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The Melkite Greek Catholic Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Scattered throughout the Middle East (and increasingly, the Americas, Europe and Oceania), a Christian community continues to bear a nickname first coined by its adversaries more than 1,500 years ago. A Melkite (from the Syriac, malkaya, meaning “of the king”) once referred to a Christian who supported the emperor ruling from distant Constantinople, typically spoke Greek, lived in a city and accepted the theological decrees of the Council of Chalcedon (451).

Today, most Melkites are Arabic-speaking Christians who belong to a church steeped in the traditions of the Christian East and espouse full communion with the Church of Rome. These Melkite Greek Catholics, a small community within the Catholic communion of churches, boldly assert their rights, privileges, prerogatives and traditions while actively seeking unity with their Orthodox kin, from whom they have been separated since the early 18th century.

An illustrious legacy. The Melkite Greek Catholic Church shares in the heritage of the ancient Syrian city of Antioch, now a provincial city in southern Turkey. Founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul, the Church of Antioch – where the followers of Jesus Christ first earned the name “Christian” (Acts 11:26) – became the Christian hub of the eastern Mediterranean. For more than 500 years the church of this metropolis nurtured hermits (Maron, Simeon Stylites), martyrs (Babylas, Ignatius), poets (Ephrem the Syrian, Romanos the Melodist), scholars (Flavian, Theodoret of Cyr, Theophilus) and theologians (John Chrysostom, Nestorius, Theodore of Mopsuestia). And while all were passionate about their faith, few agreed with one another.

The Antiochene Church also cultivated competing schools of theology and philosophy, essentially one cosmopolitan and Greek-speaking and the other provincial and Syriac-speaking. Increasingly, theological and philosophical debates – often centered on the person and nature of Jesus – took on ethnic, linguistic and political overtones, threatening the unity of the eastern half of the Roman Empire (or Byzantium), centered in Constantinople.

To settle these disputes, the emperors called a number of councils (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon), drawing bishops and theologians from throughout the Christian East. While these councils articulated Christian thought, the methods used to implement conciliar decrees – particularly Chalcedon – divided the church. Perhaps no other community was more adversely affected than that of Antioch, which because of its commercial and political prominence exercised “patriarchal” jurisdiction over other bishops in the region (this was recognized at Nicea and reaffirmed by Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon).

Decline of Antioch. Until the Arabs wrested the city from Byzantine control in 638, the Christians of Antioch who supported Chalcedon and Constantinople – a minority labeled “Melkites” by their opponents – retained the upper hand. Buttressed by the military force of Byzantium, they imposed the decrees of Chalcedon on a population largely hostile to them. These so-called “Monophysites” (for those who opposed the council’s assertion that in Jesus were united two natures, one divine another human) had powerful patrons as well; not all emperors and their consorts supported the council.

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Tags: Melkite Greek Catholic Church Maronite Church Church of Antioch