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The Syriac Catholic Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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The Syriac Catholic Church shares the heritage of the Syrian city of Antioch, the political and socioeconomic center of the eastern Mediterranean in the ancient world. Though inhabited by a diverse collection of peoples — Greeks and Macedonians, Romans and Jews, Syrians and Nabateans — Antioch was culturally Hellenic and its lingua franca, Greek. But those who lived in Syria’s rural interior spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic nurtured in the city of Edessa.

Founded by the apostles Peter and Paul, the church of Antioch — where the followers of Jesus Christ were first called “Christian” (Acts 11:26) — emerged as the center of a faith community, Greek- and Syriac-speaking, that spread throughout the Roman East and beyond. Though Antioch’s bishops presided over this vast and diverse church as patriarchs, Edessa cultivated a distinct form of Syriac Christianity.

An ancient legend claims Christ was personally responsible for Edessa’s evangelization, instructing St. Thomas the Apostle to send a disciple to cure Abgar, Edessa’s sickly king. Bearing a cloth featuring a miraculous image of Jesus, Addai (Syriac for Thaddeus, one of the 70 disciples of Jesus) and his assistant, Mari, cured the king, won disciples and established the church.

Christological controversies. As the church grew, embracing converts from Greek, Roman and Semitic cultures, debates raged regarding the nature of Jesus, his relationship to the Creator and how to interpret and practice his teachings.

Antiochene Christians cultivated contrasting schools of theology and philosophy, one more theoretical and Greek-speaking the other more literal and Syriac-speaking. These schools did not develop in isolation — cross-pollination was the norm — and the church in Antioch eventually fashioned a particular image and understanding of Jesus that countered a more allegorical Christology developed by Christians in Alexandria, the Roman capital of Egypt.

Now understood as complementary, these distinct Christological approaches clashed as Alexandria and Antioch competed for preeminence. These disputes — which had cultural, ethnic, linguistic and political overtones — threatened the unity of the church and the Roman Empire, which had adopted the Christian faith under the emperor Constantine I.

In the interest of unity, the emperors convoked ecumenical councils (Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451) to define orthodoxy and condemn heresy. But the heavy-handed methods employed by the emperors to implement council decrees divided the church further.

The Council of Chalcedon — which asserted that in Jesus there are two natures, “perfect in Godhead, perfect in humanity ... like us in all things but sin” — sought a middle way between the Antiochene and Alexandrian positions, but satisfied neither. A minority of Christians backed the council; most were Greek-speaking urbanites who supported the emperor. Christians who opposed the decrees of Chalcedon, called Monophysites (Greek for those who believe in the oneness of Jesus’ humanity and divinity), were the non-Greek-speaking majority of rural Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria.

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Tags: Syria Church history Syriac Orthodox Church Syriac Catholic Church