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One and Many Churches

by Chorbishop John D. Faris, J.C.O.D.

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When introduced, Eastern Catholics are often given the litmus test: “Are you under the pope?” This question is asked because most people identify the Catholic Church with the Latin (Roman) Catholic Church. It comes as a shock to many to learn that the Catholic Church is actually a communion of 22 churches, the largest of which is the Latin Church. The remaining are defined as Eastern churches – all of which are Catholic and in full communion with one another. With the exception of the Italo-Albanian and Maronite churches, these Eastern Catholic churches share rites and disciplines with an Orthodox counterpart, with whom they share an imperfect communion.

The evolution of the Eastern churches – Catholic and Orthodox – is complex and somewhat confusing. Relations among them are similar to relationships among extended families – they argue, lose contact, make up and argue some more.

But why are there so many? Some would offer the explanation that the multiplicity of Eastern churches is the result of disputes and divisions. This explanation is only partially correct. Some churches are indeed the result of disputes that have unfortunately taken place.

History, however, reveals that while the Universal Church has always sought unity of faith in the one Lord, it was never “one” from the perspective of liturgy, discipline or government. The Gospel was taken from Jerusalem to various nations and peoples, where it took root and flourished, giving rise to a diverse number of churches that were for some time all in full communion with each other.

Christianity in the Roman Empire. Christianity developed in the context of one of history’s greatest governmental structures, the Roman Empire, a commonwealth encompassing territory today controlled by approximately 40 nations. Despite the Romans’ persecution, the empire provided Christians with a superstructure, that is, the necessary communication, transportation and commercial systems in which to function. The cities of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were important centers of commerce and government. As such, they attracted the apostles and evolved into important centers for Christian evangelization.

With the passage of time, the Christian communities that matured in these cities took pride in their apostolic foundations. Rome and Antioch identified themselves with St. Peter, who traveled and preached in both of these cities. And the Christians of Alexandria took pride in the tradition that St. Mark brought the Christian message to them. Secular and church leaders in Constantinople, after its establishment as the imperial capital in the fourth century, discovered the tomb of St. Andrew who, according to tradition, traveled through Asia Minor and the area around the Black Sea. Eventually, Constantinople would overshadow all the other important Eastern Christian centers, rivaling even Rome. Constantinople is wont to remind Rome that Andrew was the elder brother of Peter.

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Tags: Catholic Eastern Christianity Orthodox Church Church history