What does it mean to be in Full Communion with the Catholic Church? The bonds of communion through faith, sacraments, and pastoral governance determine Full Communion with the Catholic Church. Through these bonds, believers receive the life of grace within the Church. However, the Catholic Church also recognizes Partial Communion with many Protestant denominations where elements of Christian faith are held in common.
Churches in Full Communion
As I continue to research for future writing projects, I discovered an interesting fact about the variety of churches in Full Communion with the Catholic Church. These churches include the Coptic Catholic Church of the Alexandrian liturgical tradition.
The Maronite Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, and the Armenian Catholic Church are also in Full Communion with the Roman Catholic Church. A quick google search identified several Byzantine Catholic Churches near my home. The Byzantine Church is also in Full Communion with the Roman Catholic Church. This was an interesting discovery that led me to visit Saint Anne Byzantine Catholic Church in New Port Richey, Florida.
A Special Visit
As I entered this beautiful church, I was reminded of the Russian Orthodox Church I visited in Alaska. But this was not an Orthodox Church. This was a Catholic Church in Full Communion with the Roman Catholic Church. As I researched for a clearer understanding, I learned new facts about the history of Christianity.
Around the year 600 AD, there were five major archbishops within the Catholic Church that led five large dioceses. The cities where these patriarchs resided included Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Rome.
The Roman Empire in the year 300 AD was split into the Western and Eastern Empires. The capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire was the city of Byzantium, which the emperor Constantine renamed Constantinople. This city is presently known as Istanbul in Turkey. The capitol of the Western Roman Empire was Rome. The language of the Eastern Empire was Greek, while the language of the Western Empire was Latin.
The Muslim Arabs in 600 AD conquered large parts of the Middle East and North Africa thereby reducing the influence of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. However, the two remaining Patriarchs in Rome and Constantinople thrived and spread Christianity far and wide. The churches established by the Eastern Empire from its capitol, Byzantium, were referred to as “Byzantine” or “Greek” Catholic. Byzantine Catholics in America are the spiritual descendants of Christians in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East who trace their spiritual heritage to the Great Church of Constantinople, known as Hagia Sophia – The Church of Holy Wisdom.
Although in Full Communion with the Roman Catholic Church, the Byzantine rite retains distinctive features which are evident beginning with the onion-like dome on the outside of the church. This history helped me to understand why I saw so many similar domes throughout my train trip through Austria. I knew Austria was predominantly Catholic but couldn’t understand why so many churches had what I assumed were Greek Orthodox domes. At the time, I didn’t know the rich history of the Byzantine rite and its connection to the Greek culture.
Upon entering the Byzantine church, the differences are even more distinct. The sanctuary is separated from the congregation by a beautiful screen covered in icons.
Saint John Chrysostom
As I looked through the books and pamphlets located at my pew, I noticed a prayer book titled, “The Divine Liturgy of Our Holy Father John Chrysostom.” After further research, I learned that Saint John Chrysostom was an important early Church Father who served as archbishop of Constantinople. After his death, he earned the title, “Golden Mouth” because of his eloquent preaching and public speaking.
One of the women I met when first entering this church was raised Roman Catholic from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She loves coming to the Byzantine Church but said it took her a while to get used to the differences. In addition to the iconic screen separating the altar from the congregation, I also read that Communion is received under both species (Body and Blood in the form of bread and wine) and administered by the priest from a spoon.
The church was filling up quickly when I learned that a baptism would take place during the service. In the Roman Catholic Church, we call the service the “Mass.” In the Eastern Rite, the Mass is known as the “Liturgy.” Infant baptism is part of the Eastern Rite; however, baptism in the Eastern Rite includes Chrismation, which is another term for the sacrament of Confirmation. Infant baptism in the Eastern Rite also includes the Eucharist.
The child to be baptized was an infant – perhaps no more than one month of age. I was curious to see how they would administer the Eucharist to an infant. Unfortunately, there were so many family members surrounding the child that it was difficult to see all that was occurring. However, I had an opportunity after the Liturgy to speak with Father Oleksiy.
Father Oleksiy is a Catholic priest from Ukraine and the Administrator of Saint Anne Byzantine Catholic Church. He came to the United States with his wife and three daughters six years ago. When he mentioned his family, I was so focused on my other questions that I didn’t think to ask if Byzantine priests were allowed to be married. As I was preparing this writing, I researched this further and found that Eastern Catholic churches allow married men to be ordained, however, they do not allow marriage after ordination.
The Sign of the Cross
One of my first questions for Father Oleksiy was the difference in making the sign of the cross. Throughout the service, people in the congregation blessed themselves with the sign of the cross. Most crossed themselves from right to left. A few – like me – crossed themselves as do all Roman Catholics from left to right. I asked Father Oleksiy, “Why the difference?” He smiled and said that there are many different responses to this question. Some say it has to do with the importance and significance of the “right hand.” He shared the obvious that Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father. He also shared a custom in the Byzantine rite when the bride and groom place their right hands on the Bible during the wedding ceremony. But then, Father Oleksiy shrugged his shoulders with a smile and said that there are so many different answers to this question – like the reasons for driving on the right or left side of the road. We both laughed and moved on to my next question.
Infant Baptism and the Eucharist
“So, how do you give an infant the Eucharist?” Father Oleksiy explained that a very small drop of the Blood of Christ is placed on the lips of the infant during the baptism ceremony.
Communion is also different in the Eastern rite. The bread is a cube soaked in the wine and given by the priest with a spoon. I received Communion at this church and was amazed at the difference in presentation.
As I spoke with Father Oleksiy after the Liturgy service, we talked about the tabernacle behind the screen on the altar. Father Oleksiy confirmed that Jesus in the form of the Eucharist is kept in the tabernacle on the altar. However, he also shared a lengthy process that he must go through before placing the Eucharist in the tabernacle. This is because the Eastern rite uses leavened bread rather than unleavened bread as is done in the Roman Catholic Church.
I truly enjoyed the Liturgy service. It reminded me of a High Mass from the old Latin days. Every part of the Liturgy service was chanted including the readings from the Old and New Testament. I was particularly impressed with the following prayer recited by all in the congregation before processing to the front of the church to receive Holy Communion.
Prayer Before Holy Communion
O Lord, I believe and profess that you are truly Christ, the Son of the Living God, who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the first.
Accept me today as a partaker of your mystical supper, O Son of God, for I will not reveal your mystery to your enemies, nor will I give you a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief I profess you:
Remember me, O Lord, when you come in your kingdom.
Remember me, O Master, when you come in your kingdom.
Remember me, O Holy One, when you come in your kingdom.
May the partaking of your holy mysteries, O Lord, be not for my judgement or condemnation but for the healing of soul and body.
O Lord, I also believe and profess that this, which I am about to receive, is truly your most precious body and your life-giving blood, which I pray, make me worthy to receive for the remission of all my sins and for life everlasting. Amen.
O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me for I have sinned without number.
A Special Challenge
This was such a beautiful experience that I challenge each of you to look for a Byzantine Catholic Church in your area. I would love to know your thoughts on the Liturgy and the beauty of the icons.