Eastern Catholics 101: What You Need To Know

Did you know that Roman Catholics aren’t the only type of Catholics? Many Catholics are surprised to learn this! There are some Catholics who have practices and traditions that look very different from what Roman Catholics would recognize as familiar. Who are they, and where did they come from? Let’s take a look at Roman Catholics vs. Eastern Catholics; what they have in common, what’s different, and basically just an Eastern Catholic 101 of what you need to know. 

This article is by Carrie Chuff, a Byzantine Rite Catholic mom. 

What Percentage Of Catholics Are Roman Vs. Eastern Catholics?

Although much, much smaller in number than Roman Catholics, these Catholics are Eastern Catholics, members of one of the 23 “sui juris” (or “self-governing”) Eastern Catholic Churches that exist in full communion with the Pope of Rome, and have their own unique hierarchy, spirituality, and customs. According to the most recent data, Eastern Catholics make up about 1.5% of the Catholic Church, while the rest—and vast majority!—are Roman Catholics.

Different “Rites” Of Catholicism

While Roman Catholics are considered part of the “Latin Church” and use the Roman Rite, each of the Eastern Catholic Churches use one of five different Eastern Rites:

  1. Alexandrian Rite
  2. Armenian Rite
  3. Byzantine Rite
  4. East Syriac Rite
  5. West Syriac Rite.

A “Rite” is a liturgical, theological, spiritual, and disciplinary patrimony

This means that things like the liturgy and other liturgical customs will be quite different in an Eastern Catholic parish than a Roman Catholic one!

You can find a breakdown of the different Catholic Rites here.

History Of Eastern Catholicism 

The history of how these Eastern Catholic Churches came to exist can be a bit complicated. After the Apostles received the great commission to “Go, make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), they went to various parts of the world. The Church became established in places like Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Patriarchs—Bishops of important Church Sees—were established in those places. Different practices and traditions developed in the Churches of these areas; however, communion existed
among all of them, with the Pope of Rome as the guardian of unity.

Around the year 1054, tensions and disagreements had been mounting among different Church authorities. Tragically, due to unfortunate misunderstandings, excommunications were issued between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the papal representative at the time. This resulted in what we call the Great Schism, when the Eastern Churches and the Church of Rome became split from one another, and unity and communion no longer existed between them. An important exception to this is the Maronite Church. The Maronites are an Eastern Catholic Church that use the West Syriac Rite, originating from the area around modern-day Lebanon. Although the Maronites lost communication with Rome at one point in history due to geopolitical circumstances of the time, communion was never broken, and reaffirmation of unity with Rome was made as soon as it was possible.

Eventually, Christians in the West were the ones referred to as Catholics, and Christians in the East became known as the Eastern Orthodox Christians. As the centuries moved along after the Great Schism, some Eastern Orthodox Churches in certain places decided to re-enter full communion with Rome. These became Eastern Catholic Churches; they kept the same traditions they always had, only now they were reunited with Rome. This is why many Eastern Catholic traditions and customs look similar to the ones you’d find in an Eastern Orthodox church.

Sacramental Differences

One example of the difference in Eastern Catholic practice versus Roman Catholic practice is that in most Eastern Catholic Churches, the Sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation (the Eastern Catholic term for Confirmation), and the Holy Eucharist are ordinarily administered at the same time, one after the other, to infants. Infants are baptized with full immersion, and immediately afterwards they also receive Chrismation and their First Holy Communion.

The reason for this difference goes back to the early Church. While the three Sacraments of Initiation were administered together in the first few centuries of the early Church, as they are in the Eastern Churches today, they were ordinarily administered by the Bishop. As Christians grew in number and frequent visits from the Bishops were not as possible, the Eastern Churches solved this problem by allowing priests to administer all these Sacraments. In the Roman Church, however, Confirmation began to be separated from Baptism, so as to maintain its connection to the Bishop. First reception of Holy Communion also began to be separated from Baptism and Confirmation, and the order became switched, so that Holy Communion was received before Confirmation, and reaching the age of reason became a requirement.

Eucharist and Divine Liturgy/ Mass

Another difference is reception of Holy Communion. Roman Catholics are welcome to receive Holy Communion at Eastern Catholic parishes, and attending a Divine Liturgy (the Eastern Catholic “Mass”) on Sundays or Holy Days will fulfill a Roman Catholic’s Mass obligation. But it might be helpful to know that, while Roman Catholics use unleavened bread to be consecrated for the Holy Eucharist, many Eastern Catholic Churches use leavened bread. Additionally, in many Eastern Catholic Churches, communicants receive Holy Communion from the priest on a spoon, taken from a chalice in which the Body of Christ is comingled with the Blood of Christ.

Post continues after this brief information about the Catholic Icing Monthly Membership

Monthly Liturgical Membership

Catholic Liturgical Monthly Membership

Perfect for families! Each month you gain access to printable activity pages, crafts, home altar pieces, and more.
Never has living the liturgical year been so easy and affordable!

The reason for this difference hearkens to the differences in Eastern and Western theological perspectives; differences which can exist without being incompatible with one another. Originally in the early Church, leavened bread was used for the Eucharist. Eventually, however, the Latin Church began to use unleavened bread, wanting to associate the celebration of the Eucharist with Christ’s Passover meal in which only unleavened bread could be used. Most of the Eastern Churches continued using leavened bread, because of the symbolism that more closely associated leavened bread with the Resurrection. Though these practices are different, shared belief in the Real Presence remains the same. Our Churches can maintain our authentic traditions and unique perspectives on shared theological truths, while still offering mutual respect toward one another.

Icons And Eastern Catholics

Another Eastern Catholic practice that differs from Roman Catholic practice is our use of iconography instead of statutes or other forms of sacred art. Icons are sacred images of holy people or holy events, and they are filled with rich symbolism. Each color, shape, object, and form presented in an icon has a very specific and meaningful purpose, and is painted by the iconographer according to stringent rubrics. Some may notice that icons are not painted to appear realistic, and that’s on purpose! Icons are supposed to portray heavenly realities, not earthly ones, and so the particular “style” of an icon is very intentional. Icons are seen as “windows into Heaven,” and though we respect Roman Catholics’ use of other forms of sacred art and devotion, the imagery inside our churches is almost exclusively icons only.

Can Eastern Catholic Priests Get Married?

You may also notice that many Eastern Catholic priests are married men. This can be jarring at first for Roman Catholics, who are used to priests being celibate! This long-standing tradition in the Eastern Churches arose from apostolic times, and has continued into the modern day.

It’s important to note that a priest does not marry after ordination, even if his wife dies; it simply means that, in the Eastern Churches, married men are permitted to be candidates for priesthood. This tradition was actually included in the Latin Church for many centuries; however, by the 11 th century, the priesthood in the Latin Church had become celibate-only, for various reasons. While Eastern Catholics appreciate our tradition of married priests, we similarly respect the celibate priesthood for Roman Catholics, and also revere the practice of celibacy within our own Churches, in the monks and nuns who offer their lives to God.

The “Two Lungs” Of The Church

The Christian East and West are sometimes seen as “two lungs” of the Church, both needed for the full health and well-being of Christ’s Church on earth. Though Eastern Catholic traditions are different from those of the Roman Catholic Church, those differences can still exist in harmony and unity with one another, and the Eastern Churches are considered to be of “equal dignity” to the Latin Church (Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 3). As Pope John Paul II said in Ut Unum Sint, “[T]he Church must breathe with her two lungs!” Hopefully
increased knowledge and understanding of one another can strengthen us in this goal.

Resources For Eastern Catholics

More Resources:

You can find more resources for Byzantine moms here

Author Of This Article:

Carrie Chuff is a wife and homeschooling mother of six children. As a young woman, she spent five years of formation in a Roman Catholic convent of active/contemplative religious Sisters whose apostolate included retreats and catechesis. After realizing God had other plans, she left and later met and married her husband, Derek. Eventually, they both rediscovered their Eastern Catholic heritage and embraced it fully as members of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, a Byzantine Rite Eastern Catholic Church which is in full Communion with Rome. She resides with her family in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.

You can find Carrie’s charming videos about her time in the convent and more on her TikTok page and you can follow her Instagram here.