In recent times we have unfortunately heard more about the Christian communities in many of the countries of the Near East because of their threatened or precarious status. Many Catholics in the United States may have been surprised to learn that Christian communities, many established in apostolic times, have in fact continued to exist in areas whose populations are now largely Muslim. Further confusing the situation for many American Catholics are the unfamiliar sounding names of some of the communities. At the end of last month Pope Francis visited Egypt. In addition to meeting with Muslim leaders, Pope Francis also met with Christian leaders, including some who are Coptic Orthodox (and separated from us as Catholics) and some who are Coptic Catholic (who are united with us as Catholics).
The Universal Catholic Communion consists of twenty-three sui iuris Churches: The Roman Catholic Church and twenty-two other Churches known collectively as Eastern Catholic Churches. Each of the twenty-three Churches has a hierarchy which enjoys a self-governing power that has either been expressly conceded or recognized by the supreme church authority; these ecclesial groupings are called churches sui iuris (literally, “of their own right”). They recognize one another as being united in one profession of faith, united under one supreme authority, sharing is one sacramental life, with each being an expression of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. In some cases this bond of communion was severed for some time, only to be reestablished at a later date. Membership in the Catholic Church is never “at large”; instead a person is a member of a specific church sui iuris. Each of the twenty-two Eastern Catholic Churches observes a rite, i.e., a body of liturgy, theology, spirituality, and discipline, derived from one of the five Eastern traditions: Alexandrian, Antiochene, Armenian, Chaldean, and Constantinopolitan.
Within the Catholic Church, the presence, distinction, and importance of the Eastern Churches was unfortunately under recognized for many years, even centuries, by those in the West. This began to change substantially when, during the Second Vatican Council, the council issued the decree Orientalium Ecclesiarum (Decree on the Eastern Churches) in which it affirmed that it held, “in high esteem the institutions, liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and the established standards of the Christian life of the Eastern Churches” (no. 1) and that it, “solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, as much as those of the West, have a full right and are in duty bound to rule themselves, each in accordance with its own established disciplines, since all these are praiseworthy by reason of their venerable antiquity, more harmonious with the character of their faithful and more suited to the promotion of the good of souls” (no. 5). The establishment of a permanent synod of bishops following the Second Vatican Council for the universal Church was a clear instance of the history and traditions of the Eastern Churches being allowed to influence the direction of the universal Church. Pope St. John Paul II, during his pontificate, reinforced this message when he spoke on numerous occasions of the need for the Catholic Church to “breathe with both lungs,” i.e. to incorporate within itself the inspiration and genius of both east and west.
The United States, being, like most nations of the western hemisphere, a nation of immigrants, has within itself both Roman Catholics and Catholics of several of the Eastern Catholic Churches. There are 18 established hierarchies of Eastern Churches in the United States (2 archeparchies, 15 eparchies, and one exarchate) from 10 different Eastern Churches (Byzantine-Ruthenian, Ukrainian, Maronite, Chaldean, Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara, Armenian, Melkite, Syriac, and Romanian Churches).
Within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston there are a number of parishes and missions of various Eastern Catholic Churches. These parishes then, are not Catholic parishes that are not a part of our archdiocese; rather, they are under the jurisdiction of one of those 18 Eastern circumscriptions. In Houston, these include a Ukrainian Catholic parish, a Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic parish, and a Maronite parish. Also, there are two Syro-Malabar Catholic communities in Missouri City (a Malayalam speaking community and a Knanayan community), and a Syro-Malankara community in Stafford. The Roman Catholics of our Archdiocese are enriched by the presence, witness, and collaboration of these our Catholic sisters and brothers. It is important to remember that these are communities of Catholic Churches with whom we have full communion and therefore all Catholics are welcome not only to attend their liturgies but to share fully in the sacraments. Our own Cardinal Archbishop, with his own deep love of the Eastern Churches, has made it his practice regularly to visit these local eastern communities and to give visible testimony to our full communion by sharing together with them in the sacraments.
As we hear news of the situation of Coptic Catholics in Egypt, Syriac, Melkite, Armenian and Maronite Catholics in Syria, and Chaldean Catholics in Iraq we do well to remember the bonds of communion that unite us to them and to pray for them and their safety.