after that of Rome.
It was formed first in Cappadocia, then at Constantinople,
by a gradual process of development from that of Antioch.
The names of St. Basil (died 379) and St. John Chrysostom (died 407) are, not
altogether wrongly, attached to the chief periods of this development. From Constantinople
the rite then spread throughout by far the greater part of Eastern Christendom.
As the power of the patriarchs of the imperial city grew, so did they
gradually succeed in imposing their use on all bishops in communion with them.
Now, except for the two insignificant exceptions noted above, the Byzantine Rite
is used throughout the Orthodox Church. The Use of Constantinople
is also followed by a great number of Catholic Uniats, Melchites in Syria
and Egypt and others in the
Balkans, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, Italy,
etc. These people represent the old Patriarchate of Constantinople
in the Catholic Church; but that Church has never, like her Orthodox rival, set
up a principle of uniformity in rite.
Adrian Fortescue, ed.
Transcribed by: Douglas J. Potter
This extract is cited June 2003 from The Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent online edition URL below.
The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908)