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(LifeSiteNews) — The history of the Christian Faith began 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. From there, among other places, the Faith spread to Antioch, an ancient Middle Eastern city of the Greco-Roman world. In Antioch, the Christians developed their own way of worship and understanding the Faith that is, in certain respects, common to all Apostolic Christians, yet is, in other ways, unique to those who find their liturgical and ecclesial origins in Antioch.
The Christian Scriptures describe the life of the early disciples of Jesus in Jerusalem. There we learn how, through the power of the Holy Spirit, this nascent community eventually became the mother Church of the Christian Faith (Acts 1-11). We also learn how, due to relentless persecutions from the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem, countless Christians escaped and found refuge with the Jewish community in Antioch (Acts 11:19). Before long, these Jewish disciples of Jesus began to preach the gospel, not only to their fellow Jews in Antioch, but to the local Syro-Grecian population as well. Thus, Antioch became the first major stronghold of non-Jewish disciples of Jesus (Acts 11:20-21).
When news of the blossoming community in Antioch reached the Church in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to help direct its growth. Barnabas was from a Jewish community in Cyprus (Acts 4:36). He soon brought Paul from Tarsus (Acts 11:26). These early apostolic leaders, fluent in Greek and knowledgeable about the culture, were a perfect fit for the burgeoning community in Antioch, where the disciples of Jesus were for the first time called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Over the next two decades, Paul used Antioch as a staging ground for his missionary journeys, making use of its easy access to the sea and to the eastern network of ancient inland trade routes that had now become Roman roads (Acts 13:1, 4; 14:26; 15:30, 36-40; 18:22-23).
After the martyrdom of Paul (c. AD 65), Antioch continued to grow as a center of Christianity under the direction of subsequent monumental figures, such as the famous Ignatius of Antioch, the city’s second bishop (Eusebius, Church History, 3, 22), who shepherded the Christians there for approximately 40 years. His writings are among the most important literary witnesses to the early Christian understanding of the role of the bishop. In one of the more famous examples in this regard, Ignatius wrote, “Wherever the bishop is, there let the people gather, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8). Like Paul and a myriad of others in that early era, Ignatius was also martyred for the Faith (c. 110). Fortunately, this initial period, fraught with persecution, eventually came to an end with the conversion of Constantine (312) and the legalization of Christianity with the Edict of Milan the following year.
Over these first few centuries of the Church, the major centers of original apostolic communities in the larger cities gradually began to exercise greater and greater influence. They were, as formally recognized at the first ecumenical council, the four great patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome (Nicea, 325, Canons 6 & 7). Informally, however, the Church in the imperial capital began functioning in like manner almost from the time of Constantine. Thus, by the time of the council in Constantinople (381), it was proposed, in the conciliar canons, that the rank of the Church in the imperial capital should be officially elevated to a patriarchal position and given authority over the regions of Asia, Pontus, Thrace (the area of modern-day Turkey), Bulgaria, and eastern Romania.
The Church in Rome, while accepting the theological declarations of the council, refused to consent to the canons. This power struggle between Rome and the Byzantine capital continued long after the first council in Constantinople, right through the time of the subsequent councils in Ephesus and Chalcedon, and increased in intensity through the centuries that followed.[ii]
Thus, though an official ecclesial schism occurred between those who accepted the Chalcedonian declaration (i.e., Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Constantinople) and those who did not (i.e., Alexandria, many in Syria, and eventually the Church in Armenia), another schism had long before been developing between Rome and Constantinople. In fact, “the schism which finally separated them cannot be identified with any particular event or even be dated precisely. Political opposition …, gradual estrangement, in thought and practice, divergent developments in both theology and ecclesiology, played their respective parts in this process.”[iii] But, to be sure, this “gradual estrangement” did eventually hit a highpoint, when the unity that had existed in the first millennium of Christianity came to a major stage of dissolution.
In 1054, Cardinal Hubert and other papal legates were sent from Rome to Constantinople. After a few months of heated debates, they, in the name of the Church in Rome, excommunicated Patriarch Michael Cerularius. He responded in turn by calling a synod and excommunicating the legates. As has been noted, “Each was at pains to restrict the scope of his excommunication: Humbert directed his anathema against Cerularius and his followers personally, not against the Greek Church as such, while Cerularius and the synod at Constantinople were equally careful to excommunicate Humbert but not the pope or the Roman Church.”[iv]
The Melkite patriarch of Antioch, Peter III (1052-1056), in his endeavor to prevent a full and permanent schism between Constantinople and Rome, refused to take sides, choosing, rather, to take on the role of mediator.[v] Tragically, his efforts were ignored by both Rome and Constantinople. Over the next few centuries, we see explicit attempts at reconciliation between Rome and Constantinople, sometimes successful, but never lasting long.
St. Elias Melkite Catholic Mission was founded in 1983 by Christians who came from the Middle East to the United States, fleeing religious persecution and seeking a safer and more politically stable place for their children and grandchildren.
Not much more has happened from then until today on the relationship between Rome and Constantinople. Unfortunately, however, the fracture between the two eventually caused a schism in the Patriarchate of Antioch as well. In 1724, the Church of Antioch split into two jurisdictions. One synod of bishops aligned with the Church of Constantinople and another synod aligned with the Church of Rome. The latter came to be called the Melkite Catholic Church of Antioch.
Today, the Melkite Catholic Church has nearly two million faithful and continues to grow, with major populations in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and Egypt. But it is not limited to the Middle East. Through travel, migration, and evangelization, over a span of 2,000 years, these Melkite Christians are now spread far beyond their ancestral origins and can be found all over the world, with bishops and dioceses in Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Canada, and the United States.
The principal worship services of these Christians are Vespers (Evening Prayer), Orthros (Morning Prayer), and the Divine Liturgy (Eucharistic Service), usually following the liturgical tradition of St. John Chrysostom, though on occasion that of St. Basil the Great as well. The Byzantine liturgical tradition was adopted by the Church in Antioch during the Middle Ages and has been in continuous use since that time, taking on, over the centuries, its own Antiochian flavor.
These services are always held in the primary language of the congregation to encourage both comprehension and participation. Just as in the beginning of the Antiochian tradition, the liturgical use of Aramaic in Antioch slowly transitioned to Greek, Greek, in turn, was slowly overshadowed by Arabic. Likewise, today, the liturgy is celebrated not only in Aramaic, Greek, and Arabic, but also in whatever languages that are spoken wherever in the world the Melkite Christian liturgical services are celebrated.
An integral part of these services is the liturgical environment. Melkite Christian places of worship are richly decorated with iconography, carvings, and color bathed in the warm golden glow of olive oil lamps and beeswax candles. The fragrance of these latter two sources of light, with white clouds of sweet-smelling incense and the aroma of freshly baked bread and warm wine, make a harmonious marriage with the melodic sound of an entire congregation singing ancient Antiochian Christian chant to engage the senses, enlighten the mind, and raise the heart from earth to the heavenly realm.
With its ancient Antiochian Tradition, Byzantine liturgical life, and membership in the Catholic communion of Churches, the Melkite Catholic Church throughout the world is a truly beautiful, mystical, and authentic witness of the Faith and community that began 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem and spread to Antioch, where the disciples of Jesus were for the first time called “Christians” (Acts 11:26).
St. Elias Melkite Catholic Mission was founded in 1983 by Christians who came from the Middle East to the United States, fleeing religious persecution and seeking a safer and more politically stable place for their children and grandchildren. Today, St. Elias Melkite Catholic Mission is filled not only with those who immigrated from the Middle East, but also those who, while having no ethnic origin in the Middle East, find the beautiful manner of liturgical worship and ancient expression of theology attractive and spiritually fulfilling.
Many years ago, the mission was required to move out of its church building and put it up for sale due to lack of adequate worship space, classrooms, parking, and play area for the children. Since that time the mission has been meeting in various rented locations as it continues grow, search, and save money for a future new permanent home.
[i] The present composition is an abbreviated form of a longer history, by the same author, originally published as “Melkite Christians,” in Handbook of Christianity in the Middle East, edited by M. Raheb and M. Lamport (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), 266-75.
[ii] Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1983), 190-94.
[iii] John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1974), 91.
[iv] Timothy Ware, “Orthodox and Catholics in the seventeenth century: Schism or intercommunion?” in Schism, Heresy and Religious Protest, Studies in Church History, vol. 9 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University, 1972), 259-76.
[v] Serge Descy, The Melkite Church: An Historical and Ecclesiological Approach (Newton, MA: Sophia Press, 1993), 21.
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