Who is the Melkite Church?

Chapter Two of Bearers of the Mysteries



Every human family has its own story to tell. Its memorable figures, their actions that left a mark on their times, events that shaped their world – all these make fascinating study for their descendants if they be recorded for those yet to come.

The Christian community is no different. Each local Church has a history. In this country the story of every diocese is relatively short, but their connection with mother Churches, chiefly in Europe, join them to the 2,000 year history of the worldwide Christian community.

Our mother Church is perhaps the oldest continuous Christian community in the world. Our Church has its roots in the two principal cities of the Roman province of Syria. Scripture records that there was a Christian community of Jewish origin in Damascus before Saint Paul’s conversion in 38 AD. It was there that he was headed when he encountered the risen Christ (Acts 9:1-9).

Even more than Damascus our history has been associated with the city of Antioch, established as a Greek colony in Syria about 300 BC. The beginnings of the church there are documented in the New Testament also, where we see the Gospel brought to Antioch by Christians who fled Jeerusalem when St. Stephen was martyred (c. 48 AD). It was at Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians (Acts 11:26) and it was in this same Church that the term “Catholic” was introduced by St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 108 AD). As the capital of the province, Antioch was to become the site of the area’s most prestigious church, later to be designated third of the great Apostolic Patriarchates, along with Rome, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.

The 2,000 year history of the Patriarchate of Antioch – ten times longer than the life span of the United States – is too complex to be detailed here. We will not even begin to chronicle its story. We will simply indicate some of the people, events, and forces which shaped the life of our Church over the ages and which continue to touch us as members of the Melkite Church today.


From its very beginnings the Church of Antioch has been a heterogeneous community. Antioch was a Greek colony, a city established as a trading center. As such it attracted within its walls a variety of people’s from east and west, with Greek, the “international language” of its day, as its tongue.

At the time of Christ it is estimated that Antioch contained from twenty to forty thousand Jews and it was among them the Gospel was first preached in Syria. The Scripture records that almost immediately the local Greeks (pagans) were evangelized as well (Acts 11:19-21). This made Antioch to be the first Church community in Christian history made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers. Many scholars feel that much of the controversy between these two groups recorded in the New Testament was played out in this first Antiochian Church.

While the Jews who accepted Christ were eventually assimulated into one community with the Gentiles, there was another example of pluralism in Syrian Christianity which exists to this day. Antioch was always a Greek speaking settlement in the midst of a native Semetic peoples. Outside the city walls Syriac or Aramaic was the more common language. As the gospel spread into the outlying areas the Church took on a Semetic as well as a Greek face. While they were one in many forms and expressions, they also developed different characteristics in thought, liturgical flavor, and finally Church structure. During the period of the Byzantine Empire (fourth to fourteenth centuries) the Greek community increasingly identified with its co-religionists in Constantinople while the Syriac community remained distinct. Today descendants of the Greek community form the Antiochian (Greek) Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic Church’s. The Syriac community continues in the Maronite, Syrian Catholic and Syrian Orthodox churches.

While God works for good in the midst of every circumstance (cf Rom 8:28), so does satan. Thus it was that two enriching developments, cultural pluralism and freedom, contributed to the first major lasting division among Christians! The fourth century brought the Church freedom from persecution as the Empire at first tolerated then embraced Christianity. Christians no longer needed to concentrate on survival. The resulting freedom saw an explosion of creativity in religious expression. It also witnessed the rise of conflicting theologies. As culturally distinct Churches embraced one or another of these theologies, the disruption of communion resulted.

The first such fracture enduring to our day came in the early fourth century, in what has become known as the Nesorian controversy. Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, upheld a vision of Christ which seemed to deny the unity of divinity and humanity in Him. In consequence he refused to call Mary Theotokos (Mother of God). Saying that she was only the mother of Christ’s humanity. When this position was rejected at the Council of Ephesus (431 AD), many in the East Syrian or Mesopotamian Church continued to side with Nestorius, a Persian by birth. They severed communion with the other Churches and became known as the Church of the East and of the Assyrians.

In the next generation a similar rupture touched Antioch itself. While Nestorius’ vision of Christ seemed to deny the unity of His human and divine nature’s, others had a viewpoint which seemed to deny the distinctness between them. This teaching, which became known as Monophysitism, was rejected at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. In the Middle East this Council was perceived as preferring Greek philosophy over the Scriptures. The non-Greek communities (Syriac and Coptic) would not accept it. There were now three distinct communions. In addition to the Nestorians mentioned above, there were the Chalcedonians (the Latins and Greeks) and the non-Chalcedonians (the Armenians, Copts and Syrians). The non-Chalcedonian Churches remain in communion to this day and are generally known as the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

It is in the context of this Chalcedonian controversy that the term Melkite first made its appearance. The Byzantine Emperor often used his civil power to enforce Chalcedonian teaching in his realm. Thus the opponents of that council labeled its supporters “king’s men” or imperialists. This had the same emotional connotation as the term Tory held during the American revolution. Nonetheless it stuck, and remained popular in the Middle East for centuries to designate all those (Greeks, Latins, Maronites and the Syriac speaking Christians in the patriarchate of Jerusalem) who accepted Chalcedon. In the modern era the term has been used exclusively by the Greek Catholic Church in the Middle East.

Pluralism is still an important factor in our life today. Unlike many other groups, we were never in serene possession of a territory unto ourselves. We have always lived with others in the wider community and in our own Church. This might account for the fact that many in our Church often seem more knowledgeable and/or more familiar about other Church traditions and less concerned about their own? Might it also account for the fact that many in our Church are more concerned than average about Christian unity?

For your reflection

Reflect on your personal experience of pluralism in the church. Then consider this:

  1. What you think are the advantages to pluralism in the Church?
  2. What are some possible disadvantages?
  3. What can overcome these disadvantages?
  4. Is there pluralism within your local parish? What is the effect on the community and how to you deal with it?

Islam and the Crusades

The next major factor with lasting effect on our Church was the rise of Islam in the seventh century. The successors of Muhammed were able to unite the many nomadic tribes of Arabia and within 50 years had wrested most of the Middle East from Byzantine control, capitalizing on the increasingly bitter divisions between the Greeks, Syrians and Copts. The Muslim conquest had the curious effect of bringing stability to the Christian communities, unknown since the Roman persecutions. The need to survive unified each group within itself and from time to time the specter of a common foe even caused the various Christian communities to improve their relations.

The Melkites, being most associated with the routed Byzantines, became isolated. As a result, the Antiochian Melkite increased their identification with Constantinople. For some time the patriarch was appointed by Constantinople and even resided there. Sometimes there was no patriarch. This continued into the eighth century when the Moslem caliph intervened, ruling that the patriarch had to be a Syrian and reside in his territory.

Nevertheless, the Melkite identification with Constantinople continued. Antioch drew a kind of solace from its connections with the free Byzantine patriarchate. Constantinople drew much wealth from the spiritual resources of the Melkites in the Middle East. Much of the Byzantine liturgical tradition came from Antioch and Jerusalem during this period, especially through monastic influence. Melkites too felt the effects of the sporadic Byzantine attempts to reconquered territory from the Muslims. Although no longer politically united, the Melkites of Constantinople and the Middle East were spiritually one.

It was no surprise, then, that the Greek Melkites in the Middle East continued their identification with Constantinople during its controversy with Rome in the eleventh century. Despite the many attempts of Constaninople to control the church in the Middle East, there was never a question that the two shared one spiritual tradition. This sense of identity was heightened during the Crusades.

The period from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries was punctuated by several Crusades, attempts by European Catholics to drive the Moslims from the Holy Land and the Middle East in general. Many of these Crusaders often had their purposes as well, chiefly the building up of their own fortunes. When they were successful in seizing territory from the Muslims they would set up their own principalities rather than restore the native Christians to power. They did the same in the Church, often replacing Melkite biships and patriarchs with Latins. As a result the Greek hierarchy in the Middle East was forced to take refuge in Constantinople once more, fostering an even greater sense of identity than before. They now had the Latins was as well the Muslims as their common enemy.

This identity with Constantinople insured that the Melkite spirituality and tradition would continue to develop along the same lines as the other Byzantine churches. Nevertheless, because of the Islamic society in which they lived, Christians in the Middle East did develop distinct strains of thought which have long escaped the attention of the rest of the Christian world. Many writings from this period are now being translated into western languages for the first time with the promise of shedding new light on the life of these, the first Christians since Constantine to be living in a post-Christian culture.

Surprisingly enough, the dependence of Antioch on Constantinople increased after the Turks conquered the Byzantine Capital in 1453. The Turkish Sultan wanted to deal with as few underlords as possible, so he made the patriarch of Constintinople responsible for all the Greek Christians in his realm and the Armenian patriarch responsible for all the non-Chalcedonians. These hierarchs became the civil as well as the religious leaders of the people, leaders of the millet, or nation, as well as of the Church.

Besides deepening the relationship of Greek Christians in the Middle East with Constantinople, the Turkish plan also helped to preserve the identity of the individual Christian communities. Since the empire adopted Islamic law as its official norm, the millets were allowed to follow their own disciplines, especially governing family life. They often had their own sections in the larger cities as well, allowing them to live relatively autonomous lives. A remnant of this may still be seen in the old city of Jerusalem where the Greek and Armenian Quarters are still well defined.

In the centuries to follow the Turks allowed first one Christian community then another to form their own millet. This meant in effect that each Church was a separate subject nation with its chief bishop as ethnarch (head of the nation) as well as patriarch. One feature of the millet system which survive the fall of the Turkish empire is the sense of membership in a Church as first of all a matter of ethnic heritage rather than of personal faith commitment. Thus Bishop Kallistos (Timothy Ware), an English convert to Orthodoxy, tells of being criticized by a Greek for joining the Orthodox Church. The Greek believed that Ware, as an Englishman, should have remained Anglican. The Greek himself claimed to be an atheist, but participated in the life of the church for purely ethnic reasons!

Today our Church has to deal with the same realities. It is a segment of the Antiochian Church, sharing much in common with Syrian Catholics and Othodox as well as Maronites. At the same time, like the Antiochian Orthodox, we identify more with the Byzantine spiritual tradition that the Antiochian. Nevertheless, people often ignore our common spiritual heritage to focus on ethnicity, perpetuating the millet system, as it were.

For your reflection

Look at your own perception of our Church’s relationships with other eastern Christians and ethnic Middle Easterners. Then consider this:

  1. Do people in your town identify your parish chiefly as a “millet” (ethnic community) or Church (religious community)?
  2. Do people in your parish identify more with other Byzantines (Romanian, Ukrainian, etc.) or other Middle Easterners (Christian or Muslims)?

Contact with the West

The third major factor in our Church’s development has been the influence of Western Christianity. Although there was never a time when there was not some kind of relationship between Eastern and Western Christians, perhaps the most decisive of such contacts came in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation in Western Europe. The challenges of this age motivated a great deal of activity of all kinds in the West. One of these movements concerned the East.

Early in the Reformation some Protestant authorities had established communication with the Greek patriarch in Constantinople, hoping to find a common faith with the Orthodox. Although one patriarch, Cyril (Lukaris), showed marked Calvinist leanings, the Orthodox were quick to refute Protestantism in their church.

In reaction Roman began opening a series of colleges for Eastern Christians in Rome: the Greek College, the Maronite college, the Armenian college. These were welcomed by the Easterners who had no opportunities for learning under the Turks. The renaissance and baroque eras were the West’s most creative and developed ages, and the contrast with the subjected Christians of the East was painfully obvious. The next hundred years were marked by a continually increasing Westernization of the Eastern Churches. The Orthodox in Eastern Europe, were free to establish learning centers, adopted Western methods, even in the study of theology. The Orthodox in the Middle East, who were not free in this way, welcomed the presence of Western clergy and nuns who opened schools on European models under the protection of the European embassies. From a cultural standpoint the Westernization of the Byzantine Churches, which began in earnest at this time, continued unchecked until the present century.

Throughout the seventeenth century, a number of bishops and patriarchs favored union with Rome, for various reasons. They were accustomed to seeing an outside patriarch as a patron, a role which the equally subject patriarch in Constantinople could no longer fulfill. In addition, local ecclesiastical politics was often a factor. One party in a controversy would appeal to Constantinople: the other would profess union with Rome. If the favorite of Rome achieved his goal, he often rennounced his association with the Pope. It had served its purpose. It can be said that the flirtation with Rome in this period was a reaction to Constantinople’s centuries old habit of interfering in the affairs of the Middle East.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century several bishops of the Antiochian patriarchate sent a profession of faith to Rome. The Pope appointed one of them, Bishop Euthymios (Saifi) of Tyre and Sidon as vicar for any Catholics not under any of these bishops. Finally in 1724 the Catholics chose Euthymios’ nephew, Seraphim Tanas, the preacher of the patriarchate, to head the Antiochian Church. The Orthodox appealed to Constantinople which appointed a Cypriot monk on Mount Athos, Sylvester, as patriarch. This marks the beginning of the two Greek patriarchates of Antioch , Catholic and Orthodox, which exist today.

Curiously enough the Latin man missionaries in the Middle East at the time were themselves divided over which patriarch to recognize. International politics and regional loyalties enabled with questions of doctrine any clues he asked ideology, leaving the situation fluid for several years. It was not until a full 20 years later after his election that Cyril was recognized by Rome as patriarch.

This division into two rival patriarchates has several consequences which affect us to this day. The first is institutional: that we exist as a distinct community, separated from the Antiochian Orthodox Church with which we were one for 1700 years. We share the same liturgical, spiritual and theologic tradition but have gone on own way for over two centuries. At the beginning the division was bitter, later on people got used to it and accepted it as normal. This is perhaps worse than the bitterness, because it says that the division is to be expected in the Body of Christ.

For Your Reflection

In many places, particularly in some parts of the Middle East, there is cooperation between our patriarchs, bishops, and local parish priest. Yet it is too easy for us to concentrate on our own activities and not feel the pain of separation from this, our closest Sister Church. Reflect on your own experience, then consider this:

  1. What do you think can be done in your community in common with our sister Antiochian Orthodox Church? What must be done separately?
  2. How important is it to you that such cooperation take place?
  3. Where might you start to initiate such activity?

The Second Consequence

The second consequence is on the level of ideas and attitudes: because of our union with Rome, we’ve come under an ever increasing Westernizing influence during the last 250 years. As clergy and people promoted Western Catholic education for themselves and their children, they exchanged their own proper heritage for the western theology and spirituality of the time. What was a Roman Catholic was, after all, European and what was European was clearly superior to anything and their experience, or so it seemed.

While clearly seeking to introduce Western thinking into the Melkite community, Rome insisted that the liturgy remain unadulterated. Nevertheless, a growing number of Western customs found their way into Melkite practice. Even when they did not, our community understood less and less of the spirit which had formed its worship. It retained the forms, but was going further and further away from the thinking which underlies these forms. We approached Byzantine Christianity in much the way that Kierkegaard described religion and modernist Europe. We were making tea with a piece of paper that had lain in a drawer next to used tea bag. In other words, there was some connection back in with our Eastern heritage, but it had become so watered down as to be unrecognizable in many instances.

Curiously, something similar happened to the Orthodox. In reaction to Rome, which had swallowed a goodly number of its children, the Antiochian Orthodox Church welcomed the Protestant missionaries from England and the US. Although the goal was first to assist the Local Church, these missionaries some decided that orthodoxy was “unreformed” (or on reformable) and set up their own congregations, drawing many away from the Church. The result was a number of former Orthodox Christians formed into imitation Victorian Protestants, singing “Nearer My God to Thee” in Arabic. As in the Catholic experience, Protestantism was seen as superior because it was European. The importance of this cultural factor is clear when we realize that in some parts of the Middle East the popular name for all Catholics was “Frenchmen” (Frangi) and for all Protestants was “Englishmen” (Ingleesi)!

Recovering an Identity

Throughout the eighteenth century our Melkite ancestors lived in a fragile existence. Spiritually and culturally they had identified with European Catholics and yet we’re not European. Civilly they remained as part of the Greek or Rum millet, which meant that they were still civil subjects of the Ecumenical Patriarch, although no longer in communion with him. This only changed in the nineteenth century when the Sultan removed the Catholics from his rule. The Sultan was not doing this out of any consideration for the Melkites, but to punish the Ecumenical Patriarch for the Greek Revolution of the 1820′ s!

At first the Melkites were made part of a generic Catholic millet with an Armenian priest as ethnarch, but they continued to agitate for recognition as a separate “nation”. This was achieved at last in 1848 through the efforts of Patriarch Maximos III. Over 100 years after its ecclesiastical identity was determined, the Melkite community attained civil recognition.

Civic status was extremely important to the Melkites of that day. It provided them with a sense of identity, recognition that they were a Church, a distinct community, not a part of another identity. They continued to find their identity in this civil nationhood as long as the Turks governed the Middle East. The Church retains some civil functions to this day in some parts of the Middle East, where Church courts often have the power which belong to probate courts in the U.S.

The millet system continued until the downfall of the Ottoman Empire after World War One when power in the Middle East passed from the Turks to the British and French. When that happened, a new nationalist identity (eg. Syrian or Lebanese) began to emerge and the Churches began losing their tribal functions. The Melkite community started to look elsewhere to find its purpose: back to the roots of its Eastern spiritual heritage.

The Westernizing tendency mentioned above was especially strong after the First Vatican Council. Vatican officials constantly sought to control the activities of the patriarchate, despite continual Papal assurances that the patriarchal autonomy of our Church would be respected. This prompted several of our clergy in Egypt to begin investigating the sources of Eastern Christianity during the 1930’s. This coterie, nicknamed the Cairo School, included our present patriarch, Maximos V, our eparch, Archbishop Joseph, and the late Archimandrite Orestes Kerame as well as Archbishop Elias Zoghby and Father Michael Geday. Their studies and writings over the next 30 years made a strong impression on our community, reorienting its direction from being a willing participant in the Latinization process. Now the leadership in the Melkite community began to oppose the same Westernizing tendencies in had so long endorsed.

This turnabout came to a head at the Second Vatican Council (1960-65) when an articulate group of Melkite bishops had a great effect in returning the Catholic Church to more collegial and participatory lifestyle. The addresses of Patriarch Maximos IV and other bishops were significant in determining the council’s teachings and the nature of the Church and the question of freedom and conscience. Their liturgical witness was received with respect and affected a number of changes in Roman worship. The Ecumenical Patriarch, Athenagoras, considered that Maximos IV was his “representative” at the Catholic Council.

In terms of our own community, this Council’s Decree on Eastern Catholic Church’s confirmed the direction begun by the “Cairo School” a generation before. It called on us to remain faithful to all our traditions as well as to any which had been allowed to lapse through misunderstanding and neglect. It recognized that we had, not only our own Liturgy, but our own proper spirituality, theology and discipline as well. We were a constituent Church in the Catholic family and needed to maintain fidelity to our traditions if our witness was to be credible. Finally, as a result of this conciliar activity, our community in America was formally instituted as a local Church under the presidency of our own hierarchy, Bishop Justin (Najmy).

The recovery of our Eastern identity is an ongoing process. We have made great strides in this direction in the past 20 years, especially in the area of liturgy. There remains much to be done, particularly on the level of the structural and ecumenical levels, if we are to fulfill our call to witness to the possibility of an authentically Eastern Christian Church living in communion with the Church of Rome.

Working out of this process in our parishes has sometimes been welcomed with joy and at other times has been a source of contention. People have been shaken by the removal of statues or holy water fonts, were confused by the introduction of vespers and orthros. This was anticipated by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council who said,

“All Eastern right members should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their lawful liturgical rites and their established way of life, and that these should not be altered except by way of an appropriate an organic development. Easterner’s themselves should honor all these things with the greatest fidelity. Besides they should acquire an even greater knowledge and more exact use of them. If they have improperly fall of away from them because of circumstances of time or personage, let them take pains to return to their ancestral ways.” (Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches, 6)

For Your Reflection

Change, especially when it means giving up something that we learned to hold dear, is always difficult. It demands “taking pains”, as the Fathers understood. And so many of us find ourselves called to endure these changes as a sacrifice born of the greater good of the Church. Reflect on your experience of the last ten years in our Church, then consider this:

  1. What elements in your experience of our Church reflecting the Westernizing tendency have been removed over the past few years?
  2. Have any instances of delatinization caused bad feelings in the parish? How can confusion about this process best be handled?
  3. In which aspects of this process might your parish be ahead of or lagging behind others in the diocese?