Does it matter that we are Melkites?

Roman or MelkiteWhat’s the Difference


by Fran Colie

Originally from Golden Chain – November 1999


Roman or Melkite – What’s the Difference?

For many years due to an unhappy preoccupation with things Western, many Melkite Catholics viewed their tradition as simply one of liturgical difference, rather than what it is, a unique, authentic and totally integrated interpretation of the Gospel message.

Despite our Patriarch’s courage in shaking the torpor of the Latin West to restore the Byzantine Church to its rightful place, as an Eastern Church in our own rite and not merely as an Eastern Rite or subsidiary constituent of the Roman Church, there are still many who are attracted to Western devotions, services and worship, saying “what’s the difference, we are all Catholics, Latin or Melkite –same God, same thing – we can fulfill our obligations either way” and pick and choose things they like about both traditions.

The point is in the Melkite Church, we don’t look upon Church as an obligation. There is a difference! Church is not something we are obliged to do an hour a week on Sunday. In our tradition it’s a way of life – our whole life! The way we see ourselves as people of God – the family of God! The Church is the visible sign of the invisible reality that the faithful are already members of the “kingdom”. Every Sunday at the Divine Liturgy we celebrate Christ’s victory over death which has been given to us. when we were baptized and brought into the family of God – the Church.

The Melkite Church is that Community of the Holy Spirit, where new relationships are built, a new way of sharing, celebrating, thinking, relating, etc. Only Eastern Christian theology offers this earthly vision of a new kind of man in Christ, a new kind of society in Christ, which we call the Church. Western Christians with their emphasis on incarnation stress involvement which is good as far it goes. Eastern Christianity fulfills that incarnation with resurrection and transfiguration: the power of transforming man and his universe.

Perhaps the best way to teach our tradition is to point out the distinct differences in religious points of view and devotional attitudes between the Roman and Melkite Churches. When we discover how contemporary, liberating, and dynamic our theology is in comparison –and when we discover the riches of our own spirituality, all of which are made manifest in a harmonious symphony in iconography, music and liturgy – being a Melkite, clearly becomes a matter of choice, rather than an accident of birth.

The difference is that we are a risen people – we don’t pray to save our souls – and we don’t wonder if we have merited heaven by enough piety, study, and actions that are prescriptions for Western church models of spiritual development. In our tradition, we are already in the Kingdom and our edict is not to save ourselves but to grow in divinity. Our tradition is not one of rules and recipes or ‘how to’s’, placing all the burden on what man has to do ‘to get to heaven when he dies’, but an experiential faith built on relationship with the Trinity, that transforms and makes us ‘new creatures’ as we open ourselves to God in prayer and receive His deifying love. We do not have to live in doubt as to the ultimate reality of what will happen to us when we die – heaven or hell? The choice is ours. We exercise our free will to choose to become like God or to close God out and become locked in a prison of our own self-centeredness, where the only face we see for all eternity is our own. When we are self-centered, it is impossible for us to love. We must transcend ourselves, move out of ourselves to love. God makes it easy for us to do this and grow by sharing the burden with us. In our church, we call this reciprocity between God and man ‘synergy’. God works within us as we consciously center on God in our hearts. That is why our tradition is contemplative not activist. In silence, deep, focused prayer, we allow God to transform us into His ‘likeness’ and move us outward in ‘diakonia’ (service) to others. This process continues for all eternity. It doesn’t end with physical death. Religion is relevant for living now and for all eternity. These are spiritual laws for success in this life and beyond. For Melkites, there is no difference between natural and supernatural. The supernatural is natural for us! We don’t have to suffer now and wait for physical death in order to experience the joy of heaven.

There is a difference! Our entire sanctuary is concealed by the iconostasis: the icon screen; the tangible witness to the mystery we live in the Liturgy. It is a symbolic gateway into the kingdom of Heaven. The Church is not the result of human organization, law and order and uniformity. The Melkite mind sees the Church, not as a visible society headed by Christ, but as a Theophany, the eternal breaking into time and unfolding of the divine life through the deifying transformation of humanity in worship. Life in the Church is spoken in terms of glory, light, vision, union, transfiguration, and deification. The more juridical vocabulary of power, order, right and justice is less known. The use of terms alone connotes a warm positive, joyful and dynamic attitude about religion rather than an austere and impending one. The Romanesque architecture, with its round arches gives us a safe feeling of being enveloped, rather than the narrow, upward pinnacles typical of Western architecture that leaves us feeling abandoned, spiritually indigent and distanced from God. In the Melkite Church we pray in the rich and full dignity of God and not in the misery and poverty of men.

The Western mind sees the moral aspects of the sacraments and spiritual life and the strength received from them as an aid in their pilgrimage toward their final beatitude, which to them is not certain. For the Westerner, grace is a principle of meritorious action restoring in man the capacity for good works. For us, man is an imperfect similitude of God, which grace perfects. Life in Christ is progressive transformation unto the Likeness of God. We speak more of divinization and transfiguration to the ‘Likeness’ of God and less of merit and satisfaction and Beatitude.

There is a difference! Divine providence has brought to a place in the history of Ecumenism where we have a responsibility to the universal church to be ourselves. The Roman Church cannot be Catholic (universal) without the Eastern Church. The Church to be truly Catholic must breathe with both lungs – East and West. It seems in light of ecumenical events, we Melkite should be more conscious that we have an indispensable vocation to teach and to present ourselves to the whole Church. Moreso, we must reroute ourselves in the doctrines and writings of the Eastern Fathers and stand by what they represent. To do otherwise is to perpetuate an ecclesiastical schizophrenia among our Melkite people. Are we Roman Catholic or Melkite Catholic? No, we are not Roman Catholics who do some things a little bit differently from the Latin Church. We have our own identity! We have a distinct, separate theology, tradition, spirituality, liturgy, and canon law – that is not opposed to Roman Catholicism, but complimentary to it.

We have so much to give of our unique and ancient theological and spiritual view of God, of what constitutes a human being in God’s view, and of the world around us, that is not evil, but belongs to God. We cannot be casual about this. Continued indifference will result in continued second-class citizenship and eventual loss of our identity.