Patriarchs of the Melkite Church

Icon of Christ rising from the tomb surrounded by people

The Patriarch in Our Melkite Church

by Fr. Francis Marini

Reprinted from Sophia, Volume 31, Number 1, Jan. – Feb. 2001

Role of the Patriarch

Every Melkite faithful knows that the head of the Melkite Catholic Church is the Patriarch, at the present time Gregorios III (Laham). The role of the Patriarch is not always well understood when it comes to the situation of Melkites who are living outside the Middle East, the historical seat of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

According to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Patriarch is the “Father and Head” of the Melkite Church. As Patriarch, he enjoys full authority over all the bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay faithful of the Melkite Church according to the norm of the approved law. He represents in his person the entire Melkite Church and for all Melkites everywhere.

The authentic Eastern form of Church governance is synodal, that is, the Patriarch governs the Melkite Church together with the Synod or Assembly of Melkite Bishops. The Patriarch exercises executive power and the Synod of Bishops exercises legislative power, similar to the American civil government. That is the reason that all the Melkite Bishops throughout the world gather at Rabweh every year for the annual meeting of the Synod of Bishops. There, under the presidency of the Patriarch, all major decisions affecting the Melkite Church are discussed and enacted.

However, the present Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches distinguishes between the powers of the Patriarch and Synod of Bishops inside the patriarchal territory and outside of it; and it expressly states that their powers are exercised validly only inside the patriarchal territory, with certain limited exceptions. The basic reality is that all laws enacted by the Synod and promulgated by the Patriarch are effective inside the patriarchal territory, but for us Melkites in the United States, the only laws that are currently effective are liturgical laws.

The reason for this distinction is that, from the very earliest times, Patriarchal power or jurisdiction has been subject to a geographical limitation. This restriction, known as the Patriarchal Territory, refers to those regions in which the proper rite of the Church is observed and in which the Patriarch has the right to establish ecclesiastical provinces, eparchies and exarchies. Only the highest authority can change the Patriarchal Territory. The Patriarchal Territory of the Melkite Patriarch is Antioch, All the East, Alexandria and Jerusalem.

The Patriarchal jurisdiction goes back to the very earliest times of the Church. This is clear from canon 6 of the very first Ecumenical Council held at Nicea in the year 325, which recognized the already-existing jurisdiction of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, all based on a relationship to the Apostle Peter of Bethsaida. This same canon was cited by the Second Vatican Council in its decision to restore the powers of the Eastern Patriarchs as existing in a special relationship to the Western Patriarchate of Rome. Throughout the first two millennia of Christianity, the Eastern Patriarchate and the concept or principle of territoriality evolved side-by-side in the Church. A similar evolution occurred in the territoriality principle. In the beginning, the concept was strict territoriality, however, it began to erode almost immediately.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) recognized the right of Catholic faithful of different rites to pastoral care in their own liturgical tradition and church hastened the formation of hierarchies for the various rites where faithful of different rites lived together. This in turn led directly to the practice of defining the jurisdiction of the hierarchy by the double standard of territory and rite, resulting in the application of a principle, not of strict, but of qualified territoriality as the norm. Thus, both territory and membership in a particular autonomous Church control in both the Latin and Eastern Churches, as is clear even with the Patriarchal Territories, since all of the Eastern Patriarchates overlap to some extent in the Middle East.

It is true that the authentic Eastern tradition requires a Patriarchal Territory, but it is certainly also true that there is nothing to prevent the expansion of the present Territory or the jurisdiction of the Patriarch and Synod of Bishops outside the Patriarchal Territory. The Melkite Patriarchal Territory was already extended in 1894 by Pope Leo XIII. Recent papal statements indicate that both expansion of the jurisdiction outside the territory and expansion of the territory itself are open possibilities. Thus, the idea of expanding the Patriarchal Territory to include all established eparchies wherever they may be is certainly viable.

It is necessary for the survival and growth of the Melkite Church to more fully implement the rich image of the Patriarch as “Father and Head” of our Melkite Church. At the present time, Melkite faithful living outside of the Middle East are more like step-children than children of the Patriarch. To remedy this situation requires the normalization of our relationship to our Father and Head , by preserving our authentic tradition while adapting to a changed and changing world.

(Fr. Francis Marini writes from Brooklyn, NY, where he resides and works)