Our Patrimony of Patriarchs

compiled by Catholic Near East staff

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Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem are home to a number of Christian patriarchs, each of whom leads a distinct and proud community dating back hundreds of years. But what are the origins of these patriarchs?

“Patriarch” is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for father or chief of a clan, family or race. The title was reserved for Abraham, the 12 sons of Jacob, and King David. In a more general sense, it refers to many if not most of the great figures of the books of Moses.

In the early Christian period, this title – as with many other Jewish titles – was applied to Christian dignitaries. Many bishops were called patriarchs as an expression of honor; their titles were not official.

After Constantine extended toleration to the Roman Empire’s Christians in 313 A.D., the title of patriarch came to be reserved to indicate a certain rank in the hierarchy of the church. Just as metropolitans were bishops who ruled over their suffragan bishops, so patriarchs became chief bishops who ruled over the metropolitans.

The Council of Nicea, held in 325, formally recognized the patriarchal rights held by the bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. Not only were these cities the major economic and political centers of the empire, but they were also connected to the person and ministry of St. Peter.

Rome, the place of Peter’s final ministry and martyrdom, was the capital of the empire. The Bishop of Rome held the highest office in the Christian world. He was not only bishop of Rome, but metropolitan of the province of Rome, patriarch of the Western church and spiritual head of the universal church. Pope John Paul II is the 263rd successor to Peter the Apostle.

According to tradition, it was St. Mark, Peter’s disciple, who founded the Church of Alexandria. Alexandria was the second city of the empire and Egypt was its breadbasket. The Bishop of Alexandria was the chief bishop in Egypt, but his importance declined with the separation of the Coptic Church. In modern times his jurisdiction was extended to all of Africa. Pope Parthenios III, who was elected in 1987, leads this small church of 350,000 believers.

Antioch was the capital of Roman Syria and the guardian of the trade routes to Asia. Peter established the church at Antioch, here the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” The Bishop of Antioch presided not only over the bishops of Syria, but also, for a time, over the bishops of Asia. Today Patriarch Ignatius IV guides more than 750,000 Christians, including a large community in the United States.

As Christianity flourished, believers flocked to the sites associated with the stories of the Bible. In 326, Constantine’s mother, the Dowager Empress Helen, journeyed to the Holy Land and discovered the instruments of Jesus’ passion and death. As pilgrimages increased to the sites associated with the birth, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus, Jerusalem’s bishop was viewed increasingly as a patriarch. The fathers of the Council of Chalcedon (451) officially constituted the diocese of Jerusalem as a patriarchate. Patriarch Diodoros I, the ranking church leader in the Holy Land, leads this community today.

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Tags: Christianity Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Patriarchs