Catholic Churches, East and West

The iconostatis inside a church in Bulgaria.

We were very fortunate last night after our Wednesday fellowship dinner to be joined by Dr. David Dorondo, professor of history here at WCU, who spoke about the various Eastern Catholic Churches. Dr. Dorondo is himself a member of the Ruthenian Catholic Church.

Most of us are only familiar with the Roman Catholic Church and so tend to think of the Catholic Church as this great monolithic body. Many students were surprised to learn that there are actually quite a few Catholic Churches, all of which are in communion with the Pope in Rome. But there was some confusion about the difference between these Eastern Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches, as well as the difference between a Church and a Rite.

Let’s look into those a bit further.


A Church is an assembly of the faithful, hierarchically ordered. In other words, it’s not just a free assembly, but one under the authority of some governing order. This can be world wide, in the sense of the Church; or it can be localized in a particular geographical territory, which we would call a particular Church. In that sense, every Catholic diocese headed by a bishop is a particular Church, even though all belong to the one Catholic Church.
Beyond this, however, there are also autonomous particular Churches, what are called Churches sui iuris (literally “of its own law”). These are aggregates of local churches (dioceses or eparchies) which share common liturgical, theological and canonical traditions. These are headed by a bishop who has been given the title of a patriarch or a major archbishop.
In the West we have the one Roman Catholic Church which is governed by the Code of Canon Law, but in the East there are 23 different Churches sui iuris, which are governed by the Code of the Canons of the Eastern Churches (the most recent being the Eritrean Catholic Church, created by Pope Francis on January 19, 2015). As they follow different law, they will have different disciplines and traditions. But all of the various Eastern Churches sui iuris are in communion with the Bishop of Rome and with one another. Thus they all belong to the one universal Catholic Church. 


A Rite can refer to a particular liturgical celebration (as in the Rite of Marriage or the Rite of Baptism) or, in a broader context, an entire tradition of how the sacraments are celebrated. While the essential elements of the sacraments do not change (the Eucharist is always celebrated with wheat bread and grape wine, baptism is always conferred via water, and so forth), the particular rituals, trappings, and symbols may differ so as to convey spiritual meaning to those of different cultures. 

How is a Rite related to a Church? 

A priest of the Byzantine Rite celebrating Divine Liturgy.
A Rite is a way of doing things. A Church is an assembly of people. Sometimes a Rite will only be practiced by one particular Church. For example, the Armenian Rite is only practiced by the Armenian Catholic Church. In other cases, multiple Churches will follow the same Rite (perhaps with minor variations). For example, there are 14 different Churches that follow the Byzantine Rite, the most common of the Eastern Catholic Rites.
Sometimes a person might say, “I am a Latin Rite Catholic,” or “I am a Byzantine Rite Catholic.” Technically speaking, this is inaccurate. A person belongs to a Church not a Rite. It would be more correct to say, “I am a Ruthenian Catholic” or “I am a Roman Catholic.”
Sometimes there can be smaller Rites or variations of Rites which exist within a Church sui iuris. For example, within the Roman Church we have both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Latin Rite (what are commonly called the Novus Ordo and the Tridentine Masses). But there is also the Anglican Use Rite which is permitted to certain former Anglican communities now in union with Rome. There is the Ambrosian Rite which is only practiced in the Archdiocese of Milan. And certain religious orders have their own Rites, including the Dominicans and Carthusians. All of these Rites are practiced by members of the Roman or Latin Catholic Church.
Broadly speaking, the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches will follow one of the following Rites or a variation thereof: Alexandrian, Antiochian, Armenian, Chaldean, and Byzantine.


With so many different Eastern Rites we can only speak in generalities. But comparing the liturgy of the Latin Rite with that of the Byzantine Rite, which is followed by most Eastern Catholics, here are some differences you are likely to notice:
  • The Byzantine liturgy is entirely sung.
  • The Byzantine liturgy uses lots of incense and bells.
  • The style of vestments is different.
  • They stand for most of the liturgy.
  • Deacons in the Byzantine liturgy are a lot more active! (They are also addressed as “Father Deacon”).
  • Leavened bread is used for the Eucharist, as opposed to the unleavened bread used in the West.
  • Both species of the Eucharist (bread and wine) are mixed in the chalice and distributed to the faithful by a spoon.
  • Infants in the East are confirmed and receive Eucharist at the same time that they are baptized.
  • Eastern Churches favor icons over statues.
  • The sanctuary in Byzantine churches is enclosed by a special wall called an iconostasis.
  • The Mass is called the “Divine Liturgy.”
  • In the Byzantine liturgy, prayers are repeated often, usually in multiples of three.
  • At the end of the Divine Liturgy, bread that was not used for the Eucharist is distributed to the people to consume.
There are other differences in terms of law and custom beyond what happens in the liturgy. For example, Eastern Christians use a prayer rope that looks similar to the western Rosary, but is used for saying different prayers (the most common one being, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”). They also make the sign of the cross from right to left, as opposed to left to right the way Roman Catholics do it.
Eastern Churches also have a different discipline regarding celibacy among the clergy. Whereas in the Latin Church married men may be ordained deacons, while priests and bishops must be celibate, Eastern Churches allow married men to be ordained deacons and priests. Eastern bishops, however, are selected from among celibate priests, usually in monastic communities. In every Church, once ordained a man cannot subsequently be married.


The Eastern Catholic Churches are not the same as the Orthodox Churches, although they follow similar liturgical, canonical and spiritual traditions. Most will say the split between the Orthodox and Catholics occurred in 1054, in what has been called the Great Schism. In reality, tensions between the East and West had occurred before then. And in the centuries since the Great Schism, communion between the East and West has been reestablished and broken again on several occasions.
Pope Francis meeting with Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of
Antioch, Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
The causes for the schism are many, and have more to do with politics and differences of culture than any real theological differences (though some may disagree with that assessment). Long story short: The Patriarch of the West (aka the Pope) and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other in 1054 and things haven’t been the same since. As Constantinople was the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, most other Churches in the East followed them into schism. These became the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Some Eastern Churches, such as the Maronite Church in Lebanon, never separated from Rome. Other Churches were in schism but at some point in history reestablished communion with Rome. For example, the Chaldean Catholic Church reunited with Rome in 1552; the Ruthenian Church in 1646 and the Greek Catholic Church in 1829. This is the major difference between Eastern Catholic Churches and Eastern Orthodox Churches: Eastern Catholic Churches are in union with the Pope in Rome; Eastern Orthodox Churches are not.

Because the Eastern Catholic Churches are in union with Rome, they are also in union with one another. This is not true of all Eastern Orthodox Churches. Eastern Orthodox Churches are considered autocephalous, meaning “appointing its own head.” They do not consider themselves subject to the authority of any external patriarch or archbishop. Thus some Eastern Orthodox Churches maintain communion with other Eastern Orthodox while others do not.

Can a Roman Catholic receive communion in an Eastern Church and vice versa?

If we are talking about an Eastern Catholic Church, the answer is yes. Because the Eastern Catholic Churches are all in communion with Rome and with one another, a Roman Catholic may receive the sacraments in any Eastern Catholic Church, and members of the Eastern Catholic Churches may receive the sacraments from any Latin Rite Catholic priest.
The same is not true of the Eastern Orthodox. From the Roman Catholic perspective, if a member of an Eastern Orthodox Church approaches a Roman Catholic priest for the sacraments, they will be given. The Catholic Church also allows for a Roman Catholic to seek the sacraments in an Orthodox Church in cases of emergency when no Catholic priest is available.
But most, if not all, of the Eastern Orthodox Churches do reciprocate. They do not allow Catholics to receive communion and would not allow their members to receive the sacraments from a Catholic priest.
Reunion between the Catholic Church and the various Eastern Orthodox Churches has very much been a concern of recent Popes, especially Pope St. John Paul II, who issued an encyclical about the Church’s commitment to Christian unity in 1995 called Ut Unum Sint (That they may be one).


Roman clergy from the Diocese of Charlotte celebrate with
Greek Ukrainian clergy during their annual retreat in Sylva.
Once a year for the past few years clergy from the Greek Ukrainian Catholic Church have made a retreat in our small mountain town in the month of August, so you can sometimes find a Byzantine Divine Liturgy celebrated at St. Mary’s Catholic Church around that time of year. Interest is currently being solicited in the possibility of a monthly typica service (Liturgy of the Word) offered by a Ukrainin Catholic deacon who would drive from Charlotte for the occasion.
Our students from the Charlotte area can attend the Byzantine Divine Liturgy (Mass) at St. Basil the Great Greek Ukrainian Catholic Mission (on the grounds of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church). There is also a Maronite Mission in Charlotte that meets at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church.